“Secession balls” in 2010?

There were two stories about the beginnings of the Civil War this week. The first comes from Georgia. The Georgia Historical Society will this January, on the 150th anniversary of Georgia’s secession, place a marker, one of 15, which will say that Georgia’s secession was in response to the election of Abraham Lincoln, “who was anti-slavery.”

In what can only be considered an understatement, the president of the Georgia Historical Society, Todd Groce, told the New York Times that “the marker is based on overwhelming evidence from the 1860s, not based on what apologists said in the 1890s, when former Confederates were backfilling about states’ rights.”

But here we are in 2010 and what one might call neo-Confederates, including prominent politicians, are planning “celebrations” of the 150th anniversary. In Charleston, S.C., a “secession ball” will be held (they are not planning to have slave ships entering the port to the cheers of “tea party” supporters, but maybe next year). In Montgomery, Ala., scene of the secession convention in 1861 and of the Montgomery Bus Boycott  in 1955-1956, they are even planning a historical  re-enactment of Jefferson Davis being sworn in as president of the Confederacy (they are not planning to have one of his slaves – he was a wealthy slaveholder – sit at the back of a coach).

In a separate story about these events, the New York Times quotes various members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans praising the “heroism” of those who launched the war and fought for the Confederacy, fighting against an “invasion” from the North. This is actually closer to the old Confederate view, which defined the war as a “war of Northern aggression,” than even the “states’ rights” arguments.  

There is even a reference to the right-wing Republican governor of Virginia, Robert McDonnell, who designated April “Confederate History Month,” with no reference to slavery. (It took a national furor before he apologized and included mention of slavery.)

I doubt McDonnell and his country club neo-Confederate friends will re-enact the fall of Richmond in 1865, as the Confederate government fled from Gen. Ulysses Grant’s advancing Union army. At the time, things were so bad the secession leaders were debating a resolution to arm and offer freedom to slaves who would fight for the Confederacy.

Nor will they re-enact the atrocities committed against African American troops under the orders of Robert E. Lee’s General Nathan Bedford Forrest (later the first leader after the war of the Ku Klux Klan). Forrest had his troops murder and mutilate captured Black Union troops rather than take them prisoner – a policy which Lee only stopped at the end when Grant threatened retaliation.

Like the Nazi racist extermination policy, the racist policies of the Confederates grew more savage as they faced defeat. Lonnie Randolph, president of the South Carolina NAACP, states simply that “when Southerners talk about states’ rights, they are really talking about their idea of one right – the right to buy and sell human beings.”

Let me state what I consider a few unvarnished truths on which Karl Marx, anti-slavery Senator Charles Sumner and probably Abraham Lincoln would agree.

The Confederate States of America was without any doubt the most brutal repressive government ever to exist in North America. The Confederate states were dominated by large slaveholders who controlled government at all levels, even though 80 percent of Southern whites owned no slaves. Fear and hatred of Blacks along with a chauvinist attitude toward non-Southerners were used to keep the non-slaveholding whites in line. It took far more courage to fight against the slaveholders and resist secession, as a significant number of Southerners did, than it did to fight for the Confederacy.

It was not simply that Lincoln was “anti-slavery.” After all, he wasn’t an abolitionist, like Sumner, Thaddeus Stevens and others who would later be called Radical Republicans.

But he opposed the extension of slavery into the territories, and the Supreme Court’s pro-slavery Dred Scott decision, and would not give the slaveholders the territorial and economic concessions that they demanded and that his predecessors had given them.

An article in a major Southern newspaper shortly before Lincoln’s election summed it up very well. The article looked at the big decline  in the “value” of slaves, young males and “breeding” females, on the New Orleans slave market, and predicted a collapse in the slave “stock market” if Lincoln won the election.

For those who don’t believe that the war was started by the slaveholder class to “preserve and protect” their ownership of nearly 4 million human beings worth a few billion dollars, they might look at the Confederate Constitution, which specifically bars any Confederate government from interfering with slavery and the property rights of slave holders! They might also look at the military conscription policy in the Confederacy, where large slaveholders were given a draft exemption if they wished. (In the Union, where capitalists were in power, rich people could buy a de facto exemption for $300.)

The French philosopher Voltaire once reportedly said that history was a pack of tricks played on the dead. The neo-Confederate re-enactments are in effect tricks played on the many millions who perished directly through slavery, the millions of poor whites whose lives and livelihoods were stunted by the slaveholders’ rule, and the hundreds of thousands of Union troops who died to defeat the Confederacy and save the Republic.

As one final point, it is interesting to note that many of these “celebrations” are being carried forward by Republicans. If Abraham Lincoln could come back to life and see what his party is engaging in, he would probably conclude that after his death the Confederates somehow won the Civil War.

Photo: A commemorative plaque in Bedford, Texas. QuesterMark CC 2.0

Updated 12/7/10: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the name of the governor of Virginia



Norman Markowitz
Norman Markowitz

Norman Markowitz is a Professor of History. He writes and teaches from a Marxist perspective, and has written many articles on a variety of topics, including biographical entries on Jimmy Hoffa, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the civil rights movement, 1930-1953, and poor peoples movements in U.S. history.