by Father Dave
An address given to the American Civil War Roundtable of Australia, New South Wales branch, on July 6th 2009.
“Every man should endeavour to understand the meaning of subjugation before it is too late…It means the history of this heroic struggle will be written by the enemy; that our youth will be trained by Northern schoolteachers; will learn from Northern school books their version of the war; will be impressed by the influences of history and education to regard our gallant dead as traitors, and our maimed veterans as fit objects for derision.”
If we might paraphrase the great General, ‘history is written by the victors’, The Confederate cause was never going to get sympathetic coverage in the Union press in the years following the war, just as her military leaders would not be revered as war heroes.
Conversely, of course, the victorious North would have not only its military leaders but her policies and politicians vindicated by the result of the conflict. God had clearly favoured their chosen path. Who could challenge their wisdom, and who indeed would dare to question Lincoln – a commander-in-chief who was so clearly favoured by God as leader of the nation.
It did not have to be that way of course. Had the war ended differently, it’s hard to know how Mr Lincoln would have been remembered, or if he would have been remembered much at all? Yet by the grace of political circumstance ‘Honest Abe’ was snatched from the slippery slope of political ignominy to be fashioned into America’s greatest President – a figure who seems to loom as large today in the world’s consciousness as he ever has!
Yes, the spirit of Abraham Lincoln is alive and well today, and was drawn upon extensively in the lead up to the most recent US elections. The attraction for Barack Obama, was, of course, Lincoln’s connection with the ending of the enslavement of his country’s African-American population, rather than with Lincoln’s historic role in suspending habeas corpus or in plunging his country into war without the support of Congress, and so the Lincoln that was resurrected to support the Democratic campaign was inevitably a rather partial composite of the original.
Even so, one has to question whether even on this very singular point – Lincoln’s support for the end of African-American slavery – the modern depiction of Honest Abe as the friend of the black man who single-handedly wiped the scourge of slavery from the map is not more a piece of sentimental fiction than it is historic fact.
In truth, I am yet to find any evidence that this ‘friend of the black man’ actually had any African-American people that he would number amongst his personal friends. And if he did, it is unambiguous that he did not consider them his equals.
In a very candid address to a group of free negroes, given less than five months prior to his issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation (August 14th, 1862) the great emancipator said,
“You and we are different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races… But, even when you cease to be slaves, you are yet far removed from being placed on an equality with the white race. The aspiration of men is to enjoy equality with the best when free, but on this broad continent not a single man of your race is made the equal of a single man of ours.”
Now I am not wanting to suggest that Lincoln was outstandingly obnoxious in his racist perspectives. He was a creature of his time, as are we all. And yet I continue to find it astounding that Lincoln is so often held up alongside great Civil Rights leaders such as Dr Martin Luther King Jr. as being a 21st-century emancipator of sorts who was willing to go to any length – even waging war against his own people – for the sake of setting the black man free.
On this latter point of course Lincoln himself was entirely explicit. In his very public letter to the editor of the New York Tribune, where he attempts to defend his Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln said
“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the coloured race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union”
Were the authenticity of this letter not so well attested to, I imagine that any number of modern-day Lincolnites might claim that these words were merely the concoction some Confederate detractor. But no, these were Lincoln’s own words! And while I know that his defenders will say that Lincoln was a consummate politician and that we have to read between the lines to ascertain his full meaning, how much more straightforward could he have been in making clear that the aspirations of the African-American population to freedom were in fact peripheral to his concerns as commander-in-chief.
Lincoln did play a historic role in the movement of the African-American population of the United States towards freedom – of course we do not want to dispute that – but he was no Martin Luther King, and quite frankly I would guess that the very idea that there might one day be an African-American President of the United States would have him turning in his grave, let alone the prospect that he himself might have been resurrected to support the man’s Presidential campaign!
In truth, the way in which the Civil Right Movement and other social and political groups advocating the rights of African-American people have taken ownership of Lincoln is a subject worthy of independent study, and while I do not wish to take up the rest of this paper reflecting on that issue, I would suggest that a helpful parallel might be found in the way in which the various churches tried to lay claim to Lincoln after his untimely demise.
As one sadly familiar with church politics myself, I’ve been amused to see how the various church organisations of late 19th and early 20th centuries battled to lay claim to the soul of the great emancipator.
Starting on “Black Easter”, only two days after Lincoln’s death, preachers of all denominations began trying to demonstrate that the President had not only been a true Christian but a member of their own extended flock. He was claimed to be a Presbyterian, a Catholic, a Methodist, a Congregationalist, a Quaker, a Universalist, and even a Spiritualist!
Stories began to circulate of Lincoln’s secret baptism! One of the more persistent was that Church of Christ evangelist, John O’Kane, after discussing the state of Lincoln’s soul with him on several occasions; had finally seen the President convicted, and he had asked for immediate immersion!
As the story goes, Lincoln knew that his wife, who had strong Episcopal and Presbyterian social ties in Springfield, would be greatly embarrassed if it were known that a radical Protestant had baptized him, so Lincoln and O’Kane slipped away secretly from the house (equipped with the proper ceremonial robes) to conduct a baptism in the waters of the Sangamon River!
Of course the story was complete hogwash (pun intended), but even after Lincoln’s old law-partner, William Herndon, began lecturing quite openly in 1866 that Lincoln had lived and died a complete heathen, the rumours were slow to dissipate.
