You may think The Civil War ended 151 years ago. I fear it was only in remission.
My nonfiction history, Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South, is now available in paperback. The essays below, in reverse chronological order, grew out of years of research for the book and tie its themes to current events: the enduring weight of the nation's original sin —Negro slavery — as well as the profound affinity between the delusions of secessionists in the 1850s and the rhetoric of Tea Party and Trump supporters today.
07.23.16 6:13 AM ET
The Slave Who Stole the Confederate Codes—and a Rebel Warship
When three Confederate officers decided to go ashore for a night in Charleston, they left their gunboat—and their naval codes—in the hands of an enslaved pilot. It was a critical mistake.
We don’t know precisely why the three white officers on board a Confederate transport and gunboat called the CSS Planter decided to go ashore in Charleston, South Carolina, the night of May 12, 1862.
Maybe they went to see their families. Maybe they went drinking or whoring. Certainly they were acting against orders, but they seemed to think the slave they left in charge of the Planter, a skilled 23-year-old harbor pilot named Robert Smalls, would take good care of the ship for them.
On board were pieces of naval artillery, including a 32-pounder on a pivot, a 24-pounder howitzer, and a gun that had been at Fort Sumter. There were 200 rounds of
ammunition, and according to several accounts there was a book of codes and signals that were currently in use by the Confederate Navy. Perhaps most importantly, there was Smalls himself, a true fount of information about Confederate defenses around Charleston harbor.
A couple of hours before dawn, the Planter started its engines and its paddle wheel began to turn. It pulled away from the wharf in plain site of the Confederate commanding general’s headquarters, but nobody moved to stop it.
Probably Smalls had encouraged the white officers to go ashore. He knew they wanted to get away—they may well have done so before; he knew the way they thought; he knew what they wanted. The ways of white Southerners had never been a mystery to him.
Smalls had been born in Beaufort, South Carolina, the son of the slave woman Lydia Polite. His father, it is generally agreed although it was never publicly acknowledged, was Henry McKee, the white son of Lydia’s white owner.
Many people observed that when Robert was a little boy, the McKee family favored him over other slave children on their properties. Henry took him on errands and social visits, and it’s said by Robert’s descendants that his enslaved mother eventually worried that the little boy was too coddled.
When Robert was about 10, according to family lore, his mother arranged for him to go to work in the fields to get a taste of slavery’s grim realities. She also had him watch at the whipping post where field hands were scourged for any number of infractions, or just to set an example.
TALES FROM THE TRENCHES
05.08.16 6:45 PM ET
The Confederate Spymaster Sleeping With the Enemy
Confederate generals relied on Thomas Jordan for key intelligence on Union troops—and he led them straight into a disastrous battle.
SHILOH BATTLEFIELD, Tennessee—It’s rare in history that spymasters get credit for victories, but, then again, only occasionally are they blamed for disasters. Few are so bold or so foolish as to declare that something is an absolute fact, as CIA Director George Tenet did when he told President George W. Bush the intelligence confirming Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction was a “slam dunk.”
No, the language of espionage is a language of qualification.
Do the Iranians have a nuclear weapons program? A key National Intelligence Estimate in 2007 concluded they sort of didn’t but, then again, might just. (“We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.”)
One can imagine the frustration of presidents, or for that matter, generals, when they get that kind of fact-fudged information. So the question often becomes, for them, less about what information can trusted than about whose information and whose judgment can be trusted, and that person, whether as spymaster, chief of staff, or with some more mysterious title, becomes the bearer of good news, bad news, and, most importantly, trusted news.
But that person is not in the public eye. The leader he or she reports to gets the credit or the blame. And when it comes to the military, the spymaster or staff officer remains in the shadows, without a command, and without a reputation; a footnote in hundreds of histories, the central figure in few or none.
Such a man, here at the horrific Battle of Shiloh in April 1862, was Adjutant-General Thomas Jordan, who had been Confederate Gen. Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard’s right-hand man since before the first Battle of Bull Run the year before, who would stay with him through most of the war, and who defended Beauregard’s reputation ferociously—one might say as if it were his own—ever afterward.
Shiloh, which took place almost one year after the Rebel attack on Fort Sumter that started the American Civil war, was the first truly bloody battle in a conflict that eventually turned slaughter into an industrial activity. At Shiloh there were more casualties (killed, wounded and missing) than in all the previous American wars combined: from the Revolution to 1812, from the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, the carnage pales by comparison.... READ THE FULL ARTICLE
04.24.16 6:15 AM ET
Texas Secessionists Already Have an Embassy in Paris
Secession talk is heating up again in Texas. Will France once again recognize it as its own country?
