ARLINGTON, VA — Through no fault of their own, most Americans
study American history in school. This is why they have so many misconceptions
about American history.
One of these misconceptions is that the Civil War was a noble struggle
against slavery and that Abraham Lincoln finally abolished slavery
with the Emancipation Proclamation.
The United States and civilized warfare
If you accept this mythology, you have to wonder why some previous
president didn’t just abolish slavery with a stroke of the presidential
pen. In fact, Lincoln knew he had no such power; he merely claimed
the power, as commander in chief of the armed forces, to strip rebels
of their property. So he announced that slaves in the rebellious states
were to be released.
Some observers gibed that Lincoln had freed all the slaves over whom
he had no authority, while doing nothing for those over whom he did
have authority. But this is to misunderstand what Lincoln thought he
had authority to do, since he claimed authority over the “rebel” states.
In his view, there had been no legal secession from the Union, and
the so-called Confederate States were still subject to the United States.
Europe was shocked by Lincoln’s brutal treatment of the South,
which violated traditional rules of civilized warfare, according to
which civilians and their property were to be spared any molestation.
But in Lincoln’s view, citizens of the Confederate States who
were loyal to the Confederacy weren’t entitled to any such exemption.
They were all “rebels” and “traitors” to the
United States and could be justly treated as criminals.
Idealizers of Lincoln have blamed the brutality of the war on generals
like William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan, who devastated civilian
areas, destroying crops and property. But they were merely executing
Lincoln’s policy, with his full approval. Responsibility for
Sherman’s March to the Sea and Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley
campaign rested with Lincoln.
By Lincoln’s Manichaean logic, it could have been much worse.
Since most of the people of the South were guilty of the crimes of
rebellion and treason, millions of them could have been executed after
the war. But that would have been too much even for Lincoln.
The South, much more attuned to European culture than the North, had
assumed that Lincoln would be inhibited by the rules of civilized warfare.
They underestimated the factor and the fanatical logic of Northern
ideology, according to which the holy end of “preserving the
Union” justified nearly any means of subduing “rebels.”
When Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, many war-crazed Northerners
were furious that Lee wasn’t arrested, tried, and executed as
a traitor. But Grant, to his credit, still adhered in part to the old
code of honor. He had given his word to Lee, whom he deeply respected,
and he kept it. The Southern officers and soldiers were allowed to
go home in peace.
But the idea that the Southern cause was evil died hard. The harsh
Northern occupation of the South during the “Reconstruction” period
remains a shameful memory. Jefferson Davis, the gallant president of
the Confederacy, was arrested, shackled, and cruelly imprisoned on
charges of treason (and, absurdly, conspiring to murder Lincoln) for
two years, but eventually the charges were dropped and he was never
brought to trial. An outstanding lawyer, he would probably have won
acquittal and dealt the North a severe propaganda blow.
Even now, the North’s Manichaean view of the Civil War survives,
as witness the fury the Confederate flag still arouses. The United
States formed some savage habits during that war which have unfortunately
proved permanent. During World War II, Franklin Roosevelt dispensed
with all principles of civilized warfare by terror-bombing German and
Japanese cities, developing the first nuclear weapons, and demanding
Today Roosevelt is honored as a hero for his conduct of that war,
just as Lincoln is honored for winning the Civil War and “ending
slavery.” Many rank them as our two greatest presidents, though
they not only lowered the level of civilization but destroyed the constitutional
balance of powers between the federal government and the states.
One of the dangers of winning wars is that the victors may be seduced
by their own propaganda — as we have been.
This column was originally published on January 6, 2000 by Griffin Internet
Copyright © 2010 by Joe Sobran and the
Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved.
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