On this day, April 9, 1865, the Union General and future President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant accepted the surrender of the traitor rebel Robert E. Lee ending four years of the bloodiest war the United States has ever seen.
As a history professor, I generally teach that the Union won the war against the slaveryite rebels. Generally, that is what a surrender means and generally that’s all undergrad students need to know to succeed in a course.
Adam Gopnik’s “How the South Won the Civil War” is well written, far reaching article.[i] It should be equally of interest to the professional historian and to the casual reader. It should make one think if one reads it carefully.
Gopnik is a well-known, award winning essayist and staff-writer for the New Yorker. While, as far as I can tell, he’s not a trained historian, I’m not so hide-bound as to believe that only historians can have opinions on history, especially when those non-historians use trained historians to inform their opinions (As opposed to non-historians writing “history” books with the help of non-historians and getting caught out by real historians).
The idea that Lincoln’s policy of not recognizing the Confederacy as a separate nation led to the former rebellious states being able to simply avoid Reconstruction by claiming they’d never left (secession being both illegal and invalid) shows a nuance that is seldom seen outside the Ivory Towers of academia. It is also a very, very valid point, one given legal weight when the Supreme Court in Texas v. White, (1869) decreed that the United States was an “indestructible union” and the acts of the secessionists were “absolutely null.” Funny how something considered so critical for the war effort turned out to be so detrimental to reforming the South into something resembling what the United States should be.
The early black codes, i.e. vagrancy laws – were particularly nefarious, but the 13th Amendment itself provided a massive tool for the unreconstructed to return former slaves to what was essentially a new kind of slavery (or serfdom is you want). All leading to the Great Betrayal, the standing down of federal troops in the former rebel states, and the establishment of a Southern Apartheid.
If you want an example of why we should remove Confederate Monuments from places of honor, the White League Monument (Battle of Liberty Place Monument) is a perfect example. This monument, removed in 2017 by the City of New Orleans, stood for over 100 years glorifying white supremacy. Police had to protect the workers who removed it.
No, I’m not just being bombastic when I say it was a monument to white supremacy, its inscription read:
“United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election of November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.”
I’m not sure how you could make it any clearer unless you mounted a robed Klansman at the pinnacle.
That inscription evolved over time, but those evolutions, well-intended though they were, (though one was basically – yeah, grandfolks thought this way, but we didn’t mean it) never change the original purpose of such monuments. They were designed not to teach history as their supporters so often cry, as the history they presented was (is?) hyper-biased against the truth and invariably designed to promote white supremacy and to put the black populace on notice that the Old South had returned and they’d best not get uppity. None of these monuments belong in places of honor. You want to view them? You’re concerned about history? Go to a museum or take a class. The vast majority of people whinging about history being destroyed believe a history that was tainted with lies to begin with.
Gopnik’s discussion on how post-bellum white liberal abolitionists allowed dogma to destroy purpose is both revealing and topical. The Grant administration, while corrupt, was still the only force that could readily stymie efforts by southern conservatives to return to their ante-bellum ways. These half-hearted abolitionists were faint-hearted, weak-willed puritans who carry much of the blame for putting the South on the road to what was effectively racial fascism. Sadly, this is reminiscent to those puritans in the Democratic Party today who are willing to destroy the party and throw an election simply because the nominated candidate isn’t perfect in their jaundiced little eyes. We saw this in 2016, we’re seeing it again already for 2020.
That’s not to give Grant a pass, his administration was scandal ridden. These scandals are well worth discussion and criticism. But ask yourself, which is worse, a little short-term graft or the continuation of Southern racism for another 154+ years? You can’t say both. You have to pick one. Because you’re going to get one or the other. Simplistic, I know, but I’m not going to debate it here. Consider it in your own time.
Gopnik argues that the war left everyone weary of war. Were we? I would argue that we were in only a very narrow scope.
Certainly, the United States was tired of the fight on our soil, there’s plenty of evidence to support that argument. The Civil War had become politically dangerous, financially difficult, and exceedingly unpopular. Even in the end, the war continued to take treasure, resources, and an astonishing number of lives. Ending it was of critical importance.
If we were weary, why did that weariness not prevent the United States from continuing the Apache Wars until 1901? The Yavapai Wars (1861-1875), The Colorado War (1863-1865), The Snake War (1864-1868), The Powder River War (1865), Red Cloud’s War (1866-1868), The Formosa Expedition (1867), The Comanche Campaign (1867-1875), A Korean expedition, Modoc War, Red River War, Las Cuevas War… it’s a long list.
Starting with the Civil War (1861-1865) and ending with America’s second declared war, the Spanish-American War (1898), the United States engaged in 25 wars and military expeditions, some of greater extent than others. None coming close the size and scope of the Civil War. Maybe we were just tired of big wars? Maybe we were just tired of wars between white men, some of whom were brothers, and fathers, and uncles. Lincoln himself had relatives in the Confederate Army.
Perhaps, the wars with the Indian nations were simply another form of racism tied to our grand vision of Manifest Destiny and all of it was a continuation of an imperialist national policy that extends to this day.
