Mensch tracht, und Gott lacht

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Some Late Thoughts on the American Civil War and Southern Identity

The breath which condemns submission to laws this nation has not made condemns submission to scales of value which this nation has not willed. To both sorts of submission I ascribe the haunting fear, which I am sure I am not alone in feeling, that we, the British will soon have nothing left to die for.
That was not a slip of the tongue. What a man lives for is what a man dies for, because every bit of living is a bit of dying. At the beginning [of this lecture] I refused to define patriotism; but now at the end I venture it. Patriotism is to have a nation to die for, and to be glad to die for it—all the days of one’s life. 
—E.P. 1977*

I am just old enough to have had the opportunity to participate in the 1980 election of Reagan. During the campaign, I had the opportunity to meet a good sized contingent of traditional Southern (mostly white, male) Republicans. On election night, after some drinking—actually after a lot of drinking—the subject turned to the War Between the States (as they called it). [My own view is that calling it The Great Rebellion or, more simply, treason, in keeping with contemporaneous nomenclature, is more appropriate.]

What I learned was that these gentlemen were entirely comfortable with their U.S. identity. They did not pine for the Confederacy to rise again. They did not blame the U.S. military for Confederate wartime deaths. There was no anger in connection with Sherman’s march, and the destruction of southern cities, farms, infrastructure, and other public & private property. So what exactly did bother them--what precisely was their beef? It was The Battle Hymn of the Republic. It upset them to no end. I was young then. Perhaps, I should have understood why it upset them so much. In my defence, I can say, after some years (decades) of reflection, I figured it out.

It is one thing to lose a war to superior force. The losers must expect that the winners will believe their (i.e., the winner’s) cause right, and the loser’s cause wrong. But The Battle Hymn goes further than that—it is a constant, present reminder that their great-grandparents cause was not merely wrong, but unchristian.** Compare The Battle Hymn, with The Battle Cry of Freedom: the Southern Version (refrain). Generally, 1776, 1812, 1846 and America’s post-1865 wars were about (normal) politics and ideology. Those wars may have had a moral purpose (as understood by the combatants), but they were not fundamentally about religion. However, for those whose material world was wholly destroyed by the Civil War, the consolation of religion was all that they had left. Thus The Battle Hymn was an attack on everything which remained to them. So when all the other political and ideological poses of the old Confederacy fell away, only a generalised loathing in regard to The Battle Hymn remained. Only that was inherited.

I suppose if church attendance falls in the South and as The Battle Hymn’s place in the iconography of American culture is displaced by transgender bathrooms, even this limited revulsion shall pass away. I wish I could say that will be a good thing.

Seth Barrett Tillman
√Čire—19 Sivan 5776

Twitter: ( @SethBTillman )


Patriotism, in Wrestling With The Angel 1, 8 (London, Sheldon Press 1977) (lecture given at the invitation of Basil Watson, Rector, S. Lawrence Jewry, London). 


Anonymous said...

My little town has a National Cemetary. It's there because there was a Condederate Prison here late in the war. The are mass graves here, evidence of what today would be considered war crimes. I am struck by the tombstones that are marching across the landscape as sons and daughters of the South, the North, East and West proudly join those souls who died here so long ago.

Shootist said...

Couldn't be treason. Men in those days pledged allegiance to their State, not these united States.

Anonymous said...

Which is why I'm puzzled by the fact that both Georgia and Auburn use the melody as a fight song.

David said...