PARIS — Near Place Vendôme in the most luxurious corner of Paris, a few steps from the Ritz and across from a new Louis Vuitton store, but high above the street where nobody is likely to notice, a legend engraved in stone marks the site of the Ambassade du Texas, and informs the passer-by below that on 29 September 1839 France was the first nation to recognize that short-lived republic.
This historical relic of Lone Star independence in la ville lumière is a quaint reminder of the nation that once was and, between the etched lines, of its particularly grim, even gruesome, history of slavery, anti-Hispanic racism, grand delusions and grinding privations. French recognition, after all, was not a matter of idealism or ideology, but of greed, and much of Texas at the time was a hell on earth that some of the cynical French tried to sell to their countrymen as paradise.
Today we are hearing once again there are Texans who want independence. Not a lot, perhaps, but apparently enough to embarrass the already embarrassing state Republican Party (home to Canadian-born Sen. Ted Cruz) at its convention next month. Between 10 and 22 county and district conventions, depending on whom you talk to, have said the topic should be debated. ... READ THE FULL ARTICLE
12.06.15 2:31 PM ET
The U.S. ‘Right’ to Own Guns Came With the ‘Right’ to Own Slaves
The grim history of gun violence in the United States goes way back, aided and abetted by the same monstrous reasoning that once defended slavery.
PARIS — For most of the last two centuries, Europeans have been puzzling over their American cousins’ totemic obsession with guns and their passion for concealed weapons. And back in the decades before the American Civil War, several British visitors to American shores thought they’d discerned an important connection: People who owned slaves or lived among them wanted to carry guns to keep the blacks intimidated and docile, but often shot each other, too.
In 1842, the novelist Charles Dickens, on a book tour of the United States, saw a link between the sheer savagery of slave ownership and what he called the cowardly practice of carrying pistols or daggers or both. The author of Oliver Twist listened with a mixture of horror and contempt as Americans defended their utterly indefensible “rights” to tote guns and carry Bowie knives, right along with their “right” to own other human beings who could be shackled, whipped, raped, and mutilated at will.
As damning evidence of the way slaves were treated, in his American Notes Dickens published texts from scores of advertisements for the capture of runaways. Often these public notices described the wanted men and women by their scars. One especially memorable example:
“Ran away, a negro woman and two children. A few days before she went off, I burnt her with a hot iron, on the left side of her face. I tried to make the letter M.”
Dickens also compiled a list of several shooting incidents, not all of them in the South: a county councilman blown away in the council chamber of Brown County, Wisconsin; a fatal shootout in the street in St. Louis; the murder of Missouri’s governor; two 13-year-old boys defending their “honor” by dueling with long rifles, and other examples.
What could one expect, he asked, of those who “learn to write with pens of red-hot iron on the human face” but that they carry guns and daggers to use on each other. “These are the weapons of Freedom,” Dickens wrote with brutal irony. “With sharp points and edges such as these, Liberty in America hews and hacks her slaves; or, failing that pursuit, her sons devote themselves to a better use, and turn them on each other.”When Dickens was writing in the 1840s, remember, keeping Negro slaves was defended as a Constitutional right with the same vehemence that we hear today when it comes to keeping and bearing arms, and perhaps with more foundation. The original U.S. Constitution was built on an explicit compromise (Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3) that allowed slave-holding states to count human chattel, described as “other persons,” as three-fifths of a human being for purposes of taxation and state representation in the House, but allowed them no rights as human persons whatsoever.
The Second Amendment, adopted a couple of years later as part of the Bill of Rights (of free white people), was essentially written to protect the interests of Southerners in the states that formed militias—often known as “slave patrols”—to crush any attempt at what was called, in those days, a “servile insurrection.” That’s why the full text of the Second Amendment reads:
"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
To keep slaves in slavery, you needed militias and they needed to be armed. Such is the fundamental “right” assured by the Second Amendment.... READ THE FULL ARTICLE
03.20.16 5:01 AM ET
Black Spies in the Confederate White House
How a secret intelligence network successfully spied on Confederate leader Jefferson Davis in his own home.
The servants knew.
The Confederate White House in Richmond, Virginia, was not a happy home. The coachman
had heard Varina Davis, the first lady of the South, wondering aloud if the rebellion her husband led had any prayer of success. It was, he heard her say, “about played out.” Less than a year into the war, she had all but given up hope. And the president himself, Jefferson Davis, gaunt and sere, was under tremendous strain, disheartened and querulous, complaining constantly about the lack of popular support for him and his policies.
