Recently, a “civil war” moderated forum that I occasionally visit on-line recently had the question “Was the Civil War About Slavery?” posted for comments.
As usual, visitors to the forum who know only what they were taught in public grade schools were quick to paint a picture of a noble and benevolent north going to war with an evil south to “free the slaves”.
I chose to respond to the question and, quickly, I had a union apologist insist that I remove or edit my post. I am publishing it here and ask you to decide.
“Was the Civil War About Slavery?”
The term “about slavery” is so broad and general that to use it in defining a cause to the war between the states, either to say it was or was not, is neither totally right or totally wrong.
Pro-southerners, such as myself (unlike some, I formally admit my bias), will defend against uninformed, self proclaimed “experts” who want to attribute a 350 year history of slavery in North America to a four year period of time.
Omitted from much of the discussions that often limits slavery to being a “sin” of the south are facts, such as:
The African slave trade was a part of the commercial interests of Europe, as were the colonies that they formed in North America. Thirteen of these 20 colonies would become the United States. Slave trade was an essential part of the New England economy from 1637 through as late as 1847. The first slave ship to be equipped in America was built in 1637, and sailed from Salem, Massachusetts. After slave cargo from Africa was barred from American shores, New England ships for hire were still providing the transportation of slaves from Africa to the other points in the world where slaves could still be purchased in South America and the Caribbean. Money from this trade was pumped into other New England business industries, such as textile mills (where cotton harvested by slaves in southern states would be processed) and distilleries. (See George H. Moore, Notes on the History of Slavery in Massachusetts (D. Appleton and Company, New York, NY: 1866)
It was in Virginia, the heart of Confederacy, where African slave trade was first outlawed on October 5, 1778, by an act of the General Assembly. They had tried several times as a colony to do the same thing, but their laws were overruled by the royal governor appointed by the King of England. This was ten years before Massachusetts and thirty years before British parliament acted on this barbaric practice. This law not only prevented the importation of slaves, but also stipulated that any slave brought into the state contrary to the law would be then and forevermore free. (See W.E.B. DuBois, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America (Russell and Russell Inc., New York, NY: 1965)
Thus, with a long and intertwined history throughout the colonies and states, “slavery” was a part of the life of anyone who was a part of the American economy at that time, north and south. Accordingly, the constitution protected this vile institution and Lincoln, taking an oath to defend and uphold that constitution, promised not to interfere with it in states where it existed.
The issue of the day was whether or not slavery … or the alternative development of a middle class in an industrialized society … should be the model in developing future territories into states — and the political ramifications of either decision, as to how it would affect power in the senate and house.
This issue is what was at stake following the election of 1860, which led to secession, which led to war.
So … was the war “about slavery”? Yes and no. The question does not go deep enough.
[Note: The last I look, the post remains where it was and has not been deleted, yet.]
I just read a social media post written by someone who is angry about the way that people are “destroying Southern history”.
Fellow Americans, the history that was made by our gallant and patriotic ancestors existed BEFORE the monuments did … and will remain long after the monuments have eroded from weather or have been removed by other means.
The ground that they hallowed with their blood was made holy BEFORE the markers were erected and battlefields were preserved.
The patriotic stand that our brave ancestors took to preserve their constitutional rights to self government, in the face of an invasion of forces that were superior in number and weaponry, existed BEFORE the history books about them were written.
Their glorious history, and the truths that it bears, has existed BEFORE anyone read about it in southern or northern newspaper articles that were written in the days or weeks that immediately followed their brave and honorable deeds.
No cowardly actions taken by fearful politicans can ever destroy or erase that history of bravery and honor. It is up to us to preserve that history by passing it on to future generations.
Even when a frightened politician “wins” a minor skirmish that removes a simple monument … the true and honorable history behind that monument cannot be erased or destroyed, but will forever remain … and we will continue to fight to protect the monuments and flags that help us to bear witness to that truth.
