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In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule. Friedrich Nietzsche

Historical Insanity

Some Myths about the American Civil War

The US Civil War is the pivotal event in American history. The Civil War transformed the United States from an agricultural society into an industrial nation.

In addition, the Civil War transformed the United States into a fully capitalist republic by expanding mass democracy to the South. The Union achieved that goal by smashing both slavery and the plutocracy that profited from it.

Surprisingly, many Americans know little about the Civil War because of its controversial nature. Americans still fight over efforts to remove statues of long-dead Confederate generals, for example.

Consequently, myths and half-truths about the Civil War have many believers. Here is an effort to dispel some of these erroneous beliefs.

1. The Civil War was about “State’s Rights” and not Slavery

Interestingly, this myth is partially true. For over a year (April 1861-September 1862) both sides avoided the contentious issue of slavery.

In particular, Union President Abraham Lincoln (R-Illinois) tried to avoid the slavery issue until publishing the Emancipation Proclamation on 22 September 1863. Until that date the war was about State’s Rights or rather Southern fears the north was about to violate State’s Rights.

However, the principal right the South was fighting for was the “right” to own slaves. Ironically, Lincoln acknowledged that right until announcing the Emancipation Proclamation. To elaborate, Lincoln released the Proclamation to the press on 22 September 1862. However, it did not take take effect until 1 January 1863.

To explain, the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in Confederate states. On the other hand, the Proclamation did not free slaves in border states that remained loyal to the Union. To explain, the Proclamation was a military measure to deprive the South of its primary labor source, black slaves.

Every black slave in the fields, or factories, freed a white man to fight for the Confederacy. In addition, the slaves grew the food the Confederate armies and their horses ate and produced some weapons and munitions Southern soldiers used. Slaves also grew cash crops; mainly Cotton, the Confederates could sell to raise money to buy weapons and supplies.

So officially, the Civil War began as a battle for States Rights. However, most people understood the actual issue in the war was slavery.

After 1 January 1863, most people understood the Civil War was about slavery and little else.  

2. Robert E. Lee was a Great General

American mythology teaches that the best known Confederate General Robert E. Lee was a great general and a military genius. The historical record, however, tells a different story.

Lee was an admirable figure. He was a good Christian and a family man, and a popular leader. Moreover, Lee probably saved many lives by surrendering his Army of Northern Virginia and ending the Civil War in 1865. Lee saved lives by not fighting to the bitter end or waging guerrilla warfare.

On the other hand, Lee’s battlefield performance does not reveal a record of spectacular success. In particular, Lee was responsible for two of the greatest disasters in American military history. The Confederate defeats at Antietam and Gettysburg.

At Antietam on 17 September 1862, the deadliest one-day battle in American military history, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia suffered 10,216 casualties and achieved none of its objectives. For example, Lee could not attack Washington DC, invade Pennsylvania, or cut Washington off from the Union.

Instead, the Union achieved its political objectives of an impressive victory before November 1862 Congressional elections and deterring European recognition of the Confederacy. Moreover, the victory at Antietam gave Lincoln the political cover he needed to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. The Emancipation Proclamation turned the war in the North’s favor, by deterring British recognition of the Confederacy and undermining slavery.

Gettysburg was an even greater catastrophe. Historians estimate the Confederates suffered 28,063 casualties and nearly lost the war in a week. Many historians mark Gettysburg as the end of the Confederacy’s quest to become an independent nation.

Both Gettysburg and Antietam resulted from Lee’s aggressive strategy of offense. The strategy was a bad one because it wasted the Confederacy’s limited resources and gave Union forces the advantage on the battlefield. However, Lee’s strategy was politically popular in the Confederacy where it had the blessing of President Jefferson Davis (D-Mississippi).

The Army of Northern Virginia lost on the offensive, because it lacked the numbers to wear down and destroy the Union Army of the Potomac. Lee, however, waged an aggressive war against the North although he lacked the forces for sustained attacks.

Gettysburg, in particular, was an all-or-nothing gamble. A Confederacy victory there could have led to a war-winning offensive in the North. Instead, a Confederate defeat left the Army of Virginia incapable of offensive action.

The ultimate criticism of Lee is that the Confederacy lost. Had Lee been the military genius of popular myth he would have won. The Confederacy had the forces to wage a successful defensive war, but Lee wasted them.

There were also other theaters where Confederate offensives could have succeeded against weaker Union forces. The West, in particular, was undefended. Confederates captured both New Mexico and Arizona but lacked the forces to hold those territories. Those forces were unavailable because they being wasted in Northern Virginia.

Similarly, the Confederate forces slaughtered at Gettysburg could have relieved the garrison at Vicksburg and kept control of the Mississippi. The sorry truth is that Lee squandered thousands of lives chasing glorious victories while failing to take sensible actions that could have won the war.

In the final analysis, Lee was a capable field commander but a poor strategist and definitely not a genius. In particular, Lee failed to grasp changes in warfare such as better artillery and rifles that made his Napoleonic tactics useless.

