Lies the Neo-Confederates Told Metags: slavery, South, Civil War
Sociologist James W. Loewen is the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me.
Recently Amazon.com listed a new "book," Lies My Teacher Told Me: The True History of the War for Southern Independence, by Clyde Wilson. As the author of the "original" Lies My Teacher Told Me, whose subtitle is "Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong," naturally this intrigued me.
It is not likely that Wilson, professor emeritus of history at the University of South Carolina, was ignorant of my book when he chose his title. Lies My Teacher Told Me has sold more than a million and a half copies, making it the best-selling book by a living sociologist. Moreover, Chapter 6 treats secession and other unseemly aspects of the Confederacy, putting me clearly in the historical camp that Wilson despises. He calls it "the current fashion in historical interpretation."
So I suppose I'm flattered that Wilson has chosen to appropriate my title for his "book." But not really — because Wilson's "book" gives history a bad name. Book titles are not copyrightable, so I shall not sue, but I do want to give my opinion of this "book" that sounds so familiar.
First, let me explain why I keep calling it a "book," complete with quotation marks. Lies My Teacher Told Me: The True History of the War for Southern Independence is only 38 pages long. So far as I can tell, most of it is a single essay that Wilson published two years earlier on the website of the semi-clandestine Abbeville Institute.
Then there is Wilson's level of scholarship. He quotes not a single word from any secession document — indeed, from any source other than Robert E. Lee's farewell address to his troops at Appomattox. From that speech he quotes seven words: Lee's praise of the "valor and devotion" and "unsurpassed courage and fortitude" of Confederate soldiers. I have no quarrel with praising those qualities of the men. Grant paid them the same tribute, calling them "a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought."
Wilson will have nothing to do with that last phrase, however. Instead, he claims, "Although their cause was lost it was a good cause and still has a lot to teach the world today." He then actually asserts that the South Carolina delegates seceded on behalf of states' rights! In Wilson's words, "the Union was no longer to their benefit but had become a burden and a danger. They said: We have acted in good faith and been very patient. But obviously you people in control of the federal government intend permanently to exploit our wealth and interfere in our affairs."
He does not have to contend with why South Carolina's leaders said they seceded, because he does not quote them. In fact, South Carolina's leaders seceded because they were upset with states' rights. In the key document, “Declaration Of The Immediate Causes Which Induce And Justify The Secession Of South Carolina From The Federal Union,” adopted on Christmas Eve of 1860, delegates to the South Carolina secession convention made this clear. We are seceding, they wrote, because “fourteen of the States have deliberately refused for years past to fulfill their constitutional obligations, and we refer to their own statutes for the proof.” Constitutional obligations? Sounds pretty vague! But the delegates go right on to spell out why they are leaving:
The Constitution of the United States, in its fourth Article, provides as follows: “No person held to service or labor in one State under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.”
The “general government,” South Carolina goes on, “passed laws to carry into effect these stipulations. But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding states to the institution of slavery has led to a disregard of their obligations.”
South Carolina went on to list the states whose attempts to exercise states’ rights deeply offended them:
The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the acts of Congress, or render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from the service of labor claimed....
South Carolina goes on to charge other states with other unpardonable offenses. New York, for example, no longer allows owners the right to take slaves through New York or use them temporarily there. South Carolina is outraged. Some states, South Carolina charges, let African Americans vote. Who votes in America was at this time, of course, a state's right, until the passage of the 15th Amendment, two whole eras later, but the delegates refer to the Dred Scott decision and are offended that New Hampshire, for instance, lets blacks vote.
This key document from South Carolina is all about — and all against — states' rights. It makes no claim that the federal government has wronged the South. Why would it? Under Buchanan, South Carolina had no problem with the federal government.
What about Mississippi, next to secede? What do its leaders say about why they seceded?
They copied South Carolina’s title, passing “A Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union” in January. “[I]t is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course,” they begin.
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 the 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.
Secession is not the only subject that Wilson gets backward. He denies all agency to the Confederacy in the coming of the war. “The U.S. government, under the control of a minority party, launched a massive invasion of the South,” Wilson writes. Well, yes, eventually it did, but first, the Confederacy attacked Fort Sumter, for starters. No administration could have simply turned the other cheek to that initiation of war and remain in office. James McPherson makes this point at length in his 1989 essay, “The War of Southern Aggression.”
