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A Reminder Of How Violently Freedom Can Die: the Colfax Massacre

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Judy was released from the hospital today having exceeded all expectations in recovery, mobility, and flexibility. Compared to her first knee replacement surgery in November it is a night and day difference. That is a good thing because I am so “crippled up” as my paternal grandmother “Granny” would say. Trying to get up to one of my hanging lights in the living room I took a shortcut and didn’t use a ladder. Instead, I tried to balance on the arm of a couch and a rather lightweight end table. My right ankle, which I sprained last week when my right knee went out, gave out, I fell and crashed smashing the table and ending up on the floor, with either a bruised or broken rib to show for it. So it is really a good thing that she is doing so much better. So tonight a rerun from a couple of years ago.

One hundred and forty-six years ago today one of the worst acts of terrorism against Americans by Americans was conducted by members of the White Leagues, a violent white supremacist group in Louisiana. This is from one of my Civil war texts and it is something not to forget in an age where violence against racial and religious minorities is again raising its head, and not just in the United States.

Have a good day,

Peace

Padre Steve+

The violence against Southern blacks escalated in the wake of the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and with the increasing number of blacks being elected to office in some Southern states during the elections of 1872. In Louisiana a Federal court ruled in favor of Republican Reconstruction candidates following a Democrat campaign to interfere with the vote, which included attacks on polling sites and the theft of ballot boxes. As a result the Louisiana Democrats “established a shadow government and organized paramilitary unit known as the White League to intimidate and attack black and white Republicans.” [1]

The White League in Louisiana was particularly brutal in its use of violence. The worst massacre committed by the White League occurred Easter Sunday 1873 when it massacred blacks in Colfax, Louisiana. Colfax was an isolated nondescript hamlet about three hundred fifty miles northwest of New Orleans. It sat on the grounds of a former plantation whose owner, William Calhoun, who worked with the former slaves who were now freedmen. The town itself was composed of only a few hundred white and black votes”[2] was located in the newly established Grant Parish. The “parish totaled about 4,500, of whom about 2,400 were Negroes living on the lowlands along the east bank of the Red.” [3]Between 1869 and 1873 the town and the parish were the scene of numerous violent incidents and following the 1872 elections, the whites of the parish were out for blood.

White leaders in Grant Parish “retaliated by unleashing a reign of terror in rural districts, forcing blacks to flee to Colfax for protection.” [4] The blacks of parish fled to the courthouse seeking protection from a violent white mob following the brutal murder of a black farmer and his family on the outskirts of town. The people of Colfax, protected by just a few armed black militiamen and citizens deputized by the sheriff took shelter in the courthouse knowing an attack by the White Supremacists was coming.  As the White League force assembled one of its leaders told his men what the day was about. He said, “Boys, this is a struggle for white supremacy….There are one hundred-sixty-five of us to go into Colfax this morning. God only knows who will come out. Those who do will probably be prosecuted for treason, and the punishment for treason is death.” [5] The attack by over 150 heavily armed men of the White League, most of whom were former Confederate soldiers, killed at least seventy-one and possibly as many as three-hundred blacks. Most of the victims were killed as they tried to surrender. The people, protected by just a few armed men were butchered or burned alive by the armed terrorist marauders. It was “the bloodiest peacetime massacre in nineteenth-century America.” [6]

The instigators of the attack claimed that they acted in self-defense. They claimed that “armed Negroes, stirred up by white Radical Republicans, seized the courthouse, throwing out the rightful officeholders: the white judge and sheriff” and they claimed that the blacks had openly proclaimed “their intention to kill all the white men, they boasted they would use white women to breed a new race.” [7] The claims were completely fabricated, after sending veteran former army officers who were serving in the Secret Service to investigate, the U.S. Attorney for Louisiana, J.R. Beckwith sent an urgent telegram to the Attorney General:

“The Democrats (White) of Grant Parish attempted to oust the incumbent parish officers by force and failed, the sheriff protecting the officers with a colored posse. Several days afterward recruits from other parishes, to the number of 300, came to the assistance of the assailants, when they demanded the surrender of the colored people. This was refused. An attack was made and the Negroes were driven into the courthouse. The courthouse was fired and the Negroes slaughtered as they left the burning building, after resistance ceased. Sixty-five Negroes terribly mutilated were found dead near the ruins of the courthouse. Thirty, known to have been taken prisoners, are said to have been shot after the surrender, and thrown into the river. Two of the assailants were wounded. The slaughter is greater than the riot of 1866 in this city. Will send report by mail.” [8]

Federal authorities arrested nine white men in the wake of the massacre and after two trials in which white majority juries were afraid to go against public opinion, three were “convicted of violating the Enforcement Act of 1871.” [9] None were convicted of murder despite the overwhelming evidence against them and even the lesser convictions enraged the White Supremacists in Louisiana who had employed the best lawyers possible and provided them and the defendants with unlimited financial backing. Assisted by the ruling of Supreme Court Associate Justice Joseph Bradley, who had a long history of neglecting Southern racism, white Democrats appealed the convictions to the Supreme Court.

The attack, and the court cases which followed, notably the judgment of the Supreme Court in United States v. Cruickshank which dealt with the appeal of the men responsible for the Colfax Massacre led to a “narrowing of Federal law enforcement authority” and were “milestones on the road to a “solid” Democratic South.” [10] The decision of the court in United States v. Cruikshank was particularly perverse in its interpretation of constitutional rights and protections. The court ruled in favor of the terrorists and declared that “the right of the black victims at Colfax to assemble hand not been guaranteed because they were neither petitioning Congress nor protesting a federal law. Assembling for any other cause was not protected.” [11] The Cruikshank decision amounted to a Supreme Court endorsement of violence against blacks, and made it “impossible for the federal government to prosecute crimes against blacks unless they were perpetrated by a state and unless it could prove a racial motive unequivocally.” [12] Northern politicians and newspapers, reeling under the effects of the stock market crash of 1873, which had denounced the massacre just a year before now ran from the story and from support of African Americans. A Republican office holder wrote, “The truth is, our people are tired out with this worn cry of ‘Southern outrages…. Hard times and heavy taxes make them wish the ‘nigger,’ the ‘everlasting nigger,’ were in hell or Africa.” [13] Racism and race hatred was not exclusively the parlance of the South.

In the wake of Justice Bradley’s reversal of the Colfax convictions whites in Grant Parish engaged in brutal reprisals against blacks, leading to many murders and lynching’s, crimes which law enforcement, even that favorable to the rights of African Americans were afraid to prosecute for fear of their own lives. Louisiana’s Republican Governor, William Pitt Kellogg wrote Attorney General Williams blaming the violence on Bradley’s ruling, which he wrote, “was regarded as establishing the principle that hereafter no white man could be punished for killing a negro, and as virtually wiping the Ku Klux laws of the statute books.” He added that with the Army leaving the state that his government and other Reconstruction governments would fall, “if Louisiana goes,” Kellogg wrote, “Mississippi will inevitably follow and, that end attained, all the results of the war so far as the colored people are concerned will be neutralized, all the reconstruction acts of Congress will be of no more value than so much waste paper and the colored people, though free in name, will be practically remitted back to servitude.” [14] Governor Kellogg could not have been more correct.

In the years that followed many of the men involved in the massacre and other murders before and after were hailed as heroes, some, including the leader of the attackers, Christopher Columbus Nash were again appointed to office in Colfax and Grant Parish and blacks were reminded every day of just what they had lost. On April 13th 1921 the men who committed the massacre were honored with a memorial in the Colfax cemetery honoring them as “Heroes… who fell in the Colfax Riot fighting for White Supremacy.”

In 1951 the State of Louisiana Department of Commerce and Industry dedicated a marker outside the Courthouse which read: “On the site occurred the Colfax Riot in which three White men and 150 Negroes were slain, this event on April 13, 1873 marked the end of Carpetbag misrule in the South.”[15] That marker still stands, there is no marker commemorating the victims.

