An essay about slavery and the Civil War by Col. Ty Seidule, Professor and Head, Department of History at the United States Military Academy, West Point, was recently featured at Daily Kos after being published at a website titled Prager University. The site is not an accredited educational institution; that is freely disclosed. Prager U was founded by a right of center talk radio host.
The website Daily Kos is one of the most influential Democrat blogs in the sphere. As an effective advocate for leftist policies and candidates, it is no surprise that an article about slavery and the Confederacy would draw attention. Just as some cling to a long dead battle flag and a way of life enabling the wealthiest to control both government and treasure, others cling to an obsession over a period of struggle in the life of a young Republic.
Seidule’s essay Was the Civil War About Slavery? acknowledged what most of us already know. Slavery was a major factor in a war that led to the creation of the Union as we know it today. However, the essay also omitted context that includes ongoing disputes about tariffs, striking differences between North and South’s cultures and economies, and the fact slavery was not just an issue for the South.
The colonel made sweeping statements that suggest a geographic bias common among the political class. He wrote:
“[M]any people don’t want to believe that the citizens of the southern states were willing to fight and die to preserve a morally repugnant institution.”
Seidule made the same mistake so many writers make today. He views slavery practices in an era 72 years after the US Constitution took effect through the lens of 2015. The professor also does what the vast majority of schools do today, teaching the history of that period in a vacuum. You cannot rip US slavery out of the context of global slavery dating to ancient times. Today we naturally look on that practice as “repugnant.”
Many people in the young South where populations were less dense and more rural did not view it as repugnant. For one thing, until the abolition movement largely promoted by the Quaker faith began to gain momentum in the US, slavery was viewed as the natural order of things. Almost every race on the face of the Earth had at one time practiced it or experienced it. The idea of secession, however, did not spring up organically. Talk about ‘nullification’ and secession had simmered for decades ahead of the Civil War, partly a hangover from debate over the Constitution and the role of the federal government when the Articles of Confederation had proved insufficient for governing a brand new country. Tariffs had long been an issue.
For Africa, the slave trade was lucrative. For Arabs, it was the same. American Indians capitalized on the value of slaves. By the time the Portuguese set in motion the trade that would ultimately reach the New World, few questioned the practice. Africans conducted raids just as Vikings had conducted raids, with treasure consisting of material items and humans destined for bondage. In the book Slaves in the Family, Edward Ball recounts visiting coastal Sierra Leone where Africans brought slaves to port for purchase.
Other works on slavery exist, and they are valuable contributions to our history. In the work Rice and Slaves: Ethnicity and the Slave Trade in Colonial South Carolina, Daniel C. Littlefield takes on a mission few scholars have attempted. He explored the different ethnicities among Africans, and if you read his book, you will ask yourself why we lump such diverse cultures and ethnicities into a single category because of skin color.
The same question could be applied to the work Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500-1800 by Robert Davis. The Christians were white. Just as with blacks, whites are lumped into a vast homogenized group purely based on skin color. Yet our ethnicities are diverse.
By omitting global context, Seidule does the reader no favors. It is like writing about the eruption of Krakatoa as a purely local issue. The prof then wrote:
“And it wasn’t just plantation owners who supported slavery. The slave society was embraced by all classes in the South. The rich had multiple motivations for wanting to maintain slavery, but so did the poor, non-slave holding whites. The “peculiar institution” ensured that they did not fall to the bottom rung of the social ladder. That’s why another argument — that the Civil War couldn’t have been about slavery because so few people owned slaves — has little merit.”
No source is given for this claim. There are numerous works, in both newspapers and diaries at libraries, that suggest he has made a sweeping conclusion he cannot support. Yes, newspapers and politicians of the day used scare tactics. But in a state like South Carolina, the upstate citizens were far removed from the coastal plantation owners who controlled much of the economy and policy. The potential for federal troops to descend was welcomed by neither North nor South, and the inclination for many who were not slaveholders was to defend the homeland, in particular the women from the ‘Yankee’ soldiers who were viewed as devoid of manners and chivalry.
In Tales of Columbia (1964), a well-sourced book that is among one of my favorites in the rare category, Nell S. Graydon provides firsthand accounts of cultural views of Northerners and Southerners, and she explains what her research supported. The “government of South Carolina in the 1850s ‘became that of an autocracy when a colony of old families ruled the legislature.’” Those interests have commonalities with today’s powerful global financial interests enthusiastically reliant on cheap labor.
