The rebel “Confederate” flag is much less of a problem than the values and system it represents. The romanticization of the South’s traitorous slaveowner-led rebellion is an insult to America and American values and 150 years after the defeat of the that rebellion, the blatant, offensive distortions of history cannot be tolerated by this nation anymore…
…or, almost everything you need to know about the rebellion of the so-called “Confederate States of America” in one series of in-depth articles, this being Part II and looking at the actual system and values of the so-called “Confederate States of America” and the untold story of huge numbers of Southerners who opposed its values and actions, fought against it, and/or remained loyal to the United States.
Other articles in this series:
Part IV (coming soon)
Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse July 23, 2015
III.) The Untold History of the Civil War: the “South’s Inner Civil War,” and the Real Values of the Rebellion
The above characterizations by defenders of the rebel cause is an appallingly false understanding of pretty much everything involved, pure nonsense at its best.
The rebel states that formed an illegal (and never formally recognized by any sovereign national government) confederation had some very clear principles for which they and their confederation stood, the most overarching and dominant principle being the preservation and expansion of slavery and the principle of the states being able to determine their positions and practices, yes, in general, but with this ability very specifically, explicitly, and clearly tied primarily to the issue of slavery and to expand slavery freely and without any limitation into what were then the new Territories in the West, thus allowing slave states to continue their dominance of the Federal Government. This dominance is indisputable, for as James McPherson notes in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom, part six of the Oxford History of the United States:
During the first seventy-two years of the republic down to 1861 a slaveholding resident of one of the states that joined the Confederacy had been President of the United States for forty-nine of those years—more than two-thirds of the time. In Congress, twenty-three of the thirty-six speakers of the House and twenty-four of the presidents pro tern of the Senate had been southerners. The Supreme Court always had a southern majority; twenty of the thirty-five justices to 1861 had been appointed from slave states.
The New York Times
For the Americans who voted Lincoln into office, the 1860 election was about the corrosive dominance of America by the slaveowning elite of the Southern states and the problems of the institution of slavery. Slavery was very much an issue on the mind of the public. Even if American abolitionism was a relatively small movement in the years before the Civil War, it was still comprised of hundreds of thousands of people who were able to find a lot of support outside of their movement, garnering some two million signatures for antislavery petitions (and roughly three million up through 1863). In fact, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 famous antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin—banned in most of the South—was the century’s bestselling novel not only in America (where 300,000 copies were sold in its first year alone), but also the world; the only book which sold more copies in the nineteenth-century was the Bible. For most Northerners who weren’t abolitionists, there were still significant reasons to oppose slavery and is expansion. Because of the Constitution’s infamous three-fifths clause, allowing for three of every five slaves to count towards apportioning the number of Congressman seated in the U.S. House of Representatives for slave states, white Southern voters had far more power and representation per capita than white Northern voters. Lincoln made sure to emphasize this point, pointing out that while both Maine and South Carolina had equal numbers of presidential electors and Congressmen, Maine had well over twice the white people, and therefore citizen voters, as South Carolina had. As Lincoln said in a famous speech from 1854:
The South Carolinian has…the…advantage over the white man in every other free State, as well as in Maine. He is more than the double of any one of us in this crowd. The same advantage, but not to the same extent, is held by all the citizens of the slave States, over those of the free; and it is an absolute truth, without an exception, that there is no voter in any slave State, but who has more legal power in the government, than any voter in any free State.
This, in effect, diluted the vote of a free white Northerner relative to a free white Southerner. When the South was no longer guaranteed that dominance, the South was willing to destroy the Union, and the very concept of democratic republicanism, at the time when the rest of the world was hostile to this very experiment of American democracy. As The Economist notes, the Union victory in the Civil War was a victory for democracy and for all of humanity.
