Christopher Gawley, "Taking Sides with the South" - a review of A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War, by Thomas Fleming. Da Capo Press. 384 pages. $26.99. [published in the May 2015 issue of NOR]
Does the Civil War matter anymore? We recently passed the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the most momentous battle in U.S. history; can we now consign the subject to the dustbin? Is it simply a footnote to America’s legacy of racial animus? No, this conflict still matters — and for many more reasons than race. For those who care about concepts like tyranny, limited government, subsidiarity, and the principles that animated our independence in 1776, the Civil War ought to matter. And like most things we think we know — and were taught — the truth is far more complicated. A war between two overwhelmingly Protestant peoples fought over a century and a half ago may seem to have little relevance for Catholics today. But many of the ideas and values Catholics care about — and many of the forces that seek to stamp out the free exercise of religion in the U.S. in our time — played definitive roles in the Civil War.
While it is tempting to align with the Copperheads, the Northern anti-war and anti-Lincoln Democrats who sympathized with the South, by doing so one runs headlong into true detestation of slavery. A similar contradiction manifests itself when one is attracted by the antebellum South, by the culture of the South, by the very idea of the South — but with an important difference. Notwithstanding the South’s sin of slavery, the antebellum South represented noble virtues and aspirations like tradition, manners, honor, hospitality, and duty far better than its eventual conqueror ever did. For a traditional Catholic, the antebellum South — its very ethos — is far more resonant and familiar than any other American subculture or time period. Thus, one must bring a fair amount of suspicion to any Lincoln hagiography or demonization of the South. In our time, knowledgeable haters of the South are, perhaps just beneath the surface, people who likely hate the Catholic Church as well.
In any honest evaluation of the Civil War, one must recognize the incongruity of vanquishing a democratic people at the point of a gun in the name of liberty. Seeing what a centralized, power-hungry, and war-mongering monstrosity the U.S. federal government has become, one cannot help but sympathize with those souls who stood up to the incipient leviathan. Contrarily, it is difficult to sympathize with a federal government that practiced “total war” against a people who had democratically chosen to sever the bonds of fraternity and country. The South’s emphasis on states’ rights and limited government is preferable to a bureaucratic, all-powerful state.
Thomas Fleming’s A Disease in the Public Mind promises a new understanding of why we fought the Civil War. This reviewer, however, didn’t find much that is new in it. The gist of the book is that a growing sectional myopia and obstinacy on the question of slavery ultimately set in motion a series of events that culminated in an unnecessary war. The disease, according to Fleming, was both abolitionist intransigence and a similar hardening of Southern opinion on the question. Fleming details the American political history of slavery leading up to the war and focuses on certain historical figures and their opinions of both slavery and sectional strife. Thus, we see what Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Tyler, Lee, and others felt about America’s peculiar institution and its potential to destroy the Union.
All of this introspection over the question devolved into a near paralysis of political action. Many key American figures knew that slavery was a cancer on the body politic, but they simply did not have the will or the gumption to figure out how to excise it. In time, fatal sectionalism exploded into war. Fleming finds many lost moments passed over by historical characters who could have taken — who should have taken — steps to avoid the eventual calamity of the Civil War. He analyzes factors that aggravated the build-up to war, three of which are the rebellion of John Brown, the race war in Haiti, and the diffusion of slaves in new U.S. territories.
It is fair to say that Fleming detests John Brown. Brown is one of the most divisive figures in U.S. history: He was a violent ideologue and abolitionist, and an absolutist of the first degree. Fleming mocks Brown for both his hubris and folly at Harper’s Ferry, where in 1859 he and twenty-one of his followers seized the U.S. arsenal as part of a failed effort to liberate Southern slaves. Fleming paints Brown as a bipolar murderer lacking any compassion for his victims. He spends an inordinate amount of time on Brown, in part because he sees Brown’s failed raid as a key component of the sectional conflagration that began less than two years later. Brown’s group was defeated and Brown himself was eventually hanged.
