Civil War Mythbusters: Grappling with the Lost Cause

Last fall, CWI Fellow (and now Gettysburg College graduate) Megan McNish ’16 shared this reflection on the experience of commemorating the Civil War in spite of having no family members who were in America during the conflict. A few hours later, we received a notification that someone had responded to the post. 

We receive many comments on the Gettysburg Compiler, and not infrequently do they come from adherents of the Lost Cause mythology. Few comments, however, have been as detailed and historically problematic as the one Megan’s post received. We invited the Fellows (past and present) to respond with their own comments to different parts of the argument, and now we are publishing their compiled responses along with the original comment. 

The text in the gray boxes below was originally published by the commenter as one long paragraph. We have divided it into sections (though maintained the original order) so that the Fellows’ responses could be inserted immediately after the sections to which they refer. We have also changed visible URLs into hyperlinks for the sake of aesthetic appeal. Apart from these tweaks, no edits have been made to the content, grammar, style, or spelling for either the Fellows or the original commenter. Not every possible critique of the comment is included below as each student was asked to hone in on one or two parts that they thought would most benefit from further discussion and context. 

Feel free to share your own impressions and reactions in the comment section. 

The comment begins:

I commend your passion on this subject and it is truly an honor to read about a youth that studies history. I would however like to set the record straight about the Civil War and the real reasons it was fought. This War just like many others throughout history were fought over greed. The South did not betray their fellow countrymen but rather the North oppressed the Southern states with unfair taxation and think about that for a moment UNFAIR TAXATION. Does that ring a bell think the Boston Tea Party.

Ryan Nadeau ’16:  What makes a tax unfair? Certainly, the case can be made for taxation without representation, as it was during the Revolution. By our standards of representative democracy, that’s just fine. However, prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, the South had plenty of representation. In the Thirty-sixth Congress, which sat from 1859 to the opening days of 1861, the states of the Confederacy held twenty-four of the sixty-six seats in the Senate (two for each state) and sixty-six of two-hundred and thirty-eight seats in the House of Representatives. Admittedly, this number for the House seems unusually low– and it was. Had the South abolished slavery, they would have received significant increases to their political representation. The Three-Fifth’s Compromise, as outlined in the Constitution, recognized only three out of every five slaves towards the population of a state when accounting for representation.

I begin to digress, however. As the numbers themselves show, the South did have political representation in Congress which would have allowed them a voice in the tax-making process—already a step removed from their Revolutionary ancestors. The fact that their representation was smaller than it could have been represented a conscious choice on their part between higher congressional numbers and preserved slavery—where they chose the second. With that established, Congress does have the authority to pass taxes as they see fit. As outlined in Section Eight of the Constitution, “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States.” It is, after all, the prerogative of all sovereign governments to tax their citizens, a power which has been recognized through all of history. Taxes may be levied at uncomfortably high rates, but such is why the representative and democratic process exists: to repeal and critique bad policy. Paying taxes is not fun—I’d imagine we’d all like to keep our money. And yet, in seceding, the Confederate States effectively gave up on the lawful, Constitutional process which they themselves were participants in.

It all come down to Tyranny. Lincoln committed numerous crimes which there is too many to name here but it can be looked up under violations of constitutional laws Lincoln violated plus War Crimes and Treason committed by Him. Also, Grant, Sherman and many other Union officers and troops committed War Crimes. Crimes that were just as bad as Hitler and Nazi Party.

Jules Sippel ’18:  In reference to another comparison you made, the juxtaposition of Lincoln and the Republicans with Hitler and the Nazis is equally flawed. If in nothing else, the numbers point to a very different image: taking these as the oppressors and the South and Jews as the respective oppressed, the estimated 95,000 Confederate combat casualties [deaths] are equivalent to just the deaths at Sachsenhausen, a single concentration camp, alone.

Annika Jensen ’18:  Mr. [commenter’s name], are you familiar with the massacre at Babi Yar or Dr. Josef Mengele? I feel they may impact your decision to compare Lincoln and his officers to Hitler. I also recommend “Night” by Elie Weisel. Thanks for your comments!

South Carolina gave Union troops more than ample time to leave South Carolina and they were going to escort them North, but the Commander at that time for Union forces moved to Fort Sumter instead. Lincoln was advised to gather his troops at Fort Sumter and Nov back North but instead Lincoln chose to send a supply ship with reinforcements whereby intensifying an already hostile action. Lincoln illegally inducted immigrants into his force through an illegal draft. No innocent civilians can be placed into a hostile force. He used slavery to fill his Army with European Immigrants. Giving the orders to launch an assault upon Americans is a Treasonous act punishable by death. War crimes committed by Lincoln, Grant and Sherman, Raping and murdering innocent Men, women and children, destroying livestock and crops, burning homes, farms, towns. Destroying railroads of a non-military nature. Slavery was not brought into the war unto Lincoln was losing a good two years into the conflict.

Savannah Rose ’17:  “In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.