Thus, the people speaking as if “that flag” does not first and foremost embody slavery totally miss the mark and misunderstand and/or mischaracterize the issue people have with the rebel flag of the illegal slave-power confederation: the issue is not with the flag, and the issue is not so much with people who have “co-opted” or used the flag as members or racist or hate groups (though these issues are important factors). Rather—and what is amazing to me is that even in 2015 so many of the people speaking in support of the flag or of having an alternate banner of the rebellion and its forces displayed seem to either deliberately or unwittingly miss this—the issue that many people have with the flag is not the flag itself, per se, but mainly and primarily that is was associated with and was a major symbol of the rebellion both during and after the Civil War. That the particular flag that flew by the South Carolina House until last week was used by many hate groups and terrorists in the 150 years since the formal end of the Civil War is hardly insignificant, but the original sins of the rebellion and slavery, which are to be understood as the most patently grievous offenses, are the real issues at hand. Even if freed black slaves had perfect freedom and equality after 1865, and there had never been any Ku Klux Klan, “that flag,” representing the rebellion, the rebel army, the traitorous rebel leaders, and the values they professed and strove to promote and enforce is what all Americans should have a problem with, particularly when all this is promoted and sanctioned by the government flying any flag associated explicitly with and created for the slaveowner’s rebellion.
It is also incredibly ironic today that the people who—and the region of America that—are the most stridently anti-taxation and anti-government assistance for both the poor and especially African-Americans are whites living in the South, often the very same people whose descendants practiced or supported slavery, built up a would-be aristocracy of slave-owning planters who owned large amounts of land, benefited from very low property taxes and low taxation in general, to the degree the South generally did not even have much support for public education. This translated to an illiteracy rate among white adults that was forty times higher (20%) than that of New England (less than 0.5%) in 1850. Virginia, for example, even had a massive tax loophole for the tax on slaves, so that slaveowners paid far less in taxes than a fair assessment of their slaves would have required. The slaveowning planters’ overbearing power also meant that a small percentage of people owned an increasingly huge portion of the land, and they dominated the state governments of the South even though they were just a disproportionately tiny minority. In fact, slaveowners fell as a percentage of the proportion of the South’s population throughout the 1850s, yet slaveowners rose in terms of the percentage of them who were state legislators. In many ways, the South was an inherently undemocratic society. As one North Carolina newspaper editor wrote,
This great national strife originated with men and measures that were…opposed to a democratic form of government. The fact is, these bombastic, hi-falutin aristocratic fools have been in the habit of driving negroes and poor helpless white people until they think…that they themselves are superior; [and] hate, deride, and suspicion the poor.”
The confederation rebel government, both in its legislative body’s and in its “President” Jefferson Davis’ approaches, would only increase the undemocratic tendencies of the prewar South, grossly and repeatedly violating during the war in reality nearly every principle of liberty, legality, and constitutionality it was claiming in both practice and principle (all in contrast to the restraint and moderation of the Lincoln Administration). An extensive study from the Virginia Law Review catalogs many of these violations by Davis and the rebel confederation government, as well as the rebel politicians who spoke out against them. An exception to these violations, of course, was the fidelity of Davis and the rebel confederation government to slavery and slaveowners.
This tiny minority of slaveowners propagandized and mobilized many of the vastly larger numbers of ignorant and uneducated poor white Southerners to fight a war whose chief aim was the perpetuation of the chattel-slavery system of bondage for Africans and their descendants even though these masses of poor whites were themselves not slave-owners. David Williams’ Bitterly Divided: The South’s Inner Civil War, details how thoroughly divided the South and its people were over secession and the war and how these divisions became major fault lines in Southern society all throughout the earthquake of the war; many of the details in this section come from his fine and important work that effectively dispels the myth that Southerners almost all united behind secession, slavery, the war, the rebellion, and governments of both the rebel states and their illegal confederation. In addition, Pulitzer Prize-winner Eric Foner’s article/chapter titled “The South’s Inner Civil War” also provides much of the information on Southern disunity presented in this section. He notes that “scholars today consider the erosion of the will to fight as important a cause in Confederate defeat as the South’s inferiority in manpower and industrial resources[emphasis added].”