What the servants at the dinner table heard could be even more interesting: insights into policy, strategy and very private lives. They could glimpse up close the troubled emotions of Varina, who was much younger than her husband. She was in her mid-30s, he was in his mid-50s, and her energy, even her sultry beauty, were resented by many in that small society. She had a dark complexion and generous features that led at least one of her critics to describe her publically as “tawny” and suggest she looked like a mulatto.
Varina’s closest friend and ally in the cabinet was Judah P. Benjamin, the cosmopolitan Jewish secretary of war and then secretary of state. He was a frequent visitor to the Davis residence. He shaped Confederate strategy around the globe. And over port after dinner, what intimacies might have been revealed about this man, whose Louisiana Creole wife lived in self-imposed exile in Paris, and whose constant companion in Richmond was her beautiful younger brother?...READ THE FULL ARTICLE ABOUT WILLIAM A. JACKSON AND "MARY BOWSER."
09.06.15 6:01 AM ET
Ken Burns’s ‘Civil War’ After Dylann Roof
The PBS documentary turns 25 this year, just as the Charleston murders and the Confederate flag debate freshly exposed a nation’s racial wounds—wounds the film mostly ignores.
... In the debate over the flag and the decision to take it down from the pole where it was locked in place on the grounds of the South Carolina capitol, not only Southerners but all Americans had to think again about why the Civil War was fought and what it did, or did not achieve. And Ken Burns’s documentary, wonderful as it is in many ways, does not quite tell us that—or, worse, as historian Eric Foner pointed out some years ago in what seemed, at the time, a rather churlish essay, the series sentimentalizes the aftermath of the war to the point of obscuring the deep problems of race and racism that endure to this day.
During the debate since the Charleston shooting, we’ve discovered that a great many Americans, and not only Southerners, question whether slavery was the central issue that caused the Civil War. And on re-watching the Burns documentary, it’s clear he leaves that question open, letting it be subsumed, as it has been far too often and for far too long, in the mythologized details of politics and the excitement of battle.
And Burns, clearly, knows that there is a problem with the way we’ve understood the history, even if he doesn’t quite admit it infects his own work.
“It’s no wonder that Americans have permitted themselves to be sold a bill of goods about what happened,” he said on CBS’s Face the Nation last month: “‘Oh, it’s about state’s rights, it’s about nullification, it’s about differences between cultural and political and economic forces that shape the North and the South,’” he said, mocking the arguments. “It is much more complicated than that—but essentially, the reason why we murdered each other ... was over essentially the issue of slavery.”
Actually, it was not even that complicated. As I was reminded constantly when I was researching my book Our Man in Charleston, about the politics and intrigues in South Carolina from 1853 to 1863, the reasons that we murdered each other finally were quite simple: The Confederate states seceded from the Union to defend slavery, the North went to war to stop secession. Burns’s film never quite makes clear that basic point. ... READ THE FULL ARTICLE
THE TORN FLAG
08.15.15 6:13 AM ET
Cuba’s Star-Spangled Slavery
The Stars and Stripes, not the Confederate flag, once represented the sordid system of human slavery in Cuba.
Old Glory is flying once again in front of the U.S. embassy in Havana, Cuba. And at the flag-raising ceremony
on Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry did everything he could to remind people of the history
that brought it down 54 years ago. “For more than half a century,” he said, “U.S.-Cuban relations have been suspended in the amber of Cold War politics.”
The U.S. punditocracy, meanwhile, weighed in with predictable platitudes about the meaning of it all. Many complained that Cuban dissidents should have been invited to the embassy. The Washington Post
called the State Department’s excuses for this failure “lame” and proclaimed
, “The American flag is a powerful symbol of the country’s long and noble struggle to defend the values of freedom and democracy.”
Fair enough. But as we’ve learned in the course of this summer, flags can mean many things to many people
. And if we want to have a better understanding of Cuba, now that it’s beginning to open up, we should remember that its troubled relations with the United States did not begin with Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959 or even Teddy Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill. We should understand that for many years the American flag—not the Confederate flag—was, for Cubans, the star-spangled banner of slavery.
Early in the 19th century, Great Britain, the United States, and most of the governments of Europe had passed laws banning the horrific slave trade between Africa and the Americas. The British, who finally emancipated the slaves in their colonies in 1833, moved not only to end their own previously extensive participation in the trade in humans, but to prevent others from carrying out that grim commerce as well. They deployed warships off the coasts of Africa and South America to stop, search, and seize suspected slavers, and they used gunship diplomacy more than once to impose their will on weaker nations.
But the United States had gone to war against Britain in 1812 to stop it from stopping and searching any American ships, and steadfastly refused to let the British anti-slaving fleet stop American-flag vessels. Instead, Washington deployed its own feeble squadron off the coast of Africa which did little to stop slavers and much to interfere with the British efforts to do so.
