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My Turn: Keeping the war — and debate — civil

By Jeff Sharp

In response to “The ‘Civil War’ and other lies” (Oct. 8 My Turn), Mr. Poteat, I hand it to you. You are correct that using the term “Civil War” is misleading, but only if none of the seceding states belonged to the United States. In that case, it would be a war fought between two separate countries. By your own citation, the U.S. war aim was “to defend and protect the Union.” The Confederate states’ differing opinion is moot, because they lost! The position of the United States — that “union” was permanent and irrevocable — prevailed. Thus, today we rightly speak of the “Civil War.” Many things in life are easily entered but exited only with great difficulty if at all.

What Lincoln said regarding slavery in his first inaugural address wasn’t his last word on the topic. He made this address on March 4, 1861. At that point, none of the border states — Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee or Arkansas, or for that matter, Kentucky, Missouri, Delaware, Maryland or the Arizona territory — had yet decided to secede. In fact, both Virginia and North Carolina would soon vote against secession. A delicate situation was in play, and the president was circumspect. Lincoln’s view demonstrably evolved over the next four years.

Moreover, how do you reckon Lincoln provoked the firing on Fort Sumter? From South Carolina’s secession, December 1860, until Lincoln’s inauguration, the fort commander answered to President Buchanan. Lincoln’s main move was to attempt delivery of food to the fort using an unarmed ship. In response to this, CSA initiated a bombardment.

George Lunt, whom you quote at length, was a Boston newspaper editor. “Origin of the Late War” was published in 1866, meaning he must have written it just as the war ended. Lunt was keen to appease the South. Leading up to the war, he was a Northern apologist for slavery. His goal in writing the book was to soften Northern opinions regarding the South, not to document accurate or insightful historical fact. As a Northern Democrat, he seems to have had a grudge against the Republican Party, dismissing anti-slavery positions as demagoguery instead of moral conviction. Yet, he did not take a similar position against pro-slavery positions of Southern Democrats. Read his own words in the introduction to the book.

One quotation you cite that I don’t find misleading is by Percy Gregg. “To say that the South seceded and fought to hold her slaves is to accuse her of political imbecility.” And yet … It doesn’t take subtle logic to infer the leaders of the Confederacy’s main concern. Read Vice President Alexander Stephens’s “Cornerstone Speech” of March 1861. Every seceding state that published a rationale for its Ordinance of Secession cited slaveholding and slavery as prominent features. Compare the constitution of the United States to the constitution of the Confederacy. You’ll find the Confederate constitution copied the original except in places where it veered off to protect slavery or address the sovereignty of “property rights”  — “property” in this case including human chattel. Leaders of the old South were indeed fixated on preserving the institution of slavery. When they didn’t say it straightforwardly, they resorted to euphemisms like “property rights” or “states’ rights.”

Misleading quotations, often out of context, confused timelines and citing questionable sources are familiar tools of a longstanding effort to put a valiant face on this deeply disturbing chapter in American history. It’s known as the myth of the “Lost Cause.” The driving force behind Southern states’ secessions was the preservation of slavery. It was monetarily advantageous to a small cadre of incredibly wealthy plantation owners who held sway over weak state governments that did their bidding. They enlisted writers and travelling orators to whip up popular support for secession — a “media blitz.” In defense of these plantation owners’ interests, many died — soldiers in battle, civilian elderly, women and children struck by misdirected fire, others who starved or died of pestilence. It is disingenuous to spin the Civil War as the loss of a sentimental paradise at the hands of industrial aggression. It was all about slavery.

Before concluding, I want to observe that all wars are “political wars.” Even the ones that claim to be morally or religiously motivated are waged by political entities. And, all political entities claim to be aligned with the one true God. After all the bloodshed, the heartache and the propaganda, neither victor nor vanquished has a monopoly on righteousness.

In summary, I don’t agree with much that you wrote. I do, however, defend your right to speak out as you see fit. I appreciate you taking time to cite references and attempting to bring civility into a sometimes uncivil discussion that is rumbling through our community. What more could anyone ask of a neighbor? Thank you, sir.

Jeff Sharp lives in Salisbury.

My Turn submissions should be 500-700 words in length. Please email to letters@salisburypost.com with “My Turn” in the subject line. Include name, address, phone number and, if possible, a digital photo of the writer.

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