Virtue Signaling the Civil War

Dennis Sanders

Dennis is the pastor of a small Protestant congregation outside St. Paul, MN and also a part-time communications consultant. A native of Michigan, you can check out his writings over on Medium and subscribe to his Substack newsletter on religion and politics called Polite Company.  Dennis lives in Minneapolis with his husband Daniel.

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122 Responses

  1. Michael H Siegel says:

    This was a great piece of writing that’s making me think quite a bit. Thanks.Report

  2. pillsy says:

    The problem is that for a lot of people, this purported “empathy for the other” is an (often goddamn thin) disguise for white supremacist beliefs.

    When I was in high school, there was a small clique of racist skinheads at my school. About five or six guys, shaved heads, black jackets, and Confederate flag patches. Back then, since it was both the early-mid ’90s [1] and my school was roughly half Jewish, they seemed like a mostly pathetic joke. Not harmful, but I couldn’t say I was particularly sad when they would periodically get the crap kicked out of them in the halls.

    One of them called me a “fucking kike” to my face once.

    So a pathetic joke, but still a piece of shit.

    And you know if there was any lingering doubt about what the Confederate flag patch a bunch of Boston kids were sporting meant, that dispelled it in my mind forever.

    Thirty years down the line, though, the ideological descendants of those kids are shooting up churches, mosques, synagogues, and high schools, murdering dozens of people.

    They’re going to “defend” Confederate statues in on public property in places where the local community want to tear those statues, and then murdering counter-protesters.

    So yeah, I think it may be something of a proxy war.

    But I don’t see why I should want to surrender instead of winning it.

    And if people who want me to believe otherwise intend to change my mind, they need to do a much, much, much fucking better job convincing me that they recognize the people wearing those Confederate flag patches are their enemy too. And frankly, when the President of the United States, and the leader of the political party that has made championing Confederate monuments, says those exact guys are very fine people, they are doing exactly the opposite.

    [1] When the openly racist guy sitting in the Oval Office was a tabloid joke going through sordid divorces and bankruptcies.Report

    • dragonfrog in reply to pillsy says:

      I think there’s a kind of discrimination needed between “symbols that it’s too late or not worth the bother to rescue” and “no the Nazis can’t friggin have that one”.

      I think that, in Europe and the Americas, the Swastika is definitely in the former category, and in Asia it’s probably firmly in the latter. Norse myth, the “OK” symbol, I’m holding onto for the latter category. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong, but I’m not accepting that I already have been.

      Around where I live the stars & bars is solidly in the first category. There are no decent people who fly it. If that’s the bumper sticker you have, it’s not because you have an amateur historian’s interest in the American civil war, it’s because you hate dark skinned people (and probably something something New World Order, Agenda 21, George Soros).Report

  3. Chip Daniels says:

    The re-litigation of the Civil War began in 1865, with the rise of the Lost Cause narrative and the Klan and the battle against Reconstruction.

    The Lost Cause itself was an attempt to change history, to airbrush out the ugly parts and transform it into something it wasn’t.

    The reason no one was upset over the Dukes of Hazzard was that everyone just assumed that the Lost Cause myth was defeated, that the battle over civil rights had been won.

    The rise of the conservative movement and its white supremacist power base changed that. It demonstrated that the war still isn’t over, and the outcome is still in doubt.Report

    • CJColucci in reply to Chip Daniels says:

      This is exactly right. And until very recently, the South had won the historical battle, both in popular culture — two of the greatest movies ever made were Birth of a Nation, in which the hero is the KKK, and Gone With the Wind–and, until the late 1950’s, the academy. It took quite a while for the latter victory to consolidate itself, because even though high-level scholarship was changing, the results didn’t filter down to K-12 education for a long time. I was taught classic Lost Cause history in central New York in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
      Rodney King might ask why we can’t all get along, but considering who beat up whom, it’s clear enough where the initiative has to come from.Report

      • Richard Hershberger in reply to CJColucci says:

        Indeed, the Peloponnesian War and the American Civil War are the two notable exceptions to the principle that the victor writes the history. In the former case this is mostly because the Athenians were a lot more into writing than were the Spartans. This isn’t true of the American Civil War: hence my interest in why the North concluded it was in their interest to accept a Southern interpretation.Report

        • veronica d in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

          This isn’t true of the American Civil War: hence my interest in why the North concluded it was in their interest to accept a Southern interpretation.

          Now that is a good question.

          Any ideas why?

          My off-the-cuff ideas: weariness, lack of conviction, conflict aversion, etc.Report

          • LeeEsq in reply to veronica d says:

            Reconstruction was the first time that a liberal society attempted to remake an authoritarian society after defeating it in a military conflict. Being a first run at something, there was bound to be a lot of failures. The reconstructions that occurred after World War II went a lot more smoothly because we learned from the mistakes of Reconstruction and because we had local forces we could work with. in South, there were no white Southerners that accepted the Reconstruction of the South. That made things a lot more difficult.Report

            • Richard Hershberger in reply to LeeEsq says:

              There were two differences between post-WWII Germany and post-CW South. Western Germans the Western allies were in agreement about the Soviet threat, given them strong incentive to cooperate. And Germany had no equivalent to the massive Southern black population. It would be as if there was a huge population of Jews and the non-Jewish Germans collectively stuck to Nazi-era beliefs about Jews.Report

          • Richard Hershberger in reply to veronica d says:

            My over-long direct reply to the OP is my stab at it.Report

        • Michael O'Donnell in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

          Look at so called “Great American Literature”. The Hero is inevitably a White Southerner without a single Racist bone in his body (think Atticus Finch or the Guards in the Green Mile). This allowed even Liberal America to presume that most Southern Whites were just like them with different accents.
          Of course, the reality of the US South was Segregation and Bull Conner.
          Later, once the Civil Rights laws were passed, the Liberals were again Anaesthised by popular AND Convenient stories which portrayed “Honourable” Southerners (think “Driving Miss Daisy”; “Fried Green Tomatoes”, “How to make an American Quilt” and especially “The Help”)
          What all these have in common is the virtual invisibility of Segregation; the White “Rescuer” myth; the predominance of White actors; the virtual invisibility of any overt Racism; and the overall message that All (or certainly Most) White Southerners are “Good People”.
          None of these stories are told from the Black perspective (2019 the Green Book). None of them show the Jim Crow reality. All of them assume that once Civil Rights laws passed, Racism and MAJORITY Racist attitudes disappear.
          Moreover, given the predominance of White Southerners in, especially, Hollywood, these are the Stories that get the funding, the promotion and particularly, the Awards.
          We must reassess all these Narratives and admit what they are – “Comfort Food” for White LiberalsReport

    • Pinky in reply to Chip Daniels says:

      The Civil War is always being reinterpreted. During the period of the 1930’s to 1980’s, there was quite a bit of dialectical materialism within the world of historians. When I went to school (1970’s in the North), we weren’t exactly taught that slavery was the primary cause of the war. It was treated as an inevitable clash of two competing systems, one agrarian and slave-based, and one relying on trade and manufacturing.

      The US has very little history. I’m sure that as the centuries go by, it’ll be more obvious that each era interprets the events of the past in light of the current intellectual trend. When I was a kid, everything was about tearing down Washington and building up Jefferson. That sure changed. You can view the re-litigation of the Civil War as a race thing, but by so doing, you’re only applying the current trend, and you’re missing a lot.Report

  4. Jaybird says:

    I remember Pluto.

    When I was a kid, Pluto was a planet. Then, when I was an adult, it wasn’t.

    I felt a tug when I thought about Pluto not being a planet. Hey, I was raised to understand that it was a planet! My Very Earnest Mother Just Ordered Us Several Pizzas! Or something like that!

    When I was a kid, I had one story about what the world was like. When I grew up, I learned more information and had to radically reassess what I had been taught to that point. Of course I was attached to what I learned as a kid. Anybody would be.Report

  5. Oscar Gordon says:

    It seems to me that a lot of the problem is that loss of empathy, and the inability to understand the nuance of a person’s motivations.

