Lessons Learned

Lessons Learned

commentary by D. H. Rule

You’d think such an enormously defining event in a nation’s history as our Civil War would be studied and examined carefully in our schools and common histories, yet it’s not. If you could memorize “1861 to 1865” and vaguely recall the words “Fort Sumter” and “Emancipation Proclamation” you pretty much could pass any high school history test on the Civil War.

What history is known in this country is very skewed and often inaccurate. The situation over the past few years has gotten worse in this regard as the Confederate battle flag has become relabeled as being solely a symbol of racism without any regard to historical context. I’m a neutral in this whole fuss–both sides have very valid points of view. Personally, I don’t care if one state or another has the battle flag as part of their state flag or flying over some monument. By the same token I can see how many would find the flag as offensive. Historically, most of these flags didn’t began flying until quite recently; as part of centennial remembrances so the heritage side of the argument has as many flaws to it as does the symbol of racism side.

What I do find offensive is the assault on history. By sterilizing the nation of any traces of history we find distasteful, we lose far more than we gain. The quote I use on the very first page of this website says my viewpoint clearly: “There were no good guys or bad guys, there were only Americans fighting Americans.” I have no Confederate ancestors. Nor Union. My history is American history and that includes the history of the United States of America equally with the Confederate States of America. It’s wrong to deny one half in favor of the other.

So, let’s talk about some of the lessons of history that are overlooked or not taught:

The Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves…

Not really. The Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves only in those states that had seceded from the Union. In other words, it only freed slaves in those states where the Federal government did not then have the power to actually enforce the Proclamation. The Emancipation Proclamation was based far more on politics than humanitarianism.

Who were the last slave owners in the nation?

Southerners? Confederates? Try again. Northern Unionists. Yes, slavery was legal in Union states past the end of the war. There were legally owned slaves in Union states throughout the war. A real cute irony comes into play with this–as the Union forces conquered states south of Missouri, slaves who had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation could go north to Missouri and St. Louis and become slaves again, all totally legal under Union rule.

The abolitionists of Kansas wanted all people to be equal and free. They certainly weren’t racists…

Kansas was the hotspot in the pre-Civil War years. Abolitionists from the East flooded in with boxes of guns labeled as Bibles being shipped to them from the East. They wanted Kansas to be a free state. At one point these charming lovers of freedom and brotherhood for all proposed banning all African-Americans from Kansas, both free and slave, as a solution to the problem. Nice folks.

Kansans raided into Missouri to “rescue” slaves and take them to freedom in Kansas. Yet when you look closely, you can see the motivation for the majority was simple theft from wealthy Missourians (the origin of the word “jayhawker” seems to be a Nebraska word meaning “horsethief”). Slaves might be appropriated to help carry the plunder back to Kansas. Do you think they asked these slaves if the wanted to be rescued, or do you think they kidnapped them against their wills? Do you think these slaves all wanted to be dragged away from their homes and families?

It’s no defense of slavery to understand that the abolitionists often treated the slaves every bit as much as chattel with no free will of their own as did the actual slave owners. Precious few white people in those days truly regarded black people as people, and that includes Abraham Lincoln, himself. He was remarkably unsympathetic to the fate of his African-American brethren. When a Union officer asked for help to feed and assist freed slaves, Lincoln answered that they were free men now, let them “root hog, or die.”

Union people were fighting to free the slaves, Confederates to keep them slaves…

Some were, certainly not all. Here’s some examples of the staggering ambiguity of the war:

General U. S. Grant’s wife, Julia Dent Grant, owned slaves throughout the war. She brought them with her when she went to visit Grant in his various camps, choosing routes that avoided states where the slaves might automatically be freed. Those who acknowledge this always emphasize that they were his wife’s slaves. Grant, through his own words, was not particularly opposed to slavery at the time of the war. He came–as did many–to the realization of the wrongness of slavery in later years.

James O. Broadhead, Union Provost Marshal of St. Louis was vehemently opposed to abolition, quoted as having said,

every damned abolitionist in the country ought to be hung.” Abraham Lincoln removed John Charles Fremont from command in St. Louis in part because Fremont has peremptorily freed a slave of Col. Thomas L. Snead’s wife. It was not legal for Fremont to have done so.

Col. John M. Wimer, CSA who died in Confederate service, shortly before the war had been elected mayor of St. Louis as an Emancipation Party candidate.

General Sterling Price, CSA the great Confederate general, had been a Unionist until the Federal government overstepped any legal or constitutional boundaries in Missouri. States rights are not just an excuse invoked by those who don’t want to mention slavery (well, not always). States rights was a real issue to many.

There were American Indians who owned African-American slaves and fought on the side of the Confederacy. Several free blacks were part of Quantrill’s unit.

These are just a few examples out of the convoluted thousands that existed. This is part of the reason why the Confederate battle flag controversy is not, historically, as simple as it’s being made out to be. Slavery was the keystone issue of the conflict. But it was not the only issue, nor was it the deciding issue for countless individuals on both sides.

Abraham Lincoln…

The Abraham Lincoln I’ve come to know through research and reading diverse sources is very different from the classic Lincoln of popular American history. That Lincoln is a sad-faced granite statue who is a mournful icon of freedom. The real Lincoln is a complex, interesting human, with virtues and faults. He was a politician through and through. He had a great sense of humor and certainly didn’t put himself on a pedestal. The Constitution didn’t get in his way when he decided on something (I don’t count this as a virtue). He could be cruel to the point of viciousness in his policies. He was Commander in Chief in a war that sent over 600,000 Americans to their deaths yet was, himself, reluctant to sign death warrants for individuals. He put a halt to many of the executions that had been taking place in the early part of the war. Where many around him considered the Confederates guilty of treason, I don’t think Lincoln did, or if he did was willing to let it go for the good of the nation. He wanted reconciliation, not retribution. Many thought Lincoln was soft on the Rebels, yet he certainly wasn’t willing to let the South go. Reconstruction probably would have gone far better had Lincoln survived. I find I respect the real Lincoln less than I did the mythical Lincoln… yet I like him more.

The war ended when Lee surrendered…

Goodness, no. The Department of the Tran-Mississippi didn’t surrender for over a month. People were still fighting after Lee’s surrender. The war was not over. The Civil War wasn’t the War of the East and Lee didn’t surrender the whole Confederacy.

By all its many names…

In this website you’ll find the war called “the Civil War.” This was a considered choice of names. Clarity is the simple reason. Southerners seem to prefer “The War Between the States,” which does have the virtue of accuracy, from a pre-war perspective. Consider the states at that time as individual independent nations, which is effectively how the nation was intended to be when it was formed, and you can see how this name applies. Personally, I like the name selected by Congress “The War of the Rebellion.” It harkens back to the founding fathers and their rebellious spirit and actions, and suits my own libertarian leanings. “The War of Northern Aggression” is too editorially biased, as would a comparable “War to Free the Slaves” be. “The Late Unpleasantness” is too many generations removed at this point.

“Civil War” works on many levels, and it’s particularly appropriate for a study of the war in Missouri where neighbors were literally fighting neighbors, and the divisions were as close as people seated across the dinner table from each other. The primary reason for choosing to use “Civil War” almost exclusively on the website is that current readers recognize than name, and so do the search engines.

In summation, the best way to learn about, and come to understand, or try to understand, the Civil War is to read first-hand accounts from both sides. You have to try to understand the society as a whole to get the context, and of the nation and its structure, neither of which are the same as our current society and culture. Don’t judge the people then by the standards of the present. Don’t try to apply the “everybody knows” filters of now to then.

D. H. Rule