The Battle Hymn of the Republic has also inspired various parodies over the years such as Blood on the Risers (an iconic song for paratroopers everywhere)
And Battle Hymn of the Red Shirts which is an amusing bit about Star Trek.
"Oh, I am security officer on the starship Enterprise, and every time I turn around another crewman dies. It seems another monster is the cause of his demise.
Gory, gory what a helluva way to die (repeat) and Kirk goes trekking on.
"Maybe I'd live longer if I had some pointy ears. Said "fascinating" each time something new appears. Heaven help the yeoman at the end of seven years. (Chorus)…and Spock goes trekking on."
There are verses for Scotty, Sulu, Uhuru, Chekov and Bones as well.
But to return to the original Battle Hymn, it has an important place in the musical history of the Civil War. The idea of slavery as unchristian goes to the moral arguments of the abolitionists and the Battle Hymn is just one small part of that. It's popularity though explains it's lightning rod like attraction of dislike by Southerners.
Certainly the graves of both CSA troops and Union soldiers have the same tombstones through the government now courtesy of the National Cemetery Administration of the VA as old worn ones get replaced or old grave plots finally get a marker.

David said...

Say Brother, Will You Meet Us is the original song that tune went with before being associated with first John Brown's Body and then The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

BruceB said...

Surprising story - I grew up in the South in the 1960s-1970s (1980 was also the first election I could vote in), and The Battle Hymn was just one of the songs we learned in elementary school (along with Dixie). Never recall hearing any objection to it, although it was also taught that it was a song of the Northern Army. Not too much in the lyrics that is specifically anti-Confederacy (let us die to make men free?). Sounds like these guys, perhaps because of the alcohol, decided to just go off on a sophomoric rant.

AST said...

I never had an opinion on this because my ancestors were Mormons who had been driven out of Missouri by pro-slavery Southerners and out of Illinois and the United States by Northerners, who first had murdered their leader and Prophet Joseph Smith. I'm glad that slavery ended and that the Union was saved, but from my point of view, there wasn't a lot of true Christianity on either side.

DonC said...

While The War Between the States is acceptable, the preferred title is The War of Northern Aggression.

My question to you: Is Brexit treason? The EU 'constitution' does have a separation clause, our own Constitution is strangely silent on the subject.

Donald Sensing said...

For the South, the Civil War was one of honor and rightness. For the North, the Civil war did not start but very soon became a Holy War. Thirteen years ago, in looking to the then-coming war against Iraq, I pointed out that the US began and was fighting the war in Afghanistan as a Southern-style wart, but the war against Saddam would be the Northerners war.

See, "The Coming American Holy War" at

Anonymous said...

The shooting war was started by the hot headed South Carolinians when they bombed Fort Sumter.
Prior to that, Lincoln had no cause to invade the South because he would be seen as an unprovoked aggressor and the northern states would not have supported an invasion of the Confederacy.

It is interesting to speculate how events would have transpired if the south had not fired the first shot. After all, the South (prior to Ft. Sumter) did in fact secede peacefully and in those days (but not any longer) everybody understood that the Federal Govt. was CREATED by the states. No where in the Constitution does it state that the states of the USA were bound or compelled, in perpetuity , to remain a part of the USA.

Unfortunately, the Confederacy decided for the worst possible reasons on earth that they needed to secede; and that reason was slavery. Yes, there were other reasons as well (especially the tariffs imposed by the populous New England States that harmed Southern agriculture) , but it was slavery, first and foremost, that prompted the creation of the Confederacy.

For what it's worth, IMHO, the states have a RIGHT and OBLIGATION to secede when the Federal Govt no longer abides by the US Constitution . Of course, this is exactly the situation today in the USA.

Anonymous said...

Based on an orgy of evidence provided by the Southerners' own words, I call it "The Elitist War of Southern Treason for the Sole Purpose of Preserving Chattel Slavery" and piss accordingly on all the oily liars and equivocating fools who try to pretend it was somehow about anything else but slavery. Here are a few choice passages proving we should all bid a fond farewell and good riddance and may-the-Devil-accompany-them-all-to-the-Lake-of-Fire to the smug elitist un-Christian Southern traitors and their damnable cause:

In view of these statements, and so very very many others (see, one can plainly see the South was the guilty party initiating a treasonous war against the North entirely for the purpose of preserving slavery as its institution, and nothing else. In all respects, the Antebellum South is not at all comparable to the UK, which won its Brexit vote, but to the tyrannical elitist sore losers of the EU and its Remain faction in the UK who now wish to overturn the UK's referendum just as the South wished to overturn the Republican election victories of 1860.

