An Historian Shills for the Warfare State

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In a May 4 Washington Post article entitled "Lessons for Iraq from Gettysburg," Post writer David Ignatius reports on how Princeton University historian James McPherson informed a "discussion group sponsored by the secretary of defense" about "how to rebuild societies," drawing his lessons from the period of "Reconstruction" in America (1866—1877). McPherson supposedly told the Defense Department bureaucrats, as they toured the Gettysburg battlefield, that there were "intriguing parallels between postwar Iraq and the postwar South." Like so much of what passes for "Civil War history," such "parallels" are based primarily on lies, myths, and nineteenth-century Republican Party propaganda.

The Northern army killed some 300,000 southern men — one out of four of military age; bombed entire cities and burned others to the ground; and generally pillaged and plundered the entire region, carrying off tens of millions of dollars in private property. Homes, farms, and businesses in huge areas of Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas were put to the torch, and gang rape was not uncommon in the Union Army. The entire southern economy was destroyed, and would take more than a century to recover.

After the war, there was a military occupation run by the Republican Party, which would hold a monopoly of power in the federal government for the succeeding several decades. The "Grand Old Party," as it shamelessly and immodestly calls itself, used that monopoly of power to continue the pillaging and plundering of the South for more than a decade after the war by imposing punitive taxes on southerners, providing very little public services in return, with untold millions being confiscated by Republican Party hacks who swarmed over the region ("carpetbaggers") and ran the state and local governments. Little was done for the ex-slaves, despite all the empty rhetoric about "40 acres and a mule." Why would the Republican Party, the Party of Big Business, use the powers of government to help the ex-slaves when it could use that power to help itself instead?

Southerners, only five percent of whom had ever owned slaves, naturally objected to being plundered by an occupying army for an entire decade after their country had been destroyed by that same army. The "lesson for Iraq" in all of this, according to James McPherson, is that southerners who opposed being abused and exploited in this manner should be thought of as "an insurgency," just today’s Arab terrorists, led by Osama bin Laden, are. The grandchildren and great grandchildren of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Patrick Henry, John Randolph, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, John Marshall, and other prominent southerners are apparently no different from today’s terrorists according to McPherson, as reported by David Ignatius.

The Republican Party, which Ignatius equates with "the Union," was supposedly "unprepared" for southern opposition to its plundering spree. Consequently, the "army of occupation was too small . . . " Lesson Number Two, courtesy of McPherson, is therefore to send more troops to Iraq, perhaps even by instituting a new Lincolnian conscription law. (Even if McPherson does not personally endorse conscription, such talk on his part encourages those who do, such as the Defense Department bureaucrats whom he lectured to in Gettysburg).

Watching the Fox News Channel or listening to the daily pronouncements from the White House or the Rush Limbaugh Show (which are basically one and the same), one "learns" that despite all outward appearances, things are going pretty well in Iraq these days. McPherson drew another parallel to the South of the late 1860s in his Gettysburg talk. Ignatius quotes him as saying: "In 1870 things looked pretty good — if not rosy, at least optimistic." Why is this? According to Ignatius, it is because Northern carpetbaggers were succeeding at effectively stealing millions of acres of southern land by first imposing punitive, unpayable property taxes on it, forcing the owners to sell the land to them at fire sale prices. Of course, Ignatius doesn’t put it quite that way. He euphemistically writes: "Northerners were investing in what they believed would be a new South."

But the Documentary History of Reconstruction, paints a very different picture of the "success" of Reconstruction as of 1870. For example, it notes that "Never had a completer ruin fallen upon any city than fell upon Charleston." By 1870, the Documentary History notes, the entire Tennessee Valley consisted "for the most part of plantations in a state of semi-ruin," with many others "of which the ruin is . . . total and complete. The trail of war is visible throughout the valley and burnt up [cotton] gin houses, ruined bridges, mills, and factories . . . and large tracts of once cultivated land stripped of every vestige of fencing."

