A Son of the South Looks at the Civil War

Retreat from Bull Run (aka First Manassas)

On an average day, 425 men died during Americas four-year-long Civil War. Although the countrys total population was but 19-million (it now stands at 332-million), more Americans died in the Civil War than in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War, combined. One in four men were killed, and 8% of those who survived had missing limbs. I was ten when the last Confederate soldier died, and I fell into despair that the greatest generation that ever lived was gone from the earth

On July 21, 1861, thousands of thrill-seekers walked or rode the thirty miles from Washington D.C. to witness the Civil War’s first—and many thought its last—major land battle near a Virginia creek named Bull Run. A Yankee army captain described the scene as follows: “They came in all manner of ways, some in stylish carriages, others in city hacks, and still others in buggies, on horseback and even on foot.” The sightseers cheered the cannons’ roar until late afternoon when the 35,000 man Northern army fled the field in their direction: “Pleasure-carriages, gun-carriages, and ammunition wagons…were abandoned and blocked the way, and stragglers threw aside their muskets and cut horses from their harness and rode off upon them.” Confederate newspapers labeled the event The Great Skedaddle.

Six months earlier, my home state of Mississippi became the second of eleven Southern states to secede from the Union. It explained its decision as follows:

“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.”

Despite such directness on the part of many Confederate states and statesmen, generations of Southern white children were taught that the war was caused by the federal government’s trampling upon state’s rights.” South Carolinian Presidential candidate Nikki Haley recently reflected this view: “I think the cause of the Civil War was basically how government was going to run, the freedoms and what people could and couldn’t do. Government doesn’t need to tell you how to live your life. They don’t need to tell you what you can and can’t do. They don’t need to be a part of your life. In her eagerness to make the South look good, Haley failed to mention that the freedom for which the Confederacy fought was the freedom to own people.  

When asked about Haley’s response, Biden replied: Slavery was the cause of the Civil War. There is no negotiation about that. When I was a kid, a Northern sixth grader would have answered like Biden, a Southern sixth grader like Haley; and while the former would have come closer to the truth, more needs to be said.

Robert E. Lee

Southerners justified slavery by quoting the Bible and arguing that black people were better off in America. In its 1857 Dred Scott decision, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed, arguing that blacks, were so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.” Robert E. Lee (General of the Armies of the Confederate States) held a similar view: The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things.” Slave-owners commonly argued that the more intelligent blacks recognized their inferiority and were grateful to their white masters for giving them food, clothing, shelter, security in old age, and most of all “the good news of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Yet, few white Southerners owned a single slave (a good field hand cost $60,000 in today’s money) and most were financially harmed by their inability to compete with slave labor. This suggests that the rank and file Confederate soldier fought for reasons other than slavery (see addendum).

Although anti-slavery sentiment was strong in the North, most Northerners were as racist as their rebel counterparts, and so it was that they didn’t fight to end slavery but to preserve the Union. This is evident from the fact that before the Emancipation Proclamation (a document in which Lincoln freed the slaves in the rebellious states freedoing so had no immediate effect), anti-war sentiment had increased in the North due to the personal and financial cost of the war, but after the Emancipation Proclamation, it exploded. The poor feared that they would lost their jobs to former slaves, while soldiers and sailors so resented being told that they were fighting to free the slaves that desertions became commonplace

Northerners also worried that the Emancipation Proclamation would prolong the war. Hatred of blacks was especially strong among Irish immigrants in New York City, most of whom couldn’t afford the $300 legal cost of hiring someone to join the military in their place. During a five day rampage, they set fire to a black orphanage, looted and burned black-owned businesses, and lynched black peoplethe riots finally ended when troops from Gettysburg fired cannons at the rioters.

I had several ancestors who fought for the Confederacy but only onea 30-year-old Alabamian named Sarah Jane Newby—who opposed it. At war’s end, she successfully petitioned the federal government to reimburse her for a horse that its cavalry requisitionedone of her witnesses testified that her gender alone saved her from assault. 

Hip wound caused by a Minie Ball

While Sarah Jane was backing the Union, another ancestor26-year- Francis Marion Sideswas fighting for the Confederacy. After his hip was shattered by a .58 caliber Minie Ball at the Battle of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, (aka the Slaughter Pen) his comrades were forced to leave him behind when they retreated. After his capture by Northern troops, he died in an open-air prison. Weeks earlier, he had written his wife: 

“You said you and the children was all well and the baby was talking I cant tell how bad I want to see you and my baby Mary dont kill yourself working and dont grieve yourself about me for I will take care of myself Mary if you can send me a pare pants & a pare socks & a pare galles ses without taking it of you or the children do so So if not dont do it Mary I am as big as Sam Cooner I cant do without galles sis So write to me as soon as you get this letter So hug and kiss the children for me Nothing more at this time I will rite again in a few days Remains your affectionate Frank til death.

