DC During the Civil War

The Daily Mail has a collection of beautifully shot pictures taken in Washington, DC during the Civil War. As someone whose office overlooks a statue of General McClellan (right next to the hotel where Ronald Reagan was shot), it’s amazing to get a glimpse of what life was like in our nation’s capital during the Civil War. Even more amazing is that some of the shots – including the one of the Chain Bridge – look like they could have been taken today.


Published in: on July 26, 2012 at 9:53 am  Comments (1)  

Wait, Who Founded the Republican Party?

As Ed Morrissey suggests, it’s a dangerous thing when President Obama goes off teleprompter.

We all remember Abraham Lincoln as the leader who saved our Union. Founder of the Republican Party.

Not exactly, Mr. President.  As Ed points out, Abe wasn’t even the first presidential nominee in Republican party history – that honor went to John Fremont, who lost the 1856 presidential election to Buchanan.  Moreover, not only was Lincoln not a founder of the party, he was one of the last individuals to desert the rotting corpse of the Whig party.  When just about most Whigs, north and south, had abandoned the party in droves, Lincoln tenaciously clung to the Whig designation until he eventually bowed to political realities.  Lincoln joined the Republicans in large part due to his distaste of the nativism of other emerging major party: the Know Nothings.  Lincoln abhorred their anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic platform and so decided that the Republicans were the most palatable of the “anti-Nebraska” (those opposed to the Kansas-Nebraska act and the extension of slavery) parties emerging in the United States.

Lincoln’s letter to Joshua Speed, dated August 24, 1855, explains his reluctance to leave the Whigs and to adopt the Republican moniker.  It’s a very important letter in that it also demonstrates Lincoln’s revulsion towards slavery.  It’s an impassioned critique of the Douglas Democrats and of those that claimed to not care about the course of slavery.  For purposes of Lincoln’s political designation, here is the key passage:

You inquire where I now stand. That is a disputed point — I think I am a whig; but others say there are no whigs, and that I am an abolitionist. When I was in Washington I voted for the Wilmot Proviso as good as forty times, and I never heard of any one attempting to unwhig me for that. I now do no more than oppose the extension of slavery.

I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor or degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].

This was written well into 1855, so even at this point Lincoln still considered himself a Whig.  It would a while longer before he fully adopted the Republican label.  Whatever can be said of Lincoln, founder of the Republican party is not one of them.

That’s not to say, of course, that Lincoln is not representative of the original GOP.  It’s often been suggested that Lincoln would not fit into today’s GOP, but that is an erroneous assumption.  But that is a discussion for another time.

Published in: on September 9, 2011 at 9:56 am  Comments (2)  

Newsflash: Lincoln Was White

The Washington Times reports that a new book about Abraham Lincoln reveals some shocking new discoveries:

The Great Emancipator was almost the Great Colonizer: Newly released documents show that to a greater degree than historians had previously known, President Lincoln laid the groundwork to ship freed slaves overseas to help prevent racial strife in the U.S.

Just after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Lincoln authorized plans to pursue a freedmen’s settlement in present-day Belize and another in Guyana, both colonial possessions of Great Britain at the time, said Phillip W. Magness, one of the researchers who uncovered the new documents.

Historians have debated how seriously Lincoln took colonization efforts, but Mr. Magness said the story he uncovered, to be published next week in a book, “Colonization After Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement,” shows the president didn’t just flirt with the idea, as historians had previously known, but that he personally pursued it for some time.

Shocking!  Other than in every book ever written about Lincoln, I don’t believe that his pursuit of colonization has been mentioned.

The authors, in the interests of justifying their work as a worthy academic endeavor, are trying to claim that Lincoln pursued this policy to an even greater extent than heretofore known.  Again, this is not really a new discovery.  I have read several Lincoln biographies that went into great detail about Lincoln’s colonization plans.  Believe me, this is often the first point that Lincoln detractors bring up in some effort to discredit Lincoln.