In a similar vein, Fleming castigates the inflammatory William Lloyd Garrison, founder and publisher of The Liberator, an anti-slavery journal, as a flashpoint for growing discord. In both men Fleming sees agitators and absolutists who put pure ideology over a practical solution to the slavery problem. Fleming sees these self-righteous purists as culpable for the blood of the Civil War by their very intransigence. One struggles to disagree with him.
Fleming tells the story of the Haitian race war to highlight its effect on the minds of slave-holding Americans. In 1804 a great massacre followed the creation of the Haitian state in the former French colony of Saint-Domingue, marking the end of French civilization on the island. The former slave population — now armed and in control — slaughtered every white man, woman, and child it came across (with a few exceptions). At the orders of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, leader of the nascent Haitian state, as many as five thousand whites were killed. Thus did Saint-Domingue, the most prosperous colony in the Americas, end in a complete race war culminating in racial genocide. While it is hard to set aside the cruelty and barbarity of slavery and its effects on the Africans in Haiti, the massacre is a further stain that still haunts Haiti today. Fleming paints a picture of American Southerners who were cognizant that they too might end up like the French in Haiti — murdered by their own slaves. When Nat Turner, a black slave from Virginia, rose in revolt and, with seventy followers, carried out his 1831 slaughter, albeit on a much smaller scale (killing approximately fifty whites), the South was enflamed by fears of Haiti.
Haiti fueled an idea held by some thinkers in slaveholding regions that the only protection against a race war was through the diffusion of black slaves throughout the newly acquired territories. The danger of a slave revolt and race war was thought to increase in proportion to the disparity of slave and free populations. In Haiti, where slaves outnumbered free Frenchmen by a margin of ten to one, the revolt was deemed preordained. The South feared that the growing, and confined, slave population would create a similar imbalance. The North’s insistence on not admitting future slave states only exacerbated this fear. The election of a firmly “free soil” U.S. president in 1860 was the final straw: The chain of secession began in South Carolina and ended in Virginia. Fleming seems to contend that allowing slaves to diffuse into future American territories would have eventually contributed to slavery’s demise.
A Disease in the Public Mind is educative on the political question of slavery. Fleming’s thesis, though, is difficult to divine, and in a way he channels the notoriously cynical Oliver Wendell Holmes, who didn’t like abolitionism, slavery, or war. Fleming confuses any form of strongly held conviction with blind absolutism. Judging from pure readability, his book is both interesting and informative, but judged on whether it adds anything new to the body of extant Civil War history, it is best described as underwhelming.
Many history buffs love the Civil War era (a.k.a. “the War of Northern Aggression”). I recently read a very fine novel about Gettysburg but couldn’t quite bring myself to finish it. I knew how it would end, and I didn’t want to see Pickett’s charge smashed. The wrong side lost. Even though I agree with Lincoln on the question of free soil (at least as of 1860), I cannot help but fault him and the North for savaging the South in a total war and in contradistinction to the fundamental concepts outlined in the Declaration of Independence. In the end, I still root for the South — or, at the very least, for Southern values.
“They do not know what they say. If it came to a conflict of arms, the war will last at least four years. Northern politicians will not appreciate the determination and pluck of the South, and Southern politicians do not appreciate the numbers, resources, and patient perseverance of the North. Both sides forget that we are all Americans. I foresee that our country will pass through a terrible ordeal, a necessary expiation, perhaps, for our national sins.”— Robert E. Lee
Christopher Gawley is an attorney in the New York City area. His academic articles have been published in The South Dakota Law Review, The Capitol University Law Review, and The George Washington Law Review. He regularly writes book reviews and other articles for The Remnant.
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Letters to the Editor [published in the September 2015 issue of NOR]
I take issue with Christopher Gawley’s review of Thomas Fleming’s A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War (May). Gawley says he is attracted to the antebellum culture of the South with its “noble virtues and aspirations like tradition, manners, honor, hospitality, and duty.” True, he does say, “notwithstanding the South’s sin of slavery,” but in effect he dismisses slavery as nothing more serious than skipping an occasional Sunday Mass or eating meat on a Friday in Lent.
