A man from Detroit named John Sims, who now teaches art at the Ringling [Brothers?] School of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida, has created quite a controversy with his planned September 3, 2004 opening of an exhibit at Gettysburg College where he will reportedly "lynch" the Confederate Battle Flag by "hanging" it from a gallows. (In another work of "art" Sims has crudely insulted every Jew in the world by displaying the Israeli flag in the colors of the PLO). Gettysburg College’s museum director, Molly Hutton, reportedly jumped at the chance to display something as politically correct as the Israeli flag smear when Sims proposed his "lynching" exhibit at the College.
This is yet another example of the incredible — if not astounding — ignorance of American history on the part of most Americans — even ones who are employed by institutions of higher learning. Having written a book on Lincoln, published over 80 articles, and given dozens of public lectures and radio interviews on Lincoln and the War to Prevent Southern Independence over the past two-and-a-half years, one thing I have learned is that the average American knows nothing at all about the topic except for a few clichés that he or she was exposed to in primary school.
Southern heritage groups — whose members are infinitely better educated on this topic than the average American is — are naturally offended and plan to protest Sims’ display of ignorance and bigotry. One does not need to read the literature of the Sons of Confederate Veterans or the League of the South to understand why Southerners are upset at Gettysburg College’s latest orgy of political correctness. Just consult "mainstream" historian James McPherson’s short little book, What They Fought For: 1861—1865.
McPherson surveyed thousands of letters and diaries of U.S. and Confederate soldiers to discern what they believed they were fighting for, as expressed in letters home to family and friends. Confederate soldiers, he concluded, "fought for liberty and independence from what they regarded as a tyrannical government." The letters of the Confederate soldiers "bristled with the rhetoric of liberty and self-government," wrote McPherson, and they also expressed a fear of being "subjugated" and "enslaved" by a despotic central government.
Many Confederates thought of the war as a "Second War for American Independence." A Texas cavalry officer who McPherson quotes wrote in a letter to his sister that, just as early Americans "rebelled against King George to establish Liberty and freedom in this western world . . . so we dissolved our alliance with this oppressive foe and are now enlisted in The Holy Cause of Liberty and Independence again."
Another theme of the letters surveyed by McPherson was that many Confederates also believed (quite correctly) that they were fighting to defend their families and property from a hostile, pillaging, plundering, and raping army. "We are fighting for matters real and tangible," wrote a Texas private in 1864, "our property and our homes." Another Confederate wrote that he believed he was defending "the fair daughters of the South" from "Yankee outrage and atrocity."
This was recognized by opposing soldiers. "We are fighting for the Union . . . a high and noble sentiment," wrote an Illinois officer, but "They are fighting for independence and are animated by passion and hatred against invaders."
When Lincoln issued his January 1863 Proclamation to "free" the slaves in rebel territory only, i.e., where the U.S. government had no ability to emancipate anyone, the mere mention of emancipation as a new war aim caused a desertion crisis in the U.S. army, writes McPherson. Union soldiers "were willing to risk their lives for Union, but not for black freedom."
Unlike modern Americans who have been brainwashed by the Lincoln cult, in the 1860s the entire world knew that in his first inaugural address Abraham Lincoln pledged his support for a constitutional amendment that had just passed both the House and the Senate that would have forbidden the federal government from ever interfering in Southern slavery. The whole world also knew that in that same address he threatened a military invasion of any state that failed to collect the newly-doubled federal tariff. The states that seceded did not intend to collect the U.S. government’s tariff and send the money to Washington, D.C., so Honest Abe kept his word and waged total war on fellow citizens for four years, killing some 300,000 of them, including one of four men of military age and tens of thousands of civilians. Lincoln’s dreamy-eyed and a-historical talk about a perpetual union was all a smokescreen for his imperialistic war.
John Sims is also obviously ignorant of the fact that the two most famous Confederate generals, Lee and Jackson, were not only opposed to slavery but, in Lee’s case, personally liberated hundreds of slaves. Lee inherited slaves from his father-in-law, George Washington Park Custis, Martha Washington’s grandson who George Washington adopted after marrying Martha. On December 29, 1862, as executor of his father-in-law’s will, Robert E. Lee "did manumit, emancipate and forever set free from slavery" over 170 people. According to Lee biographer Emory Thomas, Lee "meticulously searched his memory and records to make sure he missed no one" (Emory Thomas, Robert E. Lee: A Biography, p. 273).
