A book “Civil War” enthusiasts should all read from 1866

I saw a post awhile back discussing Jefferson Davis, President of the CSA, and it mentioned a book written by Albert Taylor Bledsoe and published in 1866. Bledsoe was a priest and a professor who attended West Point and fought in the War of Southern Succession for the Confederacy. He wrote in defense of the South following the war, and since he was supporting the losing side he is criticized for attempting to justify the South where supposedly there is no justification and rewrite the causes of the war. However, I would question why people are so quick to dismiss something written in 1866, only one year following the end of the war, as being without merit while they apparently find merit in more recent books attempting to justify condemning the South. Whatever side of the argument you fall on, is it not worth reading to see what his arguments were?

Luckily, there is a scanned copy of the book available online for free! It’s in the Making of America digital library from the University of Michigan (go Blue) and can be found here:

http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/moa/aew5150.0001.001?view=toc

Not sure if it’s worth your time? I’ll include Bledsoe’s preface here for you to decide for yourself if you find it interesting:

“It is not the design of this book to open the subject of secession. The subjugation of the Southern States, and their acceptance of the terms dictated by the North, may, if the reader please, be considered as having shifted the Federal Government from the basis of compact to that of conquest; and thereby extinguished every claim to the right of secession for the future. Not one word in the following pages will at least be found to clash with that supposition or opinion. The sole object of this work is to discuss the right of secession with reference to the past; in order to vindicate the character of the South for loyalty, and to wipe off the charges of treason and rebellion from the names and memories of Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, Albert Sydney Johnston, Robert E. Lee, and of all who have fought or suffered in the great war of coercion. Admitting, then, that the right of secession no longer exists; the present work aims to show, that, however those illustrious heroes may have been aspersed by the ignorance, the prejudices, and the passions of the hour, they were, nevertheless, perfectly loyal to truth, justice, and the Constitution of 1787 as it came from the hands of the fathers.

The radicals themselves may, if they will only read the following pages, find sufficient reason to doubt their own infallibility, and to relent in their bitter persecutions of the South.

The calm and impartial reader will, it is believed, discover therein the grounds on which the South may be vindicated, and the final verdict of History determined in favor of a gallant, but down-trodden and oppressed, PEOPLE.”

William T. Thompson did NOT design the Confederate Flag.

There is a rumor, to put it nicely, going around right now that the designer of the second flag of the Confederacy was a man named William T. Thompson. Thompson was clearly a racist and wrote of fighting to “maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race.” Yuck.

This seems to have originated on the Twitter account of Jonathan Wilson, who apparently holds a PhD in US History from Syracuse University. I would have expected someone with a PhD in history to actually pay attention to the context surrounding one smaller excerpt, but apparently reading comprehension isn’t as fun. Now all of these different websites, mainly news sources, have copied the information and treated it like gospel. Then of course there are all the memes floating around featuring the same information. Which would be all well and good if it were completely accurate, but as usual it is a grain of truth with more omitted.

Mr. Wilson lists this as his source, a book entitled History of the Flag of the United States of America which was published in 1880 and available as a free ebook on Google Books. In it is excerpts from editorials written in the Savannah News by Thompson, including the above terrible quote. [1] However, if you read it you also find that Thompson was not a part of the committee which designed the flags and seal, the House, or the Senate. He was not even in the same city as those making these decisions, and had to receive news of the approved flags via dispatch. While we are told by this book that they approved a flag like what Thompson wrote of and had been submitted a design by him, it is clear they were considering a great number of design options and trying different options with modifying them.

The flag approved by the Senate was not in actuality what he had suggested, but rather a field of white with a blue stripe which makes sense since the Confederacy drew inspiration for their flag from the Scottish flag, the St. Andrew’s Cross, which is blue and white, and they were trying to move away from the appearance of the United States flag. The House decided they didn’t like the appearance of the blue stripe so removed it, and the flag as it was made was of different dimensions than what Thompson had talked about due to inconsistencies with the revisions between the Senate and House. Revisions that were done without Thompson being anywhere around.

George Preble, author of the above book, also wrote one entitled Our Flag: Origin and Progress of the Flag of the United States of America which had been published earlier. This book gives similar information, but more regarding the timeline of the flag’s approval. Thompson’s editorial with the very racist comments was published after the Senate had already approved the flag with the blue stripe, so Thompson’s design had to have been either nearly identical to designs that were already being looked at or it was his design but he revealed his own thoughts on the symbolism after the fact. There were two propositions for changes, either removing the blue stripe entirely or instead of a blue stripe making it a “broad blue border.”