The antebellum culture of the South, despite its apparent charm, was founded and depended for its continued existence on the bondage of nearly four million African Americans. Gawley laments the North’s “vanquishing of a democratic people at the point of a gun” when the “democratic people” thus vanquished provided absolutely no rights at all to a third of their own citizens — excuse me, to their “property” — as decided by Chief Justice Roger Taney (a Catholic!) in his infamous Dred Scott decision.
I agree with Gawley that there were many lost moments by leaders of both the South and the North, leaders who should have worked more energetically toward avoiding the calamity of war. I also agree that John Brown’s violence inflamed passions and hardened positions on both sides of the slavery question. I don’t agree, however, that promoting “the diffusion of black slaves throughout the newly acquired territories” was primarily a reaction to the Haitian race riots of 1804. Rather, the expansion was based on the desire to extend an economic model that served the South well and, more importantly, to keep the number of slave states in balance with the number of free states so that there could be no amendment to the Constitution prohibiting slavery.
Finally, I cannot accept Gawley’s faulting of President Lincoln for “savaging the South in a total war and in contradistinction to the fundamental concepts outlined in the Declaration of Independence.” Wow! The Declaration of Independence states, “All men are created equal.” Does Gawley, like Chief Justice Taney, believe that African Americans are simply property? All war is terrible, and civilians are frequently innocent and sometimes not-so-innocent victims. Yes, Union armies wreaked great destruction in the South, but Southern armies also attacked civilians during their invasion of Union territories. In July 1864 Confederate General Jubal Early’s troops extorted $200,000 from the city of Frederick, Maryland, after threatening to raze it, and his troops looted and burned the homes of Union sympathizers en route to his attack on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. Later that month, General John McCausland’s forces burned Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, destroying over 500 structures and leaving over 2,000 people homeless.
No, Mr. Gawley, the right side won the Civil War. God bless the United States of America. (Full disclosure: My maternal great-grandfather fought in the Union Army.)
Clarke N. Ellis
Those who choose to dig deeply and objectively into the Civil War discover that it was a war between two slave nations, the United States of America and the Confederate States of America. They discover that General Robert E. Lee was an abolitionist, and that the anti-slavery movement had been gaining momentum in the Southern states. And lo and behold, they discover that Pope Pius IX not only recognized the C.S.A. as a sovereign nation, but that he also sent a crown of thorns to imprisoned Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The Vatican saw the C.S.A. as more akin to the European Christian model of government and a bulwark against the encroachment of liberalism. And finally, they discover that there was not much difference between the motives of the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. Both sought to establish free and independent nations through armed insurrection. The big difference is who won and who lost.
All that having been said, has anyone noticed that the Confederate flag just won’t go away? It has become the banner of resistance to the forces of politically correctness that want to destroy every vestige of history they don’t like. Just as the Islamic State recently blew up ancient Assyrian relief sculptures, the PC police here in the good ol’ U.S.A. want to jackhammer the relief sculptures of Confederate war heroes on Stone Mountain in Georgia.
Ed. Note: There is considerable debate about the crown of thorns that was in Jefferson Davis’s possession while he was in prison. Some accounts insist that it was woven by Davis’s wife, others by Davis himself, and still others by “the Pope’s own fingers” (Hudson Strode, Jefferson Davis: Tragic Hero, 1964). One thing, however, is certain: When Davis was in prison, Pius IX sent him a photograph of himself with the hand-written inscription, Venite ad me omnes qui laboratis, et ego reficiam vos, dicit Dominus (“Come to me all ye who labor and are heavy burdened and I will give you rest, saith the Lord”).
Also, Robert E. Lee cannot be considered an abolitionist in the true sense of the term. Though he did, in a letter to his wife, call slavery a “moral & political evil” (particularly as it affected “the white man”), he also wrote that slavery was “necessary” for the “discipline” of “the black race,” and that abolitionists were on an “evil Course.”
CHRISTOPHER GAWLEY REPLIES:The foregoing articles, the book review by Christopher Gawley and the subsequent Letters to the Editor were originally published in the May and September, 2015, issues of the New Oxford Review and are reproduced here by kind permission of New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706.