For many years, Lee had expressed his general opposition to slavery. In an 1856 letter to his daughter Mary, General Lee wrote that "Slavery as an institution, is a moral and political evil in any Country" (Thomas, p. 72). It is absurd to think that Robert E. Lee, who proudly flew the Confederate Battle Flag for four years, fought the war to defend an institution that he believed was "a moral and political evil."
As for Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson, he grew up so dirt poor in rural Virginia (what is now West Virginia), that it is equally absurd to believe that he fought to defend slavery. He was never a slave owner and had no interest in preserving that immoral institution. As Jackson biographer James Robertson writes in Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, the Legend, "The Jackson children were familiar and — in their poverty — often pitiful sights in Clarksburg [Virginia]. Townspeople occasionally extended a helping hand." He and his siblings attended a school for indigent children and pathetically walked around town half naked at times.
Jackson was orphaned and was raised by an uncle who ran a sawmill that apparently hardly ever made a profit. Far from relying on slave labor, a teenaged Thomas Jackson "felled trees, helped out at the mills, cared for the sheep and cattle, raised chickens, plowed and harvested crops, produced maple syrup" and "learned to transport wool to a carding firm two miles away . . . . He drove oxen, hitched logs sometimes forty feet in length, to the sawmill" (Robertson, p. 14).
Jackson’s perseverance in school earned him a free education at West Point, thanks to the help of the people of his community who went to bat for him with the local congressman.
As for the horrific spectacle of lynchings, they never would have happened had Lincoln not launched an invasion of the southern states with the intent of destroying states’ rights as a check on federal power once and for all. After the war the South was ruled by a military dictatorship and the Republican Party, which monopolized federal politics from 1861 all the way until the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration.
An essential element of early "Reconstruction" was the disenfranchisement of all of the adult white males in the South, coupled with the voter registration of every last adult male ex-slave (no effort was made to extend voting rights to women or to argue that they, too, deserved natural rights to life, liberty and property). The ex-slaves assisted in the continued plundering of the South by voting en masse to raise taxes that provided precious little in the form of government services. Untold millions were simply stolen by Republican Party "officials." (Property taxes in South Carolina, for example, were 30 times higher in 1870 than they were in 1860, and a punitive federal tax was imposed on cotton at a time when what the South needed was tax amnesty).
The Ku Klux Klan was created to terrorize the ex-slaves out of participating in this political plundering racket operated by the Republican Party. The Republicans kept promising to share the property of white southerners with the ex-slaves, which of course they never did and never intended to do. Had the Republicans not used their victory and their monopoly of political power to line the pockets of the thousands of political hacks and hangers on who were the backbone of the party (the "carpetbaggers") the Ku Klux Klan would never have existed. This in fact was the conclusion of the minority report of an 1870 congressional commission that investigated the Klan. "Had there been no wanton oppression in the South," the congressmen wrote, "there would have been no Ku Kluxism" (Congressman Fernando Wood, "Alleged Ku Klux Outrages" published by the Congressional Globe Printing Office, 1871, p. 5). The report continued that when southern whites saw that "what little they had saved from the ravages of war was being confiscated by taxation . . . many of them took the law into their own hands and did deeds of violence . . . . history shows that bad government will make bad citizens."
When the occupying Yankees finally went home in 1878, the ex-slaves found that it was all but impossible to go with them because of Northern black codes that would have returned them to semi-slavery. They were left to fend for themselves amongst a vengeful population.
Had America ended slavery peacefully — as dozens of other countries, including the British, French, Spanish, Danish, and others did in the nineteenth century, none of this would have happened. The ex-slaves would have integrated into society much sooner and southern race relations would not have been poisoned for generations.
All of this, too, is lost on the ignorant Mr. Sims and his equally clueless Gettysburg College sponsors.
Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] is the author of The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, (Three Rivers Press/Random House). His latest book is How Capitalism Saved America: The Untold Story of Our Country’s History, from the Pilgrims to the Present (Crown Forum/Random House, August 2004).