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Timothy D. Manning, M.Div.
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How Should 21st Century Americans Think about the
War for Southern Independence?
Clyde N. Wilson
Given at the 13th Annual Gettysburg Banquet of the J.E.B. Stuart Camp, SCV, Philadelphia on 03 November 2007.
We human beings are peculiar creatures, half angel and half animal, as someone has said. Alone among creatures we have a consciousness of ourselves, of our situation, and of our movement through time. We have language, and by symbols can communicate knowledge to one another and across generations.
We can learn something about humans from the Divine Revelations in the Bible. We can also learn something by scientific examination of our physical selves. But most of what we know about human beings is in our knowledge of the past. As a philosopher puts it: we must live forward but we can only think backward. I am, of course, making a plea for the importance of history, or to be more exact, historical memory, something that is undergoing catastrophic destruction today in the United States.
People without knowledge of their past would be scarcely human. What makes us human is the culture we inherit. It has been truly said that we are what we remember. Let me emphasise: What we remember determines what we are. What we take from the past is crucial to our identity. And it follows, as Dr. Samuel Johnson said, that there is hardly any worse crime against humanity than to falsify its records.
John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, (10 January 1834 – 19 June 1902), known as Sir John Dalberg-Acton, and usually referred to as Lord Acton. He took a great interest in the United States, considering its federal structure the perfect guarantor of individual liberties. During Lincoln's War to Prevent Southern Independence, his sympathies lay entirely with the Confederate States of America, for their defense of State's Rights against a centralized government that, by all historical precedent, would inevitably turn tyrannical. His notes to Gladstone on the subject helped sway many in the British government to sympathize with the Southern people. After the South's surrender, he wrote to Robert E. Lee that "I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo." [At the end of this essay the editor has added the full text of Lord Acton's letter to Robert E. Lee and Lee's response to that letter.]
Every society of any worth has revered those who preceded. Romans, in their period of greatest freedom and achievement, kept their ancestors by the fireside as minor gods. The Greeks at their highest point thrived in a belief in a Golden Age of Heroes that preceded their own lesser times. It is right that we of the Sons of Confederate Veterans honour our forebears because they are ours--- but not only because they are ours.
We sons of Confederate soldiers are especially fortunate in our forefathers. They not only won a place in the hearts of us, their descendants. They also won the lasting admiration of every one in the civilized world who values courage, skill, sacrifice, and an indomitable spirit in defense of freedom. That is why our battle flag, which is being suppressed in these United States, appeared spontaneously at the fall of the Berlin Wall and among peoples celebrating their liberation from the Soviet Empire.
Our forefathers are admired by the world to a degree seldom granted to lost causes. I find that thoughtful Europeans speak respectfully of the Confederacy, as did Winston Churchill. Foreigners have a great advantage in judging the right and wrong of the War Between the States. They do not start out with the automatic assumption that all the good is on one side and all the bad on the other.
Lord Acton, an English historian who published many deeply-researched volumes on the history of liberty, wrote to General Lee in 1866. The defeat at Appomattox, Acton said, was a blow to the entire civilized world because it had reversed the progress of humanity toward constitutional liberty. And Lee replied:
All the South has ever desired was that the Union, as established by our forefathers, should be preserved and that the government, as originally organized, should be administered in purity and truth.
General James Johnson Pettigrew (July 4, 1828 – July 17, 1863) was an author, lawyer, linguist, diplomat, and a Confederate general in the Linoln's War to Prevent Southern Independence. He was a major leader in Pickett's Charge and was killed a few days after the Battle of Gettysburg during the Confederate retreat to Virginia.
General James Johnston Pettigrew, on his way here to Gettysburg with the Army of Northern Virginia in the spring of 1863, wrote of the Confederacy, "Our reputation, next to the Greeks, will be the most heroic of nations." What this brilliant and learned man, who lost his life in the campaign, meant was, that in the long perspective of history, the action most exemplary of heroism was the stand of the small Greek city-states against the mighty Persian empire in the 5th century B.C. Next to that, most worthy of admiration in the long perspective of history, would be the outnumbered soldiers and people of the South in their resistance to another giant invading power. The world has for a long time conceded a measure of truth to Pettigrew's prediction. If not in second place, our Confederate fathers stand very high in the history of heroism in a noble cause.