In Virginia, "from Harper’s Ferry to New Market . . . the country was almost a desert . . . . The barns were all burned; a great many of the private dwellings were burned; chimneys standing without houses, and houses standing without roofs." In North Georgia there was "a degree of destitution that would draw pity from a stone."

To James McPherson such scenes are "if not rosy," at least "optimistic." As Bill Clinton might say, it all depends on what the meaning of "rosy" is.

Ignatius also quotes McPherson as saying that "the insurgency" of the 1860s was so "potent" that it "staged bloody riots in Memphis and New Orleans." The implication is that there was complete lawlessness in the South, a "matrix of lawlessness," as Ignatius says.

Like so much "Civil War history" that is spouted by McPherson and most other "mainstream" court historians, this is simply more nineteenth-century Republican Party propaganda passed off as truth. As Ludwell Johnson, professor emeritus of history at William and Mary College, documents in North and South: The American Iliad, 1848—1877, there was a riot in Memphis during Reconstruction, but the main protagonists did not include ex-Confederates (McPherson’s "insurgents"). Instead, it was primarily a conflict between blacks and recent Irish immigrants. Under the military dictatorship that was established in Memphis by the Republican Party, all ex-Confederates were evicted from public offices. In their place were Irish immigrants. The mayor, most aldermen, and 90 percent of the Memphis police force were Irish, according to Johnson, who explains the genesis of the riot (p. 220):

Competition for jobs between Irish and blacks was a continual source of friction and produced numerous fights. Another source of hostility was the garrison of 4000 Negro troops, whose camps became a focus of crime. The soldiers themselves, when drunk, occasionally robbed shops and individuals, pushed whites off the sidewalk into the mud, and so forth. Some Memphians suspected that Stanton employed Negro garrisons in hopes of provoking violence that he could use to political advantage. As early as the fall of 1865, General Grant had warned that the use of black occupation troops would lead to trouble.

The riot commenced after a street brawl during which "a shot was fired, by whom no one knows." After that, there was "an attack by police and laboring-class whites, apparently mainly Irish, on the black community."

This is remarkably similar to the scene of the New York City draft riots of 1863. Indeed, as Johnson correctly points out: "Hitherto urban race riots had been a Northern phenomenon. Between 1832 and 1849, for instance, Philadelphia alone experienced five major anti-Negro Disturbances, and, of course, there was the New York riot of 1863 . . ."

Johnson then gets to the heart of the matter with regard to the effects of the Republican Party’s Reconstruction propaganda which is so faithfully repeated by today’s court historians, such as James McPherson: “Although these occurrences were not taken as conclusive evidence of the incurable depravity of Northern society, the Memphis and New Orleans riots [the latter of which was ended by the actions taken by former Confederate General James Longstreet] and other incidents, real or fabricated, were cited by Republicans as revealing a continuing rebellion and the utter failure of [President Andrew] Johnson’s system of Reconstruction.”

The parallels between the Memphis riot and the 1863 New York City draft riots are in fact remarkable. As Iver Bernstein wrote in The New York City Draft Riots (p. 120): "In April 1863 longshoremen’s attempts to enforce a standard wage rate and an u2018all-white’ rule on the docks led to a protracted binge of racial violence . . . . For three days mobs of Irish longshoremen beat up black men found working along the docks and fought Metropolitan Police who attempted to save several blacks who defended themselves against lynching."

Ignoring real history and relying exclusively on the nineteenth-century Republican Party propaganda line, McPherson informed his Gettysburg audience that conflicts such as the Memphis riot of the 1860s were analogous to "the Sunni-Shiite divide that has poisoned postwar Iraq."

