The Confederacy, Slavery, and the Fog of Historical Memory

The Orginal Cabinet for the Confederate States of America. President Jefferson Davis is third from right.

The Original Cabinet for the Confederate States of America. President Jefferson Davis is third from right.

Americans are still in the midst of celebrating (if indeed that’s the appropriate word to use) the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Yet even after all this time, a good many aspects of the war and its legacy are difficult for some people to accept and process. This is especially the case regarding the central role of slavery in causing the conflict, and how the war’s losing side, the Confederacy, should be remembered. The Confederate States of America existed from 1861-1865, and the men who founded the southern nation did so for the express purpose of protecting slavery from what they alleged to be the abolitionist, pro-racial equality stances of the Republican administration of Abraham Lincoln.

Thus, the Confederacy was, at its core, a paradoxical entity: it was a slaveholders’ republic; a democracy based on white supremacy, in which the existence of black slavery explicitly contrasted with, and nurtured, white freedom.

Of course, in some respects, the Confederacy wasn’t all that different from the United States at the time. Indeed, white supremacy in its various forms was the open guiding principle of American society throughout the majority of the nation’s history, and, on some levels, still remains so today. But the Confederacy was something different still. It was a nation that tried to beat back calls for America to repent for its original sin of human bondage. In this respect, the Confederate experiment was the ultimate in conservative counter-revolutions: its government protected, and its armies fought for, the freedom for one group of people to enslave another group. Ever since the end of the Civil War, it’s this core fact that’s been hard for some Americans to take.

A case-in-point is the recent snafu over the proposed removal of Confederate flags from Washington and Lee University chapel in Virginia — the burial site of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. As Kevin Levin over at Civil War Memory notes, a group of black law students at the university understandably take offence to the preponderance of Rebel flags on the campus, and in a letter to the Board of Trustees, they demanded that the university “remove all confederate flags from its property and premises, including those flags located within Lee Chapel.” The students’ demands naturally attracted the attention of that wily group of Rebel flag-waving’ Gomer Pyles known as the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), who, of course, were not happy about this latest alleged attempt to stomp all over their Dixieland myths.

Over at Crossroads, Brookes Simpson highlights some of the dunder-headed claims made by Ben Jones, the new SCV chief of heritage operations. “It appears that those who have a very simplistic view of American history have decided that the 150th anniversary of The Civil War is the right time to demonize the Southern culture,” Jones stated. He then made the usual spiel about how America was built on slavery (a statement so uncontroversial that historians have acknowledged it for decades) and he maintains that this point somehow makes it okay to deny that the fact that the Confederacy tried to perpetuate slavery indefinitely. But Jones’ most important point comes when he invokes Martin Luther King (talk about ballsy) to claim that Americans should reconcile “by accepting our past as it is.”

But, of course, for folks like the SCV, “accepting the past as it is” is, in fact, no easy task, because doing so means recognizing and accepting the fact that the Confederacy viewed black slavery and white freedom as intimately connected: one facilitated the other. In 1860, when the Republican Party came to power under the platform of preventing slavery’s extension into the western territories — but not touching it the states where it already existed — such a platform was too much for southern Fire-Eaters to bear. Indeed, the mere HINT that Abraham Lincoln — who was elected by an exclusively northern electorate — might try to free the South’s slaves was enough to justify a new southern nation in which slavery could flourish unencumbered forever.

As secessionists in Craven County, North Carolina told Governor John W. Ellis in 1860, “the people of North Carolina have a common interest with all the slave holding states and whereas in common with them the State of North Carolina has suffered from the aggressions of the North upon the institution of slavery until the burden has become intolerable.” In order to relive this “intolerable” burden, the majority of the slave-holding southern states seceded from the Union in 1860-61. This was the cause for which Confederate armies fought, and its a cause that some modern-day Americans choose to conceal with an intentional historical fog.

In the twenty-first century, it troubles some Americans to think that their ancestors fought and died for such an odious cause. After all, America is supposed to be exceptional! America then, as now, was supposed to be the “land of the free.” How, then, could southern politicians form a new nation dedicated to protecting slavery? And how could they convince tens-of-thousands of southern whites to defend that nation to the death? The answer lies in the way black slavery legitimized white freedom in the antebellum South.