The main market for the slaves—tens of thousands of them every year—was the Spanish colony of Cuba, where it was more profitable to work them to death in the cane fields and then replace them with new, cheaply bought Africans, than it was to keep them healthy and alive. Technically, it was illegal to import them, but the law was ignored.
And, technically, trafficking in African slaves was illegal in the United States as well—it was supposed to be a hanging offense—but the New York shipbuilders and outfitters figured it was well worth the risk, and when cases were brought before the Southern courts they refused to indict.
Indeed, the pro-slavery faction in the United States had its own designs for Cuba: to buy it or conquer it and turn it into two new slave states, thus assuring control of the Senate and greater power in the House of Representatives. (Slaves had no rights as citizens or as human beings under the Constitution, but counted as three-fifths of a person for census purposes, thus hugely inflating the voting power of the states that held them.) More than a century before the Bay of Pigs fiasco, adventurers in the United States organized invasions of Cuba to “liberate” it from Spain in the interests of American slavery. Those, too, were fiascos.
It is difficult to conceive, today, just how gruesome was the trade carried out under that American banner of “freedom and democracy.” In the 1850s, Southern politicians known as “fire-eaters” were defending slavery—and the slave trade—as a moral good. They were pushing to reopen it between Africa and the United States. And at the epicenter of Southern radicalism, Charleston, many refused to acknowledge the grotesque inhumanity of the Cuban trade even when it stared them in the face... READ THE FULL ARTICLE
07.21.15 7:00 AM ET
Confederates in the Blood
My new book looks at the raw truths of Southern history, but my family has been living that complicated heritage for generations.
The great Atlanta newspaperman Ralph McGill, writing in the tumultuous 1950s and 1960s, used to say “there are many Souths,” and in my family, I might say, there are many Southerners, none of them quite the same.
They are a baffling and occasionally shameful array of people whose motives and attitudes are impossible to compress into any one category. In the old days they were Confederates and Unionists (one great-great-grand-uncle in the hills of North Georgia was named William Tecumseh Sherman Dickey). They were slave owners and dirt farmers, a gandy-dancer on the railroad, and a wealthy snake-oil salesman (with a sure cure for syphilis!). More recently, there was a modern-day Civil War ordnance expert, my uncle; and the poet-novelist author of Deliverance, my father, who, as it happens, also played the genteel “redneck” sheriff in the movie.
Based on years of research, it takes a close look at the self-destructive Confederate madness in the epicenter of secession through the eyes of a relatively impartial observer, Her Majesty Queen Victoria’s consul in South Carolina, Robert Bunch, who reported to the Crown in bitter, cynical detail on the way the slave-owning elite inspired and led hundreds of thousands of people to their deaths in defense of an indefensible institution.
There is nothing complicated about racism, I realized. All that is complicated is the way excuses are made for it in the North as well as the South. ... READ THE FULL ARTICLE
STARS AND BARS
07.14.15 7:10 AM ET
Confederate Madness Then and Now
A British consul witnessed the cynical process that plunged the United States into civil war in the 1860s. His observations can teach us a lot today.
The debate this last month about Confederate symbols—and about the whole damned history of the Confederacy, if truth be known—has raised questions that need to be asked, and not only about the Civil War: How do you honor brave men and women who fought to defend an evil institution? How do you dignify the memory of those who were killed, and who killed, in a war without a legitimate cause? Should they be honored at all? And if so, how?
|Statue of Jefferson Davis, Memphis TN|
If we’re going to answer that question—and as a Southerner, the father of a soldier, and a correspondent who has covered many wars, I think we should— then the first step toward honoring the fallen should be to tell the truth as best we can about the war in which they fell and the people who started it.
One of the most shameful aspects of the American Civil War is that hundreds of thousands of men and many women in the Confederacy gave their lives in a fight to defend the interests of a small slave-holding elite that had used its money, its control of politics and the press, the exploitation of racism and fear, and a shrewd if sickening appeal to status to mobilize the masses and then lead them to destruction.... READ THE FULL ARTICLE
04.10.15 6:02 PM ET
The Civil War’s Dirty Secret: It Was Always About Slavery
The war was never about states’ rights, unless it was the states’ right to permit slavery, and Charles Lamar was its firebreathing poster boy.
Seven score and ten years ago, Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, and the great American Civil War ended, or so we’ve read in high school textbooks and on Wikipedia.
The chivalrous Lee, in countless hues of grey on his white horse, and the magnanimous Grant in muddy boots were icons that the reunited-by-force United States needed desperately a century and a half ago, and that we’ve cherished ever since.
