Author of a new history of America decries the "myth that the Southern Confederacy was wrong"

Historians in the News

Frontpage Interview’s guest today is H. W. (Harry) Crocker III, who has worked as a journalist, a speechwriter for the governor California (Pete Wilson, in his first term and reelection campaign), and as Vice President and Executive Editor of Regnery Publishing. He is the author of Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church, A 2,000-Year History, and Robert E. Lee on Leadership: Executive Lessons in Character, Courage, and Vision, as well as the prize-winning comic novel The Old Limey. He is also the author of the new book Don't Tread on Me: A 400-Year History of America at War, from Indian-Fighting to Terrorist-Hunting.

FP: Harry Crocker, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

Crocker: Thanks, I'm happy to be here.

FP: What motivated you to write this book?

Crocker: Well, I wanted to bust a lot of myths about American history: including the myth of the Indian as a noble savage; the myth that America has always been a non-imperial power; the myth that the Southern Confederacy was wrong; the myth that the American military relies on big battalions rather than on the extraordinary individual courage and skill of the American fighting man; the myth that we “lost” the Vietnam War (we won and the Democratic Congress shamefully gave it away); and the myth that the Iraq War is a disaster, among others. If I have one wish for the book, I’d like it to be put into the hands of every serving soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine so that he can know that his sacrifice today is part of the great sweep of American military history. I titled the book Don’t Tread on Me because that seems to me America’s unofficial motto, the phrase that best sums up the American spirit, especially the spirit of the American fighting man, and that explains our history.

FP: The "myth" that the Southern Confederacy was wrong? Kindly clarify this point as many readers may think that you are implying that defending the evil institution of slavery was a legitimate thing to do. Yes, the Civil War was not initiated to free the slaves, but it was about slavery and freeing the slaves was its end result and its humane and positive result. So the Southern Confederacy was wrong in the sense that it inhabited an evil institution that had to be liquidated in a democratic nation and the North was right in that it represented freedom and equality for all. It was right in that it freed the slaves. Kindly clarify the context and meaning of your position.

Crocker: Well, Jamie, as every politically incorrect schoolboy used to know, Lord Acton, the great historian of liberty, wrote a letter to Robert E. Lee in November 1866 saying, "I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo." And he was talking about liberty, not slavery. He thought secession was a necessary check on what he called "the absolutism of the sovereign will."

But it's also wrong to deal -- especially from the painless distance we have now -- with slavery as an abstraction, as an obvious moral evil to which the sacrificing of 600,000 dead (not to mention the infliction of military rule and the bitterness engendered by Reconstruction over the South) is a but a trifle, an historical necessity. The idea that an "evil institution" should be "liquidated" -- those are the words of a Soviet commissar, not a conservative. Robert E. Lee in his reply to Acton's letter said that no one in Virginia bemoaned the loss of slavery; Virginians like himself had long wanted to do away with it; but that they did not think that the costliest war in American history was, to appropriate your words, the "humane and positive" way to do it.

And of course, if slavery is the historical trump card, then the War for American Independence was wrong, because many of the founders held slaves and upheld slavery against the British who were willing to abolish it, as a war a measure. You remember Samuel Johnson’s great taunt in Taxation No Tyranny: “how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” The founders of the Southern Confederacy thought of themselves as following directly in the founders’ footsteps, which is why George Washington is on the great seal of the Confederacy -- and also why the politically correct are just as eager to prohibit naming schools after George Washington as they are after Confederate heroes.

But for me, as a natural Tory (and 1776 Loyalist) and adoptive Virginian, the real issue was best put by Robert E. Lee, a soldier who had served the United States his entire adult life, and who opposed secession and slavery (which he thought, and I quote, "a moral and political evil"), but who turned down command of the Union armies and said: “a Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets … has no charm for me….”

I think he took the position of every humane man when he said: “With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty as an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home.”

I often ask anti-Confederates to put the question that was faced in 1861 into the prism of their own lives. If the South seceded today, how many of us would think the appropriate response would be to send armored divisions over the 14th Street Bridge here in Washington, to carpet bomb Southern cities, and to blockade Southern ports?