A look at some maps and voting data can help to paint a vivid portrait of the scale and scope of diverging views in the South. One very telling thing to do is to take two steps: 1.) look at the map (more detailed info here) below, produced by the U.S. Government in 1861 using census data from 1860, of the distribution of slaves as a percent of the population in each state in slave states (darker means more slaves):
And then 2.) look at the maps of 1860-1861 below, and note how in most of the areas where slavery did not have a strong presence as indicated in the previous map, voters in the election of 1860 (South Carolina did not even have a popular vote) did not vote for the very proslavery Southern Democratic candidate (red) in large numbers but instead either voted for the staunchly pro-Union Constitutional Union Party candidate (green) or were very divided in their voting, and many of the delegates to the secession conventions from those counties subsequently voted against secession. These areas would form much of the core resistance within the South against the rebellion and its pseudo-government, both in terms of political dissent and through armed resistance. Where Union military forces came into these regions, they often found themselves greeted as liberators by people waving United States, not rebel, flags, and found many people willing and eager to assist them. Thus, throughout the South, different regions had varying degrees of slavery, enthusiasm for secession, and loyalty to the Union, with some regions remaining deeply loyal to the Union and the United States; sentiment was far from uniform.
Without endorsing Marxism, a Marxist could have a field day analyzing Southern society in this period, and the original Marxist, Karl Marx himself, did just that as a newspaper correspondent based in the United States and covering the war for several newspapers. Marx not only saw the oppression of the black man in slavery, but saw that Southern society oppressed all who were not slave-owners in favor of this slave-owning elite. Many of the non-slaveowners at the time felt the same way, even before the Civil War. The Civil War only intensified these feelings and saw them spread. Conversely, those poor white non-slaveowners in the South who supported slavery, secession and rebellion were heavily influenced by their religious, political, and community leaders who usually propagated a culture and an ideology of intense pro-slavery white superiority in unison with the dominant slaveowning elites. In the words of just one prominent and popular pastor in New Orleans in 1861:
The particular trust assigned to a people becomes the pledge of the divine protection; and their fidelity to it determines the fate by which it is finally overtaken…If then the South is such a people, what, at this juncture, is their providential trust? I answer, that it is to conserve and to perpetuate the institution of domestic slavery as now existing…This trust we will discharge in the face of the worst possible…Not till the last man has fallen behind the last rampart, shall it drop from our hands.
This culture formed a reassuring bedrock of Southern society to which vulnerable poor whites could mentally cling (so long as slavery was preserved). Today in the South, most white people idealize a system and a rebellion that oppressed everyone who was not a slave-owner and forced non-slaveoweners—both white and black alike—to do the bidding of and/or serve the interests of slaveowenrs. When one dispels the myth of a unified South by understanding all of this, it is easy to see why many whites and blacks alike came to resist the slave system that propelled them into war in 1861, and continued to resist their being forced to be subservient parts of the society that advocated it.
Roughly one-third of the south was composed of black slaves, and of the white population, three-quarters owned no slaves, and most of these three-quarters “made it clear” they were against secession when secession was debated in 1860-1861. The delegates to the state conventions that voted for secession firmly represented the slaveowners, not the common masses of Southern whites.
The Southern rebel illegal confederation government and its rebel member states had a litany of major problems with their own white population. When the slave-owning class could not get enough volunteers to fight their extremely bloody and likely-to-lose war against the Federal Government of the United States and a strong plurality of the people of America who disliked the slavery system and had voted for Lincoln specifically to limit the spread of slavery into the Western Territories, they had their rebel confederation government resort to conscription, passing America’s first major military draft in 1862, one that exempted any slaveowner who owned at least twenty slaves (later reduced to just fifteen in 1864) and for some time allowed those with a lot of money to legally hire a substitute (to be fair, the U.S. Federal Government also allowed a fee to be paid or a substitute to be hired for its later draft when that was instituted in 1863, but that fee was relatively low and far more substitutes were hired than draftees inducted, with less than six percent of the Union military forces being drafted while far more people proportionately were drafted into the rebel military forces). The rebel states had much greater problems finding volunteers and had about double the percent of draftees in their army as the Federal Government’s Union Army.