But the war did not really end at Appomattox, just as it did
not really begin four years before when South Carolina militias opened fire on the tiny Union garrison in the massive, unfinished fort called Sumter that dominated Charleston Harbor.
And if we want to stop and think today about what that war was about—what made it happen—then cannons, shot and shells, minié balls, muskets and swords do not, in the end, tell us very much. Brave men were called on to fight for their homes and their ideals, or because they didn’t have better sense, and, as in every war, they kept on fighting for their brothers in arms.
In the South, the spirit of camaraderie and defiance ran so hot and so deep that for generations afterwards, and to this day in some corners of the air-conditioned Sunbelt that was once the Confederacy, people will tell you about “The Lost Cause.”
But, let’s be clear. The cause of the South was not the cause of chivalry, nor was it about the revolutionary ideals of the Boston Tea Party, as many claimed at the time. “The tea has been thrown overboard; the revolution of 1860 has been initiated,” declared Charleston’s Robert Barnwell Rhett as the Carolinians prepared to secede from the Union and precipitate the war.
Rhett was one of the coterie of radicals in the South who came to be known as “fire-eaters,” and their cause was not the cause of freedom that the founding fathers fought for in the American Revolution. Their cause was slavery: holding slaves, working slaves, buying and selling slaves—black chattel considered less than human beings by custom, by the courts, and even by the Constitution, whose authors never mentioned slavery but weasel-worded it into the founding document of the Union.... READ THE FULL ARTICLE HERE
06.22.14 12:45 PM ET
How I Learned to Hate Robert E. Lee
All the time I was growing up in Atlanta, the face of Robert E. Lee was taking shape on the side of an enormous granite mountain just outside town. He loomed like a god above us, as much a presence as any deity, and God knows he was accepted as such. It was only much later that I began to question his sanctity, and then to hate what he stood for.
When I was in elementary school, the face of Lee on Stone Mountain was a rough-cut thing, weathering and wasting as
the generation that began it in 1912—a generation that still
included veterans of the Civil War 50 years before—gave way to generations with other wars to focus their attention
Then the carving began again in 1964 in a centennial haze of romantic memories about the Old South and frenzy of fear and defiance provoked by the civil-rights movement. As Martin Luther King Jr. was marching on Washington, Confederate battle flags floated above state houses and sculptors using torches began again to carve the granite features of Lee, along with Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis, taking up three vertical acres on the mountain’s face.... READ THE FULL ARTICLE
Better Angels and Killer Angels
10 November 2010, Newsweek Online
Obama should realize what Lincoln understood: that there may be better angels
in the nature of some people, but there are others who are willing to weaken, even destroy a nation to serve their own self-righteous self-interest, and they will do it in the name of the Constitution.
President Barack Obama loves to quote the lyrical closing lines of Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, calling on “the better angels of our nature” to overcome partisan hatreds and political divisions. Obama cited those words in his own inaugural proclamation and rested his hand on Lincoln’s Bible when he took the oath of office. He has come back to those angels again and again ever since. A search of Google and the White House Web site turns up half a dozen examples. He used the phrase to eulogize Ted Kennedy, to chide a would-be Quran burner in Florida, and to say goodbye to chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. Obama, it seems, sees better angels just about everywhere. Even as he traveledin India this week he talked about his efforts to live up to the example of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and, yes, Abraham Lincoln.
But in light of today’s real-world politics, Obama should think a little harder about the context in which Lincoln summoned those better angels on March 4, 1861. Led by South Carolina (now home to Sen. Jim DeMint), seven of 33 states had already seceded from the Union to form the Confederacy at that point. Only days before Lincoln took office, he had to sneak into Washington in the lonely hours before dawn because of an assassination plot. The month after his inauguration, the South fired on the federal garrison at Fort Sumter to begin the Civil War in earnest.
If, in the end, Lincoln did manage to hold the Union together, it was not because of the better angels of human nature, but because he finally found the killer angels among his generals who could, and did, and at enormous cost, crush the secessionists.
These basic facts about a moment of history that Obama obviously holds dear are worth going over again right now because, in fact, the secessionists of 1860 are the ideological forebears of the Tea Party movement today. No, the United States is not on the verge of another violent breakup, not close at all, even if Tea Party icons like Gov. Rick Perry in Texas or some of Sarah Palin’s friends and relatives in Alaska may toy with the notion of secession. But there is in American politics today a discourse of such cupidity, bigotry, and self-delusion about the role of government that it would have been familiar to anyone following the rhetoric of the Southern “fire-eaters” pushing the country toward a conflagration 150 years ago. ... READ THE FULL ARTICLE