History & Memory and Abraham Lincoln

March 27, 2017 § 12 Comments

Lincoln’s birthday came and went in February, largely ignored in Tennessee and other Southern states.  In the wake of his birthday, this image came floating through my Twitter feed.  This is an interesting take on the question of history and memory of the Civil War.  It fascinates me on both levels.

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Factually, there is not much in this that is true.  And the interpretation presented in this poster is, well, wrong.  The part on top, with the spelling and grammatical mistakes, was tacked onto the Wanted poster by someone as it travelled through the right wing, Confederate social media world.  I don’t know who did it.

Note how the unknown commentator claims that Lincoln waged an unholy war against the South. The Civil War, of course, was begun by the Confederacy, when it attacked Fort Sumter, in the harbour of Charleston, SC, on 11 April 1865.  Thus, the war is not the fault of the Union.  Fort Sumter was a fort held by the United States military, constructed in the wake of the War of 1812.  There are no ‘hard facts’ that can be presented to deny this historical truth.

But, of course, fact and memory are not the same thing.  And this is why the question of history and memory fascinates me.  It’s not simply a matter of how we remember history as individuals, as our own individual memories are a function of society as well, but it’s also a question of how all of our individual memories work in concert with each other to form cultural memory.

Certainly, in the South, the Civil War is remembered differently from the North.  And it is not always remembered in a cartoonish, neo-Confederate manner as this.  On a more basic level, many Southerners can express distaste for the actual causes of the war and the war aims of the Confederacy and a deep pride in their ancestors’ gallantry in battle against the North.  Hence the romance and popularity of Civil War re-enactors and their romance of the Confederacy.  And, of course, there is a careful parsing of the larger context of the Confederacy and its reasons for fighting the war in the first place.

Slavery is the first or second thing mentioned in every single Confederate state’s articles of secession.  It was central to the war aims of the Confederacy.  It was not, however, central to the war aims of the Union, despite what many Northerners believe.  It was not until the Emancipation Proclamation came into effect on 1 January 1863, nearly two years into the war, that the end of slavery became a Northern war aim.  In short, then, the Civil War happened, from the perspective of the Confederacy, over slavery.  Not states’ rights (had it been, the fight over the entry of new states to the Union and whether they’d be slave states or not, would not have happened).

And clearly, Lincoln is remembered differently on either side of the Mason-Dixon line.  But there is also a question of history.  When the Republican Party tweeted a fake quote from Lincoln for Lincoln’s Birthday (in a tweet that has since been deleted), it wasn’t the fake quote that amused me, it was the GOP’s statement.  Lincoln certainly did not bring the nation together.  His election was the excuse the Confederacy used to justify secession.

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But at any rate, to return to the original issue here of the differing memories of the Civil War and un-reconstructed Southerners: One could indeed argue that Lincoln violated the Constitution.  Many people have made this argument, including respected historians and constitutional scholars.  Lincoln was very aware of his expansionist reading of the Constitution and reminded his opponents that they could question him, through the ballot box and via the court system.  Ultimately, however, his expansion of the Constitution has been recognized by scholars as an historical fact, more or less.

But there is also the question of other means of bending the Constitution.  In the case of habeus corpus, Art. I. Sec. 9, cl. 2 of the Constitution reads:

The Privilege of the Writ of Habeus Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public safety may require it.

However, Article I of the Constitution lays out the powers of Congress, not the Executive (that’s Article II).  However, Congress can delegate authorities to the Executive, and has (for example, during World War I, the Food and Fuel Control Act of 1917).  But, Congress had not delegated this power to Lincoln.  Thus, in ex parte Merryman, a federal court decision in 1861, Justice Roger Taney, who was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, but sitting as a federal court justice, found Lincoln’s suspension of habeus corpus and his delegating of this power to United States Army officers to be beyond the law, that the suspension of habeus corpus was limited to Congress, which could, of course, delegate this power.  Merryman, however, was ignored by Lincoln on the grounds of necessity due to the unusual circumstances of the war.  He argued that the Civil War was exactly situation noted in the Constitution, a case of rebellion.  And, furthermore, he argued that the President has had to act many times when Congress was not in session.  Indeed, this is true, dating back at least Jefferson’s era.  In these cases, the President is expected to seek post facto permission for his actions from Congress. Indeed, in 1863, Congress passed An Act relating to Habeas Corpus, and regulating Judicial Proceedings in Certain Cases. 

Indeed, in my copy of Richard Beeman’s Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution, which I assign every semester, as it annotates the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, Beeman merely states the following:

On at least a few occasions American presidents have suspended while either suppressing rebellion or protecting public safety.

Beeman then uses President Lincoln and the Civil War and President George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11 as examples. That’s all.  In other words, this is a recognized power of the president, though Beeman does note that Bush based his actions on the USA Patriot Act, which is obviously an act of Congress.

As for the treason claimed in the Wanted post, I’m not sure where this comes from, given that the attempted secession by the Confederacy was, by definition, a treasonous act.  Treason is an attempt to overthrow or betray one’s country.  Certainly, the Confederates felt that the American government had overstepped its bounds and was attempting to claim the right to rebel, as the Founding Fathers had in the Declaration of Independence.