People without a past describe an ever-increasing part of the American population. Thanks to the government, it is projected that in a very few years a majority of inhabitants of the U.S. will be post-1965 immigrants and their descendants. People with no inherited connection to the American past---to the Revolution, or the winning of the frontier, or even to the sacrifices of World War II. Along with this, there is a campaign going on to wipe out the historical memory of Americans and replace it with a made-up history that is suitable for a multicultural empire. If we sons do our duty, I can foresee a time when Confederate heritage will be the only American heritage left.
My interest in this question became intense during the controversy over the battle flag on the South Carolina capitol dome. During that controversy, a press conference and television appearance was orchestrated by spokespersons for some 90 professional historians in the state. Here is what they said: the War of 1861--1865 was about slavery and nothing but slavery, the Confederate flag is a symbol of racism and treason, and that is not just their opinion, they declared, but rather an unquestionable truth established by unanimous experts.
There are a hundred different things wrong with this statement. It is a misuse of history to reduce such a large and complex event as The War to such simplistic terms. Historical interpretations change over time and in other generations the prevailing interpretation of the War was very different. Furthermore, so-called expert opinion cannot settle questions of value and meaning in human experience, which must always remain open for further understanding.
And what do we mean when we say a war is "about" something? Was the conflict not also "about" economic interests, as was believed by a former generation of historians much more learned than these, or cultural conflict, or constitutional questions, or issues of invasion and defense?
Still further, the opinion so declared was not all that expert. Very few of the noble 90 signers of the statement have any real fundamental knowledge of The War period. Most of their expertise was pretty remote, some not even in American history. Some of them had only been in South Carolina a short time—coming from weird places like Burma or California. They were expressing a party line, identifying with a view that they have been told that all wise and good people adhere to. This was not an informed historical judgment but a political fashion statement. When you hear that all experts agree about something, you know a party line is being enforced, because there is always room for difference of opinion where people are actually thinking. These self-styled experts were telling South Carolinians that we are a stupid, deluded people, that our historical memory is false, our ancestors were despicable, and we should be instructed by better and wiser people like themselves. Our flag and our monuments are nothing but supports for a lie and they should be and soon will be done away with.
This is the view of Confederate history that dominates academics today. We are being expunged from history. We are to have no part in the story of America except one little dark corner labeled slavery and treason. When SC ETV presented a program on the siege of Charleston, it was not told from the viewpoint of the people of South Carolina heroically dealing with invasion but from the viewpoint of the invader. South Carolinians are merely a problem the good invader is eradicating. The recent History Channel production on Sherman's March was from the same perspective.
What those historians are invoking is the current doctrine of “the Lost Cause Myth,” which claims to explain that everything favourable that anyone believes about the Confederacy is false manufactured propaganda. According to this rendering, your and my ancestors were evil people who tried to destroy the best country on earth to preserve slavery. Not only were they evil, but they were weak and stupid. They made a pathetic effort that was inevitably defeated. Then after the war, our evil ancestors, it is claimed, made up a mythology about a supposedly honourable and heroic Lost Cause which never really existed. In other words they covered up their bad deeds and failure with a pack of lies.
Remember that this anti-South historical onslaught is something recent. FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, and Carter did not mind being photographed with our battle flag and expressing great admiration for Robert E. Lee.
These people who want to trash our heritage display a familiar pattern—that of the conqueror wiping out the identity of the conquered. They want to substitute their political agenda for our real and true heritage. We, indeed all Americans, hunger for bread and they give us a stone. They replace our historical memory with ideology.
This fashionable interpretation among academic historians today is fully laid out in a Gallagher and Nolan book called "The Lost Cause Myth and Civil War History." According to this work, Confederate soldiers were not really brave and sacrificing, nor were they usually outnumbered; there were no real issues other than slavery; there was nothing to the Southern constitutional position or Southern complaints of economic and cultural aggression; Lee was not a great general (he lost didn't he); the Southern people did not really support the Confederacy but were only dupes of a few large slave-holders; Southern women did not really support the Confederacy either but were in secret rebellion against their domineering menfolk.