Not long ago (although it seems like an eternity) there was a time in our country when every responsible citizen appreciated and understood that defending our opponents’ right to express what they believe and to disagree with us is an important and vital act of defending our own liberty.
Today, a section of our society has forgotten that even those ideas that “offend” us and that we disagree with must be allowed to be expressed in order for all of us to be free.
In the years and decades that followed the end of a war that divided our country, many permanent ceremonial structures were erected that expressed the affections and attitudes of Americans on all sides of the issues that separated them.
Since the end of that war … and to this day … the right to continue to erect these monuments still remains … but the idea that we somehow have acquired a right to remove and erase certain ideas that do not agree with ours – by removing particular monuments and statues that might represent those opposing ideas – is completely counter to our culture and opposes what we stand for as a nation.
Today, too many Americans want to have a distorted form of “freedom” that protects their own particular point of view from other points of view … such as the “freedom” that existed in Peking in 1966, Berlin in 1939 or Moscow in 1960 … when all of these citizens also had the “right” to agree with the “truths” provided by the establishment.
In this way, these people are much more wrong – and are a greater threat to their own liberty – than any cause or point of view that they may oppose.
All existing monuments should remain exactly as they are and people who have ideas, causes, and beliefs that differ from them should absolutely exercise their freedom and rights … not by tearing down monuments they disagree with … but by erecting new monuments that reflect their own truths and values.
That is what Americans do.
The following article first appeared under the above title in the “Confederate Veteran” and was then re-published in “The Hickman Courier” on March 6, 1908 under the title “A Little Story of Confederate Gallantry; and Unassuming Heroes of the Lost Cause Who Dwell Among Us”. It is recorded here exactly as it first appeared.
In the latter part of March, 1865 – when the War between the States was on the verge of collapse, when General Grant had closed in on Richmond, when Sherman was burning his way through our homes, when Hood had been driven out of Tennessee, and when Gen. N. B. Forrest, with about three thousand men, was camped at West Point, Mississippi – a feat of dash and dare occurred which showed the mettle of his men.
Ben Brown of Company L, 3rd Kentucky (now dead), and Tom J. Milner of Company I, 12th Kentucky (now a leading physician in Greenville Texas), having failed to secure fresh horses at their homes in Kentucky, as ordered to do by their officers, came back into Mississippi and forced some farmers to give them some good horses for their broken-down ones.
This would have been all right and no crime in Kentucky, simply a war necessity; but not so in Mississippi. Our boys needed those horses in defending Mississippi against the Federal invaders. Ben and Tom were followed, arrested, and put into the guardhouse by some of Forrest’s Mississippi Cavalry and charged with stealing.
This prison was very close to Forrest’s headquarters, was surrounded by many regiments of soldiers, companies of scouts, field artillery, etc., and was guarded by thirty soldiers who kept about twenty prisoners in an upper room, with a stairway on the outside. Four guards stood at the foot of these steps, two at the top, and twenty-four were in reserve in the lower story, with double doors open at the stairway. Our Kentucky troops, Buford’s Brigade, were camped some nine miles northeast, and pickets guarded every road.
Our prison comrades wrote to us and told us the whole story. We, through our officers, who freely sympathized with them, tried hard to get them released, but utterly failed. Ben and Tom were good, true soldiers, therefore fourteen veterans – namely, Add Brown, John Bushart, Bob Bushart, Newt Bushart, Rufus Johnson (all dead), Bill Murphy, Sam Stone, George Strather, John Smith, James H. Saunders, Don Singletary, Jap Nall, Mike Ward, W.P. Butler – hastily volunteered to go to the release of our comrades at any hazard.
After a hasty caucus, John Bushart and Don Singletary were sent to the prison to see the situation, warn our comrades of our intentions, and make every arrangement for our move that night at 11 p.m.. After going into the prison and talking with Ben and Tom, Comrades Bushart and Singletary took in the lay of the troops, Forrest’s quarters, batteries, etc. and then went back toward camp, some five miles, and met their comrades.