Moreover, Lee failed to conceptualize the “Big Picture” of the Civil War. The Big Picture was that all the Confederates had to do to win was deny victory to the Union. The South had the resources to achieve that goal until Lee squandered them.

3. Ulysses S. Grant was a terrible general

Popular mythology has been kind to Lee and cruel to Union general and future President Ulysses S. Grant (R-Illinois). Popular culture has glorified Lee as a dashing genius and mocked Grant as a drunk and a corrupt fool.

Grant became the most successful field commander in American history in the Civil War. His victories include Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, the Wilderness, and Petersburg.

Strategically, Vicksburg was the most important battle of the Civil War. By capturing the river port and railroad center, Grant took control of the Mississippi, and cut the Confederacy off from the West and potential help from French armies in Mexico.

In 1864 and 1865, Grant’s relentless offensive in Virginia destroyed the Army of Northern Virginia, and ended the Confederacy. By maintaining constant pressure on the Army of Northern Virginia, Grant neutralized Lee and bled the Confederacy.

In the 19th Century, Americans lauded Grant as their nation’s greatest general and hero. Americans elected Grant president twice, turned the general’s memoirs into one of the first bestsellers, and buried their hero in a magnificent tomb in Manhattan.

In the 20th Century, Grant’s reputation suffered for several reasons. First, Grant did not cut the dashing figure that the aristocratic Lee did. In contrast to the church-going Lee, Grant was a short, cigar-chomping, former store clerk with a weakness for whiskey.

Second, after the Civil War, Grant championed the Constitutional Rights of African Americans and Reconstruction. That earned Grant the hostility of many white intellectuals. Southerners, in particular, had two reasons to hate Grant; he was anti-racist and the shopkeeper had humiliated their icon Lee.

In recent years, Grant’s reputation has risen somewhat. However, the myth of Grant the incompetent drunk persists.

4. The Emancipation Proclamation ended Slavery

Like the States’ Rights thesis, this popular myth is partially true. The Emancipation Proclamation did free millions of slaves in the Confederate States.

However, the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery. Slavery remained constitutional in the United States until the ratification of the 13th Amendment on 6 December 1865. In fact, thousands of slaves in border states remained in bondage until December 1865.

5. Confederate troops were better behaved and more humane than Union forces

This myth partially comes from the Lost Cause mythology that glorifies Confederates as 19th Century Knights of the Round Table. The myth also roots in where they fought the Civil War.

They fought most of the Civil War on Southern soil. Hence, most of the civilian suffering was among Confederate civilians. Confederate soldiers were better behaved because they were fighting on their home soil. Most of their civilian interactions were among their own people.

In contrast, Union forces were fighting in enemy territory and interacting with civilians who were usually hostile. To win the war, Union forces had to destroy the Confederacy’s economic resources. That meant plundering and destroying farms and burning cities. Confederate forces would have done the same had they successfully invaded the North.

Moreover, when the normal wartime crimes such as rape, shooting of civilians, and robbery occurred, the victims were usually Southerners. Southern troops behaved themselves because they were fighting on home soil, not out of a sense of chivalry. Union troops, on the other hand, were punishing Rebs when they terrorized or robbed civilians.

However, there are some glaring examples of Confederate brutality in the Civil War.

At the Fort Pillow Massacre in Tennessee on 12 April 1864, Confederate cavalry killed around 300 black Union soldiers after they had surrendered. They killed the prisoners because they were black.

Notably, the Confederate commander at Fort Pillow was the slave trader turned cavalry genius General Nathan Bedford Forrest. After the war, Forest emerged as the first known leader of Ku Klux Klan.

Conditions in the Confederate Camp Sumter prisoner of war camp at Andersonville, Georgia were so bad that 13,000 men died. Andersonville lacked sufficient food, clothing, and medical care. After the Civil War, a Union Army tribunal convicted Andersonville’s commander Captain Henry Wirz of war crimes. Wirz became the only American hanged for war crimes during the Civil War.

To be fair, by the time they established Camp Sumter in 1864, the South was losing the war and facing serious food shortages. In addition, prisoners overcrowded Camp Sumter because Grant, the Union’s Chief general, had ended prisoner of war exchanges. Ironically, Grant ended the exchanges because of the Fort Pillow Massacre.

In contrast, another Confederate POW camp, Castle Morgan at Cahaba, Alabama, had a reputation for humane treatment of Union prisoners. Cahaba Prison’s reputation for excellent treatment of prisoners came partially from one of its commanders Captain Howard A.M. Henderson, a Methodist minister in civilian life. Henderson earned praise by treating Union POWs humanely.

Thus, the Confederate Army’s reputation is for chivalry is overblown. There is no evidence that Confederates’ behavior was any better or any worse than that of Union troops.

The Civil War, like most wars, breeds many myths. Some of those myths endure to this day.