During the war, my first college was converted to a military hospital, and able-bodied men being scarce, the dead were buried in shallow graves on campus. At the front entrance to my second college stood a granite monument honoring the 103 students and teachers who fought for the Confederacy, 96 of whom died. The monument has been removed now that any respectful remembrance of Confederate troops is considered offensive.

The South pinned its hopes on two assumptions. One was that Britain and France would aid the Confederacy to assure access to Southern cotton. The other was that Northern men were unwilling to fight despite outnumbering Southern troops two to one and dominating the industries of war. As an example of what the South was up against, when the war started in April, 1861, the South had 30-seaworthy warships and the North 42; eight months later, the South still had 30, while the North had 264 ships with which to blockade Southern ports, depriving the South of guns, ammunition, medicine, clothing, and even coffee.

As it turned out, Britain and France never entered the war, and the textile workers of Manchester, England, even went so far as to vow to Abraham Lincoln that they would refuse slave-produced cotton even if it cost them their livelihoods. A statue of Lincoln still adorns a Manchester city park, and their letter and his response can be seen at its base.

During my childhood and adolescence, the South remained bitter over a war that wrecked its economy, burned its cities, destroyed its infrastructure, caused large scale theft and vandalism, and killed 258,000 of its young men (the Union lost 360,000). By my birth in 1949, the 58% of Mississippians who were white had erected thousands of monuments to honor “our boys,” and held to the belief that the Old South could never die because God loved it above all other places on earth. Yet, Mississippians knew that the rest of America regarded the South in general—and their state in particular—as a backwater of ignorance, poverty, and bigotry. In 1968, Jerry Lewis delighted his Tonight Show audience by boasting that he had recently fulfilled a lifelong dream by using the toilet when his plane flew over Mississippi. Like many of my generation, Ive yet to forgive him.

As did many twelve-year-old Mississippians in the 1960s, I proclaimed my loyalty to Dixie by tying a Confederate flag to the antenna of my parentscar. Having never met a Yankee, I sometimes dialed Northern directory assistance to learn if they really were rude as I had heard and talked faster than they could think. I never found that they were even when I later spent a month in that Southern version of deepest hell, New York City. In fact, upon hearing my accent, New Yorkers took pains to make me feel welcome.

An Afterward

The time was 4:30 a.m. when Edmund Ruffin, a wealthy 67-year-old planter, had the dubious honor of firing the opening shot of the Civil War. His target was Fort Sumter, a federal installation in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. During the following four years, Ruffin lost his wife and eight of his eleven children to war. Weeks after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, Ruffin wrapped himself in a Confederate battle flag and stuck the muzzle of a rifle in his mouth. As he prepared to push the trigger, a visitor knocked, and Ruffin went to greet him. After the visitor left, Ruffin returned to his room to kill himself. This time, the percussion cap exploded but the main charge didn’t, but he managed to reload before his daughter-in-law could investigate the noise. Beside his corpse were these words:

“And now with my latest writing and utterance, and with what will [be] near to my latest breath, I here repeat, & would willingly proclaim, my unmitigated hatred to Yankee rule—to all political, social and business connections with Yankees, & to the perfidious, malignant, & vile Yankee race.”

The North and South Unite at Gettysburg, 1913

The above photo was made at the fiftieth reunion of Pickett’s 6,500-casualty charge at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. During the event, the remaining Confederates charged the Union lines as they had on that disastrous day in 1863, but instead of waiting for the Southerners to reach them, their former enemies ran forward in friendship.

Yankee-hating Ruffin couldn’t have imagined that 150-years after the war, the South would unite under an incendiary politician from New York, but rather than dwell upon words of hatred, I will share the healing words of a New Hampshire infantryman named S. M. Thompson: 

I remember now how we sat there and pitied and sympathized with these courageous Southern men who had fought for four long and dreary years, all so stubbornly, so bravely, and so well, and now, whipped, beaten, completely used up, were completely at our mercy.” 

As the words of former Confederate generals and the actions of the men who attended the Gettysburg reunion suggested, many of those who fought for the South were also eager for reconciliation. Perhaps if the people of America can find it in their hearts to forgive one another for our present day wrongs, a second Civil War can be prevented.

I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing. Therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.Deuteronomy 30:19


Appendum: Why the South Went to War:

(1) Cultural tensions between the industrial North and the agricultural South had been worsening for years with both sides perceiving the other as hypocritical and degenerate. This was true in that many laborers were legal slaves in the South and de facto slaves in the North).

(2) Many 19th century Americans put loyalty to their state above loyalty to their nation. As Robert E. Lee expressed it: “I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home…. If Virginia stands by the old Union, so will I. But if she secedes…I will follow my native State with my sword, and, if need be, with my life.” 