This idea involves a basic misuse of the concept of myth. History that is not true is not a myth, it is simply false. A myth is neither true nor false, it is art. All people conceive of their history to some degree in a mythological way. A myth may not be precisely accurate in detail but it sums up a truth imaginatively to facilitate its understanding and its transmission over the generations. Pedants may examine Magna Carta and tell us that it is really not much of a beginning for democracy. They miss the grain of meaningful truth contained in the traditional understanding. There is no history without an element of art. Facts are necessary but in themselves amount to little until arranged and given meaning. There is nothing wrong with myths if they are substantially true and preserve a valuable cultural inheritance.
For a long time, from the late 1800s through much of the 20th century, Americans enjoyed a comforting myth about the war. North and South agreed that it was a great tragedy, with good and bad on both sides, that had fortunately resulted in a stronger, united country. This myth was consecrated here in Gettysburg in the joint reunions of blue and grey. Southerners pledged future allegiance to the U.S. and accepted Lincoln as a good man who would not have allowed a harsh Reconstruction. Northerners accepted Confederate heroes as American heroes. Army bases were named after Confederate generals, American fighting men carried their Confederate flags to the far corners of the world in World War II, and every Hollywood star at least once played an admirable Confederate character. This was a good myth---a myth of reconciliation and harmony that allowed the national memory to cope with an immense and ugly event.
Those days are gone forever, though many of our SCV compatriots seem to think that it is still the 1950s and have not realised that they live in a world of Political Correctness (which is a polite name for Cultural Marxism). Remember, this is not an argument over historical interpretation. This is about who we are.
We now have the opportunity to refresh our understanding of what happened in 1861--1865 and start once more defending our fathers as they should be defended. We created the Stephen D. Lee Institute for this purpose---to make the case not only for the Confederate soldier but for his cause. It is useless to proclaim the courage, skill, and sacrifice of the Confederate soldier while permitting him to be guilty of a bad cause. I hope you have heard of the Institute and that what you have heard is favourable. We have marshaled a small but distinguished and redoubtable group of scholars to present anew the issues of America's greatest conflict. We are telling the truth about the war and the truth redeems our Confederate ancestors.
Dr. Clyde N. Wilsons book From Union To Empire: Essays in the Jeffersonian Tradition is available from the NCHF. Jeffersonian Democrats, also known as Southern conservatives, were once a numerous and common American type. They are seldom heard from any more, but for nearly forty years Clyde N. Wilson has been examining American history and current events from just such a viewpoint. Wilson, as historian and columnist Joseph Stromberg writes in the foreword, is "the kind of conservative who is a stalwart defender of federalism and republicanism, and the liberties associated with them. Such conservatives are few and far between these days…. What comes of this is the creative deployment of a Southern perspective on American history—one that yields interesting and important insights." [357pages. HB]
Victors write the history and the first prevailing interpretation of any great event is that the winners were the good guys and the losers the bad guys. With the passage of time and research by trained and supposedly dispassionate historians a more complex and balanced picture emerges. It is seen that the winners were not always angels and that the losers actually had something to be said for their side.
This kind of revisionism has appeared in regard to the English Civil War, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and World War I, among others. It governed the understanding of the Civil War for much of the 20th century. But notice how the professional historians I am talking about, the devotees of the Lost Cause Myth as explanation of The War, have absolutely reversed the progress toward a balanced historical perspective. They have reverted to the primitive propaganda of the South as guilty of all that is bad in history.
It was necessary for them to do this to support their political agenda, because the weight of facts is on our side.
There is a concerted effort underway by so-called professional historians to deny and denigrate the extraordinary heroism and sacrifice of the South in that war. I do not think they will get very far, as the facts are overwhelmingly against them. But Southerners, in trying to be good fellows and good Americans, have been a little too ready to accept the notion that the war was a gentlemanly and relatively fair contest. It was nothing of the sort. We give the Yankees much more credit than they deserve.
So, they have broken the truce. There is an upside to this. We are now free to tell the truth—and the truth in every case supports the good name of the Confederate soldier. So, no more Mr. Nice Guy.
The Southern understanding of the Constitution was never refuted, and it can’t be. It was simply crushed. Preserving the Union. You cannot preserve the Union, or government of, by, and for the people, by a massive military invasion that destroys the constitutional, democratically elected governments of nearly half the states and converts them into conquered provinces with puppet governments and their citizens deprived of rights.