I wrote my review of Thomas Fleming’s A Disease in the Public Mind well before this June’s horrific and murderous events in Charleston, South Carolina, when a white racist went on a shooting rampage in a black church, and the ensuing hysteria to strip the remaining monuments to the failed Confederate States of America — most notably its battle flag — from public view. If anything, the public uproar is ongoing proof that the Civil War is not merely history — it is worth studying precisely because it remains current. That said, there is a certain irony in today’s Confederacy-bashing and the burning of the Stars & Bars: some American “patriots” and Confederate-bashers may well see the day come when Old Glory is burned for the United States of America’s much longer history of accepting racial slavery, or when Thomas Jefferson’s or George Washington’s monuments in the nation’s capital are removed because those men, as we all know, were slave owners. It goes to show, at least in my opinion, that the Confederacy is a part of the fabric of American history. Demonizing the Confederacy for sins that transcended its short existence — as if they existed “out there” — effectively whitewashes the entire nation’s complicity in racial slavery and animus. If the Confederacy’s founders and defenders were evil, I am at a loss as to why the nation’s founders, who protected slavery in law and practice, get a free pass.
The comments by Mr. Ellis magnify this point: He clearly does not like the Confederacy. Fair enough, but defenders of aspects of its culture and virtues should not be dismissed as apologists for racial slavery. History and life are slightly more complex than good U.S.A./bad C.S.A. While I do not have to dignify his ad hominem charge that my review “dismisses slavery as nothing…serious,” his accusation is unfortunate and untrue. I call slavery a “sin” precisely because it is a sin, but I can defend certain collective virtues of the Southern people — and yes, even the Confederacy itself — notwithstanding that vice in much the same way he glosses over the U.S.’s many sins — including slavery — while he engages in profuse Americanist flag-waving. If, by Ellis’s logic, the Confederacy and the people it comprised were reprobate and incapable of virtue because of slavery, so too was the greater American nation. Indeed, America’s sins go far beyond its legal acceptance of slavery — ergo, Ellis has a lot more rationalizing to do to maintain his patriotic fervor.
Ellis also takes issue with my critique of President Lincoln’s utter destruction of the South in prosecuting the Civil War. I beg to differ. One could argue that Lincoln’s method of pacifying the South was the first instance of modern industrial total war, which has had a lamentable regression in human affairs. The non-distinction between civilian and soldier, the wanton destruction of civilian property, and the very strategy of terrorizing a civilian populace in order to break the will of an army are barbaric. The North prevailed with at least some of these tactics — and future political leaders would learn the lesson of Sherman’s horrific March to the Sea. Humanity is much worse for it. So no, Mr. Ellis, the means matter as much as the ends — and some wars are not worth winning if the means employed are barbaric.
Ellis finds my reference to the Declaration of Independence problematic, to say the least. I fail to see why. The U.S. was founded precisely on the idea that free men have the collective liberty to obtain independence from a greater sovereign. What else did the American founders do than “secede” from the British Empire? Indeed, the first words of the Declaration state, “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them….” Mr. Ellis, if the founders were justified in seceding from the British Empire, on what basis do you excoriate the South’s invocation of the very same principle only two generations later to “dissolve the political bands which have connected them with” the U.S.A.? Whatever can be said, Lincoln’s war was not without its political ironies, and the Declaration cut against his policies as much as it aided them.
In that spirit, I have to agree in part with Mr. Bohler’s comments. While I am not in a position to accede to his factual assertions, I agree that, at least for some, the Confederacy increasingly represents an historical counterpoint to a contemporary American federal leviathan that is as rapacious as it is totalitarian. When I see my government using its enormous powers to legalize vice and penalize virtue, when I see its limitless intrusions into family and economic life, when I see it as the great international purveyor of pornography, abortion, and birth control, and when I see it as a military machine that interferes everywhere and anywhere with impunity, I am sorry that I look wistfully to a moment in history when perhaps this leviathan could have been thwarted before it amassed the monstrous powers it now exercises. Notwithstanding that racial slavery was a great and terrible sin, my position on the South says as much about my feelings about the contemporary state of American affairs as it does about the political questions of the 1850s — and it has nothing to do with race relations. I suspect that this is true for many who think that the wrong side won in 1865.