It’s widely known that Lincoln, for much of his life, thought that colonization was the best policy in a post-slavery America.  He discussed colonization in several speeches made during the 1850s, including his famous Peoria speech delivered on October 16, 1854.  Lincoln favored colonization because he believed that freed slaves would never be treated as equals in the United States.  He earnestly thought that it would be best for both whites and blacks if freed slaves were colonized elsewhere.  He gradually changed his mind, persuaded largely by Frederick Douglass that blacks wanted to remain in the United States and forge their way towards equality.  By the time of his assassination he had abandoned all colonization plans.  Indeed one of the policies that so angered his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was his proposal to allow suffrage to freed slaves in Louisiana while it re-organized.

I’m sure that this book provides a very interesting and detailed account of this particular topic, but the Washington Times might want to temper its tone of amazement.


Published in: on February 10, 2011 at 10:20 am  Comments Off on Newsflash: Lincoln Was White  

Two sides of the coin

Those familiar with my writings here and on other blogs knows that I hold no truck with the neo-Confederate revisionist history of the Civil War.  Notions that the war had to do with “tariffs” or that Lincoln was a great tyrant and thus the CSA was in fact fighting for a just cause are completely wrongheaded.  But I’m not here to re-fight those blog battles.

Though I am a Yankee by birth, and though I maintain that Lincoln and the Union were in the right, I cannot abide the opposite extreme.  I am talking about those who deem the Confederates to be little better than Nazis, and who think that the Confederate battle flag is something akin to a swastika.  This post over at Southern Appeal by Tom Van Dyke (no longer a contributor to saud blog, naturally) is but one example of the phenomenon I am talking about.  But I’ve seen similar arguments in other places, and I need not focus my attention on Mr. Van Dyke.

Lamentably, I used to be one of those who arrogantly and dismissively compared the Confederates to Nazis.  I personally used the term “Confederate swastika” in reference to the battle flag, most notably while a young pup attending a southern university.

But a funny thing happened.  I grew up.  Though my views on the war and the causes of the war did not change, my attitude towards the Confederacy changed.  Well, not so much the CSA, but my attitude towards the confederate soldier, and to great generals and gentlemen like Robert E. Lee.  As I read more and more (and more and more and more) about the Civil War I came to respect the figures that graced the pages of these histories.  Their cause was unjust, but they displayed great valor and bravery even in the face of superior numerical forces. There are still figures that I care for not a wit – Jefferson Davis and the political leaders I still view as traitors to this great Nation.  I suppose the same could technically be said of Lee and the soldiers under him, but I cannot hold them to the same level of personal guilt as the men who led the south into rebellion.

Perhaps it is a contradiction to hold the Confederate warrior in esteem even while acknowledging the unjustness of their cause.  But while their leaders may have fought for secession in order to hang on to their dreams of an empire for slavery, I truly believe that the southern warrior was simply fighting for his home.  I won’t call them pawns – that somehow seems disrespectful to them.  But their motivations were different.  Like every young man sent off to fight a great war, the southern soldier wasn’t too much concerned about the politics that got him into the mess.  He was merely fighting for his country, and in 1861 his country was his state.  He was fighting for home and for family.

The Civil War was a terrible conflict in which more men were killed than in all other American wars combined.  We shouldn’t whitewash what the war was about, but nor should we dishonor the brave men who died, giving every last measure of devotion to their home and to their state.  Let us not sully their memory by horrendous analogies to truly despicable regimes such as the Nazis.  As a Yankee, smug Yankee superiority is quite simply a turn off.


Published in: on August 30, 2010 at 10:05 pm  Comments Off on Two sides of the coin  
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Largest confederate cities

Here’s a bit of a brain teaser courtesy of Sporcle:  name the 25 largest cities in the Confederacy.  I must confess to getting only 12/25.  Geography is just not my strong suit.

Published in: on August 10, 2010 at 10:09 am  Comments (4)  
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Lincoln’s Final Address

It is fashionable in some circles to make much hay of Abraham Lincoln’s supposed overt racism and proposals to  establish a colony for freed slaves.   There is little point in rehashing many of the arguments about Lincoln being a product of his time.  I will simply note that once Lincoln met with black leaders such as Frederick Douglas and other freed slaves, he realized these individuals wanted to stay in America, and he abandoned plans for colonization.

A prime example of how far Lincoln’s racial views evolved was his final address, issued just a few days before his assassination.  In it, Lincoln outlines plans for Reconstruction, specifically mentioning the ongoing efforts in Louisiana.  Lincoln makes clear that Reconstruction efforts must guarantee civil rights – including the franchise – for freed slaves.