McPherson further informed his audience of bureaucrats that Reconstruction’s purportedly noble objective of trying to "remake the South into a version of New England" "suffered" from "haphazard tactics" which were the source of the policy’s ultimate failure. There is a grain of truth to this statement. New Englanders always thought of themselves as "God’s Chosen People." Moreover, they also believed it was their duty to force all others to become like them, or they would burn in hell. That is what made a Northerner a "Yankee": the willingness to use force — even mass killing — to remake society in his image.

The phony part of McPherson’s statement is the insinuation that New England was some kind of egalitarian Nirvana, and that the Republican Party rhetoric of "land reform" (along the lines of what occurred later in history in most countries that were taken over by communist insurgents) could turn the South into a "version of New England." Even if such a communistic fantasy were achieved it would not have turned the South into New England, for New England was anything but egalitarian — especially when it came to its small black population.

As Leon Litwack wrote in North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790—1860 (p. 97), "While statutes and customs circumscribed the Negro’s political and judicial rights [throughout the Northern states], extralegal codes — enforced by public opinion — relegated him to a position of social inferiority and divided northern society into u2018Brahmins and Pariahs.’" Furthermore, "In virtually every phase of existence, Negroes found themselves systematically separated from whites."

In Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and Race in New England, 1780—1860, Joanne Pope Melish of Brown University writes that even though slavery was finally ended in New England by 1857, most of the New England slaves were not freed but sold to southern plantation owners. New Englanders then spent decades doing everything imaginable to eradicate all black people from their midst. This included "targeting people of color from u2018warning out’ as undesirables under the legal settlement laws; taxing their presence; advocating their wholesale transportation to Africa . . . ; and finally, conducting terroristic, armed raids on urban black communities and the institutions that served them," Ku Klux Klan style.

New England blacks were even precluded from being buried in the same cemeteries as whites, and in some cases black corpses were dug up and removed from "white" cemeteries. "New England clerics led widespread efforts to raise funds" for the purpose of shipping all free blacks to Africa (p. 193). In antebellum New England there was often a "crescendo of mob violence against people of color," writes Professor Melish, which included "assaulting their communities, burning down their homes, and attacking their advocates" (p. 199). There were dozens of such riots throughout the New England states during the antebellum period, so it should be no surprise at all that many of the same people who had rioted in the North behaved in the same way after migrating to cities like Memphis.

The war itself so devastated the southern economy that it would take more than a century for average southern income to achieve the same proportion compared to the North that existed in 1860. So-called Reconstruction added fuel to this economic fire by imposing high taxes and out-of-control government spending and borrowing on a region that was in dire need of tax amnesty. The male ex-slaves were all recruited to register and vote Republican to become part of this plunder, while whites were disenfranchised for a while at the beginning of the period. This naturally — and needlessly — generated even greater racial animosity in the region. When Reconstruction ended, the Republican Party occupiers went home and left the hapless ex-slaves to fend for themselves.

The Northern investors and businessmen who benefited so much from the plundering of the South finally "turned their attention to the West," said McPherson in his Gettysburg presentation. Translated into plain English, this means that the U.S. army devoted its full attention to its campaign of ethnic genocide against the Plains Indians to make way for the government-subsidized transcontinental railroads. The amount of swindling and corruption associated with this venture rivaled that of Reconstruction.

To McPherson (and Ignatius) it was not so much the invasion, destruction, and subsequent plundering of the South during Reconstruction that was responsible for the South’s economic demise, but "giving up on Reconstruction." Thus, if there is a lesson to be learned from James McPherson’s presentation to the Defense Department bureaucrats in Gettysburg it is this: Pay no attention to actual facts, historical or otherwise; rely instead on the politically correct, "virtual history" concocted by court historians; ignore the current "troubles" in Iraq that result in the death of more and more young Americans (and Iraqi civilians) every single day; send more troops; and make no plans to ever end the military occupation. That, says David Ignatius, would be failing to learn the lessons of American history, Washington Post style.

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).

Thomas DiLorenzo Archives at LRC

Thomas DiLorenzo Archives at Mises.org

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