Weather we likeit or not, this flag symbolized a republic built by slaveholders to protect their human property.

Whether we like it or not, this flag symbolized a republic built by slaveholders to protect their human property.

Liberty in the antebellum South was built on slavery through the concept of “Herrenvolk Democracy” (a term derived from the German word for “master race”), which held that despite their inequality in property and status, all white men were equal in their shared racial domination over blacks. This concept offered a clear contrast between the free and unfree, as slaveholding and non-slaveholding whites alike measured their liberty against the millions of slaves that surrounded them. Poor and yeomen southern whites recognized a common kinship with planters and feared competing with blacks for land and labor in the event of slavery’s abolishment. Thus, Herrenvolk Democracy made southerners susceptible to “us vs. them” styles of political demagoguery.

And boy-oh-boy did the southern secessionists play the demagogue’s card in 1860. Consider the state of Texas. Its Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union makes it clear that slavery was the bedrock of what would become the new Southern nation:

Texas abandoned her separate national existence and consented to become one of the Confederated Union to promote her welfare, insure domestic tranquility and secure more substantially the blessings of peace and liberty to her people…She was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery– the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits– a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time. Her institutions and geographical position established the strongest ties between her and other slave-holding States of the confederacy.

But for Texas, joining the Confederacy wasn’t just about maintaining slavery; it was also about upholding the racial dominance that undermined slavery, which the non-slaveholding northern states allegedly threatened. Thus, the Texas declaration further stated that:

 [I]n this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states.

Here you see the very essence of Herrenvolk Democracy: a state in which “all white men are…entitled to equal civil and political rights,” regardless of their class or station, because “the servitude of the African race” ensured that all blacks would remain an enslaved underclass over whom whites could dominate. As historian Stephanie McCurry writes in her book Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South (which EVERYONE interested in the Civil War should read), “What secessionists set out to build was something entirely new in the history of nations: a modern proslavery and antidemocratic state, dedicated to the proposition that all men were not created equal.”* White southerners in 1860 understood that their shared racial equality was bolstered by the fact that black slaves could never, under any circumstances, be their equals — the non-slaveholding states be damned.

This is why secessionist politicians argued that forming the Confederacy was a necessary bulwark against what they thought was Lincoln’s secret plans to end slavery and force racial equality on the South. They knew their audiences’ prejudices, and they played to them brilliantly. For example, in December of 1860, Stephen F. Hale, Alabama’s secession commissioner to Kentucky, told Bluegrass state governor Beriah Magoffin that, “if the policy of the Republicans is carried out…and the South submits, degradation and ruin must overwhelm alike all classes of citizens in the Southern States. The slave-holder and non-slave-holder must ultimately share the same fate — all be degraded to a position of equality with free negroes.” The key point in Hale’s letter is how “the slave-holder and non-slaveholder” alike would be threatened by slavery’s demise. Hale explained this point further when he wrote that:

Who can look upon such a picture without a shudder? What Southern man, be he slave-holder or non-slave-holder, can without indignation and horror contemplate the triumph of negro equality, and see his own sons and daughters, in the not distant future, associating with free negroes upon terms of political and social equality, and the white man stripped, by the Heaven-daring hand of fanaticism of that title to superiority over the black race which God himself has bestowed?

Stephen F. Hale, Alabama's secession commisioner to Kentucky. He made it clear that secession was to be a bulawrk against abolition and racial equality.

Stephen F. Hale, Alabama’s secession commissioner to Kentucky. He made it clear that secession was to be a bulwark against abolition and racial equality.

This was hardly an accurate description of the Republican Party’s policy in 1860, but what matters is that secessionists BELIEVED that the increased sectional power of the northern states portended not just the end of slavery, but also racial equality. Even after the South seceded from the Union, Confederates continued to invoke Herrenvolk Democracy throughout the war as a way to shore up white support for the Rebel cause. In December 1861, Confederate Brig. Gen. Felix K. Zollicoffer warned Kentuckians that the “Northern hordes” would overrun Kentucky, and that “[t]heir Government has laid heavy taxes on you to carry on this unnatural war, which is openly avowed to be to set at liberty your slaves, and the ensuing steps in which will be to put arms in their hands, and give them political and social equality with yourselves.”