    For me, I think that was one of the good things about being in the military. Everyone has a different set of morals and ethics, and many of them will believe things that run counter to what you do, and you just have to learn to deal with that, because chances are you have to work with these people. You can’t complain to your commanding officer that Boats is a raging racist, or your partner is an ass who cheats on his wife, or your lead is bible thumping bigot. There are no protests allowed, or letter writing campaigns tolerated, or twitter mobbing permitted. You will learn to work with these people, or it will be your ass out the door on a bad conduct discharge.Report

    • pillsy in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

      No, the problem is that the Confederacy was not only a historical enemy of the United States, but that following its defeat, the symbols of the Confederacy were taken up by enemies of everything good about the United States, and remain so to this day.

      This isn’t history.

      It’s present.Report

      • Oscar Gordon in reply to pillsy says:

        Annnnnd my point when right past you.

        Take a few deep breaths and try again.Report

        • pillsy in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

          I don’t care about the nuances of the history of the Confederacy as long as their symbols are being used by contemporary fascist criminals, and said nuances are being used to obscure their abhorrent politics and bind them to a larger and more allegedly acceptable conservative movement.

          When that changes, I’m more than willing to revise my opinion.Report

          • George Turner in reply to pillsy says:

            Well, the biggest remaining symbol of the Confederacy is the Democratic Party., which still puts everyone in racial boxes. Even today hard core Democratic students are demanding a return to racially segregated housing on college campuses. Who voted to restore General Robert E Lee’s full citizenship rights? Joe Biden, who is leading the race for their party’s nomination.

            What if Republicans share your bitterness over the Civil War, and know that Democrats were fully responsible for both slavery and the war and Jim Crow, and remain unrepentant to this day? Grand Kleagle Robert Byrd was a Democrat. Fritz Hollings, who retired from the Senate in 2005 and who died this year, was the Democrat who raised the Confederate flag over the South Carolina state capitol, where it remained until removed by Republican Nikki Halley in 2016.

            You see, when I grew up we all knew who in town was a Republican and a Democrat. The Republicans families, such as mine, had fought for the Union. The Democrat families, with noted exceptions over some switching because of violent coal strikes, and some who moved to the region later (some Italians and Lebanese), had fought for the Confederacy. They still flew the Stars and Bars and talked about rising again.

            Much of Eastern Kentucky was that way. We all know which families fought on which side in the war, and still hold it against them, to a degree. After the war the Democrats in Lexington and Louisville, two very liberal cities, reasserted their control over the state government and used it to economically punish the areas of the state that had sided with the Union, as they regarded the Union folks as traitors. That situation was unchanged until 2012, and more so in 2016, when the Union families who’d switch to the Democratic party over coal strikes switched back to being Republican over the destruction of the coal industry.

            Now the pro-Slavery folks call themselves progressives, but they’re the same people from the same families doing the same things in the same cities.

            So perhaps your rage is aimed at the wrong people. If that is indeed the case, it might be wise to mellow a bit. If would be unseemly and worrying for a Democrat to feel more rage toward Republicans than the Democrats who had given their all trying to kill Republicans, who, though still bitter and resentful, went on with their lives.Report

            • pillsy in reply to George Turner says:

              What if Republicans share your bitterness over the Civil War, and know that Democrats were fully responsible for both slavery and the war and Jim Crow, and remain unrepentant to this day?

              What if Republicans were bright purple and made out of cheese?Report

              • George Turner in reply to pillsy says:

                Well, then I reckon they’d be Democrats.

                There’s a very old joke that Sam Donaldson told about a politician on a whistle stop tour out West, who asked the crowd “Who here is a Democrat?” Some guy raised his hand, and the politician said “Why sir, are you a Democrat?” The man replied “Because my daddy was a Democrat and his daddy was a Democrat.” The politician responded “Well, that’s no reason to be a Democrat. What if your dad and granddad had been horse thieves?” The man thought and said “Well, in that case I guess I would be a Republican.”

                But going back to your point on the evil far right, Jason Kessler, the neo-Nazi leader at Charlottesville, was an Obama voting liberal who had gotten chased out of the Occupy Wall Street movement because he was demanding that they get more violent and throw Molotov cocktails at cops.

                David Duke recruited heavily and clandestinely among the Seattle and Portland IndyMedia anarchists during the anti-war protests, since so many on the far left were in complete agreement with Duke on anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, neocons, “war for Israel”, etc. It’s a short mental step from protesting the evils of capitalism (OWS), protesting the evils of Zionist Nazis and war-mongering neocons (Bush=Hitler, no war for Israel), to one of defending whites from the evil capitalist Jews.

                As a far right neocon war blogger during that period, I am pretty certain that there was nobody to the right of us. We’d all vote Likud if we could, and wanted Condi Rice for President.

                The alt-right is something completely different. They seem to be young left-wing morons who just went off script on the white-guilt part of the liberal narrative, probably sucked into it because it seemed edgy and transgressive in some dark corner of the Internet.Report

              • pillsy in reply to George Turner says:

                But going back to your point on the evil far right, Jason Kessler, the neo-Nazi leader at Charlottesville, was an Obama voting liberal who had gotten chased out of the Occupy Wall Street movement because he was demanding that they get more violent and throw Molotov cocktails at cops.

                Weird how the leader of the Republican Party decided that this guy’s horde of, um, far-left Democrats, were very fine people.

                I don’t think you actually believe this shit you’re slinging, George, but if you actually do it’s absolutely pathetic.Report

              • George Turner in reply to pillsy says:

                Trump was talking about people on both sides of the statue debate. Your source apparently didn’t hear his next sentence.

                However, the UVA Students United group, who led the demands to remove Confederate statues and were fighting the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, are indeed enraged at the imperialist racist with blood on his hands.

                UVA United tweet

                Looks like they’re really mad!

                … at Joe Biden, who is leading the pack for the Democratic nomination, and who restored Robert E Lee’s full citizenship.

                These pure-good vs pure-evil narratives, and the moral purity contests, can go all pear shaped, and quickly.Report

    • dragonfrog in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

      The white supremacist movement has had a fairly successful campaign of infiltrating military and law enforcement organizations for just the reason you mention.

      When the alternative is that someone makes it past the defensive cordon and drops a grenade in the bunker, killing us all, then that infiltration is probably an acceptable price to pay.

      When the alternative is some uncomfortable meetings with HR, it’s probably not.Report

      • JoeSal in reply to dragonfrog says:

        So this successful infiltration, what do those numbers look like?Report

        • dragonfrog in reply to JoeSal says:

          What would they have to look like, to make “dying by grenade” an acceptable price to pay to fight it?

          What would they have to look like, to make “some uncomfortable meetings with HR” an acceptable price to pay to fight it?

          If you can read through redaction boxes, you can determine whether it met one, both, or neither of those thresholds, per the FBI’s analysis, in 2006.

          • JoeSal in reply to dragonfrog says:

            Thanks, for that, but it is pretty short on any numbers. I find in the prison gang stuff reported by police on the inside that there could be as many as several thousand prison police officers that are infiltrated, but not much outside of that specific prison related construct.

            I know there is a general indication that WS movement wants, and has motive to infiltrate, but there is little I can find to say they are successful in that endeavor.Report

        • dragonfrog in reply to JoeSal says:

          Hard to say innit. The relevant agencies aren’t exactly racing to publish figures, to the extent they’re doing anything at all to figure out what the figures even are.

          What do the numbers have to look like, to make some uncomfortable meetings with HR worth the bother?Report

          • JoeSal in reply to dragonfrog says:

            I was just wondering, because when I go looking at WS movement stuff I usually find about 15,000-20,000 associated with Aryan prison gang and about 8,000-10,000 along the lines of the KKK and somewhere in the neighborhood of 6,000 Nazis, and Neo-Nazis.

            I was just curious if you had anything concrete above and beyond that.Report

  6. Chip Daniels says:

    I can be empathetic only when they accept the loss and move on.

    So long as they are still fighting, still posing a threat, empathy is not possible.Report

    • There’s a pedant’s point about empathy I think we should keep in mind. One needn’t approve or even like what someone stands for to have empathy for them. In fact, even if you want to combat, or destroy, them, you need to be empathetic to find out how to do it properly or effectively.