On May 20th, 1863, a correspondent wrote to Thompson at the Savannah News, saying “Mr. Editor, you are one of the admirers of the new flag” and proceeding to inform him of the difference in dimensions which had been “established by law.” This being information also listed in the same books, only a couple pages past the excerpts Wilson chose to quote. I don’t know about you, but typically I don’t refer to the “designer” of something as an “admirer” of it. This quote tells me that there were people in the Confederacy, if not the majority of the Confederacy, that never would have considered Thompson the “designer” of the second national flag despite his having submitted a design and commented on the process.

Additionally, all of this regarding the second national flag occurred after the Confederate battle flag, the flag currently being debated in the media, was already designed and in use. THAT FLAG most certainly had nothing to do with Thompson whatsoever.

So then, what? Are we supposed to be shocked there were racists in 1863? This should surprise no one. There were racists everywhere! Thompson himself wasn’t even from the south originally, but was born and raised in Ravenna, Ohio.[2] However, to take a newspaper editor’s opinions and say they represent what the Confederate House and Senate had in mind for the symbolism in their approval is quite a leap, and for this to continue spreading is an example of horrible journalism.

It’s similar to how the South Carolina’s declaration of causes for secession cited hostility regarding slavery being of importance, Virginia chose to merely point out they had a right to secede and planned to do so, Texas cited the Federal government’s failure to offer any protection of Texan lives against Native American tribes or Mexican bandits, and Georgia mentioned slavery but also went in depth regarding how the Federal government was deliberately subsidizing industry of only the middle and northern states while allowing the south to pay taxes for it:

“The material prosperity of the North was greatly dependent on the Federal Government; that of the South not at all. In the first years of the Republic the navigating, commercial, and manufacturing interests of the North began to seek profit and aggrandizement at the expense of the agricultural interests. Even the owners of fishing smacks sought and obtained bounties for pursuing their own business (which yet continue), and $500,000 is now paid them annually out of the Treasury. The navigating interests begged for protection against foreign shipbuilders and against competition in the coasting trade.

Congress granted both requests, and by prohibitory acts gave an absolute monopoly of this business to each of their interests, which they enjoy without diminution to this day. Not content with these great and unjust advantages, they have sought to throw the legitimate burden of their business as much as possible upon the public; they have succeeded in throwing the cost of light-houses, buoys, and the maintenance of their seamen upon the Treasury, and the Government now pays above $2,000,000 annually for the support of these objects. Theses interests, in connection with the commercial and manufacturing classes, have also succeeded, by means of subventions to mail steamers and the reduction in postage, in relieving their business from the payment of about $7,000,000 annually, throwing it upon the public Treasury under the name of postal deficiency.

The manufacturing interests entered into the same struggle early, and has clamored steadily for Government bounties and special favors. This interest was confined mainly to the Eastern and Middle non-slave-holding States. Wielding these great States it held great power and influence, and its demands were in full proportion to its power. The manufacturers and miners wisely based their demands upon special facts and reasons rather than upon general principles, and thereby mollified much of the opposition of the opposing interest. They pleaded in their favor the infancy of their business in this country, the scarcity of labor and capital, the hostile legislation of other countries toward them, the great necessity of their fabrics in the time of war, and the necessity of high duties to pay the debt incurred in our war for independence. These reasons prevailed, and they received for many years enormous bounties by the general acquiescence of the whole country.

But when these reasons ceased they were no less clamorous for Government protection, but their clamors were less heeded– the country had put the principle of protection upon trial and condemned it. After having enjoyed protection to the extent of from 15 to 200 per cent. upon their entire business for above thirty years, the act of 1846 was passed. It avoided sudden change, but the principle was settled, and free trade, low duties, and economy in public expenditures was the verdict of the American people. The South and the Northwestern States sustained this policy. There was but small hope of its reversal; upon the direct issue, none at all.” [3]

The opponents of the Confederacy and of the Confederate flag seek to make this a far simpler and clearer cut period of history than it actually was. They depend on the Union having a moral superiority so that they can point fingers and condemn those who wish to remember their Southern heritage. It is not that simple though, and never has been.