Why was it that the churches – supposedly bulwarks of the truth – were so ready and willing to fabricate stories that would ally the dead President with their own denomination? Was it perhaps that these Christian communities wished to be associated with the ending of slavery? If only! No. The dismal failure of most of the mainline churches to take a forthright stand against slavery during the war puts the lie to any idea that there might have been any noble reason for them wishing to align themselves with Lincoln after the war.
My guess is that it was simply because he was a winner that the churches were so keen to name him as one of their own – that and the fact that the President’s untimely death had vouchsafed to him a certain martyr status.
And if a martyr for the Union, why not a martyr for the cause of abolitionism? The mythical figure of the dead President showed itself to be enormously malleable from the outset. And if so many churches could reshape the unbelieving President into one of their own, why should not human rights groups do the same? Why let the facts get in the way of a good story or a good cause?
Now I am conscious of the fact that my task today was to give a Confederate perspective on who Abraham Lincoln was, and I realise that thus far I have focused exclusively on who he was not. Even so, by making these points I hope to have illustrated the difficulty of getting to the historical figure lying behind so many layers of myth. Hopefully the foregoing will have achieved something in terms of loosening the facade, such that we can get a small glimpse of the real man.
From a Confederate perspective, Abraham Lincoln always was and always will be remembered as only one thing – the author of the War of Northern Aggression.
Again, many will leap to his defence and suggest that Honest Abe was unwillingly dragged into a war that was not of his own making, Yet this is easily dismissed.
Hostilities began, you will remember, at Fort Sumter in South Carolina, and there can be little doubt that Lincoln ordered the Fort re-supplied in a deliberate attempt to provoke the Southerners into firing the first shot.
Captain G.V. Fox, who commanded the warships and tugs detailed with the task of re-supplying the fort, was in no way confused about his intended goal. He wrote to Lincoln, “I simply propose three tugs convoyed by light-draft men of war – The first tug to lead in empty, to open their fire.”
Fox’s re-supply plan was never carried out, of course, as the Southerners bombarded and captured the fort before his vessels could reach it. Even so, Lincoln’s response to Fox is equally instructive. On May 1, 1861, Lincoln wrote to Fox:
“I sincerely regret that the failure of the attempt to provision Fort Sumter should be the source of annoyance to you – You and I both anticipated that the cause of the country would be advanced by making the attempt to provision Fort Sumter, even if it should fail; and it is no small consolation now to feel that our anticipation is justified by the result.”
Clearly Lincoln did not regret the opening of hostilities at Fort Sumter and, as I outlined in a paper previously delivered to this esteemed gathering, there is every reason to believe that he had been agitating for hostilities to commence some time earlier, as he had attempted to reinforce Fort Pickens in Pensacola as early as January 1861!
In truth, I find little historical reason to doubt that Lincoln wanted this war, even if he simultaneously wanted to take the moral high-ground and not be perceived as its initiator. What is not so immediately obvious though is why he wanted it?
Why would anyone want to go to war against their own people? Why would anyone want to shed so much blood? It was not to free the slaves – that much is clear. So what was it that was driving him?
My own conclusion is that Lincoln was simply defending his own right to rule, and that he was willing to see his country and his people pay whatever price was necessary in order to see him maintain his right to rule.
A generous (but plausible) interpretation of this would be that his desire to rule was driven by his passionate belief in the democratic system as the ultimate form of government – a form of government that he at one time referred to as “the last great hope of earth” (December 1st, 1862)!
Lincoln, as I have said, was not a ‘believer’ in the traditional religious sense, but he certainly was a believer in the Democratic system – of government of the people, by the people, for the people. We know that. Could it be that it was the President’s own idealistic hallowing of the democratic system (as he understood it) that drove him to sacrifice the lives of so many young Americans? I think it entirely plausible, though a less generous interpretation would be that it was his own megalomania that was driving him – a pathological inability to let go of power.
Either way, you may remember that in my last paper on Lincoln I suggested that there were useful parallels to be made between him and President George W. Bush – a modern day crusader for democracy who likewise didn’t seem to care how many lives were sacrificed on this ideological alter. It seems to me now though that an equally valid comparison could be made between Lincoln and another current political figure – Iranian President Mahmoud Admadinejad!
Here again we find a President who is quite happy to shed the blood of any number of his own people in order to maintain his right to rule! Is it devotion to the democratic system that drives Admadinejad or simple megalomania? We will leave history to be the judge of that.
For history, it seems, will always have the final say – and this despite the way in which it shapes and reshapes us to fit its own purposes. And should we really care if the ambiguous legacy of Lincoln has been taken up to serve some higher cause of racial unity. Should it matter to us that so many of the details have been overlooked in the attempt to fashion this man of clay into a marble monument designed to uplift and inspire?
In truth, if the legacy of Lincoln were all good, I would see no need to call the man into question, but, like Lincoln himself, his legacy has its own dark side, as made clear in my original quote from General Cleburne, where the legacy of this history has been to dishonour the Southern dead, their cause, their flag, and all that they fought for.
And so let me conclude this address by giving you the conclusion of that quote from the great’Stonewall of the West’.
“It is said slavery is all we are fighting for, and if we give it up we give up all. Even if this were true, which we deny, slavery is not all our enemies are fighting for. It is merely the pretence to establish sectional superiority and a more centralized form of government, and to deprive us of our rights and liberties.”