The South is also comparable to the EU in another respect: that it was a socialist Leviathan state that cruelly oppressed vast swathes of its own people for the benefit of an oligarchic cadre of privileged elitists; that it instituted rapacious taxes, a military draft, and other oppressive policies ruinous to the liberties of its citizens; and that it hated the rule of law and the voice of the people whenever they disagreed with its elitist purposes. Shame on the South, therefore, and on its delusional and deceitful defenders who now compare its damnable treason to the UK's noble cause of Brexit. Shame also on the elitists of both the South and the EU, who pretended to be all about liberty while laboring endlessly for enslavement, and whose atrocities against humanity shall never be forgiven nor forgotten as they are sent to Hell to roast for eternity for telling the Creator to His face that they knew better how to run Creation than He did.

Note also that just as I support the Brexit as a noble cause, I fully support Scotland and Northern Ireland's right to hold a referendum to dissolve the UK and depart from Britain's liberty back to their foolishly desired enslavement to the EU, and would gladly support a Texit and any other nobly motivated secession from any Leviathan state that has subverted its own rule of law through lawless tyrannical acts, such as the so-called "Democrats" of the USA and their "Republican" collaborators and the illegally-legislating tyrants in black robes on the SCOTUS.

Tom Van Dyke said...

At some point a government is legitimate, such as the undeniable fact that the US Congress and the president are elected by the people via republican mechanisms.

As for the "usurpation" of our governance by the Supreme Court, that may foster a different set of arguments.

Anonymous said...

Re. Donald Campbell: "our own Constitution is strangely silent on the subject."

Our Constitution is not silent on the subject, it is covered by the 9th and 10th amendments.

Amendment IX

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Amendment X

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.

Anonymous said...

1. The war was caused by the perception of the Southern elite that as the nation expanded westward, the dominance of the South in national politics would disappear, and that threatened the economic base of the deep Southern states, which was based on slavery. Secession was seen as a solution to that problem.

2. However, the war was not fought to preserve slavery. It was fought because the North invaded the South. At that point in our history, the center of patriotic gravity was in tension between the states and the nation. Honorable men could hold either viewpoint. But as the Southern soldier told the Yankee soldier when asked "why do you fight us?": "Because you are down here."

3. The North fought the South, not to eliminate slavery, but to preserve the Union and in particular, access to and control of a port on the Gulf of Mexico - i.e., to keep possession of the Mississippi River out of the hands of a foreign power. The preservation of the Union was essential to that project.

4. There is no right to secession. Read Lincoln's speech at Cooper's Union for details.

Mitch said...

"In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." As opposed to, say, "In the sweat of some other poor bastard's face, if you can make him ..."

dw said...

I didn't understand the extent that slavery was intertwined with the agricultural existence of the old South until I investigated my wife’s family heritage back to the early 1800’s. They had a plantation in Louisiana and owned several slaves to work the land. The war and the 13th amendment ended all of that (and rightly so). But to the slave owning farmers back then, taking away the slaves was like taking away the combine or harvester of the modern farmer. The ancestors went bankrupt of course and lost their farm and home, as did many back then. They moved to New Orleans and brought along a few of their former slaves. Interestingly one of the sons of these former slaves is now considered to be the father of New Orleans style jazz. I believe that even if secession had succeeded, slavery would have eventually ended through societal pressure and technological automation. I’ve always wondered if a process existed for a state to enter the Union, why a state couldn’t peacefully leave it just the same. If such an avenue existed 150-odd years ago, it would have saved a lot of American lives.

Tom Van Dyke said...

If you want to see a head explode, ask a leftist if the Civil War was "worth it."

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