Other massacres followed across the South, aimed at both blacks and their white Republican allies. In Louisiana the White League had some 14,000 men under arms, in many cases drilling as military units led by former Confederate officers. A White League detachment southwest of Shreveport “forced six white Republicans to resign their office on pain of death – and then brutally murdered them after they had resigned.” This became known as the Coushatta Massacre and it was a watershed because for the first time the White League targeted whites as well as African Americans. The violence, now protected by the courts ensured that neither would last long in the post-Reconstruction South and that the freedom of African Americans in those states would amount to a cruel illusion.

In 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant including comments about the Colfax massacre and the subsequent court decisions in his message to Congress. Grant was angry and wrote: “Fierce denunciations ring through the country about office-holding and election matters in Louisiana…while every one of the Colfax miscreants goes unwhipped of justice, and no way can be found in this boasted land of civilization and Christianity to punish the perpetrators of this bloody and monstrous crime.” [17] President Grant, the man who so wanted to help African Americans attain the full measure of freedom, was unable to do more as the Congress and Courts took sides with the Southern insurgents.

Notes

[1] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.151

[2] Ibid. Langguth After Lincoln p.312

[3] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.42

[4] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.493

[5] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.91

[6] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.493

[7] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.11

[8] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.22

[9] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.494

[10] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.251

[11] Ibid. Langguth After Lincoln p.314

[12] Ibid. Goldfield American Aflame p.494

[13] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.213

[14] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.217

[15] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died pp.261-262

[16] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation p. 185

[17] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.228

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Filed under civil rights, civil war, crime, History, Loose thoughts and musings, Political Commentary

War What is it Good For? Sometimes Something: The Context of War

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today something different. Yesterday I did a post about the Gettysburg Address and the importance of the proposition that of democracy that all men are created equal. It is a radical proposition that since the writing of the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments, the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and Civil Rights Act of 1965, as well as Supreme Court decisions in Brown v. Board of Education and Obergfell v. Hodges, has grown in or country to encompass civil rights for African Americans and other racial minorities, Women, and Gays. But those liberties had to be fought for, and would most likely never happened had not Abraham Lincoln and others in the North understood that neither liberty or Union could survive if the South succeeded. In fact, all of us owe our continued freedom to that understanding and the necessity of total war to achieve it.

However, yesterday I had a Twitter troll snipe at me, this time a left-wing troll who claimed to be a “liberal progressive.” However, his remarks were so ignorant of history and reality that I am sure the the had no clue how his words betrayed his alleged beliefs. So in a few words I told him that he was basically ignorant and blocked him. Most of the time when this happens to me it comes from supposed “conservatives,” or “white nationalists” of various flavors, to include the KKK and Neo-Nazi types. But the fact that this came from a self-proclaimed “liberal and progressive” proves that ignorance is not confined to any ideology. That is a sad commentary on our time.

So what I am posting today is an updated and slightly edited portion of the first chapter of my Civil War and Gettysburg text. The entire chapter is close to 150 pages and is probably going to become a book in its own right, but I think it is important for my readers to understand, that sometimes liberty only comes with great sacrifice and the complete defeat of those who want to deny it. That does not matter if it was the Confederacy, Nazi Germany, or even the so-called Islamic State.

As a man who came back changed by war I can only say that I hate it. That being said, though I am a progressive and liberal, I am a realist and understand that as evil as war is, that surrendering liberty to those who believe in “liberty for the few, and slavery for all others.” 

The section of the book may seem a bit wonkish, but it is important. I understand that some of my readers will disagree, but one cannot escape reality.

So anyway, that being said I wish you a good day.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

Richard Evans wrote something in the preface to his book The Third Reich in History and Memory that those who study military history often forget. He noted: “Military history, as this volume shows, can be illuminating in itself, but also needs to be situated in a larger economic and cultural context. Wherever we look, at decision making at the top, or at the inventiveness and enterprise of second rank figures, wider contextual factors remained vital.” [1] Thus while this work is an examination of the Gettysburg campaign it is important to understand the various issues that were formative for the men who directed and fought the battle. One cannot understand the determination the determination of Robert E. Lee to maintain the offensive, the dogged persistence of Joshua Chamberlain or Strong Vincent to hold Little Round Top, what brought John Buford to McPherson’s Ridge, what motivated Daniel Sickles to move Third Corps to the Peach Orchard, and what motivated the men of Pickett’s division to advance to their death on Cemetery Ridge, without understanding the broader perspective of culture, politics, economics, religion, sociology, and ideology that shaped these men.