The most basic simple fact about the war is that it was a war of invasion and conquest. Once you get clear on this basic fact, all other truths tend to fall into place. This is no secret. It is plain in the record. The Northern war party openly declared that it was a war of conquest, to crush resistance to government, to promote a powerful state, and to keep the South as a captive source of profits. People love Lincoln’s pretty words because they put a happy face on a great crime.
The Lincoln Fable
Those who complain about myths distorting our understanding of history are the same people who adhere to the biggest and most false and destructive myth there is---of Lincoln as a Christian saint and humane democratic leader. Lincoln was a corporate lawyer and clever political operative who always put himself and his party before any other consideration. He brought on war because he thought it would be a quick victory—the worst blunder in American history. Far from being a military genius, his decisions repeatedly prolonged the war, which he almost lost despite having four times the resources of the South. As Tom DiLorenzo’s books, which have now been read by hundreds of thousands of people, show, Lincoln’s first priority was always the economic interest of Northern capitalists. Even most of those who supported Lincoln despised and belittled him, cynically using his martyrdom for their own purposes. Even his assassination takes on a different light when you know how he sent Dahlgren to assassinate Jeff Davis. Certainly Frederick Douglass was correct when he said that nothing Lincoln ever did was determined by the interests of the slaves.
I believe that many Americans are rethinking Lincoln today because they are dissatisfied with the all-powerful central government and see where it was created.
Prisons, We now have enough research to be able to say for certain that the Union prisons were as deadly as propaganda told us the Confederate prisons were. There is a difference. The death rate in the Southern camps was due to supply problems, especially lack of medicine which Lincoln had made contraband, climate, and a large criminal element preying on their fellows. Deaths in the Northern camps were inexcusable and look very much to be the result of deliberate policy.
Walter Brian Cisco in War Crimes Against Southern Civilians flawlessly documents The United States war crimes against both black and white civilians of the Southern States. He rips the carefully constructed facade off Lincoln's "Army of Emancipators." Far from being an army of liberators, USA troops burned, raped, ravaged, and terrorized civilians from east to west. The brutality long overshadowed by federally-sponsored propaganda of Andersonville and Fort Pillow is at last revealed by newspaper accounts, letters, and diaries, many from Washington's own National Archives. "We believe in a war of extermination," said U.S. Brigadier General Lane, whose demonic exploits include the arrest and deaths of wives and teenaged girls whose only crime were their blood ties to Confederate guerrillas, the expulsion of tens of thousands of civilians from whole Missouri counties and the complete destruction of their property.
U.S. officers oversaw the pillaging and burning of Southern cities, even allowing them to exhume graves in search of valuables. Free African-Americans as well as southern whites suffered the loss of homes and property, many their lives. The arrival of the U.S. military meant rape and abuse for women of color. Regardless of color or gender, no Southerner was spared.
Mr. Cisco's scholarly work is available through the NCHF and a must-read for serious students of the war and professional historians. Politically correct history cannot hide the sins of the past, and a true examination of facts must occur before an accurate understanding of America's most tragic war can take place.
War Crimes. The Union conduct of the war was criminal from the very beginning. The first troops across the Potomac looted and stole and the crimes grew in scope and ferocity as the war went on. The people of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, howled in outrage when McCausland set their town afire. But many towns in the South, and innumerable homes, churches, and schools, had already been looted and burned by the blue soldiers. The civilians of Charleston endured a bombardment by some of the heaviest artillery in existence for over two years. Our Confederate ancestors were not guilty of anything like that. Even when Quantrill made his retaliatory raid on Lawrence, no women were harmed. When Sheridan visited Europe after the war he shocked the Prussian high command with his attitude toward Southern civilians. In the run-up to the Spanish War, the American press howled in outrage over the brutal Spanish general "Butcher" Weyler---without mentioning that he had learned his trade as an attache with Sherman.
But our Lost Cause Myth historians claim that total war was begun when Stonewall Jackson advocated ruthless battle. So they equate Jackson's policy toward armed invading soldiers, which was never implemented, with the Union's deliberate, systematic war on women and children and private property. Moral equivalency? I don't think so. If you haven't yet done so, get Brian Cisco's book on war crimes.