      I say it’s a pedant’s point because most of us, myself included, often commingle the notion of “empathy” with “sympathy.” I think the OP does this, too. I also think one reason the commingling takes place is that true empathy does create or imply a certain amount of sympathy, if only because empathy allows us to see humanity we all have in common. So while I’m bringing in the pedant’s point, I don’t believe you’re comment is unfair.Report

  7. Aaron David says:

    Until the US can decide which particular narrative to follow, one is not allowed to be magnanimous in victory. All opposition must be subrogated. Thus, as we transfer away from the paradigm of the last 100 years, all cultural battles must be refought.Report

  8. Richard Hershberger says:

    As Chip Daniels points out above, the Civil War was first relitigated in 1865. It is more than timely to go back and redo this. The South, or at least the more intellectual portion of it, realized after the war that the defense of slavery was no longer a winning argument. This hadn’t been a problem a few years earlier, when the South was forthright about this being an issue. But with the military loss, there was a new consensus, at least for rhetorical purposes, that slavery is bad.

    The solution for the South was to move from the concrete to the abstract. The war hadn’t been about slavery. It was about states’ rights. The right to do what? This was discreetly omitted. This new narrative was bullshit, in the Frankfurtian sense of the word.

    The military occupation of the South clearly wasn’t going to be a permanent condition. A return to civil government was always the endgame. But on what basis? Would the former slaves have a role in government? The consensus among white Southerners was a strong “No!” and they were fully prepared to resort to terrorism to make sure it didn’t happen. There was a fleeting moment in history when substantial portions of the Northern political establishment were serious about civil rights, but white Southerners, who had far more skin in the game, were able to outlast Northern civil libertarians. The end of Reconstruction was the nail in the coffin.

    At that point the North had every incentive to go along with the “states rights” narrative. Once the decision is made to let white Southerners retake control of their various states, it benefited the North to give them a graceful way to save face: They weren’t traitors in defense of slavery, but defenders of an abstract cause. We might disagree with the course they took, but honorable men can disagree; so now we need to get back to work.

    As an aside, there are strong parallels with post-WWII Germany. The Western powers needed to deal with Germans, and they needed to do it quickly, with the Red Army poised on the other side of the border. There wasn’t time to train up a new cadre of German leaders, so they needed to use the old ones. There followed a rapid rehabilitation, dividing the leadership between “good Germans” and “bad Germans,” the supposed distinction being between honorable German patriots and ideological Nazis, with a bias for declaring persons not in the top leadership to be “good Germans” so they could get on with it. In the meantime, the Western allies sent civil administrators to run things, working with local leadership to set up the transition.

    The same thing happened during Reconstruction. We know the civil administrators as “carpetbaggers” and the locals they worked with as “scallawags.” In school in California I was taught the standard line that the carpetbaggers were a bunch of opportunists trying to make a quick buck, while the scallawags were collaborators beneath contempt. The revisionist Southern narrative was accepted without question.

    The final bit is that academic historians hate simplistic explanations of big events. This reflex usually serves them well. It is obviously inadequate to say that WWI happened because an Austrian archduke was assassinated. In the case of the Civil War this healthy impulse has been turned to perverse ends. The abstract “states rights” shtick feels more like the sort of explanation they are used to. It complicates the issue by hinting that “states rights” summarized a collection of disputes. You can leverage this into a discussion of stuff like agricultural versus industrial economies,
    as if lots of perfectly stable nations don’t have distinct agricultural and industrial regions. What this abstraction obscures, and was specifically intended to obscure, was that the right the states were concern about, as they openly admitted until the rhetorical ground shifted, was slavery, and its post-war cousin of recreating as closely as possible the pre-war slave state.

    The modern version of obfuscatory abstraction is the defense of statues of these guys, not as honoring them, but as remembering history. This is transparent bullshit. There are lots of ways we remember history without honoring the people doing it. There is a reason that Germany isn’t filled with statues of Hitler. Public statuary has the specific purpose of honoring the person depicted. I don’t know whether to be more offended by modern people wanting to honor these guys, or their telling such pathetic lies to pretend they aren’t doing just that.Report

    • Pinky in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

      What about the “needless war” narrative? Don’t you think that counts as a substantial reframing of the conflict? How can you talk about the post-Reconstruction view of the Civil War without addressing it?Report

      • Richard Hershberger in reply to Pinky says:

        My understanding of the “needless war” argument is that it was a Southern argument that the war was all the fault of the North, and the Republican Party in particular. I wouldn’t be surprised to find this in history books in the South to this day, but it never really caught on elsewhere. The advantage of the “states rights” abstraction was that it allowed everyone to be the good guys, just having a lively difference of opinion. This allowed them to move past the recent unpleasantness. Both sides might have privately thought that it was really the other side’s fault, but the abstraction provided a vehicle for putting on a happy face in public.Report

        • Pinky in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

          There’s nearly been as much written about the history of the theories of the Civil War as about the history of the Civil War. Yours and Chip’s approach seems one-dimensional. The fact that is also happens to fit your politics and the current intellectual trend makes it hard to take it as authoritative.Report

          • Chip Daniels in reply to Pinky says:

            (Actual opening line from a history of the Civil War I read at age 12):

            “How did the war start? Like all wars, misunderstandings that multiplied.”

            At 12, this seems so enticing. It was so adult, so filled with complexity and nuance and sophistication.
            Why, there were…good guys…on BOTH SIDES! And it was just misunderstandings!

            Not unrelated, around this same time, the TV show MASH had an episode where Hawkeye Pierce, representing the forces of Liberalism, crashes a negotiating meeting between US and North Korean military, and urges them to “just talk to each other, y’know, get to know each other and say howdy!”

            Because, of course, like all wars, the Korean War was… wait for it..misunderstandings that multiplied.

            If you have an argument for a different take on the Civil War besides “We want to keep enslaving these guys and stealing their labor”, by all means, make it.Report

        • CJColucci in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

          The “needless war” theory, prominently associated with Avery Craven, a genuinely excellent historian, had one big problem. I think it was Craven himself who said that “any sane policy” on the part of the North would have avoided war. But many serious efforts to prevent war failed, and nobody seemed able to describe a “sane policy” that would have worked. As Lincoln put it at Cooper Union, “What will satisfy the South?”Report

          • JoeSal in reply to CJColucci says:

            Considering Lincoln had the letters of secession, he knew full well what the south wanted, and that was their own federal government. If he would have allowed secession there likely wouldn’t have been a war of this type.

            So Lincoln was aware of the parameters.

            I often wonder what a president in this era would do with letters of secession that where clear about what they required. Would they be ignored?Report

      • George Turner in reply to Pinky says:

        One of the root causes of the war was the mistaken belief that fighting a war would be cheaper than a government buyout of slave owners. The belief was perfectly reasonable given the relatively low cost, in money and lives, of our prior wars, where both side’s armies if the field were quite small.

        We’d only suffered about 2,000 combat fatalities in the War of 1812, fought against the world’s most powerful empire. We lost even less than that in the Mexican American war, where we even occupied Mexico City. So a reasonable guess at anticipated combat deaths might have been in the range of a couple thousand, over the course of several months. They didn’t realize it would be a hundred times worse, topping 600,000 dead, which adjusted to today’s population would be well north of six million.Report

        • JamesMalrex in reply to George Turner says:

          Buying slaves to free them was one of many policies considered in an attempt to avoid a war with the South. Lincoln himself repeatedly offered Compensated Emancipation to Confederate states and border states, as he concluded that any war would be expensive. A joint resolution to this effect (offering $400 per slave) passed both Houses in Congress but was unanimously rejected by slave holding states (even those remaining in the Union). The Confederacy was furiously hostile to any idea of emancipation, even paid. I don’t have my books on hand, but I believe Lincoln continued to offer compensated emancipation up until he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, when it became obvious that Southerners would never voluntarily give up their slaves. It’s important to realize that the full cost of a program buying every slave at fair market value would be over $3 billion. Several times the federal budget ($178 million in 1860), with federal outlays doubling if the program was enacted slowly over 25 years- necessitating tariff and tax increases to pay for it. Yes, that’s less than the $6.6 billion of the cost of the war, but slave states still rejected the offer. Even if the Union had doubled the offer (to $6 billion) or tripled it (to $9 billion), they still would have said no. For two reasons, 1. Overleveraged debt obligations by slaveholders. 2. The social value of slaves exceeding the economic value. I’ll get into those later.Report

          • JamesMalrex in reply to JamesMalrex says:

            1. The average slave owner would have 3-5 loans taken out on the value of their slaves using them as collateral. Some debt-heavy plantation owners would take out up to 11 loans on the same slave. This sounds crazy, but banking in the South was notoriously lax, and the risk was considered low since the slave owner could use that loan to purchase several slaves and their labor would generate enough profit to easily pay off the interest. But if emancipation passed, the slave owner would need to pay off those loans or the bank would take a loss. Assuming an average of 4 outstanding loans per slave, the slave owner would need to see 4x the offer- costing the federal government up to $12 billion or more. Part 2- the social value of slaves exceeded the economic value. To a Southerner, owning slaves provided status in society. It indicated your standing, the parties you were invited to, and the clubs you were allowed to join. A person too poor to afford a slave was viewed with great pity, while a person rich enough to afford a slave but having none was viewed with suspicion. Abolitionist thought was illegal in the South, and slavery was engrained in the culture. Even owning a blind and crippled slave gave you a social status miles above the common man. They couldn’t possibly imagine life without slavery, so they rejected any peace overtures with compensated emancipation. Nothing less than the full expansion of slavery into the free territories and Northern states would have sufficed.Report

          • George Turner in reply to JamesMalrex says:

            Well, I would accept an answer that finds the slave owner’s rejection was just due to arrogance and intransigence, but I’ll bet accountants and economists have gone over the math of the offer about every ten years since the war ended.

