The American Civil War was the costliest, most devastating conflict in the history of our country. At least 620,000 soldiers died, as did some 400,000 civilians who fell to disease, suicide, murder and similar causes. Hundreds of thousands of others suffered horrible wood-saw amputations and terrible wounds. In the four years the war lasted, it cost $2.5 million daily — an incredible amount at the time. In the end, the South was laid waste, its industries, its grand homes, its roads and its farms largely destroyed. It would be a century before the region fully recovered.
Yes, it was a splendid little war — that is, if you believe the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the Southern heritage society that in the last decade has seen a large number of racial extremists in influential and sometimes top positions.
“CELEBRATE THE BEGINNING OF THE CONFEDERACY IN MONTGOMERY, ALABAMA,” the SCV wrote its members in a breathless announcement on its E-mail list Monday. The event, scheduled for Feb. 19, 2011, will feature a parade up Dexter Avenue to the Alabama State Capitol — the end of the very same route taken by Martin Luther King Jr. and thousands of others who participated in the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march in 1965. It is to be followed by other events around the South commemorating the sesquicentennial of each year of what some Southerners still call the War of Northern Aggression.
But the SCV isn’t interested in commemorating King or the civil rights march. And it’s certainly not interested in the end of slavery, or the Fourteenth Amendment that gave freedmen citizenship. Instead, it plans to reenact the swearing-in of Jefferson Davis as the president of the Confederate States of America and fire off a few cannons to ensure that “the Heritage of the Confederacy … is remembered and portrayed in the right way.”
The right way. Whatever can they mean?
Well, if you take a look at the essays — and essayists — on the SCV’s “150 Years: History, Heritage & Honor” website, it isn’t too hard to figure out. There’s the Alabama reverend who complains in a speech reprinted on the page about how “liberals, Yankees, scalawags and the generally misguided” have been unfairly making white Southerners feel guilty about slavery and racism. The reverend discusses the “righteousness of our cause” and concludes that “the South was right!” Then there’s Chuck Rand, who once belonged to the racist League of the South, which opposes racial intermarriage, defends slavery and argues that the war had nothing to do with “the peculiar institution.” Rand writes on the SCV page that “there is no difference between the invasion of France by Hitler and the invasion of the Southern States by Lincoln.” He argues that Lincoln’s purpose was never to free the slaves.
[Editor's note: The name of the reverend in the paragraph above was deleted on Sept. 8, after he wrote the SCV and asked them to remove the text of his speech from its website "for my good, and for the good of the SCV."]
That may not have been Lincoln’s original intent, but it certainly became a major war aim — as anyone who has read any serious Civil War history knows. The years leading up to the war were marked by endless battles over the extension of slavery to the new territories, a move that Southern rulers, fearful of losing control of the nation to an abolitionist Congressional majority, backed virtually without exception. And, contrary to the revisionist history offered by the SCV, the authorities of the South at the time were perfectly clear on what secession was aimed at. The Texas Declaration of Causes of Secession, for example, explained plainly that the free states were “proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality for all men, irrespective of race or color,” adding that blacks were “rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race.” Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, put it like this in his infamous "Cornerstone" speech of 1862: "Our new Government is founded on exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and moral condition." As definitively shown by scholar Charles Dew in his Apostles of Disunion, states throughout the South adduced the same reasons for secession — a defense of “white supremacy” and an attempt to spread the institution of slavery to more states. At around the same time, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, hugely popular in the North, was critically important in building Yankee abolitionist sentiment.
Of course, the SCV honchos behind the upcoming sesquicentennial commemoration of the South’s bloody defense of slavery don’t see it that way. Just listen to the Rev. Steve Wilkins, who complains on the SCV page that the war was really about replacing a federal republic with a centralized federal government. “Slavery,” he writes, “so far from being the cause of the war, was merely the pretext for revolution.” And that, if you read some others of Wilkins’ writings, was a pretty pathetic pretext. Together with a far-right Idaho pastor named Douglas Wilson, Wilkins offered this highly unusual take on antebellum slavery in the book Southern Slavery, As It Was: “Slavery as it existed in the South ... was a relationship based upon mutual affection and confidence,” the two men wrote in their 1996 tome. “There has never been a multiracial society which has existed with such mutual intimacy and harmony in the history of the world.”