Needless to say, the slave-owning exemption was one bitterly detested by the fighting men and the Southern people. Among the common people and enlisted soldiers of the rebel states and their confederation, the cry “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight” became a common slogan for a widely-held sentiment throughout the war (an 1864 editorial from a North Carolina paper vividly illustrates such feelings). Obscenely, the same landed slave-owning planters who orchestrated secession and pushed their states to war spent most of their energy planting cotton and tobacco for export and neglected planting food even while soldiers and the common people went hungry, with rebel armies and homes underfed due to the selfishness of the slave-owning planter class. Many of these planters actually did better during the war as prices rose sharply. Furthermore, speculators horded much of the food that was available and shortages became “severe.” All over the South from 1862 onward, riots over the lack of food became frequent. Additionally, tax policy in the rebel confederation exempted or was light on many in the slaveowning planter class and the tax burden fell disproportionately on poor white non-slaveowning farmers; in fact, in slave states, the burden of taxation had been heavily skewed regressively towards the poor and away from slaveowners throughout the decades before the war as well, especially compared to Northern states. The rebel confederation’s government also took an active approach to confiscating property from citizens for the war effort, but a libertarian (to borrow the modern term) approach to helping those most affected by the confiscations and the poor in general, who suffered greatly throughout the war as families’ breadwinners were conscripted or died in combat and the wives/mothers who stayed behind were subject to having their horses and food and farm equipment taken either by corrupt government officials tasked with confiscation or any number of roving bands of marauders/deserters. It is telling how little the slave-owning elite and “Confederate” government cared for the rights of their own masses by resorting to conscription (and so quickly) in pursuit of their reckless war and by doing little to look out for the welfare of their own people; their selfishness in a society that was already heavily stratified was rampant and spoke volumes about the society that they led.
As for Southern Unionists who remained loyal to the United States, about 300,000 Southern whites and 200,000 Southern slaves joined the U.S. Government’s Union military forces, about one-quarter of the U.S. forces’ overall military strength, and rebel forces were understrength due to many Southerners not wanting to serve or choosing to fight for the Union instead. Huge portions of the rebel confederation outright rebelled against the rebel confederation government and against their own state governments and/or remained loyal to the Union, with whole counties more or less attempting to secede from their own state (including, for example, Winston County, Alabama, which formally voted to secede from the rebel confederation in July 1861). Whole sections of rebel states, in particular most of the upcountry and mountain regions (and in particular Appalachia), would remain outside any effective control of the rebel confederation government or the rebel state governments, while other areas would remain violent for long periods on-and-off (or) throughout the war. Inside these eras, loyal Unionists and supporters of the rebellion often engaged violently with each other as civilians all during the war, as did rebel forces and Unionists; roaming partisan bands, murder, and atrocities were common as these areas devolved into anarchy and a war of neighbor against neighbor; very little is known of the total death toll in this Southern civil war within the Civil War because these places were often remote, with scant media or official reports, or with those doing the killing not leaving a record of their acts for posterity.
The Unionists of the South suffered greatly during the war, subject to violence and reprisals from both their neighbors and what constituted their “government.” Whole communities were shattered, suffering both privation, devastation, and constant harassment. They were often driven from their homes and into the mountains, hunted down like wild animals, imprisoned and sometimes even executed/murdered, and enjoyed little protection from any authorities, unless they were fortunate enough to come under occupation by Northern military forces. Other simply left their homes to cross into Union-held territory, Unionist strongholds, or left their states altogether. If rebel authorities managed to successfully conscript those Unionists who stayed behind into the rebel army, Unionists were even forced to fight for a cause that went against everything in which they believed. In the subsequent “histories,” especially written after the postwar Reconstruction governments had been overthrown, their stories often remained untold and, if they were told at all, quite ironically, they were characterized as traitors by Southern historians for not supporting the rebellion.