The North was no bastion of compassion when it came to slavery. One reason for Northern anger revolves around the 1,000,000 Irish immigrants who arrived between 1840-1850. Those immigrants, whipped to frenzy by media, had concerns about wages and work as intensity for emancipation grew. While Seidule focused myopically on the South, histories of the North also contain strife over slavery, as the book In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City by Leslie M. Harris recounts. Harris wrote:
“In the month preceding the July 1863 lottery, in a pattern similar to the 1834 anti-abolition riots, antiwar newspaper editors published inflammatory attacks on the draft law aimed at inciting the white working class. They criticized the federal government’s intrusion into local affairs on behalf of the “…war.” Democratic Party leaders raised the specter of a New York deluged with southern blacks in the aftermath of the Emancipation Proclamation. White workers compared their value unfavorably to that of southern slaves, stating that “[we] are sold for $300 [the price of exemption from war service] whilst they pay $1000 for negroes.” In the midst of war-time economic distress, they believed that their political leverage and economic status was rapidly declining as blacks appeared to be gaining power. On Saturday, July 11, 1863, the first lottery of the conscription law was held. For twenty-four hours the city remained quiet. On Monday, July 13, 1863, between 6 and 7 A.M., the five days of mayhem and bloodshed that would be known as the Civil War Draft Riots began.”
The New York City Draft Riots of 1863 are a little known brutal event in US history, but they are important because they show a nation in turmoil, yes, because of slavery, but also because of competition among laborers.
By the time the Civil War ended, the South lay in ruins. The North was not a benign conqueror. In Graydon’s book she features a letter written by a Union soldier who participated in the burning of Columbia (S.C.):
“My dear Wife:
…We have had a glorious time in this state. Universal license to burn and plunder was the order of the day. The Chivalry have been stripped out of most of their valuables…Officers are not allowed to join these expeditions without disguising themselves as privates…I have at least a quart of jewelry for you and the girls and some No. 1 diamond rings and pins among them. General Sherman has enough silver and gold to start a bank…
Your affectionate husband,
Thomas G. Myers, Lieutenant”
The subsequent Reconstruction period was a time of hardship for all in the South, including freed slaves. There was no grand plan, and President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination threw the young country into more turmoil.
However, the behavior of the Union troops manifested the worst fears of those who may not have been slave holders but who knew what faced them if federal troops were given free rein.
Before the Constitution was 100 years old, the US had fought a terrible war and ended slavery. Then came the march towards civil rights. In the present day South, I believe there is greater racial accord than in the North. Today the least segregated metro areas are in the South and the West, not the North. I believe one reason for that centers around the schools. The North, by the time integration was put into effect, had a solid system of private parochial schools. The South did not.
Why do we continue to obsess over a war fought long ago? Politicians have a vested interest in maintaining a grip on voting blocs. As the presidential election of 2016 approaches, genuine fears about the likely Democrat nominee are mounting. The party of the left has valid concerns about turnout because the charismatic young senator who held a nation spellbound in 2008 will not be on the ticket. Websites like Kos are there for a reason—to build support for a political party whose various interests make up a livelihood for activists at the top of the heap.
It works the same way on the right.
While Seidule’s general point about slavery and the war is nothing new and is valid, his lack of context, omission of sources for certain claims, and neglect to paint a broad backdrop of general turmoil throughout the young Republic is lamentable. His article is not peer reviewed, and no sources are cited, so I assume it is opinion. If so, it should be labeled as such.
Since the beginning of the human race, man has preyed upon his own for gain. The predatory practices span race, creed, skin color, and language.
What has enabled our country to succeed where others failed is the rule of law resting upon founding documents that limit the government’s role in a number of ways. That we have permitted the federal government to so egregiously exceed its rightful bounds should give us all pause, because it was at the hand of government that a people were disenfranchised and ordinary men became caught up in a war many on both sides did not want to wage but were, by the might of governments in both North and South, forced to.
In order to, as President Barack Obama says, move “forward,” we will accomplish little by obsessing over the past. When I see a Confederate flag, as a Southerner, I believe it belongs in a museum. I was never taught, however, that the flag stood for slavery. I was taught that it was a part of the history of the South, of a time long ago, a time of great hardship for all involved. The South paid dearly for choices made by people in power. The fact Kos and others on the left cannot put the past behind us says nothing about right versus wrong, but instead comprises a political agenda.
(Commentary by Kay B. Day/Aug. 13, 2015)
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