Recently a military historian, a supposed conservative, wrote that the American people had rallied under the attack of 9/11 just as they had rallied after Fort Sumter and Pearl Harbour. Think about it. Two massive sneak attacks by foreign enemies are equated with the reduction of Fort Sumter as assaults on real Americans. Jeff Davis is put in the dock with Tojo and Osama ben Laden. This historian's ignorance and malice is all too commonplace. Fort Sumter was preceded by a gentlemanly warning, involved no civilians and no casualties, and the garrison were not made prisoner, but were allowed to go home with honour. And the only deception involved was by the U.S. government. One wonders that Southerners were allowed to fight alongside real Americans in World Wars.
Leslie's illustration in 1893 depicting northern statist kneeling on the soil of South Carolina as in worship while U.S. Major Anderson raised the U.S. flag on Fort Sumter on 27 December 1960. Such reverence for the symbol of a government was new on American soil but is common today as statist place their hands over their hearts, and pledge their hearts and obedience to their government.
Furthermore, his assumption about the Northern public's support of the war is wrong. We are led to believe that the opposition consisted of a few Copperhead conspirators and the New York City draft riots. Not true. Northern opposition to the war was much more widespread, more respectable, and more articulate than that. This is the biggest untold story in American history. It was a Republican party war. Lincoln and his supporters knew that their support was shaky and they saw conspirators under their beds every night. We know about the suppression of newspapers and arrest of dissidents by the government without any due process. What does it tell us that detention of the Chief Justice and of a former President were seriously considered? Dissent was suppressed not only by the military but by violent mobs of Lincoln supporters. Lincoln bought support with patronage on a scale previously unimaginable in the United States.
I am told that in the main gentleman's club in Philadelphia, Lincoln supporters were made so uncomfortable that they resigned and formed their own. Why did at least 300,000 Northerners avoid the draft in one way or another? And why was it necessary to import an equal number of foreigners to fill the ranks?
A serious argument can be made that Lincoln would have lost the election in 1864 if it had not been conducted at bayonet point in the border states and many other places. Further, the supposed "loyalty" of the Border States has been greatly exaggerated. Why did all the Border States including West Virginia start electing ex-Confederates to public office as soon as the army left?
Here is something else to keep clearly in mind as a vital part of the history of the South. It took 22 million Northerners four years of the bloodiest warfare in American history to conquer 5 million Southerners. We mobilized 90 per cent of our men and lost nearly a fourth. Not only our self-government but more than half of our property was lost. The war impoverished the South and enriched the politically connected in the North. Foreign visitors to the North said that they could see little sign that there was even a war going on.
Our fathers were true heroes. Man for man they marched harder, risked their lives more often, fought better, endured impossible hardships, and won many battles against superior forces. Let me give you a comparative statistic. About 12,000 North Carolinians lost their lives in World War II. If we project the loss of men in the Confederate War against the larger population of World War II, it would require 300,000 North Carolina deaths to equal the State's loss of men in the 1860s. No other group of Americans has EVER made a sacrifice that remotely approaches that of the South in its war for independence. Losses of the North in that war and of the United States in any war are negligible in comparison. Very late in the war, when defeat seemed inevitable, Northern generals were complaining that the Confederate soldier refused to give in and admit defeat, that Southern women remained indominitable in spirit, and that Southerners from the richest to the poorest were determined to keep on.
One of the popular themes among the South-hating historians today is to dwell on evidence of disaffection in the Confederacy. Of course, as in all human groups subjected to tremendous pressure, there were some slackers. But the real story of the Confederacy is in how little disaffection there was among a people subjected to such great sacrifices. What would have been the morale of the North if it had suffered a comparable extent of occupation, devastation and death as the South had by 1863, instead of enjoying a quiet and prosperous homefront. Imagine New York (instead of New Orleans) and Chicago (instead of Memphis and Nashville) occupied. Imagine Cleveland and Buffalo (instead of Charleston and Mobile) blockaded and under siege. Imagine Pennsylvania and Ohio (instead of Virginia and Tennessee) overrun and ravaged. Imagine Washington (instead of Richmond) under constant attack. Imagine privation and sacrifice instead of prosperity the order of the day everywhere, thousands of civilian refugees, and nearly the whole male citizen population under arms. What would the Northern morale have been in 1863? Under such conditions the Southern people remained overwhelmingly game.
