A conflict of loyalties

Nineteenth century (1900 back to 1800)

The Civil War grew out of a tangle of reasons, some of which weren’t and aren’t obvious. Slavery, yes. Secession, yes. But one thing that is not as obvious to modern minds as it should be is that Southerners experienced a conflict of loyalties in a way Northerners didn’t, because of the conflict between state and federal loyalties.

The whole federal concept was only a couple of generations old. Society was still getting used to it. In our day, it would be like a European having to choose between his own country and the European Union. Southerners, regardless what they thought of slavery, seemed to face a choice between treason to their own state, or treason to the United States. Thus Robert E. Lee, who did not believe in slavery, a West Point graduate, a man who had had served with distinction in the Mexican War and had worn his country’s uniform for 32 years, stood by the Union during the Session Winter of 1860-61. He wrote to his son, “I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union.” But when Virginia joined the confederacy, he resigned his commission and left for the Confederacy – in which he also did not believe – saying, “I cannot take up my sword against my native country.” He had to stay with “his country” – his state. (Others chose otherwise. Some 40% of Virginian officers remained loyal to the Union, including, for instance, George Thomas, “the rock of Chickamauga.”)

The Union troops didn’t have that conflict of loyalties. Their state – their “country” — was in agreement with what the Union was doing, and was in fact working to preserve the Union. With the Union and your own country on the same side, it would seem simple to you.

And the immigrants who had come in since mid-century — mostly Germans fleeing their failed revolution and Irish fleeing famine – had not lived here before that new allegiance, to a federal union, was created, nor had their parents. They hadn’t had time to develop allegiance to individual states. Their first allegiance was to the union, not a state. And those immigrants – tens of thousands of them – came almost entirely to the North. (Only a fool or someone with a particular reason would emigrate to a country where his labor would have to compete with slaves.)

So you had only a few Northerners like Pemberton that got caught up on the other side. But those from Southern states faced a complicated problem of loyalties. Unlike their Northern colleagues, they had to choose, and some chose the Union, enough that the Union army fielded units from every Southern state. Northern men didn’t face a conflict of loyalties. Whether you thought of yourself as following your state or the country as a whole, it amounted to the same thing.

Of course as time went on the war changed in men’s minds, so that by the end it was a war for the union and a war to end slavery, quite as much as if it had been that way all along. The pressure of events changed men’s thinking, you see, like the officer who had his men buried together rather than by state, saying, “I’m tired of States Rights.” He meant by that sort of impatience that an outdated theory had cost so much.

As we shall see, the Continental Congress of 1774 and ‘75 resolved that its decision about independence would have to be unanimous, lest the colonies wind up fighting each other. It is a long way from that state of mind to one that was willing to kill 600,000 boys and men, and wreck two societies, rather than either live together peaceably or divide peaceably. By then they couldn’t do either one. By 1861 it had become clear that slavery could not be removed without war. (Note that Abraham Lincoln’s repeated proposals for compensated emancipation came to nothing, even as late as 1865. Southern leaders were unable to bring themselves to imagine life after slavery, nor could they accept the necessity.) Once slavery got to be intolerable to the North, and the North’s attitude became intolerable to the South, neither side could leave the issue alone.

The Civil War was fought around two entangled issues, the conflict between states rights and federal authority, and the conflict between advocates of freedom and advocates of slavery. Modern day Confederate sympathizers tend to simplify the issue, pretending that it was as simple as North versus South. But this is not true. How many northern men fought on the side of the Confederates? A few, not many. Yet the federal army included regiments from every Southern state. The war had its roots in the conflict over slavery, and in the course of the war’s development, it became an abolitionist war. But it began, and remained, a war for the preservation of the Union.

For an example of the state of mind of the Southerners whose loyalty to the nation trumped their loyalty to their state, consider this letter written in January, 1867 by General George Thomas, a native Virginian, West Point graduate, and distinguished Union officer. He was replying to the mayor of Rome, Georgia, who had contended that no disrespect to the United States government was intended by the prominent display of the Confederate flag on the January 19 anniversary of Georgia’s secession. In the following slashing paragraph, Thomas puts in a nutshell the case against the revisionist view— entirely too prevalent today — that would whitewash a rebellion fomented explicitly to create a government founded upon slavery.

“The sole cause of this and similar offenses lies in the fact that certain citizens of Rome, and a portion of the people of the States lately in rebellion, do not and have not accepted the situation, and that is, that the late civil war was a rebellion and history will so record it. Those engaged in it are and will be pronounced rebels; rebellion implies treason; and treason is a crime, and a heinous one, too, and deserving of punishment; and that traitors have not been punished is owing to the magnanimity of the conquerors. With too many of the people of the South, the late civil war is called a revolution, rebels are called `Confederates,’ loyalists to the whole country are called d—d Yankees and traitors, and over the whole great crime with its accursed record of slaughtered heroes, patriots murdered because of their true-hearted love of country, widowed wives and orphaned children, and prisoners of war slain amid such horrors as find no parallel in the history of the world, they are trying to throw the gloss of respectability, and are thrusting with contumely and derision from their society the men and women who would not join hands with them in the work of ruining their country. Everywhere in the states lately in rebellion, treason is respectable and loyalty odious. This, the people of the United States, who ended the rebellion and saved the country, will not permit.”

However, with time, this is exactly what happened. History is re-written by the losers at least as often as it is written by the winners, usually with the passion reserved for lost causes, however much retouching may be needed to make the cause look more attractive than in fact it was.


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