The American Civil War was the first modern war. It was a watershed event in an era, which introduced changes in new types of weapons, more lethal versions of older weapons, tactics, army organization, logistics, intelligence and communications. Though the war did not change the essential nature of war, which Clausewitz says is “is an act of violence to compel our opponent to fulfill our will” [2] it expanded the parameters of war and re-introduced the concept of “total war” to the world and “because its aim was all embracing, the war was to be absolute in character.” [3] In a sense it was a true revolution in military affairs.

The Civil War was truly a revolution in military affairs. The war changed the character of war, as it had been known for centuries, since the Peace of Westphalia and the end of the Thirty Years War. In the American Civil War, the character of war changed from a limited war waged between opposing armies into a war that at times bordered on Clausewitz’s understanding of absolute or total war. This conflict was waged between two people who shared much in common but were divided by an ideology which encompassed politics, economics, society, law, and even religion.

The war was revolutionary in other ways, and brought about a host of social, philosophical, economic, and political changes which continue to impact the lives of people in the United States and around the world even today. Some of these, especially those regarding the abolition of slavery and emancipation, as well as the beginnings of the Women’s Rights movement have had a ripple effect in matters of political and social equality for other previously disenfranchised groups of citizens. One writer noted in regard to the social impacts that “The Civil War uprooted institutions, transformed our politics, influenced social relationships of half a continent, and wrought changes that echo down the generations.” [4] Mark Twain wrote in 1873 that the war “uprooted institutions that were centuries old, changed the politics of a people …and wrought so profoundly upon the national character that cannot be measured short of two or three generations.” [5]

In a sense, when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed “a new birth of freedom” in his Gettysburg address it served as a watershed moment in American history because it brought to the forefront the understanding of Jefferson and the other signers of the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. That statement, flowing from the Declaration was key to Lincoln’s understanding of human rights and dignity, and from it came the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery. Those would be followed by the Republican Congresses’ passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, which overturned the Dred Scott Decision, which denied all citizenship to blacks across the country, and by Ulysses S. Grant’s Fifteenth Amendment, which gave African American men to right to vote. That is the human and political context by which we have to understand the American Civil War.

Thus it is important to study the Gettysburg campaign in the context of the Civil War because the campaign of 1863 in the east cannot be divorced from what was happening in the west at Vicksburg, nor the Union blockade, nor the diplomatic, economic and informational aspects of the war. Likewise the Gettysburg campaign cannot be separated from its relationship to the broader understanding of the nature and character of war. To do this one must examine the connection between them and policies made by political leaders; to include the relationship of political to military leaders, diplomats, the leaders of business and industry and not to be forgotten, the press and the people. Likewise we must understand the various contexts of war, to include the social, political, ideological and even the religious components of war, how they impacted Civil War leaders and why civilian policy makers and military leaders must understand them today.

While the essential nature of war remains constant, wars and the manner in which they are fought have changed in their character throughout history, and this distinction matters not only for military professionals, but also policy makers. The changing character of war was something that military leaders as well as policy makers struggled with during the American Civil War much as today’s military leaders and policy makers seek to understand the character of warfare today. British military theorist Colin Gray writes “Since the character of every war is unique in the details of its contexts (political, social-cultural, economic, technological, military strategic, geographical, and historical), the policymaker most probably will struggle of the warfare that is unleashed.” [6] That was not just an issue for Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, both of whom struggled with the nature of the war which had been unleashed, but it is one for our present political leaders, who as civilian politicians are “likely to be challenged by a deficient grasp of both the nature of war as well as its contemporary context-specific character.” [7]

In addition to being the first modern war, or maybe I should say, the first war of the Industrial Age, the Civil War prefigured the idea of total war written about by Clausewitz that occurred in the World Wars of the Twentieth Century. The war combined a massive number of technological advances, which both preceded and occurred during it, in which the philosophical nature of the Industrial Revolution came to the fore.