We are too quick to be generous in our accounts of the war, and thus detract from the honour due our forefathers. One example, the great Union victory at Gettysburg. Some victory! Lee's army maneuvered freely on enemy territory for several weeks, even though the nearest Union army outnumbered him greatly and there were several other sizable Union armies within a few days' march. The Confederate army spent three days attacking a much larger force on its home territory and barely failed of victory. Then we stopped attacking and went home. Lee's army trekked back to the Potomac with vast herds of cattle and hogs, a 50-mile long wagon train, prisoners, and wounded, in knee deep mud without any serious harm from the larger, supposedly victorious, army, and remained an undefeatable fighting force for more than a year longer. Some Union victory.
Are Grant and Sherman great generals? A great general is one who wins victory by skill, with economy of force. What kind of people regard Sherman's nearly unopposed March of destruction against a civilian population as a great military feat and something for a nation to be proud of?
Another bit of the Gettysburg story. Something like 10,000 black men, bond and free, accompanied the Confederate army to Pennsylvania---and back. The British observer Col. Fremantle observed one of these men marching a Yankee prisoner to the rear. He wondered what the abolitionists in London would think if they saw that.
Finally, as your patience is almost totally exhausted, we come to slavery and the noble crusade to free the suffering black people. How can the war be "about" slavery when the government formally declares that it is not fighting to free the slaves but to preserve a nation.
And it would seem that the vast majority of Northern soldiers doing the fighting agreed. Certainly no Confederate thought he was fighting just to preserve slavery. In fact, at the end of the war many Southerners would have willingly given up slavery to secure independence.
New Yorker Nativists lynching blacks during the “Draft Riots” of 1863. American Nativistism, whose origins were in New England, were northern white supremist who hated non-whites, Jews and Roman Catholics and consistently laboured to keep them out of their States.
Lincoln made a pretty speech about how all men were entitled to the fruits of their own labour. But what does this mean when a black person who becomes free in Kentucky is forbidden by law to even live in Illinois? In such circumstances Lincoln's statement is morally irresponsible. Especially since he also said that he did not know what to do about slavery even if he had the power and the only solution he seriously considered was to send the black people somewhere else to exercise their God-given freedom.
I know a descendant of a Confederate soldier whose ancestor, a Methodist minister from Pennsylvania, taught a school for free black children in Springfield, Illinois. He was literally driven out of Springfield and went to Tennessee where he was hospitably welcomed and became a devoted Confederate.
Anyway, Lincoln's party did not dwell on the fact that slavery was bad, they dwelled on the badness of slaveholders who blocked the economic progress of the North. Lincoln's platform did not call for an end to slavery but rather demanded that the territories be kept for white people only, a restriction on slavery which did not free a single person.
Any benefits that may have accrued to the black population of America from the war were incidental to the interests of the ruling elements of the North. There is no treasury of righteousness there. Overwhelmingly, the Yankees despised and used the black people. The North never did anything before, during, or after the war for the primary purpose of helping the black people.
One of the bad historians that I have described whines that somehow, even though he and other brilliant experts have declared the truth over and over, yet people still continue to admire the Confederacy. Why they still write novels and songs about Lee, and even about his horse! Why doesn't anybody write about Grant and his men like that? It must be because so many of us poor deluded fools still believe in that Lost Cause.
Here is our great advantage. Our Confederate ancestors are truly admirable, and decent people all over the world know it. We need to defend them. I hope you will join us in the counter-attack.
* * * *
Dr. Clyde N. Wilson [send him mail] is Professor of History at the University of South Carolina and editor of The Papers of John C. Calhoun.
The Acton-Lee Correspondence
Lord Acton to Robert E. Lee
November 4, 1866
The very kind letter which Mrs. Lee wrote to my wife last winter encouraged me to hope that you will forgive my presuming to address you, and that you will not resent as an intrusion a letter from an earnest and passionate lover of the cause whose glory and whose strength you were.
I have been requested to furnish private counsel in American affairs for the guidance of the editors of a weekly Review which is to begin at the New Year, and which will be conducted by men who are followers of Mr. Gladstone. You are aware, no doubt, that Mr. Gladstone was in the minority of Lord Palmerston's cabinet who wished to accept the French Emperor's proposal to mediate in the American war.