In his November 1863 inaugural address to the Mississippi legislature (which begins on pg. 158 at the link), Charles Clark, the Magnolia state’s Fire-Eating Confederate governor, echoed Zollicoffer’s warnings that the North would force racial equality on the South. “Between the South and the North there is a great gulf fixed,” Clark stated, “Humbly submit yourselves to our hated foes, and they will offer you a reconstructed Constitution providing for the confiscation of your property, the immediate emancipation of your slaves and the elevation of the black race to a position of equality, aye, of superiority, that will make them your masters and rulers.” Clark claimed that only violent resistance could stave off racial armageddon. “Rather than such base submission, such ruin and dishonor, let the last of our young men die upon the field of battle,” he vowed.

When you consider how the long tradition of Herrenvolk Democracy helped construct the antebellum South’s racial order, you can see why secessionists were so threatened by any-and-all possible restrictions on slavery that might come from the Northern states. The idea that the Confederacy defined white freedom in explicit contrast to black slavery is what makes the SCV-types so defensive about the way Americans remember the legacy of the southern rebellion. The Confederate flag, as the symbol of the short-lived slaveholder’s republic, represents a nation that fought to preserve slavery and the system of racial dominance that bolstered the “peculiar institution.”

When Americans choose to remember the Confederacy by intentionally stripping it of its very ideological foundations, they are, in effect, fogging up the windows of the past with a present-day vision of what they WANT the Confederacy to be. This vision bears little resemblance to what the Confederacy actually was. This is also the reason why no amount of historical evidence that links the Confederacy to protecting slavery and white supremacy will ever convince those who have a vested interest in believing otherwise. They aren’t interested in learning about the past; rather, they’re so blinded by a belief in American (and Southern) exceptionalism that the notion that Americans once fought for slavery — the very antithesis of freedom — is an unpalatable fact that they deny at all costs.

But just remember, folks: we as Americans won’t learn anything from the past if we try to sugar-coat history with an idealized mythology. It’s better to have lived and learned than never to have learned at all.

* See Stephanie McCurry, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 1.

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  1. Excellent and pertinent post, Jarret. This stubborn, don’t confuse me with the facts attitude continues to be shared by the Tea Party and deniers of all kinds today. Hatred is a powerful manipulator of the truth and people who don’t want to change or admit their prejudices.

    • Thanks, Bruce! You’re right: people who want to deny the past are usually addressing issues in the present, whether they admit so or not.

  2. It was very disappointing to see absolutely no specifics at all which detailed the fact that United States is also a republic that was built on the ideal of white supremacy and the legal subordination of the black race. Just a very brief mention that this historical fact is “uncontroversial” No particulars on the gruesome international slave-trafficking that was constitutionally protected, no mention of the cruelties that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison imposed on the hundreds and hundreds of human beings these men held in bondage.

    So why no photographs of the American Flag with an attending caption permanently linking it to the international slave-trade? Why no quotes from Lincoln where he uses the degrading and dehumanizing term, as he so often did, “n@@@@r”? Why no quotes from Lincoln or Douglas declaring their own unique pronouncements that America is a land for white men? Why no quotes from Madison declaring that the legal and constitutional status of blacks as property is perfectly appropriate? And why no quotes from the constitutions of, say Oregon or Illinois, which render it illegal for blacks to reside in their states?

    • All of this is taught in the classroom. The element of racism infused in America is taught in the classroom. The fact that Washington, Jefferson, and Madison owned slaves is taught in the classroom. The fact that slavery is in the original Constitution is taught in the classroom. The establishment of slavery in the colonies is taught in the classroom. Lincoln’s comments on slavery and his desiring to ship free blacks elsewhere is taught in the classroom.