            We have a buyer and seller who can’t agree on a price point, so which side was wrong on the financials? I would have rejected the fair-market buyout option because it presupposes that I could then use that money to buy another slave to replace the ones that were sold, and thus continue operating my plantation with no net loss. But I won’t be able to hit the replacement markets because all the slaves would have been freed. So instead, I would have to hire more expensive labor to replace the freed slaves, which eats into the bottom line forever, perhaps destroying the estate’s underlying business model and plummeting the value of the real estate. If free-market labor was as profitable as relying on slaves, they wouldn’t have bought slaves in the first place.

            Under that more extensive valuation, the offer would have to essentially be a complete buyout of the plantation owner, including the drop in his estate’s real-estate value and its future net earnings in case 1 (status quo) minus its reduced earnings in case 2 (emancipation). But that would require the North’s present generation to buy out not just the bulk of the South’s entire book value, but a large share of it’s future value, too. I can’t see the North making an offer anywhere near that because it would seem like turning every arrogant, brutal, amoral slave owner into a lottery winner who could retire to the South of France.

            One simple way to see if the future earnings or real-estate value models were more correct than the simple slave fair-market value buyout is to look at the economic numbers for post-War Southern plantations. What was the loss in real-estate value and how did the operating margins of Southern farms change as a result of the war?

            I’ll bet some historians have already looked at that in excruciating detail and published it one of the countless books on the Civil War, though I have not run across that particular analysis.

            If the numbers indicate that the Southern financial losses would be tremendous, which reconstruction and economic data up through the 1960’s indicates was indeed the case, the Southerns would have had rightfully viewed the war as an attempt by Yankee oligarchs, with moralizing as their cover, to use force of arms to invade the South, burn the farms, steal all the money, and plunge the region into a century of poverty, thus justifying the use of arms to resist such an economically dreadful outcome.

            But with the benefit of hindsight on what eventually happened to the Southern economy, we now know that Lincoln should have given them a valid economic alternative by offering to lavishly fund Southern factories devoted to producing space launch systems, ballistic missiles, and advanced electronics. But it’s also hard to see that happening, either.Report

            • J_A in reply to George Turner says:

              Three cheers for American exceptionalism. Every other country in the Americas was able to solve the slavery problem without a war and without brankrupting itself or their agricultural production (sugar, coffee, cocoa) on which they depended. Perhaps they didn’t know all this.

              Actually, most economists and accountants that have studied the XIX century slave-based economies have concluded that it is highly inefficient compared to free workers.

              1- Slave work productivity rises (when the overseer approaches) and drops (when he moves away) but in general was as low as slaves could get away with. Large plantations, with hundreds of slaves, and a low ratio of overseers to slaves were not very productive. Paying free workers per pound of cotton or cane or cocoa grains collected yields higher productivity per worker/hour.

              2- Slave owners had to care for slaves from cradle to grave. There was a non trivial number of slaves that did not produce cotton or cane but had to be fed and lodged. True, they could do some additional work here and there, But the cost of keeping those children and old people around was not covered by helping in the kitchen garden. Once freed, the family dependents became the responsibility of the worker, not a cost of the slave owner.

              3- As you already pointed out, slaves were (expensive) capital goods, not ongoing expenditures tied to the actual production. Expensive capital goods require financing to be purchased, and become a fixed cost (and cash flow problem) no matter how good or bad the price of cotton is. Replacing slave labor with free workers moves the labor costs from fixed to variable, and frees leveraging capacity to buy machinery and other capital goods that actually improve productivity.

              Economics is why, when the Industrial Revolution came, no one thought “let’s put this factory in the Mississippi (available water power, communication routes, and proximity to markets), and use slaves as workers”. Slave work was economically inefficient, and once abolition occurred in Latin America, agricultural productive not only did not collapse but increased.Report

              • Chip Daniels in reply to J_A says:

                I don’t know if this entire exchange about the economics of slavery is tongue in cheek (like I said we need a sarcasm tag around here)

                But any serious discussion of the economics should somehow make reference to the emotional and psychic wages of bigotry and ethnic supremacy.

                That is, the emotional benefits of feeling superior to some other class of people is as real as physical wealth, and people will eagerly trade that wealth to get it.

                LBJ put it nicely in his dictum that if you give a man someone to look down upon, he will empty his pockets for you.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to Chip Daniels says:

                Mr. Malrex is correct as far as I can recall, in that slave ownership was a positional good, and thus highly resistant to simple economic analysis or relief.Report

              • Mike Dwyer in reply to Chip Daniels says:


                Are you suggesting that people needed slavery so they would always have someone to feel superior to?Report

              • Chip Daniels in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

                Yes, and this was especially true for poor whites who were in all other respects identical to black people in their economic position.Report

              • Mike Dwyer in reply to Chip Daniels says:


                I don’t think I agree about that. The Antebellum South was very much defined by massive income inequality. 6% of the population controlled 1/3 of the wealth. Probably the biggest resentment was poor whites vs plantation owners. From Wikipedia

                “The plantation era, while it was in large part the source of the South’s initial economic prosperity, was also the reason why the South lagged in productivity starting in the early- to mid-19th century. Because the plantation system mainly required a large volume of unskilled labor, the South did not have the human capital to succeed when the plantation era was over. Ulrich Bonnell Phillips contends that the plantation “sadly restricted the opportunity of such men as were of better industrial quality than was required for the field gangs.” Essentially, men who would have been otherwise capable of performing other skilled jobs were nonetheless relegated to field work because of the nature of the system.”

                It’s hard to believe that many of the men fighting for the Confederacy wanted to maintain that system. This is a foundational part of the idea that the average Southerner had different motivations than the people at the top, many of whom did benefit from the plantation system.Report

              • Chip Daniels in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

                That’s not contradictory to my point about those “who were in all other respects identical to black people in their economic position”.

                The poor whites were fighting to keep their place on the second to the bottom rung of the ladder.

                The prospect of being no different than millions of free black people absolutely did (and still does) terrify and enrage them.Report

              • Michael Cain in reply to J_A says:

                Every other country in the Americas was able to solve the slavery problem without a war and without brankrupting itself…

                Haiti would like a word.

                I seem to recall that Mexico’s official abolition of slavery was buried in the ongoing wars for independence from Spain, with the slave-holders on the anti-independence side.Report

              • Aaron David in reply to Michael Cain says:

                Not only Haiti, but Favela dwellers might also want to put in an addendum.Report

              • J_A in reply to Aaron David says:

                I never said black people obtained social and economic equality in Latin America. As a consequence of the abolition of slavery. I said that there was no need for a civil warReport

              • J_A in reply to Michael Cain says:

                Ok, the USA AND Haiti are exceptional. The rest of the countries in Latin America, however, were able to abolish slavery much more painlessly.

