A reader called to my attention this short video by a West Point historian addressing the question “Was the Civil War about Slavery?” Colonel Ty Seidule, head of the History Department at the United States Military Academy, recently answered this question at the invitation of so-called “Prager University.” You should check it out.
P.U. (an unfortunate acronym when spoken aloud), is the creation of conservative radio host Dennis Prager. Its website promises “free courses for free minds” capped at five minutes each. At Prager University you will never have to endure “long, boring, can’t-keep-my-eyes-open lectures.” Just click on the play button and enjoy “clear, life-changing insights and ideas from world-renowned thinkers” who have mastered the art of getting “right to the point.” Five minutes later you’ll have definitive information, clarity, and “a true-value added component of a Prager University education – wisdom.” Quite the bargain.
Since its release five days ago, more than four million of us have given it a look, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why. A whiff of scandal may have lured some. There have been a few critical notices online, calling into question whether a high-ranking officer at West Point should have lent his name to such a high-profile, politically conservative personality. I’m not sure what to think about that. The “courses” in P.U.’s catalog are predominantly conservative in their slant, but I noticed nothing overtly partisan in Colonel Seidule’s presentation, and by his own account (to Stars and Stripes), he knew nothing of Prager’s politics when he agreed to make the video.
I suspect a more important factor was the lingering effects of the Confederate battle flag controversy and the sense that Colonel Seidule offers a definitive refutation of the tired claim by the flag’s defenders that the Civil War was a struggle over state rights. Most of the online sites that have reposted the video have taken that tack. They preface the link with bold-face proclamations that Seidule “slammed” or “destroyed” the states’ rights argument. (The prize for subtlety goes to Salon.com: “Was the Civil War fought over slavery?” the online magazine asks. “Here’s the video to show idiots who think the answer is ‘No.'”)
My guess is that this is a classic example of being deeply impressed by the force of an argument agreeing with what you already believe. Much of the online acclaim trumpets Colonel Seidule’s role as head of the History Department at West Point, and the fact that he delivered his remarks in full dress uniform surely added to their gravitas. The unstated assumption seems to be that a historian at West Point, by definition, should be able to speak authoritatively about the causes of the Civil War. Colonel Seidule’s official bio indicates that he earned a PhD in history from Ohio State University, but his expertise is in the history of the art of war and, again according to his official West Point bio, his area of specialization is the history of West Point itself. This does not automatically establish him as an expert on the political causes of the Civil War or any other conflict.
Having said that, Colonel Seidule is right in insisting that the neo-Confederate claim that the Civil War was not about slavery is insupportable by the evidence. There is nothing novel in this. Academic historians have held to this view almost unanimously for at least three generations. But in “destroying” the southern myth that the war was all about states’ rights, the colonel falls into the trap of perpetuating the dominant northern myth about the conflict, implying that it was first and foremost a moral struggle over the legitimacy of human bondage.
He does this primarily in the conclusion of his five-minute “course.” After acknowledging that the North did not initially embrace the liberation of southern slaves as its reason for fighting, he implies that the war gradually morphed into a moral crusade. He does this by focusing on Abraham Lincoln exclusively, observing that the opportunity to end slavery grew more and more important in Lincoln’s mind as the war progressed. That is true, but Lincoln also knew that millions of northerners did not share his view, including a significant percentage of soldiers. This is why Seidule’s conclusion, though stirring, is grossly misleading:
“Slavery is the great shame of America’s history. No one denies that. But it is to America’s everlasting credit that it fought the most devastating war in its history in order to abolish slavery. . . . In its finest hour, soldiers wearing this blue uniform , almost two hundred thousand of them former slaves, destroyed chattel slavery, freed four million men, women, and children, and saved the United States of America.”
The claim that America “fought the most devastating war in its history in order to abolish slavery” is a masterful enunciation of what I have previously labeled the northern myth of the Civil War. If you want a detailed explanation of why Colonel Seidule’s statement is misleading, please take a few minutes (warning: it might take more than five) to read my post “Exchanging One Myth for Another? Our One-Sided Memories of the Civil War.”
Without belaboring the details, it is important to remember that emancipation was almost as controversial among Union soldiers as it was among northern civilians. Some of the most prominent Federal generals in the war openly opposed the policy. Major General George McClellan, who for sixteen months commanded the largest Union army, is a prime example. McClellan advised Lincoln that “neither confiscation of property . . . nor forcible abolition of slavery should be contemplated for a moment” and warned that “a declaration of radical views, especially upon slavery, will rapidly disintegrate our present armies.”
Major General William Tecumseh Sherman, who was more responsible than any other single officer for Lincoln’s reelection, thanks to his successful campaign for Atlanta, repeatedly resisted orders from Washington to enlist former slaves after the Emancipation Proclamation made that a possibility. “I would prefer to have this a white man’s war,” he explained in a letter to his wife in April 1863. And when the Army Chief of Staff pressed the matter in late 1864, Sherman wrote to Henry Halleck to explain why he would not comply. “I am honest in my belief that it is not fair to our men to count negroes as equals,” he began. But “is not a negro as good as a white man to stop a bullet?” Sherman asked. His answer: “yes, and a sand bag is better; but can a negro do our skirmishing and picket duty? . . . Soldiers must do many things without orders from their own sense,” he lectured Halleck. “Negroes are not equal to this.”
Although some Union generals were genuinely committed both to emancipation and to the enlistment of black soldiers on moral grounds, taken as a whole, the policy of Union commanders in the field with regard to slavery was pragmatic, based first and foremost on military exigencies. And although exposure to the realities of slavery often converted the men in the ranks to support of emancipation, historian James McPherson–after reading thousands of pages of soldiers’ correspondence–concluded that most supporters of emancipation in the Union army are best understood as “practical abolitionists.” These soldiers came to advocate emancipation as a way to cripple the Confederacy, to exercise revenge against their enemies, and to shorten the war.
Colonel Seidule is correct that President Lincoln genuinely embraced the opportunity to strike at slavery as a long-delayed moral obligation, but even Lincoln regularly justified emancipation and black recruitment on the most pragmatic grounds in order to make it more palatable to northern opinion. “The most that can be said, if so much, is, that slaves are property,” the president wrote in a public defense of the Emancipation Proclamation in the summer of 1863. “Is there—has there ever been—any question that by the law of war, property, both of enemies and friends, may be taken when needed?”
And when a year later he faced widespread criticism over the use of slaves as soldiers, he again defended his policy on the most pragmatic grounds. “Any different policy in regard to the colored man deprives us of his help, and this is more than we can bear,” Lincoln wrote to a Unionist critic in September 1864. “This is not a question of sentiment or taste, but one of physical force which can be measured and estimated as horse-power and steam power. . . . Keep it and you can save the Union. Throw it away, and the Union goes with it.”
Colonel Seidule’s claim that “it is to America’s everlasting credit that it fought the most devastating war in its history in order to abolish slavery” misses the mark badly. And more than just historical accuracy is at stake. As I have noted before, this kind of caricature unwittingly perpetuates the falsehood that racism has somehow been a peculiarly southern problem throughout our past. Southern slavery was the country’s “great shame.” The North, to its “everlasting credit,” fought to abolish it. For generations, this northern myth has made the South a sectional scapegoat for a national problem. Just like the southern states’ rights myth, the northern myth has been an obstacle to an honest confrontation with our past.