      What is your point with this post of yours? It does absolutely nothing to refute Jarret’s statements.

      • The comment was not intended to “refute” Jarret’s essay. Rather, it is intended to emphasize the fact that the United States is guilty of absolutely everything he asserts the Confederate States is guilty of. More specifically, the United States, in comparison with the Confederate States, has absolutely no moral authority to pass judgement. None whatsoever.

      • Your comment is useless. You are trying to make a system of comparisons to muddy the waters. It fails to stand the test. Jarret’s post is on target. You are doing what you can to invent a strawman argument and failing.

        You also missed some context there. The people of the US were moving forward and progressing to a labor system that did involve slavery. As such, slavery itself had to end. Those same people were questioning the role of slavery in an empire of liberty. How do you have freedom when a large portion of the population is not free?

        The Confederacy could not answer that question satisfactorily. They meant to preserve an older system that was being rejected by the rest of the world. They decided to fight to keep that system. Jarret’s post is about the lack of factual accuracy on the part of a few who deliberately seek to create a past that in historically inaccurate.

      • Yes, it’s true that white supremacy is as much an American legacy as it is a southern one. But the Confederacy was different in a crucial way: it’s existence hinged purely on the sectional issue of slavery, and without that issue, the Confederacy would never have existed.

        By 1860, slavery was exclusively a southern institution, Indeed, by 1804, all northern states had passed laws or constitutions abolishing slavery. What makes the South different is not only did it not abolish slavery, it perpetuated it. By 1860, slavery was so fundamental to southern society and culture that it waged a war specifically to preserve the “peculiar institution.” This is something that the United States, for all of it’s faults and prejudices, never did.

      • Jimmy, as usual, your comments amount to nothing more than frivilous, empty, legerdemain, and as such, they fail miserably. In 1860, the United States slave labor system was fully integrated into the national economy, and the fact that the Massachusetts textile manufacturers and the Pennsylvania sugar refineries gobbled up the cotton and sugar produced by that system immediately reduces your silly “arguments” to useless, empty, posturing, prattle. The idea that the “North” has some degree of moral authority to pass judgement on the “South” is a laughable farce.

        The guilt of those engaged in the brutalities and sadistic cruelties of the international slave-trade have surrendered forever their “right” to pass any type of moral judgement whatsoever of any kind. And the guilt of those complicit in the profiteering was the slave labor system have, in like manner, forever surrendered the right to pass moral judgement on anyone for anything. Period.

        • Good, then if slavery was so bad, the South should have ended it rather than try to perpetuate it forever. That’s really the only issue we’re dealing with here. Moreover, I’d say that the northern states did have a bit of moral high ground in 1860, because they had politicians who, knowing full-well that northern textile mills benefited from slave-harvested southern cotton, were STILL willing to first, stop slavery from spreading, and then abolish it it completely. The Confederate South? Not so much. Following your reasoning, historians could never make any judgements based on the fact that all groups of humans do bad things at one time or another. That reasoning is, frankly, insane. By the way, you use an awful lot of adjectives.

    • You are committing the mistake of presentism. We don’t look at the past and keep score on which section was worse. We aren’t here to venerate the goodly North and flog the evil South. “Well, the North was just as bad!” is a trope I hear constantly from neo-Confederates (and third-graders), especially when they are out of arguments or facts.

      This is where actually reading (anything, really, but in particular) Lincoln would be helpful. If you had read his speeches, then you would know he didn’t blame the South for slavery; that he admitted he wouldn’t know how to get rid of it; and that left where it was, it could be tolerated. He said this again and again, and his actions demonstrate that he believed this. But the slaveowners of the South rejected the terms of slavery’s restriction because it meant the eventual extinction of slavery–and therefore, white supremacy. Jarrett has shown (not merely told) you the evidence above. There’s loads more. But my point here is that I don’t blame today’s white Southerners for slavery. You guys are a little too sensitive.

      The deplorable actions of the United States–embedding slavery in its organic law, the theft of land and culture from American Indians, the internment of Japanese-Americans, for example–are nothing to be proud of. But neither are they something to shun, or worse, lie about. Not if we want to learn something from them. Those events don’t have to define us.