The reason of the confidence shown in my advice is simply the fact that I formerly traveled in America, and that I afterwards followed the progress of the four years' contest as closely and as keenly as it was possible to do with the partial and unreliable information that reached us. In the momentous questions which have arisen since you sheathed the sword, I have endeavoured to conform my judgment to your own as well as I could ascertain it from the report of your evidence, from the few English travelers who enjoyed the privilege of speaking with you, and especially from General Beauregard, who spoke, as I understood, your sentiments as well as his own. My travels in America never led me south of Maryland, and the only friends to whom I can look for instruction, are Northerners, mostly of Webster's school.
In my emergency, urged by the importance of the questions at issue in the United States, and by the peril of misguided public opinion between our two countries, I therefore seek to appeal to southern authorities, and venture at once to proceed to Headquarters.
If, Sir, you will consent to entertain my request, and will inform me of the light in which you would wish the current politics of America to be understood, I can pledge myself that the new Review shall follow the course which you prescribe and that any communication with which you may honor me shall be kept in strictest confidence, and highly treasured by me. Even should you dismiss my request as unwarranted, I trust you will remember it only as an attempt to break through the barrier of false reports and false sympathies which encloses the views of my countrymen.
It cannot have escaped you that much of the good will felt in England towards the South, so far as it was not simply the tribute of astonishment and admiration won by your campaigns, was neither unselfish nor sincere. It sprang partly from an exultant belief in the hope that America would be weakened by the separation, and from terror at the remote prospect of Farragut appearing in the channel and Sherman landing in Ireland.
I am anxious that you should distinguish the feeling which drew me aware toward your cause and your career, and which now guides my pen, from that thankless and unworthy sympathy.
Without presuming to decide the purely legal question, on which it seems evident to me from Madison's and Hamilton's papers that the Fathers of the Constitution were not agreed, I saw in State Rights the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will, and secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction but as the redemption of Democracy. The institutions of your Republic have not exercised on the old world the salutary and liberating influence which ought to have belonged to them, by reason of those defects and abuses of principle which the Confederate Constitution was expressly and wisely calculated to remedy. I believed that the example of that great Reform would have blessed all the races of mankind by establishing true freedom purged of the native dangers and disorders of Republics. Therefore I deemed that you were fighting the battles of our liberty, our progress, and our civilization; and I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo. [Emphasis supplied by the editor.]
General Beauregard confirmed to me a report which was in the papers, that you are preparing a narrative of your campaigns. I sincerely trust that it is true, and that the loss you were said to have sustained at the evacuation of Richmond has not deprived you of the requisite materials. European writers are trying to construct that terrible history with the information derived from one side only. I have before me an elaborate work by a Prussian officer named Sander. It is hardly possible that future publications can be more honorable to the reputation of your army and your own. His feelings are strongly Federal, his figures, especially in estimating your forces, are derived from Northern journals, and yet his book ends by becoming an enthusiastic panegyric on your military skill. It will impress you favourably towards the writer to know that he dwells with particular detail and pleasure on your operations against Meade when Longstreet was absent, in the autumn of 1863.
But I have heard the best Prussian military critics regret that they had not the exact data necessary for a scientific appreciation of your strategy, and certainly the credit due to the officers who served under you can be distributed and justified by no hand but your own.
