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A few Southern perspectives on the Civil War

by | Jul 17, 2016 | News

Near the end of the 19th century, author-journalist Cornelia Ann Phillips Spencer lost patience with what she considered Yankee revisionist history and decided to set the record straight.

The result was a North Carolina history textbook that offered a full-throated defense of white supremacist dogma and a way of life sustained by forced labor. The views expressed were hardly unique. What set Spencer’s text apart was that it was an honest effort by a friend of education to relate history, including the run-up to the Civil War, as she had witnessed it.

Here is some of what she wrote:

     The idea gained ground among the leaders of that (Democratic) party that each State had a right to secede from or leave the Union and set up an independent government for itself. It cannot be said that the Southern people as a body believed or accepted this doctrine. It was absurd on the face of it. The Union of the States of the great American republic built by the wisdom and cemented by the blood of the patriots or the Revolution was not to be dissolved by the hot breath of party or of sectional strife.

Strong stuff, from what historians call a primary source – someone who was on the scene. And there’s more:

     After the inauguration of President Lincoln, South Carolina seized and garrisoned the forts in Charleston harbor belonging to the United States government. This was open rebellion, and this began the war. No government can let its forts be taken or allow its flag to be pulled down.

Actually, South Carolina declared the Union dissolved and fired on (and hit) an unarmed, U.S.-flagged steamer sent to resupply Fort Sumter even before Lincoln took office. But Lincoln saw the situation much the same as Spencer saw it: He had no authority to let South Carolina expropriate U.S. property, or to assent to the dissolution of the Union whose Constitution he was sworn to preserve, protect and defend.

Among Spencer’s admirers was Zebulon Baird Vance, wartime governor of North Carolina, whose own postwar summation, in a letter to a friend who had left the state and moved to Australia, was just as straightforward:

     When all of our troops had laid down their arms, then was immediately seen the results which I had prophesied. Slavery was declared abolished – two thousand millions of property gone from the South at one blow, leaving four million freed vagabonds among us…

W.D. Peterson left the state, too; but he didn’t go far enough to escape the consequences of “that horrid war.” From his adopted home in Arkansas he wrote to his kin back home:

     I will tell you some of my losses. In 1862 I had 23 bales of cotton burned by the rebels & one negro man went to the feds & Lincoln’s Proclamation (took) 12 negroes from me besides all I had raised on my farm except a support for my family.

Others noted the proclamation, as well. Jimmie Smith, reared on a plantation that bordered the Cape Fear River, wrote from his cavalry post in Arkansas that Lincoln’s attempt to “take folks’ property” made him “want to shoot the old villain even more.” And, much later, days after Sherman’s army had visited the homeplace and delivered what Lincoln had promised, Jimmie’s sister somewhat ambiguously reported that “not one of the servants went from here, they remained faithful through it all, with one exception, and Pa has driven him off to the Yankees.” (This was in reply to a schoolmate who had written that she wished all slaves dead of starvation – except her seamstress, without whom she’d be lost.)

Not all Southerners thought alike, to be sure. But it’s intriguing that many, including an historian bent on debunking Yankee propaganda, easily grasped something fundamental: the reason for the conflagration that had engulfed them.

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