Wilson also repeats the old “Lost Cause” claim that only overwhelming numbers caused the South’s defeat. Indeed, he goes that claim one further: “Though they had four times our resources, they were not able to defeat our men, so the U.S. government launched an unprecedentedly brutal war of terrorism again [sic] Southern women and children, white and black.” Nonsense! Even other neo-Confederate historians admit that Northern soldiers defeated “our men” at Appomattox, as well as Fort Donelson, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and many other battlefields, ending in Bentonville, North Carolina, in 1865.
As for the “unprecedentedly brutal war of terrorism against Southern women and children,” Wilson apparently does not realize why plantation mistresses often secreted gold and jewelry on their persons when U.S. forces came through. Because it worked! That is, U.S. soldiers rarely touched white women. Nor does Wilson seem to know that C.S.A. policy in the North was to seize all African Americans they met and sell them as slaves, whether they had ever been enslaved or not. Indeed, within sight of the unfortunate and soon-to-be-moved bronze Confederate soldier at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Rockville, Maryland, Confederates under J.E.B. Stuart seized over a hundred African Americans and dragged them to Virginia in chains.
Wilson’s project is blatantly anti-intellectual. “History is human experience,” he writes, “and you do not have to be an ‘expert’ to have an opinion about human experience.” To be sure, I am on record as favoring helping every student to do history, but not just based on their “opinion about human experience.” "People have a right to their own opinions, but not to their own facts," I wrote some years ago. (George Zimmerman made these sentences modestly notorious by using them on his website.) "Evidence must be located, not created," I went on, "and opinions not backed by evidence cannot be given much weight." One wonders how Wilson dealt with those occasional hapless students at the University of South Carolina who argued based on their own experience, rather than from oral history or documents. For that matter, what is one's "human experience" about the Civil War in 2016? Conversations with your dad? Does not one's view of the Civil War have to be grounded in research?
Wilson does not agree. “History is not some disembodied truth,” he assures us. “All history is the story of somebody's experience," he goes on. "It is somebody's history. When we talk about the War it is our history we are talking about, it is a part of our identity. To tell libelous lies about our ancestors is a direct attack on who we are.” Therefore, he implies, we don’t need evidence. There is "more than one perspective," he writes, and he implies that all perspectives are legitimate. So much for the discipline of history.
Early in his essay, Wilson does say something with which I can whole-heartedly agree. “It is useless to proclaim the courage, skill, and sacrifice of the Confederate soldier while permitting him to be guilty of a bad cause.” The Confederate cause was “bad.” Grant got that right. Wilson cannot, without traducing the evidence, make secession on behalf of slavery into a good cause. Therefore, it is time for him (and his neo-Confederate clique at Abbeville) to surrender. Further resistance is futile.
Across the South, from before the 1860 crisis down to now, some white Southerners have worked on behalf of the rights of Southerners of all races. Their stories go unsung today because from 1890 to 2015, the white South was busy singing the misbegotten praises of the miscreants who took it out of the Union. Now much of that activity has ceased, has even reversed. The new activity — taking down the statues of Jefferson Davis, J.E.B. Stuart, and Robert E. Lee in favor of people like James Longstreet, Elizabeth Van Lew, and Print Matthews – that is a historical project worthy of Dixie. This work helps us actually to realize “The True History of the War for Southern Independence.” Recognizing such people helps African Americans realize not all whites were racist, while providing white Southerners with positive role models. How much better for the world and the history profession this new activity is, compared to the false mythologies that Wilson still hawks – misusing my book title to do it.
The rest of this article is based on the Abbeville essay. Thus I do not have to buy the "book" by sending Amazon $5.38, some of which would trickle down to Abbeville and Wilson. Donald Livingston, a philosophy professor retired from Emory, operates the Abbeville Institute from his house. Besides Wilson, its other marquee member is Thomas DiLorenzo, the notorious anti-Lincoln writer.
See "Getting Even the Numbers Wrong" in Loewen, Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong, for a critique of this claim that overwhelming numbers caused the Confederate defeat.
Copyright James W. Loewen
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