If you will do me the honor to write to me, letters will reach me addressed Sir J. Acton, Hotel [Serry?], Rome. Meantime I remain, with sentiments stronger than respect, Sir,
~ Your faithful servant
John Dalberg Acton
Robert E. Lee to Lord Acton
15 Dec. 1866
Although your letter of the 4th ulto. has been before me some days unanswered, I hope you will not attribute it to a want of interest in the subject, but to my inability to keep pace with my correspondence. As a citizen of the South I feel deeply indebted to you for the sympathy you have evinced in its cause, and am conscious that I owe your kind consideration of myself to my connection with it. The influence of current opinion in Europe upon the current politics of America must always be salutary; and the importance of the questions now at issue the United States, involving not only constitutional freedom and constitutional government in this country, but the progress of universal liberty and civilization, invests your proposition with peculiar value, and will add to the obligation which every true American must owe you for your efforts to guide that opinion aright. Amid the conflicting statements and sentiments in both countries, it will be no easy task to discover the truth, or to relieve it from the mass of prejudice and passion, with which it has been covered by party spirit. I am conscious the compliment conveyed in your request for my opinion as to the light in which American politics should be viewed, and had I the ability, I have not the time to enter upon a discussion, which was commenced by the founders of the constitution and has been continued to the present day. I can only say that while I have considered the preservation of the constitutional power of the General Government to be the foundation of our peace and safety at home and abroad, I yet believe that the maintenance of the rights and authority reserved to the states and to the people, not only essential to the adjustment and balance of the general system, but the safeguard to the continuance of a free government. I consider it as the chief source of stability to our political system, whereas the consolidation of the states into one vast republic, sure to be aggressive abroad and despotic at home, will be the certain precursor of that ruin which has overwhelmed all those that have preceded it. I need not refer one so well acquainted as you are with American history, to the State papers of Washington and Jefferson, the representatives of the federal and democratic parties, denouncing consolidation and centralization of power, as tending to the subversion of State Governments, and to despotism. The New England states, whose citizens are the fiercest opponents of the Southern states, did not always avow the opinions they now advocate. Upon the purchase of Louisiana by Mr. Jefferson, they virtually asserted the right of secession through their prominent men; and in the convention which assembled at Hartford in 1814, they threatened the disruption of the Union unless the war should be discontinued. The assertion of this right has been repeatedly made by their politicians when their party was weak, and Massachusetts, the leading state in hostility to the South, declares in the preamble to her constitution, that the people of that commonwealth "have the sole and exclusive right of governing themselves as a free sovereign and independent state, and do, and forever hereafter shall, exercise and enjoy every power, jurisdiction, and right which is not, or may hereafter be by them expressly delegated to the United States of America in congress assembled." Such has been in substance the language of other State governments, and such the doctrine advocated by the leading men of the country for the last seventy years. Judge Chase, the present Chief Justice of the U.S., as late as 1850, is reported to have stated in the Senate, of which he was a member, that he "knew of no remedy in case of the refusal of a state to perform its stipulations," thereby acknowledging the sovereignty and independence of state action. But I will not weary you with this unprofitable discussion. Unprofitable because the judgment of reason has been displaced by the arbitrament of war, waged for the purpose as avowed of maintaining the union of the states. If, therefore, the result of the war is to be considered as having decided that the union of the states is inviolable and perpetual under the constitution, it naturally follows that it is as incompetent for the general government to impair its integrity by the exclusion of a state, as for the states to do so by secession; and that the existence and rights of a state by the constitution are as indestructible as the union itself. The legitimate consequence then must be the perfect equality of rights of all the states; the exclusive right of each to regulate its internal affairs under rules established by the Constitution, and the right of each state to prescribe for itself the qualifications of suffrage. The South has contended only for the supremacy of the constitution, and the just administration of the laws made in pursuance to it. Virginia to the last made great efforts to save the union, and urged harmony and compromise. Senator Douglass, in his remarks upon the compromise bill recommended by the committee of thirteen in 1861, stated that every member from the South, including Messrs. Toombs and Davis, expressed their willingness to accept the proposition of Senator Crittenden from Kentucky, as a final settlement of the controversy, if sustained by the republican party, and that the only difficulty in the way of an amicable adjustment was with the republican party. Who then is responsible for the war? Although the South would have preferred any honorable compromise to the fratricidal war which has taken place, she now accepts in good faith its constitutional results, and receives without reserve the amendment which has already been made to the constitution for the extinction of slavery. That is an event that has been long sought, though in a different way, and by none has it been more earnestly desired than by citizens of Virginia. In other respects I trust that the constitution may undergo no change, but that it may be handed down to succeeding generations in the form we received it from our forefathers. The desire I feel that the Southern states should possess the good opinion of one whom I esteem as highly as yourself, has caused me to extend my remarks farther than I intended, and I fear it has led me to exhaust your patience. If what I have said should serve to give any information as regards American politics, and enable you to enlighten public opinion as to the true interests of this distracted country, I hope you will pardon its prolixity.
In regard to your inquiry as to my being engaged in preparing a narrative of the campaigns in Virginia, I regret to state that I progress slowly in the collection of the necessary documents for its completion. I particularly feel the loss of the official returns showing the small numbers with which the battles were fought. I have not seen the work by the Prussian officer you mention and therefore cannot speak of his accuracy in this respect.–
With sentiments of great respect,
I remain your obt. servant,
~ R.E. Lee
[Bold emphasis supplied by the editor.]
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