These American Civil War Myths Just Won’t Go Away


The history of the American Civil War is fraught with myth. Some developed over time, as myths do, and some are deliberate alterations of truth. The Civil War was the most traumatic event in American history, in many ways a continuation of the Revolution. It determined whether the promises of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights were extended to all, or whether they were truths which only applied to privileged white men of European descent. Over time, the central issue of the war has been shrouded with more noble motives; the sovereignty of the individual states over the federal compact being just one example.

The southern states which attempted to cancel the federal union promulgated under the Constitution did so primarily because they wished to maintain slavery in America. Slavery was critical to their economy, to their moral beliefs, and to their way of life. Since the war ended scores of other motivations, all of them intended to mask that central truth, have been offered as causes for secession. They are camouflage which cannot mask a true study of history. They are also the source of many myths which hide some truths about the Civil War, many of which are still taught as historical fact. Here are just a few of them.

10. Grant was a butcher who disregarded casualties

During the Civil War, the armies led by Ulysses S. Grant incurred approximately 154,000 casualties. In turn, his armies inflicted just under 200,000 casualties on the forces opposing him. Grant’s victories in the Civil War led to his immense popularity in the United States in its aftermath, and to acclaim in Europe. It was later, during the era of Jim Crow which created the Lost Cause myth, that Grant was slandered as being a drunkard and a butcher who cared little for the carnage his orders created. The same era elevated Robert E. Lee to near sainthood in the south, and created an image of the southern general as being the greatest of the era, and to some the greatest American general of all time.

Lee made error after error during his offensive campaigns in Maryland and Pennsylvania, while Grant’s initiatives led to the surrender of the Confederate citadel at Vicksburg. Grant relieved the Union forces trapped at Chattanooga. He then drove Lee into the trenches at Richmond and Petersburg, and ultimately surrender. Over the course of the war Lee’s armies lost more men, in terms of percentages of troops engaged, than Grant’s. Grant won campaigns in the west and in Virginia, while Lee remained in the eastern theater throughout the war, eventually losing his army due to his aggressive policies and the high casualties they caused.

9. Southern blockade runners thwarted the Union blockade

The dashing Southern sea captain and his intrepid crew eluded the Union Navy ships and delivered medicines, weapons, and the occasional trinkets for deserving belles of the Lost Cause. Such myths include Rhett Butler, perhaps as the personification of the profession. There were a few Southern blockade runners, most of them businessmen who operated from Charleston and Wilmington once the war began. But the overwhelming majority of the blockade runners were British seamen, who operated British ships held by British owners, delivering goods which allowed their investors to profit handsomely in the early years of the war.

Royal Navy officers on extended leave commanded many of the runners. Investment companies in Liverpool, Greenock, and Nassau, as well as other British ports, developed a well-organized trade. British ships shuttled between British island ports and those of the Confederacy, principally Wilmington. Cotton and other commodities were delivered to ports like Nassau, and war materiel was acquired for use in the south. The cotton was then shipped to Liverpool, Bristol, or another port in Britain. Very few of the blockade runners were crewed by Southerners, one reason being there were few Southern seamen available after the first year of the war.

8. The war was about state’s rights, rather than slavery

The Civil War was fought over slavery. The Constitution of the United States, as it was originally written and ratified, protected slavery. The original seven states of the Confederacy announced their secession from the Union because of their perception that the Constitutional protection of slavery would be amended. In their documents of secession and their ensuing state constitutions they ensured protection of slavery remained. By that time leading Southern politicians and socially prominent religious leaders argued that slavery was beneficial to blacks and whites.

Although a minority of southerners were actually slave owners (Mississippi had the highest concentration at 49%) whites of all social levels defended the system. White supremacy was an accepted fact in the South, and was referenced in several of the Confederate State constitutions. The nation was regarded as having been founded for and by white men of European descent (an attitude which extended to American Indian tribes as well). The Lost Cause diluted the Southern idea of white racial domination and shifted southern motives to the preservation of individual and state’s rights from a grasping, tyrannical federal government. When South Carolina seceded from the Union, it stated as its primary reason, “increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the Institution of Slavery.”