Likewise, the enmity of the two sides for one another had been fostered by a half century of relentless and violent propaganda that ushered from the mouths of politicians, the press and even from the pulpit brought the element of hatred to the fore of the conflict. A Confederate Captain wrote his wife to teach his children “a bitter and unrelenting hatred of the Yankee race” that had “invaded our country and devastated it…[and] murdered our best citizens…. If any luckless Yank should unfortunately come my way he need not petition for mercy. If he does I will give him lead.” A soldier from a Wisconsin regiment wrote to his fiancée after the assault on Resaca, Georgia that his unit had captured twenty-three Confederates and “or boys asked if they remembered Fort Pillow and killed them all. Where there is no officer with us, we take no prisoners…. We want revenge for our brother soldiers and will have it…. Some of the [rebels] say they will fight as long as there is one of them left. We tell them that is what we want. We want to kill them all off and cleanse the country.” [8]

As such there were many times the American Civil War came close to Clausewitz’s understanding of absolute war in its in character, and it prefigured the great ideological wars of the twentieth century. J.F.C. Fuller noted “for the first time in modern history the aim of war became not only the destruction of the enemy’s armed forces, but also of their foundations- his entire political, social and economic order.” [9] It was the first war where at least some of the commanders, especially Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman were men of the Industrial Age, in their thought and in the way that they waged war, in strategy, tactics even more importantly, psychologically. Fuller wrote:

“Spiritually and morally they belonged to the age of the Industrial Revolution. Their guiding principle was that of the machine which was fashioning them, namely, efficiency. And as efficiency is governed by a single end- that every means is justified- no moral or spiritual conceptions of traditional behavior must stand in its way.” [10]

Both men realized in early 1864 that “the South was indeed a nation in arms and that the common European practice of having standing armies engaged each other in set-piece battles to determine the outcome of a war was not enough to win this struggle.” [11] Though neither man was a student of Clausewitz, their method of waging war was in agreement with the Prussian who wrote that “the fighting forces must be destroyed; that is, they must be put in such a position that they can no longer carry on the fight” but also that “the animosity and the reciprocal effects of hostile elements, cannot be considered to have ended so long as the enemy’s will has not been broken.” [12]

William Tecumseh Sherman told the mayor of Atlanta after ordering the civilian population expelled that “we are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and must make the old and young, the rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war.” [13] Sherman was one of the first American military leaders to understand that a civil war could not be waged according to the limited war doctrines most American officers had been taught. He not only “carried on war against the enemy’s resources more extensively and systematically than anyone else had done, but he developed also a deliberate strategy of terror directed against the enemy’s minds.” [14] While some might find this troubling, the fact remains that it was Sherman’s Southern sweep of all that lay before him that broke the back of the Confederacy.

vincent

Strong Vincent

But Sherman and Grant were not alone in understanding the problem of fighting a limited war against the Confederacy. In the fall of 1862 a twenty-five year volunteer Colonel serving with McClellan’s army in Virginia who would be instrumental in throwing back Hood’s assault on Little Round Top, and die leading the defense of that edifice, by the name of Strong Vincent, understood what had to happen if the Union were to overcome the rebellion of the Confederacy.

“We must fight them more vindictively, or we shall be foiled at every step.  We must desolate the country as we pass through it, and not leave a trace of a doubtful friend or foe behind us; make them believe that we are in earnest, terribly in earnest; that to break this band in twain is monstrous and impossible; that the life of every man, yea, of every weak woman or child in the entire South, is of no value whatever compared with the integrity of the Union.” [15]

To most modern Americans who have no experience of war other than seeing it as a video spectator, the words of Vincent and Sherman seem monstrous and even inhuman. However, those who persist in such thinking fail to understand the nature and context of war. While some wars may be fought in a limited manner, others, especially ones driven by militant and uncompromising ideologies, often backed by fanatical religious beliefs cannot be limited, and those that fight such wars must, to paraphrase the words of Strong Vincent, “must fight them more vindictively, or be foiled at every step.” It would have been interesting to see what Vincent might have achieved had he not been cut down by Confederate bullets on Little Round Top.