(3) Because their states had entered the union voluntarily, Southerners believed they were free to leave it voluntarily. 

(4) When U.S. troops and ships entered the South to protect military installations, Southerners believed that they were being been invaded and responded accordingly. 

(6) While parts of the South were strongly pro-Union, men in much of the South were under enormous social pressure to join the Confederate military. 

(7) No one anticipated the war’s incredible misery and expense, most people having believing that war would either be avoided or that it would end within days.


Emma Springfield said...

You gave a succinct report of the Civil War. I have long admired Robert E Lee. You did make me reconsider some of my thoughts. I knew that Lincoln had asked Lee to lead the Union troops and he replied that he would IF Virginia didn't secede. Up until today I didn't think of him as betraying the government. I learn new things every day. Thank you.

angela said...

It’s never cut and dry the reasons men go to war. And each side always believes they’re the ones in the right
Unfortunately it always means death, suffering and unspeakable horrors.
We cannot judge those in the past with the eyes of the present. The white washing, and cancelling of history just means it will be repeated. You cannot learn from past mistakes if you don’t acknowledge them.

Strayer said...

It's amazing to me how many people died in the civil war. Also amazing, is how many people don't know the basic reason the war was fought in the first place. Or deny it. And that most southerners were too poor themselves to own other humans. But fought anyhow, on behalf of the elite rich whites.

kj said...

hi snow, it's kj.

I don't know what to say. I'll start by encouraging you to get this essay published far and wide. It's an eye-opener. I had never heard the argument that black people were clearly inferior, and better equipped to work in the hot sun, stated so succinctly. And here we are again. I've always believed that Trump's ultimate plan is to cut out welfare by forcing black Americans and other non-white people to replace immigrants working manual labor.

I sense a twinge of ambivalence in you about the history of the South and about all this?

love kj

Snowbrush said...

"Up until today I didn't think of him [Robert E Lee] as betraying the government. I learn new things every day."

I don't know when the idea of treason hit me because I grew up being told that Confederate leaders were heroes. Lee never fought anywhere near Mississippi, but Grant did, and I so liked Grant that when, as an adolescent, I thought about Civil War leaders whom I revered, it was invariably Grant or Lincoln. Aside from that, as physically attractive as Lee was, I often heard him described as the perfect human being (he didn't drink, didn' smoke, and during his whole time at West Point, he never got a single demerit), and maybe this is why he impressed me as frosty and emotionally unavailable. As for Grant, he drank too much at times and had the war not come along, his role in life would have been that of a man who failed at everything he did. I can feel good about a man like that plus I liked his looks better than Lee's.

"each side always believes they’re the ones in the right"

Lincoln said: "Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces but let us judge not that we be not judged."

"We cannot judge those in the past with the eyes of the present."

While it's important to understand the context in which people act, I strongly believe that there exist moral absolutes that apply to all people at all times.

Snowbrush said...

"And that most southerners were too poor themselves to own other humans. But fought anyhow, on behalf of the elite rich whites."

I've read a great deal of what they themselves wrote, and I do not believe that they left their families, risked their lives, and gave up their livelihoods for the benefit of rich people who were themselves excused from fighting by virtue of the fact that they owned slaves and had plantations to run. They were instead thinking more along the lines of waging a second American Revolution against what they saw as a tyrannical federal government that was controlled by people who lived far from them and looked down upon them.

"I sense a twinge of ambivalence in you about the history of the South and about all this"

I'm so glad you're back, KJ. Now, my dear shrink, I feel zero ambivalence but a double measure of sadness due to my frustrated desire to respect my grandfathers. If I had lived at the time of the Civil War and had attained my present level of maturity, I would have been a strong Unionist--many Southerners were, just as many Northerners (called "copperheads") supported the South. When I think of my ancestors' situation today, I consider them traitors to their nation and killers of their countrymen, yet I want to understand them; I want to respect them for whatever strengths they possessed; and I want to avoid condemning them as much as I honestly can. Yet the only one of my Civil War relatives who I truly admire is Sarah Jane Newby, my Unionist aunt from northern Alabama. Of her three brothers who joined the rebel army, one was my great grandfather, and I can no more sympathize with him than I can sympathize with those who invaded the US capitol in 2021 in order to overturn the results of a lawful election. No doubt both he and they did what they thought was right, but this doesn't alter my belief that both he and they were worthy of prison.