                Though Mexico was one of the first (not the first) Latin American country to abolish slavery, it happened in 1829, eight years after the Spanish had abandoned Mexico in 1821. Chile (1823) iCentral America (1824), and Bolivia (1826), preceded Mexico.Report

              • Michael Cain in reply to J_A says:

                I was including the decade or so of revolts, coups, and Spanish attempts to reconquer as part of “independence”. Guerrero, who made the slavery proclamation, came to power in one of those, and was fairly quickly deposed in another one. There is, I believe, at least anecdotal evidence that Guerrero made the declaration in hopes that newly-freed slaves would rally to his side. OTOH, it was the only one of his reforms that wasn’t overturned after he was ousted.Report

              • PD Shaw in reply to J_A says:

                I don’t agree with much of this. Fogel and Engerman demonstrated that slavery was an efficient, productive system. This was once controversial, but there are surveys of economists that now state they were right. The belief, via Adam Smith, that free labor was a superior economic system was deeply flawed one held by anti-slavery advocates. My the mid-19th century it was an observable fact that former slave societies were in dramatic decline, like gold mine towns that go bust. This meant that antislavery arguments were both seen as naive and disengenous, but that post-abolition assumptions that removing the institution were wholly inadequate.

                Also, the United States was where slavery was first banned; the laws passed by its states were copied in Latin American countries later. The main drive through would ultimately be the UK, which forced and coerced other countries to discontinue slavery, plus the gravitation forces of internal revolutions. In tropical climates, stopping the Atlantic slave trade would essentially end slave economies because a continuous supply of Africans was necessary to maintain an adequate slave population.Report

              • J_A in reply to PD Shaw says:

                You are quite wrong about your timeline: the only places to abolish slavery after the USA were Cuba, Puerto Rico (both still Spanish colonies) and Brazil (actually, the largest slaveholding country).


                Someone said that slavery was abolished in Mexico as part of the independence process. Actually, slavery abolition in all the former Spanish colonies happened after the Independence process was completed (in 1824).Report

              • George Turner in reply to J_A says:

                Well, since nobody can seem to reach a consensus on the economic questions, it seems we’ll have to settle the debate through force of arms. Yeeeehawwww!!!! ^_^

                From my upcoming index card, The Condensed Study Guide to the US Civil War.Report

    • I agree with much of what you say here, Richard, but I have one general comment and one point on which I think you and I see things differently.

      The general comment: The US Civil War was/is relitigated, but it’s not unique for being relitigated. Most conflicts, most important events/occurrences in history, are relitigated, reinterpreted. Sometimes, that means a certain number of interpretations that tend to favor the losers can gain prominence. The Civil War and Pelopponnesian War were not as much of an exception as you suggest in your comment elsewhere here (and several, several comments in other threads). The “it was states’ rights” pro-CSA apologetics gained some prominence in the US for some time, as you point out, but not necessarily for as long as you might think and not necessarily because the south lost. In many ways it won the peace. I’m speaking from relative ignorance because I’m not an expert in Civil War historiography.

      The point at which I think I see it differently: I still want to preserve the academic’s “reflex” to shun simplistic explanations, even when it comes to the US Civil War. I have at least two reasons for that. First, even though I believe that any serious consideration of why the Civil War happened needs to acknowledge that the war was about slavery and that the south seceded principally because its leaders thought by doing so they would preserve slavery, it’s still too simplistic to simply say “slavery caused the civil war” and to leave it at that. I don’t think that’s what you’re doing here in these comments. But I do want to say that her are real questions of why the Civil War happened when it did and why it happened at all.

      Second, one reason for the academics’ “reflex” is that the more simplistic the explanation, the more it represents an orthodoxy that ought never be challenged or questioned. The simplistic explanation becomes a cudgel used against anyone who sees shades of gray and it becomes a boon to extremists who can now claim “there are things *they* don’t want you to know.”

      I know in the past I have raised these concerns in other threads. I want to just leave off by saying I don’t question the central role that slavery and the defense of slavery played in the Civil War and the CSA’s decision to secede.Report

  9. Silver Wolf says:

    I think there are two things that are causing this problem; one general and one specific to the issue.

    The general issue is that, whenever something that was permissible is now viewed as unacceptable, we demand that people explicitly acknowledge that they have made the course change. Any nuance in your response is viewed as apologizing. Hopefully, in time, the pendulum will swing back a bit.

    The specific issue is that the United States, in 150 years, obviously still hasn’t addressed its original sin. Until and unless this is fully resolved, the Civil War will remain an emotional subject to many, instead of an academic one.Report

  10. veronica d says:

    Back in my punk rock days, I had a friend, Bobby Load (not his real name — “Load” was the name of his band). Anyway, he was crazy, drunk-as-fuck, weirdo punker dude who, among other things, wore a confederate flag beltbuckle — which came across as a kind ironic parody of southern “white trash.”

    The guy was great. He was so weird and kind and outgoing and batshit. I liked him a lot. Most people did.

    A modern day Bobby Load could not wear that belt buckle today. Is this a loss? Should we be upset?

    I don’t think so. I’m sure a modern day Bobby Load could find other cool ways to be ironically strange, which are not symbols of hate.

    I’m pretty okay with a complete rejection of the rebel flag. After all, it is in fact an adopted symbol of contemporary white supremacy. Furthermore, it’s historic source was an army fighting to preserve slavery. It’s not arbitrarily racist. The racism is baked in.

    Some of the symbolic conflicts of the “culture war” are unfortunate. For example, I find Northern European heathenism a cool aesthetic. However, many of its symbols have be co-opted by white supremacists. That sucks, because those symbols weren’t actually about that, and there is no reason non-racists shouldn’t have access to them.

    In other words, don’t let those fucking Nazis have Thor!

    The rebel flag is different, precisely because of its history, just as the swastika is different. (And yes I know the swastika was a Hindu religious symbol or something. That’s a long conversation.)

    Big question: why shouldn’t we re-contextualize Robert E Lee? Is he sacrosanct? Why shouldn’t our understanding change? Can we not look at him, along with the various apologetic things written about him, and conclude, “Actually, no, the guy was a racist shit fighting for what was clearly the wrong side?”

    Because that statement is true.

    “But we should understand him?”

    Are you saying we don’t? You can understand someone and still decide we shouldn’t glorify them in the public square.

    Take those damn statues down. Honor those who fought for human dignity.Report

    • Roland Dodds in reply to veronica d says:

      This. Well said.Report

    • Richard Hershberger in reply to veronica d says:

      On contextualization: Lee is known for one thing and one thing only: commanding the Army of Northern Virginia in the Civil War. Take that away and you have an obscure army officer who was respected by his peers but merely a footnote in history. This is how contextualizing Lee is different from contextualizing Washington or Jefferson. They both had feet of clay, but are remembered for other things. We put up statues of Washington and Jefferson for their accomplishments, in spite of their flaws. Confederates? The flaws are why they get statues, which tells me that the people putting up these statues don’t really think those are flaws.Report

      • veronica d in reply to Richard Hershberger says:


        For example, I get why military history nerds might be into the guy. He was, after all, a pretty good general given the standards of the time. At least, a lot of people seem to think he was. I’m fine with that.

        I know World War II nerds who think Guderian was hot shit. I’m fine with that. If you’re into tanks and stuff, I can see why he would interest you.

        He was still okay with fighting for the Nazis. I don’t think the world needs any statues of the guy.

        Glorification is a subtle concept. We do need to think critically about how we engage with such historic figures.Report

        • Richard Hershberger in reply to veronica d says:

          I did a lot of wargamining in my youth, of the old Avalon Hill hex mapboard shoving Panzers into Stalingrad sort. My sense is that the community at that time was pretty good about admiring the skills of someone like Guderian without glorifying the politics behind it. (Or perhaps young me wasn’t sensitive to this sort of thing.) I don’t have much contact with the modern equivalent of the old wargaming community. It wouldn’t surprise me to find that it is a cesspool.Report

          • veronica d in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

            I did miniatures, and yeah, we had the one guy in the group who loved the Germans and knew every camouflage scheme of the various units used in the various theaters of the war, etcetera. He was cool. Mostly we all seemed to adopt a kind of self-imposed tunnel vision WRT the context.

            Which is okay up to a point. It’s complicated.

            Funny story, though. I recall one gaming event, where there was this new guy. Anyway, he noticed I was a punk, so he asked me what I though of {certain person}”. Well, I did remember {certain person}, who happened to be a Nazi skinhead who once beat up one of my friends.

            So I say, “He was a fucking Nazi asshole.”

            The dude then said, “Well, he’s me, except he’s not a Nazi asshole anymore. But you’re right.”