Bombardment of Fort Sumter, 1861. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world”
-A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union
We will never agree about the causes of the Civil War. Unfair taxation, slavery, states rights. These are all reasons for the war, but some definitely stand above the rest. Within the majority of the secession documents produced by Confederate states, the word “slavery” can be found. Mississippi claims their reason for seceding as being their right to slavery, a claim that the majority of Confederate states make in their secession documents. Maybe unfair taxation played a role in the Civil War, but ultimately it played a very minor one. The issue of slavery was very prominent during that time, and did in fact play a role in the secession of Southern states. Was it the main reason? The country will never agree. A quick read of the secession documents though show that slavery played a large role in the Confederate state’s reason to leave. If you would like to read the secession documents of Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, and Texas, follow this link. Other documents as well can found easily. Thank you for your comment and input.

Jules Sippel ’18:  I find some of your comparisons to be quite interesting. While you state that slavery was not initially an aspect of the war, and that Southern slaves were treated well, more like family than their well-known negative stature. However, you also claim that Lincoln himself “used slavery to fill his Army,” guilty of terrible war crimes. According to countless accounts, such as those Megan references in her comment above [below], the “crimes” you mention seem to align just as closely with descriptions of the “peculiar institution” itself.

The prizes that Lincoln and the North wanted most was our mineral ores most esp. Iron deposits because of the superior grade, farm lands, weapons factories due to the North selling cannons and other weapons overseas. The North’s cannons and other weapons were poor quality due to the iron they had access to.

Tredegar Iron Works after the fall of Richmond, 1865. Photo by Alexander Gardner, via Wikimedia Commons.

Bryan Caswell ’15:  I’m confused as to your arguments for Northern resource extraction from the South. It is a well documented fact that the North’s mineral resources, manufacturing, industries, and staple farmland were far superior to the South’s in both quantity and quality. As to poor-quality Union cannons, this is also patently untrue. Just ask the Confederates; the overwhelming majority of their most reliable field pieces were captured Union guns. The South had only two resources worth mentioning: cotton and the unfree human labor that produced it. And due to a bumper crop of cotton in the five years preceding the war that had flooded the global market, the South’s ‘white gold’ wasn’t nearly as valuable in 1861 as they thought it was.

Slaves were not treated as bad as people lead you to believe because the slaves had every chance to run to the North and upon capture most slaves chose to be with their masters as opposed to swearing allegiance to the United States of America. Most slaves in the deep south were treated just like family and not the biased ROOTS version everyone has been taught.

Megan McNish ’16: “The unfortunate fellow was taken to the whipping-post, which on Stevens’ estate consisted of two solid uprights, some ten feet high, with a cross-beam at the top, forming a kind of gallows. Along the cross-beam were three or four massive iron cleets, to which pulleys were fixed, having a fine but closely-twisted cord passing over them. John Glasgow having been stripped, as on the previous occasion, the end of one of these cords was tightly fastened round his wrists. His left foot was then drawn up and tied, toes downwards, to his right knee, so that his left knee formed an angle by means of which, when swung up, his body could conveniently be turned. An oaken stake, about two feet long, was now driven into the ground beneath the cross-beam of the whipping-post, and made sharp at the top with a draw-knife. He was then hoisted up by his hands, by means of the pulley and rope, in such wise that his body swung by its own weight, his hands being high over his head and his right foot level with the pointed end of the oaken ‘stob’ or stake.

I may here state that this punishment is called the picket, and by being swung in this manner, the skin of the victim’s back is stretched till it shines, and cuts more readily under the lash: on the other hand, if the unhappy sufferer, swinging ‘between heaven and earth’ as it is called, desires to rest, he can do so only by placing the foot that is at liberty on the sharp end of the stake. The excessive pain caused by being flogged while suspended, and the nausea excited by twirling round, causes the victim of the ‘picket’ to seek temporary relief by staying himself on the ‘stob.’ On his doing so, for ever so brief a space, one of the bystanders taking hold of the bent knee, and using it as a handle, gives the unfortunate a twirl, and sends him spinning round on the hard point of the stake, which perforates the heel or the sole of the foot, as the case may be, quite to the bone.

Scars of a whipped Mississippi slave, April 2, 1863. Photo by McPherson and Oliver, via Wikimedia Commons.

John Glasgow thus suspended was flogged and twisted for an hour, receiving ‘five licks’ or strokes of the raw cowhide at a time, with an interval of two or three minutes between, to allow him ‘to come to, and to fetch his breath.’ His shrieks and groans were most agonizing, and could be heard, at first, a mile and a quarter off, but as the punishment proceeded, they subsided into moans scarcely audible at the distance of fifty paces. All Stevens’ slaves were made to stand by during the infliction of the torture, and some of them took turns at the whipping, according to the instructions of their master, who swore he would serve them the same if they refused, or ever disobeyed him as ‘that cussed nigger there had done.’” (40-42)

This quote comes from a slave narrative written in 1856 by a former slave named John Brown. Brown tried to escape from slavery a number of times before he was finally able to gain his freedom. However, because Brown tried to escape so many times “bells and horns” were fixed to Brown’s head. (88) I’m sure he was a very happy slave.

If you want to check my source, to read more slave narratives, see the link to Brown’s narrative and others published on DocSouth, by the University of North Carolina.

The Gettysburg Compiler would like to thank the commenter for providing an opportunity for our authors to address these major myths and misconceptions about the Civil War while honing their skills at interrogating and responding to historical arguments. 

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