By the way, KJ, in preparation for war, Lincoln requested varying numbers of troops from the different states. Your strongly abolitionist state of Massachusetts stood out in that it sent double the number requested (for a total of 160,000). In 1903, Massachusetts again gained prominence for being the first state to erect a monument on the nine mile long Vicksburg, Mississippi, battlefield. It took Grant, Porter, and Farragut 13-months to capture that city, which was a Mississippi River port about which Lincoln said, "Vicksburg is the key, and the war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket.” Your state's statue was sculpted by Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson and is mounted atop a 15-ton piece of Massachusetts granite. The work is a copy of her 1902 statue, “Volunteer,” which still stands in Newburyport and other places. See https://macivilwarmonuments.com/2018/06/11/newburyport/ and also https://www.nps.gov/places/massachusetts-memorial.htm

Liz A. said...

When I was in school, they definitely pushed the "states rights" reason for the Civil War. (I'm in California.)

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Snowbrush - history is enormous isn't it - and there's always two sides, or more to each aspect. This is a very informative post for someone from the UK ... cheers Hilary

Snowbrush said...

"When I was in school, they definitely pushed the "states rights" reason for the Civil War."

Were you in a conservative part of California, and did your teachers ever say what rights they were talking about?

"This is a very informative post for someone from the UK.

Thank you Hilary.

Heidrun Khokhar, KleinsteMotte said...

History is hard to make sense of as the minds of past leaders seem to push concepts on masses making them believe it is right to fight and kill. It remains a human issue and people seem incapable of letting go of war to solve some territorial issues. It seems people have always been driven by outside influencers who expect followers and end up in messy war like conflicts wasting lives. What is the win in that?

rhymeswithplague said...

Snow, I don’t know why I’m telling you this, but I was a little Yankee boy born in Rhode Island to a German-English Jewish woman from Pennsylvania and a French-Canadian pianist she met in New York City and to whom she was not married. He deserted her by joining the Army a week before my birth. She met a Welsh-Scottish man from Iowa, a Methodist who was in the U.S. Navy, when I was four, married him when I was five, and our family moved to the South (well, Texas is the Southwest, but it seceded if that is any qualification) when I was six. i was raised with a quietly Northern point of view in.deeply Southern culture (I said “ma’am” and “sir” to everyone else but was told by my parents (I didn’t know he wasn’t my biological father until I was a teenager) that I didn’t have to do it at home, which shocks my Alabama son-kn-law to this day. I saw a little black boy named Peter fall off a seesaw in Rhode Island who injured his arm, bleeding profusely. As they took him inside I suddenly realized that we looked different on the outside but on the inside we weee the same. I never mentioned this to my Southern friends, though it shames me to say so.

I think this is the best post you have ever written, save for the oblique reference to the guy from New York.

Snowbrush.blogspot.com said...

"Snow, I don’t know why I’m telling you this..."

Because you love me and missed me dreadfully during your years in a coma, or because you had already told me and by telling me again, you worry that I will think you're senile? No matter the reason, reminders and additional details are always welcome. Speaking of things I already know about you, the radio program "On Point" devoted an entire hour today to the divide within the United Methodist Church. I thought about you while listening to it, and then came to my blog and found your comment.

"I was a little Yankee boy born in Rhode Island..."

I'm reminded of Steve Martin saying (in the movie "The Jerk"), "I was born a poor black child. I remember the days, sittin' on the porch with my family, singin' and dancin' down in Mississippi..."

"Texas is the Southwest, but it seceded if that is any qualification..."

If it is your belief that Texans didn't simply stay home drinking tequila, snacking on nachos, and being fanned by their slaves, but that they instead fought with distinction in both the eastern and the western theaters of war, then I agree. The following incident occurred in Virginia during the Battle of the Wilderness: "When General Lee saw the Texans coming he said, “Who are you my boys?” “Texas boys!” they replied. Lee waved his hat in the air and yelled, “Hurrah for Texas! Texans always move them!”  You're probably aware that Texas had rebelled against Mexico when Mexico outlawed slavery, so its rebellion against the United States suggests that it was highly dedicated to fighting as one with its neighbors in the defense of slavery.

"i was raised with a quietly Northern point of view in deeply Southern culture..."

What you and I were taught regarding Southern unity against the North is a "Lost Cause" fiction that started within a year or two of war's end and was largely fueled by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. As did my Aunt Sarah Jane, many Southerners opposed secession prior to the war, but once the war started, they either left the South, were too afraid to speak out, or came to hate the North after seeing their towns and possessions looted, vandalized, shelled, and/or burned. During their march through northern Mississippi, Grant and Sherman largely lost control of thousands of troops who, after witnessing the horrors of Shiloh and Donaldson, so hated the South that they wanted to inflict misery upon every Southerner they encountered, and, to the extent of their ability, many Southerners responded in kind.

"I said 'ma’am' and 'sir' to everyone else..."

Literally, the only time I hear the word sir is when I say it. I will never stop being annoyed here when teenage receptionists, store clerks, and bank tellers (who I've never even seen before) call me by my first name. I don't complain because I know their heart is in the right place, yet it suggests an unwarranted level of familiarity that I resent.