Part of Virginia left that state, choosing to remain loyal to the Union, and became the State of West Virginia in 1863. The same thing came close to happening in East Tennessee, as well, which remained a stronghold for Unionists throughout the war. There is also the special case of North Carolina. During 1863, a massive peace movement in the state (a state that was home to many Unionists and had large levels of dissent against the illegal rebellion and its illegal government throughout the war) arose, with even a majority of the state’s representatives to the rebel confederation’s self-styled “House of Representatives” who won election that year running on some sort of peace platform and an end to the war. The rebel confederation’s leader, Jefferson Davis, permissive of liberty and freedom of speech when it was not against the rebel cause, saw to it that confederation and state authorities enacted repressive measures, including the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus (This was hardly the only state to suffer from the rebel confederation government’s, and Davis’s, hypocritically imperious approach to “state’ rights;” as examples, Georgia’s state governor during the rebellion and even the rebel confederation’s “Vice President” denounced Davis and confederation policy throughout the war as a violation of liberty and both state and individual rights). Still, the movement gained enough momentum that it seemed for a while in 1864 that the state might elect a candidate for governor, William Holden, who was calling for ending the war and making a peace with the Union before the movement was defeated, and without a large degree of voter suppression, intimidation, and propaganda on the part of Holden’s incumbent opponent, Zebulon Vance, who readily abused his power to hold onto his position. When soldiers who had supported Holden deserted en masse and began waging an insurgency in North Carolina, the governor illegally arrested and held the families of the soldiers as hostages in prison camps to get them to stop their resistance.
Desertion and lack of enthusiasm for the Southern enlisted soldier became yet another problem after the war’s first major battle at Manassas and remained a problem throughout the war. Desertion became only dramatically worse for the rebellion in 1863 and 1864, at which point roughly two-thirds of rebel soldiers were absent from duty. The problem of desertion was a much larger issue for the rebels than for the Union forces because of the South’s much lower levels of manpower. But the problems with rebel deserters did not end with manpower; all over the south, many of these deserters would become bandits, armed gangs, and even anti-rebel-confederation guerillas and partisans, weakening the rebel home front and contributing further to the “inner civil war” in the South that put the rebels in a two-front war against Federal Union forces and many of the South’s own people who remained Unionists. Into this mix, deserters often sided with Unionists or at least organized resistance against rebel forces and authorities that were sent after them.
There were even important practices and ideological similarities with the state-sanctioned racism of the South and with those of Nazi Germany nearly a century later, even though there were also major differences, the main one being that the Nazis attempted to exterminate Jews by committing genocide, while Southern slave owners did not try to exterminate blacks, merely to treat them as property, pets, animals, and beasts of burden. Still, many of the same institutional discriminatory practices and ideological affirmations of pseudo-superiority and pseudo-inferiority, of imaged superiority for whites/Aryans and imagined inferiority or Africans/Jews, can be found in both societies. This state-sanctioned racism led to some horrible atrocities committed against black Union troops, usually former and/or (recently) emancipated/runaway slaves. Jefferson Davis made it official rebel government policy to execute or re-enslave black Union soldiers captured by rebel forces (even if they had never been slaves, though this one aspect was later slightly modified) and to execute their white officers. Though this policy was inconsistently carried out, atrocities were common and this led to some infamous incidents like the massacre at Fort Pillow, where many black (and some—in proportionately lower numbers—white Southern Unionist and rebel deserter) Union soldiers were executed when they tried to surrender, and the massacre during the part of the Siege of Petersburg known as the Battle of the Crater, where likely over 200 black Union soldiers were executed after hostilities had ceased And there were certainly many otherless famous incidents of massacres, atrocities, and executions against black Union troops.
If there is any doubt about the absolute primacy of slavery for the rebel confederation government and its leaders, in Part III we will look at the words of the secessionists themselves, in each state that had a convention that voted to secede and at the time of secession.
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