Lee believed that Americans should resolve political disputes through gentle persuasion and free assent. He did not believe in waging war against fellow Americans—and neither do I....

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James William Brewer - 11/2/2006

My family is from Tenn. and the Confederacy had to militarily occupy eastern Tenn. to keep it from succeding from the Confederacy as West Virginia did.

Sean M. Samis - 11/1/2006

Is it not amazing to hear "human liberty" invoked to defend the Confederacy, whose reason for existence was to preserve slavery? "Resisting tyranny" is the excuse invoked for defending slavery; which is institutionalized tyranny.

I guess for Crocker, humanity has a white face.

The costliest war in American history was not the "humane and positive" way to get rid of slavery, but the Confederacy was not interested in human or positive approaches to slavery anyway. Sometimes a costly and bloody war is the only alternative.

It may be true that the Union did not fight to free the slaves, but the politically incorrect truth is that the Confederacy was created to protect slavery. Some persons like R.E. Lee may have hated slavery but they fought for the Confederacy anyway, I will let them defend that contradiction; a contradiction as severe as a Jew fighting for the Nazis.

The men who lead the Confederacy--the leaders Lee fought FOR--all aimed at keeping slavery intact. The only Liberty they fought for was their own right to keep others slaves, the only tyranny they resisted was the "tyranny" of justice.

There was no provocation causing the southern states to secede, Lincoln was elected but not yet president when they quit the Union.

Time Line

South Carolina seceded December 20, 1860
Mississippi .......... January 9, 1861
Florida .............. January 10, 1861
Alabama .............. January 11, 1861
Georgia .............. January 19, 1861
Louisiana ............ January 26, 1861
Texas ................ February 1, 1861

Lincoln Inaugurated President: March 4, 1861

Virginia seceded ..... April 17, 1861
Arkansas ............. May 6, 1861
Tennessee ............ May 9, 1861
North Carolina ....... May 20, 1861

Crocker asks, "If the South seceded today, how many of us would think the appropriate response would be to send armored divisions over the 14th Street Bridge here in Washington, to carpet bomb Southern cities, and to blockade Southern ports?"

This question seems based on a falsehood, implying that the peaceful but defiant South did not provoke a military response from the North. In fact, it was the South that seized property not belonging to them, and resorted to force unprovoked. The North did nothing to provoke rebellion except to elect a President the Southern Leaders disapproved of. Nothing more.

If the South threatened to secede today, I would support peacefully trying to work-out whatever issue was driving that desire, but if, as in 1861, if the South began to seize property not belonging to them, if the South initiated hostilities, I would support using all appropriate force necessary to quell the rebellion. Carpet bombing would not be necessary nor appropriate given early 21st century weapons. But I would blockade all Southern ports still in rebellion. Absolutely.

sean s.

John Edward Philips - 11/1/2006

It is sickening to see Front Page Magazine, which loves to rail against alleged treason on the left (search their site if you don't believe me) celebrating treason on the right.

The Confederacy was wrong. It was based on the claim that blacks were natural, willing slaves. Read Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens "Cornerstone Speech" if you don't believe me. That claim was shown to be wrong when slaves responded to the Emancipation Proclamation and saved the Union by adhering to it.

The Confederacy was wrong. The rebels thought that other Americans were not serious about defending their country, and would not respond when Fort Sumter was attacked. That claim was shown to be wrong when Americans fought, and fought hard, to defend their country.

The Confederacy was wrong. It was based on the assumption that the United States was not a permanent union, despite the fact that even the Articles of Confederation held the union to be "perpetual" in duration.

Lee did not believe "that Americans should resolve political disputes through gentle persuasion and free assent." That is anarchism. H. W. Crocker III actually claims that Lee "did not believe in waging war against fellow Americans". This is nonsense. Lee did wage war against fellow Americans, fortunately to no avail.

The Confederacy was wrong, and so is H. W. (Harry) Crocker III about it.