Abraham Lincoln came to embrace the eternal nature of war as well as the change in the character of the war over time. Lincoln had gone to war for the preservation of the Union, and initially pursued the war in a limited way, seeking to defeat Confederate armies in the field while sparing the people of the Confederacy from total destruction.

But in his quest to preserve the Union, something that for him was almost spiritual in nature, as is evidenced by the language he used in both of his inaugural addresses and the Gettysburg Address, he found that Confederacy would only return to the Union if conquered, and he became convinced that the South’s peculiar institution, that of slavery, must be destroyed in the process. Thus, instead of a war to simply re-unite the Union and let bygones be bygones, Lincoln changed the narrative of the war when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. When this happened the war not only became a war to restore the Union, but the a war for the liberation of enslaved African Americans, After January 1st 1863 when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, Lincoln “told an official of the Interior Department, “the character of the war will be changed. It will be one of subjugation…The [old] South is to be destroyed and replaced by new propositions and ideas.” [16] That too was a modern understanding of war.

Of course, the revolution in military affairs that characterized the Civil War took time, but it was the political and military leaders of the North who better adapted themselves and their nation to the kind of war that was being fought. “Lincoln’s remarkable abilities gave him a wide edge over Davis as a war leader, while in Grant and Sherman the North acquired commanders with a concept of total war and the determination to make it succeed.” [17]

At the beginning of the war the leaders and populace of both sides still held a misguided and unrealistic romantic idea of war. Most people in the North and the South held on to the belief that the war would be over in a few months and that would be settled by a few decisive battles and that casualties would be comparatively light. This included most politicians as well as many military officers on both sides. There were some naysayers who believed that the war would be long and costly, like the venerable and rather corpulent General Winfield Scott, but politicians and the press mocked Scott and other doubters who even suggested that the war would be long, hard, and bloody. Of course those who predicted a short, easy, and relatively bloodless war were the ones proven wrong, though it would take the leaders and the people of both sides over a year to understand. When it was done the American Civil War became the bloodiest war ever waged by Americans, and it was against other Americans.

Notes

[1] Evans, Richard J. The Third Reich in History and Memory Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2015 p.ix

[2] Clausewitz, Carl von. On War Indexed edition, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ 1976 p.75

[3] Fuller, J.F.C. The Conduct of War 1789-1961 Da Capo Press, New York 1992. Originally published by Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick N.J p.99

[4] Lowry, Thomas P. The Stories the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg PA 1994 p.176

[5] McPherson, James The War that Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2015 p.48

[6] Gray, Colin S. Fighting Talk: Forty Maxims on War, Peace, and Strategy Potomac Book, Dulles VA 2009 p.36

[7] Ibid. Gray Fighting Talk p.36

[8] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation pp.49-50

[9] Fuller, J.F.C. A Military History of the Modern World, Volume Three: From the Seven Days Battle, 1862, to the Battle of Leyte Gulf, 1944 Minerva Press 1956 p.88

[10] Ibid. Fuller A Military History of the Modern World, Volume Three p.88

[11] Flood, Charles Bracelen, Grant and Sherman: The Friendship that Won the War, Harper Perennial, New York 2005 p.238

[12] Ibid. Clausewitz p.90

[13] McPherson, James. The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1988 p.809

[14] Weigley, Russell F. The American Way of War: A History of United States Military History and Policy University of Indiana Press, Bloomington IN, 1973 p.149

[15] Nevins, James H. and Styple, William B. What Death More Glorious: A Biography of General Strong Vincent Belle Grove Publishing Company, Kearney NJ 1997 p.57

[16] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.558

[17] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.857

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A President’s Day Reflection” Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today is President’s Day and instead of doing much I am simply going to post one of the most poignant and meaningful speeches ever given by a President,  Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.

The address was delivered on March 4th 1865 just over a month before Robert E. Lee’s Army surrendered at Appomattox, and just 41 days before Lincoln died at the hands of John Wilkes Booth. A man who the League of the South, a radical group bent on returning the whole country to their neo-Confederate ways,  honor on April 14th for “executing” Lincoln who they call a criminal tyrant.

