Those of us who object to the Nationalist school of American historical interpretation—which glorifies the growth of centralized government power as the driving engine of human progress— have been ill-served, particularly in the fields of antebellum and Civil War literature, by pseudo-scholars and amateur historians whose second-rate work does not do justice to the Cause that was lost at Appomattox in 1865. Too often, such writers take quotations out of context, make outlandish statements, or selectively use evidence, thereby undermining their own (often valid) arguments and turning their efforts into one-sided polemics that are easily discounted. Worse, in their eagerness to defend the South, these authors sometimes downplay the evils of slavery as practiced in the South and make excuses for Southern slave-owning. The regrettable outcome is that the Nationalist interpretation has stood nearly unopposed at the heart of the story of America for the last 150 years and has also become, for Americans of all political stripes, the patriotic interpretation of their past.
In every section of the country today, even in many parts of the South, American students are told by their teachers and textbooks that Abraham Lincoln waged a war against Southern “traitors” in a noble effort to preserve the Union and end slavery. In this narrative, Lincoln’s victory of arms saved the American experiment in liberty and indeed expanded the very notion of freedom, a process that supposedly continues to this day, as more and more oppressed groups—women, the poor, immigrants, homosexuals—are liberated. This reading of history is presented not as opinion or interpretation but as fact, and those who question this catechism and express sympathy for the Southern point of view are uniformly dismissed as “Neo-Confederates,” which, not coincidentally, has more than a whiff of the term “Neo-Nazi.” Those of us who see Lincoln’s War as an unjust war of conquest whose (intended) outcome was modern leviathan government in America and the concomitant loss of individual liberties are dismissed as fanatics, even by our politically conservative allies, who should know better.
If Tocqueville was right about the tyranny of opinion in the United States, it is certainly in the area of Civil War interpretation. A native Marylander who adored Lincoln as a teenager, I only began to see the untruth of the Nationalist school much later in life, after living in the Deep South for seven years and after studying with two of the greatest historians I have ever known (who are mentioned below). It is not an easy thing for a patriot to examine critically one’s dearest beliefs about one’s country and its history, and it is even harder to accept inconvenient, shattering truths when one finally sees them—to find that one’s civic religion is a sham, one’s gods really villains. The following is a selected, annotated bibliography of six works that I would recommend as a starting point to any honest American who does not fear such an examination.
North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860, by Leon F. Litwack
A classic work published in 1961, Litwack explodes the myth that the “free” black existed in the antebellum North. Instead, northerners enshrined in state law the second-class citizen status of blacks and enacted nuisance laws in the hope that those of this “inferior” race would simply go somewhere else. In the front of his book, Litwack quotes the Scottish poet and journalist, Charles Mackay, who toured the United States on the eve of the Civil War: “’We shall not make the black man a slave . . . but we shall not associate with him . . . . We are of another race, and he is inferior. Let him know his place—and keep it.’ This is the prevalent feeling, if not the language of the free North.”
Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery, by Anne Farrow, Joel Lang, and Jenifer Frank
All Northerners should read this book, written by three Yankee journalists who stumbled upon the truth about American slavery—that it was a national, not a sectional, sin—by looking at the dark corners of the history of their own newspaper, The Hartford Courant. Unburdened and uninfluenced by the historiographical debate, and having no dog in this fight, these intrepid journalists tell it like it was: the North’s antebellum wealth was built largely on the back of African slaves; New Englanders were the most prolific slave traders; abolitionists were a hated and persecuted minority in the North; one of the foremost “race scientists” who justified the treatment of blacks based on their supposed inferiority was a Philadelphian; Northern slave pirates captured free blacks in the North and shipped them South into slavery through “the other underground railroad.” The title says it all.
“Why Yankees Won’t (and Can’t) Leave Us Alone,” in Southern Partisan, by Forrest McDonald
(Full disclosure: McDonald directed my dissertation.) McDonald argues that Yankee do-goodism—manifested in such movements as temperance and abolitionism—directly descended from the Puritans’ brand of millennialism in which history “represented a progression of human triumphs over evil.” By the mid-nineteenth century, the Yankee came to see the entire South, tainted as it was by slavery, as a land of evil that needed purifying, by violence if necessary. Though duly accomplished through the Civil War, the Yankee today continues to harass and disparage the South, a result, according to McDonald of self-loathing and inner conflict: “Somewhere, deep in the innermost recesses of their atrophied souls, Yankees know that they have truly botched things, and truly are plagued by guilt. That, I think, is the bottom line: the Yankee hates himself, and he hates his heritage.”
North Against South: The American Illiad 1848-1877, by Ludwell H. Johnson
(Full disclosure: Johnson was my undergraduate advisor at William & Mary.) Johnson explicitly and unabashedly sets forth an “alternative” interpretation of the “War of Secession” that defends the South: “my section and my people.” The result is the furthest thing, however, from a one-sided screed; rather, Johnson’s conclusions are based on decades of thorough research and careful thought and are often surprisingly even-handed, given Johnson’s reputation as a “Neo-Confederate” historian. Of secession, Johnson contends that the deep South chose to leave the Union not primarily to protect slavery or out of base economic motivations but rather from an established Anglo-Americans political tradition, “an abiding passion to be free from outside control and interference.” Lincoln is not caricatured, a la Thomas DiLorenzo, as a comic book villain, but is instead described by Johnson as “an intensely ambitious man who thought, acted, and moralized almost entirely within the confines of a political universe.” Johnson argues that Lincoln’s prosecution of the war had as its object not only the defeat of the Confederacy but also the hegemony of the Republican Party and the securing of Lincoln himself as the head of that party.
Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War, by Jeffrey Rogers Hummel
A libertarian, Hummel argues that the North’s victory in the Civil War inaugurated the era of big government and is thus responsible for the steady erosion of individual liberty that America has experienced since 1865. Hummel’s thesis is unique in that he sides partly with the “Neo-Confederate” school while accepting some elements of the Nationalist interpretation in his judgments about the war. Thus Hummel argues that the South seceded in order to protect slavery, but he also contends that the North’s decision to commence war was unjust since the elimination of slavery was not a war aim of Lincoln but an unintended consequence of the conflict. In Hummel’s view, the war could only have been morally justifiable had the termination of slavery been the North’s expressed goal and had there been no other alternative way to end the practice. “As an excuse for civil war,” Hummel contends, “maintaining the State’s territorial integrity is bankrupt and reprehensible.”
War Crimes Against Southern Civilians, by Walter Brian Cisco
Americans like to associate with their civil war homespun images of Johnny Reb and Billy Yank trading tobacco and coffee between the lines during informal truces, and the noble, aristocratic Robert E. Lee surrendering his army to the humble, plain-spoken Ulysses S. Grant. What we don’t want to dwell on are the many atrocities committed by Northern armies as they invaded the South, particularly late in the war during Sherman’s March. These included the burning of homes and farms, the rape of women, and the killing of men. Southern blacks, as Cisco demonstrates, were not spared the wrath of the “liberating” Yankee hordes either. The horrors chronicled by victimized Southerners are confirmed in Cisco’s book by the reports of some of the Yankee invaders themselves. Though every army contains its thugs, what indicts the North is that commanders like William T. Sherman sanctioned these war crimes, and the supposedly lenient Abraham Lincoln himself willingly turned a blind eye toward their commission.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.