            That was interesting. He was playing the Russians.Report

          • I’ve never really been involved with gaming culture. But I do occasionally play a free version of the game “axis and allies” (Triple A, if you’re curious), which is at least one degree more simplistic than the Avalon Hill hex mapboard games. (Triple A has a Civil War game and a Napoleon game, and several others. But those are too complicated for me.)

            I do wonder what the ethics are of me playing that game. It’s not so much which side I’m playing. It’s more the fact that I’m getting enjoyment out of a recreation of something that killed so many people and caused so much anguish–and that was 1) so recent and 2) still reverberates today. While it doesn’t feel wrong enough for me to quit playing, it doesn’t feel wholly right, either.

            That’s different from Risk, which is so removed from anything like real battles that I don’t have much of a problem with the ethics behind it. But Risk is a little too simplistic for me. (And my cd-rom copy broke and I haven’t been able to find another one I can play by myself.)Report

      • Jesse in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

        Yup, Washington got a monument because he was the father of the country, was a general that won a revolution, etc. He was also a slave owner.

        Lee got statues because he committed treason in defense of slavery.Report

        • gabriel conroy in reply to Jesse says:

          “Lee got statues because he committed treason in defense of slavery.”

          For some reason, I have a hard time with the “treason in defense of slavery” trope to describe the CSA.

          It’s not because it’s not true. It is true. By any reasonable definition of treason, going against one’s oath to the constitution and setting up one’s own independent state constitutes treason in my view,* especially because the reason they were doing that was to defend slavery.

          I think I’m bothered by it because the accusation of “treason” sometimes strikes me as disingenuous. Well, not exactly disingenuous….I believe you’re sincere and that most people who invoke “treason in the defense of….” are sincere. It just seems like a too easy catchall, like a way to take refuge in a type of patriotism I’m not willing to sign on to.

          At the same time, I realize the ideological work people are trying to do with that “treason in the defense of slavery” statement. The type of people who today are pro-CSA apologists are the very type to make facile accusations of treason, or at least of insufficient patriotism, against others who lodge objections to them.

          This comment is probably coming off as a criticism of you or of your using that trope. That’s not my intention, but I’m just airing something that has bothered me about it for a long time.

          *I’m also on record as believing the American colonists, including G.W., were traitors to the United Kingdom. They had better easons than defending slavery, but I still think most of those reasons were insufficient.Report

  11. The Dukes of Hazzard was harmless. Adding the Confederate flag to state flags and erecting new Confederate monuments to oppose the civil rights movement was not, nor was the explicitly white supremacist and anti-Semitic rally in Charleston. This is another situation where vice signaling bothers me more than virtue signaling.

    By the way, have we ever seen people whose interest in the Confederacy is based purely on history and regional pride try to take it back from the haters? I’m not recalling that.Report

    • Mike Dwyer in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      I was reading through these comments and hoping to not find a reason to reply, because I am so over this topic. But this was apparently a bridge too far…

      “By the way, have we ever seen people whose interest in the Confederacy is based purely on history and regional pride try to take it back from the haters? “

      Um…yes? Every generation of Southerners seem to rediscover the South. Up until the last 20 years or so, that usually involved the flag as a sort of shorthand. Now they find other things like biscuits and artisan grits. I wore a confederate flag belt buckle in the early 90s. Now I couldn’t imagine doing it. I guess we have evolved, but I don’t think you are right Mike if you are implying it was always some secret racist thing.Report

  12. Chip Daniels says:

    History book, 2045;
    Inscription on the base of a statue of Osama Bin Ladin in Times Square, New York:

    “”For every Islamic boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet eight o’clock on that September morning in 2011, the 19 Martyrs are in position in the cockpit, and Osama Bin Ladin himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up to the sky waiting for Mohammed Atta to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Saladin look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Iraq, Syria, Mecca and Medina, the world, the golden dome of the Rock itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago….”Report

  13. Mark says:

    One thing that I don’t get about the Civil War and lots of other wars is the motivation of the ordinary soldier. What did some guy making the charge alongside Pickett think? The political leaders threw out a bunch of slogans, but I don’t see how that would translate into personal benefit for Johnny Reb. “Here is my chance to get a limb amputated without anesthesia for the cause of states’ rights,” does not strike me as very motivational.Report

    • George Turner in reply to Mark says:

      Shakespeare covered that in the opening of Henry V, Act 4

      Bates: Ay, or more than we should seek after, for we know enough if we know we are the king’s subjects. If his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us.


      Yes, and more than we should seek to know. It’s enough that we know we’re the king’s subjects. If his cause is wrong, our obedience to the king clears us of responsibility for it. But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day, and cry all, “We died at such a place,” some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle, for how can they charitably dispose of anything, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it, who to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.


    • Doctor Jay in reply to Mark says:

      Here’s a quotation from a recruitment poster for Tenneseans:

      The Yankee war is now being waged for “beauty and booty”. The have driven us from them, and now say OUR TRADE they must and will have. To excite their hired and ruffian soldiers, they promise them our lands, and tell them our women are beautiful — that beauty is the reward of the brave.

      Tenneseans! Your country calls! Shall we wait until our homes are laid desolate; until sword and rape have visited them? NEVER!

      There’s some nice wordsmithing there, but the pitch is full of distortions and half-truths, and fearmongering. The Confederate lower ranks often referred to “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight”. And yet fight it they did. Which is how so many men, in my opinion, have been exploited in the course of war for centuries.Report

      • pillsy in reply to Doctor Jay says:

        One thing about this is, OK, maybe you spare some empathy for the grunts in the Confederate army who were exploited like so many others. Like, they weren’t monsters, they were induced by lies and propaganda and it’s what happens with war.

        But that doesn’t do a damn thing to mitigate the crimes of the Confederacy and its leaders (like Robert E. Lee). Indeed, it aggravates them, because in addition to fighting for a cause only a heinous asshole would fight for, they were also sending these guys to die for that cause.

        Yet the monuments to the leaders are treated as sacrosanct. A flag representing their nation is supposed to honored, or at least not regarded as a de facto statement of evil intent.

        So even by very charitable standards, we still wind up with “nuance” that isn’t actually relevant, because it doesn’t justify what’s being asked.Report

      • The wordsmithing, yes, but also the draft and other pressures, some subtle, some not, to enlist.Report

        • I hasten to add that probably a good number, perhaps even a majority, had some non-trivial devotion to or investment the cause of preserving slavery itself. I insist on subtlety primarily because people are complicated and have complicated motivations.Report

    • JoeSal in reply to Mark says:

      They were probably incorrectly thinking they softened up the Union artillery enough that it wouldn’t be suicide:

      • Marchmaine in reply to JoeSal says:

        Current scholarship places more emphasis on a failed assault on the Union Center/Rear by JEB Stuart’s cavalry. Stuart was to move to the far Left of the Confederate lines and strike out for the rear of the Union Center during the Artillery barrage.

        Stuart was turned back by Gen. Gregg and a plucky newly minted brigade commander, George Armstrong Custer and his Michigan Wolverines.

        If it had worked, it would have echoed the success at Chancellorsville where Lee split his Army and sent Jackson out of communication and command to the extreme flank.

        That it did not work, exposed the difficulties of convergence in an era with slow communications and also illustrates Lee’s weakness in effectively building a better corps of Staff Officers… which might also have prevented the unfortunate (to the confederate) interpretation of the word “practicable” on Day 1.

        It’s not certain that Lee would have prevented the advance if word had reached him of Stuart’s repulse… but no word reached him, so we’ll never know.Report

    • Chip Daniels in reply to Mark says:

      We could, with more urgency and clarity, ask why a young man decides in 2019 to go and fight and die in Iraq or Afghanistan for a cause which no one can quite explain, but is somehow related to an event which happened before he was born.Report

    • Pinky in reply to Mark says:

      Love of country.Report

      • Chip Daniels in reply to Pinky says:

        We need a sarcasm tag around this joint.Report

        • Pinky in reply to Chip Daniels says:

          Not sarcasm. Understand what “love of country” would mean to an ordinary soldier, and you’ll understand the era. Don’t, and you won’t.Report

          • CJColucci in reply to Pinky says:

            People join the services for a variety of reasons. Once they’re in, being sent into misbegotten clusterf***s is part of the job, and they’re professionals. They rarely actually decide to sign up for the purpose of taking part in whatever clusterf**k their superiors send them into. What keeps them moving east when the other side’s bullets are heading west has more to do with unit cohesion than any belief in the specific cause.Report

          • Chip Daniels in reply to Pinky says:

            They love their country, but does it love them back?Report

  14. Doctor Jay says:

    I love this post, Dennis. One of the things I appreciate the most about it comes from the fact I was a member of the Golden Horde when Ta-Nehisi Coates went through all his exploration of the Civil War and what it meant to him. He ended up a different place than you, and that’s fine with me. In fact, it’s probably healthier for me, as it undermines any notion that there might be a Black Opinion about something.

