Southerners opposed Lee and the Confederacy

Over a century of whitewashing propaganda has made it easy for Americans to forget just what a monstrous, morally reprehensible movement the Confederacy was – but historians should know better. So it does not speak well of “living historian” Frank Orlando that he continues to apologize for it and its leaders, as he does in his recent interview with the Baltimore-Post Examiner. Two of the more egregious myths worth debunking:

“…five percent of the people in the North despised slavery; five percent of the people in the South supported slavery; but the other ninety percent believed in the Constitution of the United States.”

The specificity of these numbers is meant to suggest some degree of rigor and facticity, but they are, of course, entirely fabricated. Over 16% of free southerners were slaveholders; meanwhile, it is widely accepted that only about two percent of northerers identified as abolitionists. That second point underscores just how arbitrary Orlando’s numbers are, because it is actually more useful to his argument than the one he gives; but he’s so unacquainted with the actual facts here that he can’t even take advantage of those that are in his favor.

His largest figure – the 90% of Americans who “believed in the Constitution” – is simply incoherent. By his own account, these were people who were at war over opposing beliefs about the Constitution. So in what meaningful sense did all of them believe in it? If we take the (incorrect) Confederate view seriously, then the United States was fighting in defiance of the Constitution in order to exercise federal tyranny. If we take the (correct) view of the United States seriously, then the Confederates were a treacherous faction of separatists fighting the lawful authority of the federal government. Both claims obviously can’t be true at the same time. Confederate forces only “believed in the Constitution” in the utterly trivial sense of the criminal who claims that the law is on his side.

This is not to say that most southerners believed in slavery. But neither did they believe in the utterly cynical “states’ rights” argument that slaveholders cooked up to defend their cause. As a matter of historical fact, given the opportunity to vote on secession, at least 40% of southerners openly opposed it. That number dramatically understates popular will, of course, since the slaves who made up a third of the South’s population were not permitted to vote, and since those who were permitted to vote were subject to all kinds of fraud and intimidation.

This reality is reflected in several developments during the war that apologists for the Confederacy find embarrassingly inconvenient – such as the fact that two-thirds of Confederate soldiers dropped out by the end. And that a quarter of the troops fighting in the United States army were southerners. And that many southerners actually fought back against the Confederacy, taking back vast tracts of land for the United States with guerilla factions and rioting against slaveowners. For the most part, the Civil War was a treasonous revolt by rich slaveowners against the federal government that conscripted thousands of poor southerners who didn’t believe in their cause.

“In fact, Robert E. Lee despised slavery.”

Confederate apologists like to imagine their heroes as courageous men of principle who reluctantly went to war against federal tyranny – definitely not because the specific act of “tyranny” in question just-so-happened to involve the abolition of slavery. And the standard-bearer of that noble stand, of course, was Robert E. Lee. Among historians like Orlando, it’s an indisputable truism that Lee was a heroic patriot who hated slavery, loved his country, and led the mass slaughter of slavery’s greatest enemies only out of admirably unshakeable convictions about federalism.

This is somewhat plausible if we focus on a few instances of Lee’s shameless political posturing – while pointedly ignoring much of what he said and everything he did. Like his defenders, Lee would have you judge him exclusively by professed intentions, while ignoring the direct and predictable consequences of everything that he did. It is, again, the sort of moral reasoning that we would never accept from an accused criminal – but for Confederates, it’s the only reasoning that matters.

Fortunately, not even the appeal to intentions can hold any water for Lee. Only a few lines after his famous declaration that “slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil,” Lee insisted that the “painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary”. He only freed his own slaves because he was legally obligated to, and fought in court to keep them indefinitely; in the meantime, he beat and tortured them so mercilessly that one described him as “the meanest man I ever met.” He permitted his troops to return runaway slaves to slaveholders, and insisted that the Crittenden Compromise, which would have outlawed abolition, “deserves the support of every patriot.”

But even if these inconvenient details were false, Lee would still be guilty of his most serious crimes: treachery and mass murder in defense of slavery. The Confederacy was an illegal rebellion against the sovereign government of the United States as a matter of legal and historical fact. The leaders of that rebellion were traitors to their countrymen who tried to win with a maniacal campaign of violence and death what they couldn’t win through democracy. And whatever Lee’s motives were, they have to be weighed against what he knew perfectly well: that victory for the Confederacy meant the continued enslavement of a third of all Southerners.

If critics of the Confederacy wanted to revise history, the story of General Lee would end as it should have: he would have been hanged for treason before the very Americans he tried to kill and enslave. That would be much closer to justice than the ridiculous hagiography Orlando is trying to sell.