Lincoln’s words need to be remembered for what they are, a remarkable statement of reality as well as hope for the future. When he spoke them the war was all but over, but much blood was still being spilt on battlefields across the South. By the time the war, which began in 1861 was over, more than 600,000 Americans would be dead. It was the bloodiest conflict in American History.

To really understand what Lincoln was speaking of one has to remember that just nine years before the Supreme Court had seemed to demolish any hope at all for Blacks in the United States, and not just the enslaved Blacks of the South, in it’s notorious Dred Scott decision. Roger Taney, the Chief Justice writing for the majority, most of whom were Southerners said about Blacks when denying them any form of Constitutional Rights:

“Can a negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country, sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guaranteed by that instrument to the citizen?…It is absolutely certain that the African race were not included under the name of citizens of a state…and that they were not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word “citizens” in the Constitution, and therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remain subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but those who held the power and the Government might choose to grant them”

Before that there was the equally noxious Compromise of 1850 which included the Fugitive Slave Act which gave any Southerner claiming his human “property” not only the rights but a legal mechanism to hunt them down in the North and penalize anyone hindering them with weighty fines and jail terms.

One has to look at the words of Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens in his Cornerstone Speech to understand the truth of what Lincoln spoke on that day in March 1865. Stephens, just four years before had declared in the starkest terms what the war was about and what the Confederacy’s foundation was:

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. [Applause.] This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

It took four years of bloody war, the first total war waged on American soil to end slavery, sadly within just a few years the Jim Crow laws had regulated Southern Blacks to a status not much better than their previous estate, and again became victims of often state sanctioned violence, discrimination, prejudice and death through lynching.

Southern leaders like Stephens and Jefferson Davis denied that slavery was the cause of the war and the foundation of the Confederacy in their revisionist histories after the war was over. They did so even though the litany of their letters, speeches and laws they supported, damned their words as the bold faced lies that they were. In the mean time many in the South sought to reclaim their pre-war glory in the myth of the Lost Cause which permeated much of the United States in the decades after the war, being glorified by Hollywood in Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, and Walt Disney’s Song of the South. The unconscionable racism and white supremacy promoted by these masterpieces of cinema helped perpetuate racism across the country.

In the North, blacks faced discrimination and prejudice as well. another Supreme Court decision (Plessy v. Ferguson 1896) had legalized segregation and discrimination against Blacks in the form of “Separate but Equal” across the entire United States, something that would remain until a later Supreme Court would overturn Plessy in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

Despite all the reverses and the continued fight against the rights of Blacks, as well as women, other minorities and Gays, the struggle continues.

In August 1863, Lincoln was asked to speak at a gathering wrote in support of stronger war efforts and enlistments. Lincoln could not attend and wrote James Conkling a letter to be read on his behalf. That letter addressed those who disagreed with Lincoln on emancipation while still be claiming to be for the Union. Lincoln ended that letter with this:

“Peace does not appear so distant as it did. I hope it will come soon, and come to stay; and so come as to be worth the keeping in all future time. It will then have to be proved that among freemen that there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to to bullet, and that they who take such appeal are sure to lose their case and pay the cost. And there will be some black men who can remember that with silent tongue, and with clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, that they will have helped mankind on to this great consummation, while I fear there will be some white ones unable to forget that with malignant heart and deceitful speech they strove to hinder it….” 

Lincoln, unlike many even in the North recognized the heroic nature of African Americans fighting for their rights and how their struggle was beneficial for every American.

Lincoln died too soon, his death was a tragedy for the nation, but today, on President’s Day let us remember the words of the Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and the truth that they express. Lincoln’s concluding sentences which began with “With malice toward none, with charity for all…” should be at the heart of our dealings with all people so that we, as Lincoln said so eloquently “may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

It is a speech that always encourages me to fight for freedom and truth, even when that truth is less than popular and often uncomfortable. Lincoln’s words still inspire me, because he spoke the truth that many even today do not want to hear:

At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war–seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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