  3. Dude, if you want to read about American slavery, there’s literally thousands of books and articles that you can consult. No one’s stopping you.

  4. Good interesting article. I just wonder though, has the poor white trash angle ever been honestly covered? I don’t quite understand how poor white workers could receive decent wages when competing with slaves?

    • Thanks for the compliment. Regarding the poor white issue: it was less about compensation (since slaves obviously didn’t get wages) and more about social status. In other words, poor whites could look down on black slaves and feel better about their status because, as whites, they could consider themselves “equal” to planters. A good study to start with on that topic is this book by Charles Bolton. On the other hand, however, there were instances in which poor whites and slaves associated with each other and even traded goods. See this book by Jeff Forret on that topic. Hope that helps!

      • Thanks. I’ll follow that up. I remember something about the slaves and the poor whites had a degree of affiliation. It seems pathetic now that one exploited group were mollified by being told they too were “superior”.

  5. Very nice work on the initial post and the follow up replies, Jarret. As you can see, Sanderson/Carmichael is really an old friend that has made the same inaccurate and factually incorrect claims on many other blogs. Not surprisingly, he has failed to make a sustained claim on them. He goes by many different names such as Austin or Caldwell, but I think from now on I will be calling him Waterboy.
    This is a nice blog with some very interesting observations.

    • Thanks, Jimmy. I figured that these folks are Civil War blog trolls, but I don’t mind responding to people who take time to read the blog, even if they are, um, kind of weird. Thanks for reading and for the compliments!

      • What Jimmy said. We’ve experimented with several handles: Waterboy, CAC, Sparky. At one point Dogberry seemed appropriate. Rob Baker refers to him as “It.” Basically, he’s a concrete thinker who rejects the notion of context in history.

  6. Excellent post Carmichael. It is astonishing, truly astonishing, to observe the unionsts try to sweep the ugly, ruthless, and savage practices in which they were engaged under the rug. In the entire history of guilty man, there is hardly a behavior so despicable and sadistic as the international slave trade. And the New Englanders were smack in the middle of it. The New Englanders stuffed pregnant women in the hold of a filthy slave ship, and listened to her howl in agony as she tried to give birth in shackles. She, and her helpless, innocent infant, often died a cruel and unholy death, and then were dumped in the Ocean to be eaten by sharks. And the critics of the Confederacy are the same people who insouciantly ignore this infamous practice, and dare try to sit in moral judgement of others! The very idea shocks the conscious. It is grotesque and absurd, and it fools absolutely no one.

  7. Thank you Sanderson. But do you think it is necessary to refer to RB and CS as “things”? I know, of course, that they treat the constitution as if it were an unwritten and perfectly malleable instrument, capable of saying, at any particular moment, preisely what they want it to say, but that is not our problem, it is theirs. What is true, of course, is that there is no possible way to be offended by slavery, and not be equally offended by the foul practice of international slave-trafficking. It is the height of intellectual and moral hypocrisy to assume that ridiculous position. So the obvious answer is that whenever the Confederacy goes on trial, figuratively speaking, for slavery, New England goes on tria along with itl for slave-trafficking, slavery, and complicity with slavery.

  8. Um, Carmichael, after the abuse you heaped on RB over at Jerry Dunford’s blog, I don’t think you are one to talk. Not that they aren’t genuinely amusing in spite of themselves 🙂 Beyond all that nonsense, I agree; what’s good for the Confederacy, is good for New England.

  9. It seems to me, that most people, upon thinking about human slavery and the notion of racial supremacy, have condemned these practices. Southern culture, however, would like to celebrate its history and heroes of the Civil War. After all, slavery was the norm for many years, and many a fine American fell on both sides of the battlefield. Sadly, the losing side cannot celebrate its bravery, without also celebrating the cause, just or unjust, for which it was fighting. In honoring the brave, be clear that it is for the man and not also for the cause.