[1] In the referenced books the newspaper was referred to as the “Savannah News,” but other sources refer to Thompson’s paper as the “Daily Morning News” or the “Savannah Morning News.” These all refer to the same publication.

[2] http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/arts-culture/william-tappan-thompson-1812-1882

[3] http://www.civilwar.org/education/history/primarysources/declarationofcauses.html

On Slavery

Note: This post was written following the Charleston shooting.


 

When I was young, I loved reading history books about the early United States from the time of the colonies to what we call the American Civil War. It was not that my family was interested in it, or that friends were, but rather that I just picked up different books and that’s what I happened to get hooked on. As I’ve gotten older my interest hasn’t waned so much as expanded, and now what time and energy I have is typically invested in other things.

However, with the recent terrorist attack in Charleston, South Carolina – and make no mistake, I do consider it an act of domestic terrorism – there are a number of thoughts that have been weighing on me heavily. There seem to be so many “sides,” and frankly the talking points of all of them are enough to make me nearly lose my temper. Some want to remember history, some want to forget it and move on. I think there are a number of things that needs to be acknowledged by people of all sides, and until that occurs all attempts to move forward as a society will be handicapped.

First of all, there is no justification for slavery. We can all go back and forth about whether or not the slaves were treated well, that some slaves voiced the wish to not leave their masters, or about how the majority of the slaves were in the South. We could even go on about whites who were indentured slaves in the colonies or about Europeans that were each other’s slaves for centuries. We should treat each other well no matter what, but treating a slave well did not make them any less a slave. Likewise, the lack of many slaves in the North does not change the fact that they continued to profit from the slave trade in very real ways. In Rhode Island, there were no slaves by the mid 1800s. However, they were responsible for half of all U.S. slave voyages.[1]  Abolitionists were not the majority in the North, and frequently those who supported the abolition of slavery in their state were less worried about the freedom of blacks and more concerned about not wanting any blacks around them whatsoever. It has been documented many times, including in the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville, that while more in the South owned slaves, racist attitudes were more widespread in the North. There is even the discussion of free blacks and Cherokee owning slaves. Tell me, does the color of your master’s skin, or the color of your own, make you any more or less a slave?

As an additional example, there were cases of slave owners raping slaves. Nobody in their right mind will deny that happened. Problem is, during Sherman’s campaign known as Sherman’s March to the Sea, he knew his Union soldiers were raping and murdering slaves that refused to join the Union army and he made no attempt to stop it. Even before the war, black women were raped on either side of the Mason-Dixon line:

“That’s the other thing: both the North and the South rarely thought it was rape when it was a black woman. It wasn’t until the Civil War when black women were actually able to come forward and call it rape. Before that time, even in the North, they would make it a lesser charge [for black women], if at all. I do have at least one record where a black woman was able to testify about a sexual assault in New York or someplace like that, but that was very rare. For the most part, black women’s voices went unheard.”[2]

Even later on in the war, once the North as a whole actually developed an interest in abolition, it was a tool of war rather than a sudden development of conscience. There were even early discussions of ways to keep northern whites from having to live near the newly freed blacks, to the point of considering deporting all freed blacks to Haiti.

There is no moral high ground here. None. Not on either side. There were people who were good, and people who were bad, and people who were good part of the time and bad at other times.

I would like, at some point, to get further into the causes of the war once getting this much out of the way, but I find I don’t have the mental energy for it right now.

To say that the Confederate battle flag (it was not, in fact, the national flag of the Confederacy) originally stood for racism is absurd because racism was prevalent on both sides. It was later appropriated for that meaning by people who wished to further their racist ideologies and made assumptions about the war so that it would fit in with those ideologies. If the flag bothers someone because it reminds them of this nation’s history of slavery, I understand where the thought comes from. If the flag is important to someone (including me) because of certain other aspects of our past, I understand that too.

To the assholes like Dylann Roof who latched onto the Confederate battle flag like it somehow justifies committing murder on people who never wronged you, there isn’t a level of hell good enough to punish you for your remorseless actions and you can stop hiding behind symbols you think you know the meaning of.

 

[1] Northern involvement in the slave trade. (n.d.). Traces of the Trade. Retrieved from http://www.tracesofthetrade.org/…/northern-involvement-in-…/

[2] Beck, J. (2014, February 20). Gender, race, and rape during the Civil War. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/…/gender-race-and-rape-d…/283754/