    I can summarize my own feelings about it by quoting Grant, “Never have better men served a worse cause”. And many of them, North and South, were good men.

    The thing that has become more present in my own, and I think the public consciousness, is the existence of US Colored Troops, and the impact they had on the Union war effort – which was not a small thing. Glory to them.Report

  15. pillsy says:

    @George Turner:

    He was not. How do I know this?

    Because he said so. Last week. As Mr Sanders alluded to in the OP.

    The next day, Trump responded, saying “If you look at what I said, you will see that that question was answered perfectly. And I was talking about people that went because they felt very strongly about the monument to Robert E. Lee, a great general. Whether you like it or not, he was one of the great generals.”

    Emphasis mine.

    Why do you even bother with this garbage? It’s trivially refutable, and as a bonus for me you’re providing all the evidence I need that far too many demands for “nuance” in discussion of the Confederacy are rooted in a desire to play apologist for either awful alt-right malefactors (like Kessler and his buddies) or awful malefactors who are, at best, barely one degree of separation from the alt-right (like Trump).Report

    • George Turner in reply to pillsy says:

      Which garbage? Your Politifact link laid out, in some detail, where Trump kept condemning the white supremacists, or did you read some other link?

      Biden caught a lot of flak for using his campaign launch to lie about Trump’s original quote. USA Today condemned him for it, and ran Trump’s full original statement.

      “Trump: You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides. … I saw the same pictures as you did. You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down of, to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name. … So you know what, it’s fine. You’re changing history. You’re changing culture. And you had people — and I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the White nationalists, because they should be condemned totally — but you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and White nationalists. Okay? And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly. Now, in the other group also, you had some fine people. But you also had troublemakers, and you see them come with the black outfits and with the helmets and with the baseball bats. You had a lot of bad people in the other group.”

      The neo-Nazis and Antifa are, politically, indistinguishable in their beliefs and their advocacy for violence. The FBI is currently investigating an attempt by Antifa to acquire weapons from Mexican drug cartels so they can kill US border and customs agents, the vast majority of whom are ethnic, and primarily Latino. Do the border agents care whether it’s a neo-Nazi or an Antifa member doing the shooting, when both groups are race-obsessed violent extremists who are whiter than Pat Boone eating a mayonnaise sandwich on Wonderbread? Probably not.

      The UVA students who fought the Nazis are now condemning Joe Biden as a racist white supremacist who is trying to use their struggle for his own personal gain. I guess they got momentarily distracted from their normal Trump hatred, which the left cooked up out of nowhere after spending decades happily rubbing elbows with him.

      This kind of thing will keep going round and round as long as people are obsessed with identify anyone who disagrees with them as Hitler or Jefferson Davis. It saps them of the ability to make reasoned judgments, all in return for getting a vicarious thrill from indulging in blind hatred. The real world isn’t like the Marvel Universe. Not everything is pure-good versus pure-evil, and the belief that it is is childish.

      Bad things can have good consequences, and good things can have bad consequences. Every person on the planet has a set of ancestors who did horrible things and good things, and had horrible things done to them. All of their stories are rich, unique, and often tragic, but that’s what led to all of us being here. If you tried to erase all the bad things, the result would be like Thanos wiping half the universe out of existence.

      We can look on the Confederates, and those who commemorated them, as being morally blind. But that’s a warning, because we are just as blind as they were because we cannot see what we cannot see, so we won’t know what we’re currently completely blind about as we desperately seize on what we do see as the be all and end all of causes.

      The worrisome thing is, if you’re spending all your moral energy and attention on a statue of Robert E Lee in some obscure park in a random city, you’ve probably run completely out of causes that are of any importance, or you are failing to see what other worthwhile causes are out there.Report

      • pillsy in reply to George Turner says:

        Which garbage?

        The garbage where there were people on the Unite the Right side who weren’t white supremacists, genius. That’s not true, and without that, well, his statement is bullshit deflection as usual. The protesters the night before were the ones with fucking Tiki torches chanting “Jews will not replace us.”

        And as an aside Trump is full of shit about the “legal protest”. You don’t need a permit to protest. This is America.

        So yeah, you say Trump totally condemns neo-Nazis, but then he also says the neo-Nazis were just being good citizens the night before and they were treated unfairly by the press. At best he’s lying, at worst it’s fucking gobbledegook because his brain is mush.

        The UVA students who fought the Nazis are now condemning Joe Biden as a racist white supremacist who is trying to use their struggle for his own personal gain.


        I guess they got momentarily distracted from their normal Trump hatred, which the left cooked up out of nowhere after spending decades happily rubbing elbows with him.

        Cooked up out of nowhere? He spent years spreading racist conspiracy theories about Obama and then ran a campaign for President while saying a bunch of really racist crap, much of which was also bizarre and false.

        This kind of thing will keep going round and round as long as people are obsessed with identify anyone who disagrees with them as Hitler or Jefferson Davis.

        Maybe people would be less inclined to think the people disagreeing with them had anything to do with Jefferson Davis if the people disagreeing with them had a position that wasn’t, “Confederate monuments and flags are Good, Actually.”

        The worrisome thing is, if you’re spending all your moral energy and attention on a statue of Robert E Lee in some obscure park in a random city, you’ve probably run completely out of causes that are of any importance, or you are failing to see what other worthwhile causes are out there.

        Yeah it’s funny how a bunch of fascist criminals attacking and killing innocent people in order to ostensibly protect a statue focus people’s attention on it.

        And if it’s so irrelevant, why shouldn’t the people who live there and want to take it down not just…. take it down?Report

        • George Turner in reply to pillsy says:

          Trump wasn’t defending Unite the Right. There were a bunch of other anti-statue removal groups who’d been involved in the debate over the removal of the statues, a debate which started in 2012. The initial political response was “No way, they stay.” But anti-statue protesters kept applying pressure and defacing the statutes, so by 2014 the city was more inclined to favor removal. However, they were sued by the Friends of C’Ville Monuments.

          The Friends of C’Ville Monuments, along with some other charities, backs adding more plaques and information around the existing monuments, including informational additions to Booker T Washington Park, and they want a to build a monument for Julian Bond, former head of the NAACP who spent 20 years in Congress.

          But protesters from a variety of backgrounds kept attacking the statues, and as removals swept the South like a fad, it created an opportunity for Spengler and others to call together many dozens of hate groups for the cause du jour, some even coming from Canada. There may have been plenty of groups who weren’t white nationalists there, but they wouldn’t have gotten a line of press. The Proud Boys, a far right white supremacist organization led by an Asian and a Samoan, both Obama supporting anti-racist bipartisan Democrats so far as I can tell from interviews, declined to attend.

          Also in attendance were several Northeastern militia groups who just defend everyone’s First Amendment right to speak or protest freely, and according to the LA Times, they stayed neutral and did more to break up fights than the police did.

          But violent activists from the far left also showed up, and in huge numbers. Not just Antifa and similar, but groups like Redneck Revolt, which seems to be an armed revolutionary communist organization for working class whites, and who pretty much want to kill the elites, overthrow the government, kill the cops, end private property, and what not.

          And both sides came to fight, and did. Trump stayed silent for days because, as he said, wanted to actually have some facts before speaking. The backdrop and the events are complicated and confusing, with an almost endless list of bad actors on both sides as Nazis battled Communists, and Nazis battled Fascists who are too dumb to realize they’re Fascists, with plenty of normal people caught up in the middle.

          Anyway, a permit is required for large protests, and Spengler’s group had such a permit for the first rally, but were denied subsequent permits to reprise the chaos. And a couple of days ago Virginia courts held that It’s illegal to remove the statutes without state approval because they are clearly war memorials.