This call for civil rights protection enraged one of the audience members, prompting this man to declare that “That is the last speech he will make.”  (Some accounts expand the reaction thusly: “That means n—– citizenship. Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.”) The man who uttered that prophetic note was John Wilkes Booth.


Published in: on July 8, 2010 at 8:48 am  Comments (2)  

The Framers and Secession

I thought this would serve as a useful follow-up to Donald’s post below.   Putting aside the question of whether or not the Civil war was fought over slavery, or whether slavery served as the impetus for the war, the next logical question is: did the southern states have the right to secede?  The evidence, as supplied by the writings of the men who wrote our Constitution, suggests that the answer is definitively NO.

Mac Owens has gone to the trouble of analyzing this issue in great detail already.  It’s a very thorough piece, so I suggest that you read it in its entirety.  I will just pull one little selection from it in order to give you all a flavor. (more…)

Published in: on July 6, 2010 at 12:53 pm  Comments (11)  
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Is Robert E. Lee overrated?

Yeah, the post title is somewhat deliberately provocative, but it’s also meant to be a serious question that I hope will spark some discussion.  I was going to ask it in the comments to Donald’s post below, but thought it might be useful fodder for debate in its own right.

I should emphasize that by asking the question I am not assuming an answer either way.  I am a Civil War buff.  I have studied this era in American history for years, and have traveled to multiple Civil War battle sites, and have read countless biographies and general histories of the era. Having said that, I will admit that my weakness when it comes to this period – and really history in general – is military tactics.  I’ve read about the Battle of Gettysburg more times than I can count, and visited the battlefield just about a year ago to the day.  Yet I probably would have difficulty right now recounting exactly how the battle shook out.  This is one of those areas where something just doesn’t click for me – kind of like biology and, well, most science topics to be blunt.

So I throw this out because I am genuinely curious, and I’d like to hear from those in the audience with some more familiarity.  I’ve heard it suggested by more than one historian that Lee was overrated, and that perhaps his aggressive forays into the North were foolhardy adventures that doomed the Confederacy.  I’m not sure I agree with this, but as I said, I’d like to hear from folks who are better acquainted with military history, tactics, etc.

Published in: on June 17, 2010 at 12:54 pm  Comments (15)  
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April 15, 1865

Today marks the 145th anniversary of Lincoln’s death at the hands of John Wilkes Booth.  Booth shot Lincoln the previous evening while Lincoln was watching a production of Our American Cousin at the Ford Theater.  Lincoln was taken across the street to the Petersen house, and died nine hours later.  Normally I wouldn’t cite Wikipedia, but here is a pretty good summation of the events surrounding Lincoln’s assassination, including the details of the entire conspiracy.  Having just read Jean-Edward Smith’s biography of U.S. Grant, I had almost forgotten that Grant and his wife were originally supposed to accompany the Lincolns to the theater, but Grant’s wife changed her mind at the last moment.  Grant would continue to blame himself for Lincoln’s assassination, believing that had he been there, he would have heard Booth enter the box and would have stopped him.

Lincoln’s assassination led to perhaps the greatest what-if in our history: what if Lincoln had not been assassinated and survived to serve out his second term?  I’ve actually toyed with the idea of writing an alternative history based on that assumption, but that would be a daunting task.  I strongly suspect that Lincoln would have been far more effective in carrying out reconstruction than his pigheaded successor.  Lincoln had proven to be a masterful politician, effectively managing the extremist and moderate factions within his party.  Andrew Johnson had no similar skills, and could not contain the radical Republicans.  Reconstruction was thereby managed by Radical Republicans seemingly bent on revenge and an over-conciliatory President who seemed unwilling to ensure civil rights for the freed slaves.  Lincoln would likely have steered a middle course that would have shunned attempts at vengeance while also attempting to build a more lasting peace that would have granted some greater assurance of civil rights protection to emancipated slaves.

Then again, few presidents have had successful second terms.  Arguably, no president has ever had a successful second term, so it is quite possible that Lincoln would have been no different.  But Lincoln was no ordinary man.

Booth eventually received the justice due to him, but not before horribly affecting the course of American history.

Published in: on April 15, 2010 at 1:04 pm  Comments (5)