    • That is a well-reasoned comment, Michael. I fully understand the need for many people to acknowledge their ancestors, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I do take issue when people try to deny the truth of the past simply because they find that truth uncomfortable. The Confederacy was on the wrong side of history when it came to the sectional conflict, and while its soldiers had many individual motives, they collectively fought for a government with a clear, and unfortunate, cause. Then again, thousands of southerners also fought against the Confederacy as well, so their stories show that we can’t just equate “The South,” with the Confederacy, even though it was a southern movement. Thanks for reading!

      • Yes – the celebrations are probably more for the cause than for the man. I would even stick my neck out and say that the Civil War is ongoing, minus the drums and uniforms. Why would I make this accusation? Because the evidence is all around us. The deep-seated prejudice; the Black’s long battle for equality; the ongoing effort to dominate the Black man; and the imposition of limits to his development. The war continues. While Southerners are celebrating their history, I’ll bet they don’t really see that their cause was wrong. Worse yet, maybe they aren’t uncomfortable with their past at all. The celebrations and flag-waving glorify their brave soldiers – but at the same time they are thinking: You know what? The Black man is still inferior to us. Let’s march around and wave our flag to remind him. In 1963, as a White boy freshman at U of M, my Black roommate forever disproved, to me, the inferiority myth.

  10. I wonder though- why do many people- both historians and non-historians- view differently Confederates and people who supported Communism between 1928 and 1953? I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people describe the Hollywood Ten as heroic martyrs for free speech or Paul Robeson as a heroic fighter for equality. One could say they might have had noble motives individually but one could say the same thing about Confederates. The cause that they lent their name to was just as perverse as the Confederates- using the rhetoric of equality to justify abandoning the most basic concepts of human rights. So why is the person that views Dalton Trumbo as a hero any less deluded than the person that views Robert E. Lee as a hero?

    • I humbly admit to historical ignorance of Trumbo, Robeson, Hollywood Ten, etc. Therefore, I struggle to understand your question. Yet, I would offer these remarks, and then retreat, knowing at least you will be amused at exposing some ignorance. It seems to me, that the comparison is between support of Communism and the Confederacy, neither of which enjoys the full support of anybody, and both of which cost many lives. The consideration here is the sharing of property versus the protecting of property. In both cases, the property is something that they have no right to, under modern law. A man can be admired for his effort to defend his perceived property, but also condemned for his political / philosophical beliefs.

    • Well, people with sinister agendas, especially those on the wrong side of history, never really believe they’re acting out of malice. Of course Confederates thought that they were “true” Americans fighting for freedom. So did the Hollywood red-baiters. Hindsight helps, but then again, contemporaries of these groups called them on their bullshit, so historians might as well too.

      • You’re missing my point. Robeson, Trumbo, et. al. saw themselves as noble fighters for equality. But they weren’t- they were fanatics that pledged themselves to the service of a monster. Robeson lied about anti-Jewish purges he saw in the Soviet Union, argued that Trotskyism should be illegal in the United States (“Would you give rights to the Ku Klux Klan?”) and his wife spoke about “mad dogs” that needed to be put down. Trumbo turned letters that people wrote to him opposing World War II over to the FBI and boasted of having kept films detailing Soviet crimes from being made. So why are historians reluctant to condemn them for their “sinister agendas”, for their “bullshit”, for being “on the wrong side of history”? Is it because they convinced themselves they were fighting for equality? And if that’s the case, then why shouldn’t Confederates that convinced themselves they were defending their homes, etc. get the same free pass?

  11. Jarret, didn’t you have a photo in one of your blog posts of a group of those “tariffs” who caused the war working in the fields? That always struck me as hilarious, and I wanted to pass it on to a friend, but I can’t find it again.

  12. I have read that for the North in the early days of the war it was a war for union. For the South it was a war for the preservation of slavery. Abolition was rather disjointed and hap hazard. The Emancipation Proclaimation was more symbolic (it freed slaves on paper where the Union had no power but kept in slavery where it did have power – KY, MO and MD). The war for the North evolved into a war against slavery (disrupt the Southern Economy and deny them foreign recognition by nations that already abolished slavery – UK and France). The struggle of less than ideal and perfect vs. really bad.

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