We are an odd form of isolationist…
As an educator (gods help you all), I think his discussion of the “New Negro” opens up entire avenues on what it takes to make one free. His “…emancipated, educated, fully literary black bourgeoisie…” presents a completely different image than the one that the southern bigot of today would have you believe, the under, or un-educated black youth thug running wild in the streets pillaging and raping (or do we leave the raping to undocumented immigrants these days? I have trouble keeping track). The key to that emancipated black bourgeoisie, in my not-so-humble opinion is in the remaining words of his sentence; “…educated, fully literate…” In this regard, the United States has failed…or, depending on your point of view, succeeded.
According to Concordia University – Portland, 30 million American adults cannot read. Just 17% of black students tested proficient at 12th grade reading levels! Latino students scored in the 25 percentile, and white students at 46% – better for the white students, but hardly good![ii] In 2017, 8th grade students, on average, were well below the proficient levels of reading needed to gain an education.[iii]
While I personally believe the dumbing down of America has been by design, engineered to create a more pliable servant…I can prove it no more than I can prove the existence of Big Foot, Extraterrestrials, or the compassionate conservative. The evidence is simply too…skitchy. At best, the photos are blurry (so to speak). Even so, every good person in this country should be concerned about this!
While I’m aware of Du Bois’s Marxist leanings, I cannot in any depth discuss whether Gopnik’s positions on them are any better or worse than any other. I do however think that the agronomist South was less interested in economy than they were in simply punishing their former slaves and their descendants. If they were Marxist, then it was incidentally so (again, my opinion based on limited information – but I know of no Post-Bellum equivalent to the Comintern in the United States related to white/black relations in the south – teach me if I’m wrong). Just as our contemporary “white working class” people hate Obamacare owing to their own bigotries, the southern land-owner’s interest does not seem so much in exploiting their black workers, as in punishing their black workers.
That’s a fine distinction, and one begets the other, I know, but it is a matter of attitude and intent – to use a Game of Thrones analogy, Ramsay Bolton didn’t give a damned about any information he was getting from Theon Greyjoy while he had him on the rack, he was simply enjoying torturing the poor idiot. Nothing Theon offered Ramsay would have satisfied him more than Theon’s agony and subsequent psychological annihilation – the same is true of Southern Land Owners.[iv] Unfortunately for those land owners, real people are collectively much stronger than a fictional character written to fail. Individuals suffer and die; the group survives through strength and unity.
As Gopnik argues, to the Southerners, every advantage the black man received, took one from the white man. Those white southerners were willing to tolerate a lot of pain to prevent the “New Negro” from succeeding – at anything. The extent they went in pursuit of this goal reads like no fiction, no matter how horrendous, that has ever been written.
Gopnik’s quote from black Senator Hiram Rhodes Revels in a letter to President Grant is worth repeating here;
“…since Reconstruction, the masses of my people have been, as it were, enslaved in mind by unprincipled adventurers, who, caring nothing for country, were willing to stoop to anything, no matter how infamous, to secure power to themselves, and perpetuate it. . . . The bitterness and hate created by the late civil strife has, in my opinion, been obliterated in this state, except perhaps in some localities, and would have long since been entirely obliterated, were it not for some unprincipled men who would keep alive the bitterness of the past, and inculcate a hatred between the races, in order that they may aggrandize themselves by office.”
Ah, the more things change…
Even so, Gopnik does make the point that compared to the course of human history, America’s former slaves did live in a place, that even with all its warts, that gave them hope for improving their condition once the South’s “Peculiar Institution” had been eliminated. Not being the fluffy-feely sort, I have to think that in one sense, he’s right. Hope does spring eternal (in the mind of a fool?) But in another sense, I have to wonder if many truly felt hope during the Nadir of Race Relations, the period between 1877-1920 (or 30, or 40…etc.) where in Blacks in America experienced massive, public, often official discrimination that was backed by violence and featured the lynching of some 3,500+ blacks, usually men, for anything and everything. A period in which Southern politicians such as Ben Tillman and Theodore Bilbo bragged openly about disenfranchising black citizens. I simply wonder, I cannot even fathom a guess.
Gopnik has strong views about the end results of the failure of reconstruction,and how it does appear after analysis that the South won that war in the end. I can see that point of view. Mine is slightly different. I don’t believe the Civil War has ever truly ended and it never shall until we rid this country, and eventually the world, of thinking that results in one person wanting to have illegitimate power over another (which leads to a while ‘nother discussion on legitimate power and what it is – but we’ll set that aside for now).
As to how historians affect our views on those events. How some historians study the tides and some study the fish. I generally do not disagree with him except to defend my profession in saying that history isn’t just the tides or the fish, it’s that whole damned ocean, and it’s a damned big ocean.
[i] Gopnik, Adam. “How the South Won the Civil War”, The New Yorker, 01 April, 2019. URL: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/04/08/how-the-south-won-the-civil-war Accessed: 04/06/2019
[ii] Staff, Crisis Point: The State of Literacy in America, 5 March 2018. C241. URL: https://education.cu-portland.edu/blog/education-news-roundup/illiteracy-in-america/ Accessed: 04/09/2019.
[iii] National Report Card. URL: https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/reading_2017/nation/scores?grade=8 Accessed: 04/09/2019.
[iv] If you’re not a GoT fan, Ramsay Bolton is the epitome of evil in a great show full of evil people. Check out this video to see what I’m talking about; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mux3sFQ46Ck Word of warning, it’s graphic.