This squad of fourteen reached West Point in due time, and rode in between a fence and a small clump of hazel bushes within fifty yards of the prison and Forrest’s headquarters. Add Brown and John Smith held all horses. John Bushart and Jap Nall took charge of a small cabin of jolly folks, who seemed to be dancing, and the rest of the men went quickly in the darkness of night to the prison, surprising and capturing the guards on post.
Each one of the rescuers was armed with two revolvers, and ready for war, if war must come. We knew our business, but little was said. It took us perhaps three minutes. The reserve guards were aroused, surprised and confused; but they caught up their guns, and we had a hand-to-hand encounter, and barely escaped war to the finish. One shot or casualty would have meant death and destruction to many.
One of our men ordered them to be quiet and no harm would occur, and they obeyed. In the meantime, James H. Saunders and Bill Murphy had secured Ben and Tom, and had warned the guards that we were taking one of their men along, and would kill him if they made an alarm; but had not taken either of their men. They were afraid to alarm until they called their roll and found no one missing.
So our tactics worked to perfection. Every one was at his best and acted well his part. We escaped with our comrades, flanked all pickets, got into camp, cleaned the mud off our horses, hid our two comrades, and lay down just before a courier from Forrest’s quarters dashed up and ordered roll call and absentees noted.
Captain J. F. Morris (now Dr. Morris, of Madisonville, Texas) was happy that all were present. But alas! our greatest trouble was yet to come. We had committed mutiny and the penalty was death.
The next morning Gen. B. H. Lyon had Companies L, 3rd Kentucky, and I, 12th Kentucky, arrested and put in the very prison we raided the night before: and the day following Generals Forrest, Lyon, and Jackson sat as a court of inquiry to find out the leaders or men who were guilty; but we were up to our business and played a little tactics.
We held a council and agreed that in this court we were not to know or tell anything on each other. We were to know nothing about our comrades, to forget it all, but to tell whatever we wanted to about ourselves except the truth of our trips. This worked well: we outgeneraled the generals, and all were released except Bob and John Bushart and John Beard. Yet the generals got no proof against them. A little later, Captain Morris assisted in getting these released and exonerated. Ben Brown (now dead) and T. J. Milner (now a leading physician at Greenville, Texas) were hid out near our camp and cared for.
General Forrest soon moved for a raid. We were on the scout when the war closed and made our way home without ever being paroled.
In Memphis, Tennessee, soon after the war, First Lieut. Wiley Bushart talked over the above facts with General Forrest: and when the General learned that fourteen men had done this feat and outwitted his court, he said “Lieutenant Bushart, that was the only time I was ever outgeneraled; and if I ever go into war again, I want every one of those men as my staff officers or couriers.”
In 1906 (Capt) Dr. Morris, of Madisonville, Texas, wrote to his scribe concerning this West Point raid in part, as follows: “I am free to state that you were a brave, good, gallant soldier, and a gentleman possessing the highest type of manhood. The release of Ben Brown and Tom Milner from the West Point Prison was, in my opinion, an honorable, manly, and valorous deed. I indorsed it. I was at Meridian, Mississippi, when Ben Brown was recaptured and brought there and thrown in the stockade in irons. In the meantime three of the Bushart boys were sent there by General Forrest on suspicion. We succeeded in freeing Ben Brown from cuffs and turning him loose; and as there were no charges against the Bushart boys, I demanded of the provost marshal their trial or release. He turned them over to me and we returned to camp. Not only our regimental and brigade officers commended the raid but, you remember, General Forrest himself after the surrender complimented the boys who were engaged on their bravery. You all were exonerated. Ben and Tom had obeyed orders in obtaining fresh horses. Your chivalry should go down in history among the brilliant of our victories. You fought a good fight.”
Union Major General Stephen G. Burbridge was given command over the state of Kentucky in June or July of 1864 and, soon after taking command, issued a standing order (Order No. 59) which called for the execution of four Confederate prisoners for every unarmed Union civilian killed.