7. Union aggression was the cause of the war

Between the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and his inauguration in March, 1861, seven southern states seceded from the Union. Interestingly, only one of the seceding states, Texas, allowed the voters a say in the matter by holding a referendum. The other six made the decision in their legislatures, all of which were dominated by slaveowners. Both outgoing President Buchanan and his successor viewed the actions as illegal. Lincoln addressed the issue at his inauguration, reassuring the recalcitrant states that he had no intention of interfering with slavery where it already existed. The states ignored his plea to preserve the Union, and called up their militias.

In South Carolina, the garrison of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor frequented the city when not on duty at the fort. They routinely interacted with the citizens of the city, a hotbed of secessionist activity. Following Lincoln’s Inauguration, they withdrew to the fort in the harbor. South Carolina authorities demanded the fort be abandoned by the Union. When it wasn’t and it was attempted to land supplies for the garrison, the fort was fired upon by South Carolina troops, which initiated the Civil War. Lincoln called for volunteers to subdue the rebellion, which led four additional states, including Virginia, to join the Confederacy.

6. Robert E. Lee was a hero whose conscience wouldn’t allow him to fight against Virginia

Robert E. Lee was, with the possible exception of Winfield Scott, the most famous soldier in America in 1861. A graduate of West Point, Lee had taken an oath to “bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and that I will serve them honestly and faithfully against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever”. Lee was a slaveowner himself, and historians debate his relationship to the institution, with some claiming he denounced it and others offering examples of his supporting it. In a letter to his wife, written in 1856, Lee wrote, “The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially and physically … How long their subjugation may be necessary is known and ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.”

In March, 1861, Lee was promoted to Colonel and assigned command of the Union First Cavalry Regiment. He accepted and again, as part of assuming command, took an oath of allegiance to the United States. Informed that he was to be offered command of the army of volunteers being formed to quell the insurrection, Lee declined. Instead he resigned his commission, which in his view negated his repeated oaths of allegiance, and joined with the Confederacy. Nearly 40% of Army officers from Virginia chose to honor their oaths and remained in the Union service. Lee took several oaths to defend the United States before reneging upon them and taking one to defend Virginia, an act which was treasonous and to many of the day, dishonorable.

5. Lee was a superior general to Ulysses S. Grant

A longstanding myth of the Civil War supports Robert E. Lee as a general superior in leadership, tactics, and command to Ulysses S. Grant. Grant’s victory was attributed to superior numbers and equipment, which Lee heroically resisted with consummate skill. In truth, Lee’s aggressive tactics caused high casualties among his troops, which could not be replaced due to the limited manpower in the South. He twice launched calamitous invasions of the North, at a time when a defensive posture would have served the South better. He served in only the Eastern Theater, and failed to offer much support to other critical theaters of the war.

Grant won early Union victories in the West, including at Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, and the bloodbath at Shiloh. Finding Vicksburg’s defenses too strong to be carried by direct assault, he successfully directed a textbook siege, co-operating with the Navy to win one of the most important victories of the war. It culminated as Lee was destroying much of his own army at Gettysburg through ill-advised assaults. In the final year of the war Grant commanded all Union Armies, including Sheridan’s in the Shenandoah Valley and Sherman’s in the South, as well as the Army of the Potomac with which he travelled. Lee was but a theater commander. Lee’s superiority is another example of his reputation which evolved during the period of the Lost Cause, when most of the Confederacy was mythologized.

4. The Confederate Army did not include slaves

In 1863 the Army of Northern Virginia invaded the North for the second time, hoping to forage in Maryland and Pennsylvania and threaten the cities of Baltimore and Washington from a new direction. With it traveled up to 10,000 slaves. Slaves were part of the makeup of all the main Southern Armies, and as the war went on their numbers and duties increased. Initially they were, for the most part, personal servants to officers. They became wagoners, butchers, cooks, blacksmiths, ambulance drivers, gravediggers, foragers, tailors, and messengers. They erected tents, dug fortifications and latrines, felled trees, and performed the hard labor required of an army in camp or on the march.