          Also last week, some on the left have started denouncing US WW-II memorials are monuments to racists, since the US still maintained segregation. So I guess all the WW–II memorials will have to go next. There’s no end to it, because anyone can think up a good reason to destroy any monument, statue, or work of art, and often get others to go along with it.Report

  16. Always nice to read a piece from you, Dennis!Report

  17. Mike Dwyer says:

    Great post DennisReport

  18. Rufus F. says:

    This will add nothing to the political discussion, but “The Dukes of Hazzard” was already a revised version of the movie “Moonrunners”, which was not really a hit. I think the main change they made was to make it less obvious that they were running moonshine. I suppose the gritty remake will have them running opiates and called the Sackler brothers.

  19. J.L. Wall says:

    I enjoyed this, Dennis. I wrote a lot here about the Civil War — and Foote’s accountings of it — but, as I just reminded myself, that was almost a decade (!) ago. Foote’s CIVIL WAR trilogy — which, in theory, served as Burns’ basis — gives a decidedly less sympathetic view of the South, even while maintaining his fascination with its charismatic and idiosyncratic personalities. Foote was a novelist — he never came to think of himself as an historian — and Milton and Proust are key to understanding how he examines history. If you’ll permit me to quote myself:

    “Reading Milton leads to the question of what, exactly, is at the core of Lucifer’s rebellion against Heaven: is it purely evil, or a kind of (misplaced) love? It isn’t difficult to imagine that Foote wouldn’t rule out the latter.” (

    The “Proustian” aspect (Foote was obsessed with Proust; the carrot he dangled for finishing his trilogy was allowing himself to re-read IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME) has to do with how we understand the narrator. He’s not an impartial historian; nor is he Foote himself. He’s a character, the protagonist (like Proust’s unnamed “Marcel”), on whom the slow accretion of facts leads to the understanding that while Jefferson Davis was always “Lucifer” (his nickname even before secession), the South actively chose to be of the Devil’s party. There’s a scene (in vol. 2?) where Davis literally pigeon-holes Pat Cleburne’s letter calling for enlisting and emancipating slaves in order to solve their manpower issue. When the government chooses to sacrifice its ability to survive and potentially win the war for the principle of defending slavery, when Davis et al then effectively end the career of Cleburne — a rising star, one of the few surviving competent, let alone talented tacticians by this point — that’s when the scales fall from the narrator’s eyes.

    That it takes over a thousand pages is, I think, the point. Understanding history — this history, especially — comes across as as slow a process as understanding self in Proust (or Milton, I guess). Perhaps because, for Foote, it’s so much *like* understanding self. (This of course never appears in Burns, which is much as you describe it above. Foote, for what it’s worth, worried and complained about the production even while participating in it in letters to Walker Percy.)

    (Some of the Proust and Milton thoughts come out at even GREATER length at: and and . I wonder, having read your piece, Dennis, if I’d have felt as comfortable writing them today. I hope so — but I’m not quite as certain as I’d like to be, though I stand by their readings and conclusions.)Report

    • George Turner in reply to J.L. Wall says:

      There were some pretty good panel discussions Ken Burns Vietnam War series, with many historians questioning the way his production decisions deeply biased the presentation, including his use of various soundtracks for the background.

      *goes and finds it*

      It’s about two hours.

      Somewhere out in some corner of the world should be a hilarious spoof of Ken Burns Civil War that appeared on Canadian TV. It kept the same background music as the series, but interviewed countless Canadians who’d watched the PBS program saying things like “At first I thought it would be over in a few days, but it just dragged on and on. Finally me and the wife were asking if this series would just go on forever.” Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to find it again.Report

  20. Graeme Edwards says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful piece which I find gives great balance to many other pieces I have read recently on reinterpreting the Civil War. As an Australian, who has had an interest in the war for many years, I have been fascinated by the many pieces written with criticism of past interpretations but not allowing any consideration for historical context. The current use of the war as a way of making political milage is symptomatic of the way many western first world countries are heading in their political debate. Find issues that you can divide people on and make it about us and them.Report

    • greginak in reply to Graeme Edwards says:

      @Graeme Edwards What is often ironic and funny is how many of the defenders of the confederacy seem to have no idea of how many actual confederates at the time saw the war. I have seen many a discussion where defenders loudly insist the CW wasnt’ about slavery or some such hooey. Then the historian quote people from that time, in context, saying “Yup this is a war to keep slavery for ever”. Hell there are those quotes from years before the war and defiantly from the decades after.Report

      • Morat20 in reply to greginak says:

        I’m in Texas, so I simply quote them the Letter of Secession we sent. It’s about 90% “Slavery now, slavery forever” and about 10% whining that the Federal government wouldn’t reimburse them for dealing with the occasional brigand from Mexico.Report

        • greginak in reply to Morat20 says:

          Oh yeah. Those are quality discussions also. A few other states are like that. I guess that is what the cool kids would call politically incorrect context.Report

  21. Dennis,

    There is a point at which I think I disagree with you and a point at which I think I agree.

    (Potential) disagreement: Your OP seems to me to suggest a sharp distinction between “history” (assumed to be a set in stone account of what happened) and people using history for present purposes. If I’m discerning your argument correctly, I urge you to see “history” differently, as something that’s constantly being reinterpreted in light of present-day circumstances.

    But I think I agree that talking about the Civil War comes with its own form of virtue signalling. (And also, as one commenter said above, “vice signalling.” I’ll say, though, that one person’s vice is another’s virtue, so we sometimes are talking about the same process, but because most people here at OT seem to sign on to the of calling out the racist and pro-slavery reasons for the CSA, I’ll focus on that.) The problem with all (or at least most) virtue signaling isn’t so much whether what’s being signaled is actually a virtue, it’s the hyper-preachy, moralistic stance the signalling implies, which elides all nuance. Now, as Pillsy and others have noted above, there are real, pressing reasons to elide nuance, chief among them is that pro-CSA symbols have become predictable markers of a likelihood to do real harm to others.Report

    • greginak in reply to gabriel conroy says:

      The problem is reducing other statements to Virtue Signalling. That suggests you know their motives for what they are saying and that it is shallow and only a pose. It changes the discussion from whatever the topic is to the speaker and your implication about them. VS is one of those terms that may actually describe something but almost never enhances a conversation and is waaaay overused.Report

      • I think I can agree with that.

        I’d add that virtue signaling may be one of those things that I should be chary of imputing to others, but when it’s imputed to me, I should reflect on how the person doing the imputing might have a point.Report

  22. George Turner says:

    It also would make things like Central American archaeology pretty darn difficult.

    *** At a dig site in the Honduran rain forest ***

    Grad student: “But Jaguar King’s butchering thugs were fighting to capture everyone in this settlement and haul them on top of their pyramid, where their psycho priest was going to use an obsidian knife to carve open their chest, rip out their beating heart, and hold it up to their sun god, Huitzilopochtli! And then they ripped the skin off the still warm corpses and wore them like suits! And you side with those fascists, you evil monster!!!!”

    Undergrad: “But the people in this area raided villages that were under the Jaguar King’s protection, took the young men captive, decapitated them, and used the severed heads in their ball game! They were nothing but evil and deserved to die!”

    Volunteer on vacation: “They were just trying to protect themselves from the evils of an entire system based on tyranny, oppression, and murder! They shouldn’t have been sacrificed to the silly sun god! Theocracy is pure evil, and this is the proof of it, you Episcopalian shill!”

    Young intern: “There’s nothing silly about Huitzilopochtli! Without the sun the entire planet, and everyone on it, dies! Is that what you want to happen, mass death for all of humanity? You’re worse than Hitler, Stalin, and the Khmer Rouge combined!”

    Grad student: “But the sun was going to keep on shining regardless of what your brutal monsters did!”

    Young Intern: “Not in their universe. You have to understand the context of their religious worldview!”

    Grad student: “Oh, like that excuses mass murder! That’s how all you religious freaks think, just trying to nuance it away with a wave of your blood stained hands!”


    Their discussion, though lively and passionate, adds absolutely nothing to the understanding of anything.Report

  23. DensityDuck says:

    It’s always surprising to me that the people who think invading the Confederacy after Secession was obvious and undeniably justified and the people who think nuking Nagasaki was a war crime are the same people.Report