Nor did Lincoln imprison 40,000 Northerners in military prisons during the war.  I’m not even certain where such a number would come from.

As for the question of the plight of Southerners under Union occupation, that is another thing entirely.  Certainly, federal troops did commandeer supplies and property.  They did rape Southern women.  But, the argument about the loss of civil rights, well, the Confederacy did start the war.  There was no official declaration of war, given that the Union refused to recognize the Confederacy, nonetheless, there was most certainly a war  And the war was fought in Southern territories.  Thus, the suspension of civil liberties in a territory of open rebellion should not be surprising.

Nonetheless, while I would not state that the vision of Abraham Lincoln in this Wanted poster is a common one in the South, there is a small fringe that does view him in this manner.  And I also do not find this surprising, given the romanticization of the Civil War in the minds of many (and not just in the South).  Lincoln was the enemy, obviously.  And so it should not be surprising that someone, thinking it clever, created this Wanted poster (though I cannot speak to the editorialization attached to it).

In this romanticized version of the Civil War I have seen up close, at County Fairs and the like in Alabama and Tennessee, something interesting happens to the Civil War.  Race is removed from it, in that the Sons of the Confederacy, the ones who dress up and Civil War garb and re-enact the war, insist they have no racial malice and that there is no racial malice behind their play-acting nor flying of the Confederate Battle Flag (whether or not this is true is a matter for another blog post).  Rather, they claim, they are celebrating the gallantry of their ancestors against the Northern incursion (and, of course, the reasons for that incursion are elided).

And this brings me to what I see as the greatest irony of the lionizing of the Confederacy.  I had a student who wrote an MA thesis on the Confederate soldiers between the Battle of Shiloh in southwestern Tennessee in April 1862 and the Battle of Mobile Bay in southern Alabama in August 1864.  She used soldiers’ diaries as a major primary source.  Shiloh was their first battle and many of these men responded much as you’d expect: abject terror at the actual grizzly face of mid-19th century war.  And almost overnight, these young men went from being keen to be battle-tested to bitter.  They were bitter at their inadequate supplies and medical care and leadership.  But they were also bitter that they were being compelled to fight for the right of rich men to own slaves.  As they marched South, chased by the Union Army through Mississippi and Alabama to Mobile Bay, they became increasingly angry and bitter.  Those that survived did fight, against insane odds. And generally lost in this theatre of war, which was very different than the one commanded by Robert E. Lee in Virginia.  In Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi, they were outgunned, outmanned, and victim to poor leadership.  But even the soldiers in Lee’s Army of Virginia were well aware of the irony that they, too poor to own slaves, were laying their lives on the line for the rich slave owners.

It’s certainly a historical truism that poor men are the cannon fodder for the rich.  Even today, the US Armed Forces tend to draw their recruits from the poorer areas of the South. So that the poor white men of the South found themselves in grey uniforms and fighting the US Army should not be surprising.  So, in many ways, this is what these men, the Civil War Confederate re-enactors are interested in: the plight of poor men.  And celebrating their ancestors.  But, their ancestors were on the wrong side of history.  And the wrong side of the Civil War.

And so they’re left with the uncomfortable problem of unsorting the simple fact of slavery and racism from their views of the Civil War.  Hence the rise of the states’ rights claim.  Or others.  The simple fact is that they’re confronted with a double dose of difficult knowledge in confronting the Confederacy and the Civil War.  First, the slavery issue.  Second, their ancestors’ plight of fighting and dying for rich, slave-owning plantation owners.  And perhaps this is their way out of the racial conundrum: these men and women, their ancestors weren’t the slave owners.

 

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§ 12 Responses to History & Memory and Abraham Lincoln

  • Very interesting post! I nearly spat coffee everywhere when I read the obviously-not-a-Lincoln quote. Good grief.

  • Brian Bixby says:

    Back just over a decade ago, I was role-playing a Radical Republican Congressman at a Civil War celebration. So, naturally, I referred to the struggle as “the Rebellion.” Which immediately got me into trouble with the men playing the role of Confederate soldiers. One particularly vocal soldier pointed out that he didn’t own slaves, neither did most of his fellow soldiers. When asked why they rebelled, he said simply that the two parts of the country had “grown apart” and they were too different to stay together. Exactly what had driven the two sides apart he did not care to say, nor why this had led to a breakdown in common government in 1861.

  • Jay E. says:

    Originally from Pennsylvania, I now teach in North Carolina, in a city occupied by the Union during the Civil War from April 1862 onward. If I’m ever able to get someone to agree to any of the above points (and it’s a very big if) they will never admit the South started the war. The reasoning goes this way:
    1. The South had seceded from the Union.
    2. As a result, any federal land reverted to state ownership.
    3. Having reverted to state ownership in territory not belonging to the Union, the entrance of Union ships into Charleston harbor was, itself, an act of war: invasion by a hostile power.
    4. Therefore, the Confederate soldiers in Charleston were not attackers; they were defenders fighting against an invader as one would defend his home from an intruder.
    TL;DR: They will admit the South fired the first shot, but never admit it started the war.

  • […] slavery (this also, obviously, has a macro-political impact).  This allows some Southerners to mis-remember the Civil War in order to claim their ancestors who fought in it, to celebrate those that came before them for […]

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