On July 11, 1864, a gang of approximately four outlaws (belonging to neither army) rode in to Henderson, Kentucky, and while in the process of robbing him, shot and wounded a prominent citizen, Mr. James E. Rankin. Mr. Rankin died from his wound a few days later and, in retaliation, two recently captured Confederate soldiers were selected for execution by General Burbridge, himself.
One of the prisoners selected by Burbridge for execution was eighteen year old Charles W. Thompson and the other was twenty five year old Peirman Powell. Both men, fully sworn Confederate soldiers under the command of Captain Dick Yates, had been recently cut off from the main body of their command and captured following a battle on July 12th about five miles from Owensboro.
After their selection for execution and being held in various locations, they were taken by Federal troops to Henderson to be shot. While on the steamer transporting him to Henderson, young Thompson had time to write a letter home to his parents.
Steamer Palestine, July 20, 1864
Dear Father and Mother:
I am on my road to be shot. Bear it patiently. Take care of yourself, dear father, and do not work too hard. Bear everything patiently. Take care of mother as long as you can and do not let her overpower her constitution. Ever since the officers told me I was to be shot I have been praying and fasting, that I might see you all once more in this world.
Good-by and farewell. We part forever.
An attempt was made on July 21 by the 16th Kentucky Cavalry, under Colonel Lee A. Sypert, to rescue the two captured Confederate soldiers using a bluff to draw away Union forces. The defenders held on until Union gunboats arrived, forcing Sypert to withdraw and abandon his effort.
The next day, the murder of two Confederate soldiers, as ordered by Union General Burbridge who had selected them, took place. The events were recorded and later published by Henderson resident, Edmund L. Starling, in a written record of the city’s history.
“In a short time an officer conveyed some work from the main force on the bank, when the sergeant in charge of the prisoners immediately formed six of his men into a hollow square, and Powell and Thompson, their hands still bound, were again marched up the bank to where the balance of the force stood. It was now obvious that a speedy death awaited the two young prisoners.
“Two platoons of detailed men stood apart in the street, with fixed bayonets and loaded muskets, facing a fence which skirted the payment, not over fifteen paces distant. Two chairs about a yard apart stood against the fence, and the prisoners being conducted to these seats, their arms were securely pinioned to the boards of the fence.
“Powell still was firm and undismayed, but Thompson bewailed his hard fate.
“Their eyes were bandaged with handkerchiefs. The word was given for one platoon to fire on Powell – twelve men discharged a rattling volley full upon him, ten balls striking – one in the right eye, one near the heart, three nearly together in the right shoulder, another in his right breast, and four balls entered his pelvis. Groans of anguish echoed to the report of the muskets.
“The other squad were then ordered to aim for Thompson, and again the deadly bullets went whistling on their work of slaughter. Four balls riddled Thompson – one striking the right eye, the rest entering his body.
“There hung, suspended to the fence by ropes, the lifeless bodies of two young men who, but a few moments previous, were in the full vigor of manhood and health.”
Starling added to his narrative …
“Our citizens universally, so far as we have been able to learn, strenuously opposed this execution in our midst of men who had not participated in any outrage in our city.”
Fifty years later on November 14, 1914, at the dedication of the monument commissioned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, pictured at the top of this page, Mr. W. T. Ellis spoke to the crowd that had gathered to pay tribute to these fallen soldiers. He spoke at length of their misery and fate in such a way that … even after the passage of fifty years … time could not soften his words or cool his burning anger.
“But now, after the lapse of fifty years, we come together here in this silent place solemnly to affirm that the lives of these two young men were not only ruthlessly and illegally taken, but that they were murdered in cold blood, heartlessly and cruelly.
“This doubtless sounds almost incredible to those who are not familiar with the facts.
“I fancy that those of our fellow citizens here who have arrived at the years of responsibility since these young men sacrificed their lives for a cause they believed to be just are asking themselves how such wanton brutality could ever have occurred in a country which our forefathers by their blood had made free.”
After these many years we still ask ourselves the same question posed by Mr. Ellis.