During the invasion into Pennsylvania, the Confederate Army kidnapped about 100 free blacks as it approached Gettysburg, forcing them to work as camp slaves. Many slaves escaped during the retreat from Gettysburg, but many others, mostly personal servants, remained with their masters, or carried the news of their deaths to their families at home. Beginning in the 1970s or thereabouts, myths of some slaves serving as Confederate soldiers began to emerge, based on oral traditions. The South did not arm slaves during the war, though there were several calls to do so as the Confederacy collapsed in 1865.

3. Ulysses S. Grant commanded the Army of the Potomac in Virginia

From the beginning of the Civil War until late June, 1863, a series of commanders of the Union Army of the Potomac exasperated President Lincoln. Generals McDowell, McClellan, Burnside, and Hooker all took turns commanding it (McClellan twice) and were all subjected to humiliating defeats by Confederates under Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. On June 28, 1863, as the Confederates were converging on Gettysburg, Lincoln fired Hooker and placed Pennsylvanian George Meade in command. It was Meade who commanded the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg, and during the largely failed pursuit of the defeated Confederates which followed.

In 1864 Grant was summoned to Washington, promoted to Lieutenant General, and assigned to command all of the Union Armies in the field. Grant chose to make his headquarters with the main Union Army in the eastern theater rather than in Washington. Though he traveled with the Army of the Potomac (and set the strategy for the Overland Campaign) George Meade retained command. As General in Chief of all Union Armies Grant set overall strategy for the remainder of the war. It was Grant who directed the Overland Campaign, outflanking Lee after each bloody repulse of attempts to dislodge him, just as he directed Sherman to take Atlanta and Sheridan to ravage the Shenandoah Valley. Meade finally resigned his command on June 28, 1865.

2. Southern troops were volunteers, motivated by patriotism

The Confederacy passed the first conscription act in April, 1862, mandating military service for all able-bodied males aged 18 to 35. Service was for three years. Two additional conscription acts were enacted by the South during the war. Exemptions were available, including for slaveowners who demonstrated the need to retain men in order to prevent slaves from escaping, or rebelling against their owners. Substitutes could be hired. The draft was heavily resisted in the South. Resistance to conscription and high desertion rates plagued the Southern armies throughout the war. About twice as many draftees served in the Confederate Army as did in the Union Army.

In September, 1864, Confederate President Jefferson Davis complained that more the 60% of his troops had deserted from their various commands. Early in the war Confederate deserters were executed upon capture. In the mountainous regions of Appalachia deserters formed renegade bands to resist Southern troops trying to capture them. In February, 1864, the Confederacy extended the mandatory service requirement to men between the ages of 17 and 50. In areas of the South where slavery was not widely spread, Appalachia and the Ozarks for example, the draft was met with particularly strong resistance.

1. The Confederacy stood for individual freedom and liberty, opposed to a central government

The Constitution of the Confederate States of America was largely drawn from the Constitution of the United States, with whole sections repeated verbatim, though it also included major differences. Slavery was much more firmly protected. The President was elected to a six-year term. Re-election was not allowed. The President was also given the line-item veto, as were most of the Confederate governors. Under the state constitutions adopted, most state governors held greater power than the President. They could deny troops to the Confederate Army, retaining them within the state. Taxes collected within a state by the Confederate government could not be spent in other states on improvements.

Using the Army to make arrests, the Confederate government severely restricted individual freedom and liberty. Passports were required for movement between states. Persons suspected of being sympathetic to the Union were subject to arrest and incarceration without trial. Many were hanged, often in public places with signs signifying their crimes. The draft and food shortages caused riots, often put down using troops of the Confederate Army or local militias. As the war went on and the situation in the South worsened, the central government imposed more and more draconian measures to control the population.

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