A Not So Alternative American History

The 2004 mockumentary C.S.A.: Confederate States of America depicts an America in which the Confederacy had won the American Civil War. Presented as if it were a British documentary, the film details significant political, cultural, and military events of the CSA from the Civil War up until the earl 2000s. The movie satirizes issues and events that have happened and are still present in the United States to this day; the result is a revealing viewpoint on the discrimination that still exists today. As the author of “What If?” explains, just because the end of the Civil War resulted in the end of slavery as an institution in the United States, it by no means resulted in the end of racism. I believe this to be the main goal of the director of this movie.

One part of the mockumentary I found especially interesting was the Reconstruction segment. One contributor claims that in order to mend the divide between the victorious South and the defeated North, “the aims and causes of the war suddenly changed. Slavery was no longer mentioned as the cause of the war.” She continues, maintaining that “this was the key to reconciliation.” I found this so fascinating because it is in no way fictional. An accurate history of the United States reveals that the causes of the war suddenly changed after the war in order to strengthen the newly reformed United States. Davis writes in Inhuman Bondage that “while African Americans and a few white writers struggled to preserve the revolutionary or ‘emancipationist’ meaning of the Civil War, the compelling desire for reconciliation and healing… led to a national consensus that made ‘everyone right, and no one truly wrong, in the remembered Civil War.’” Additionally, when the same contributor observes that “the courage and sacrifice of whites on both sides of the Mason Dixon Line were romantically examined,” she is not too far off from what actually happened. The Civil War became more of a sectional war than an emancipationist war in the decades following the conflict. Therefore, the services of both Union and Confederate soldiers were both celebrated. As the contributor accurately mentions in reference to this romantic version of the war, “they struggled to survive, they protected their homes and families…”

Overall, I thought film did a fine job in examining the racism that still exists in contemporary society. I thought the fake commercials that divided the mockumentary did an especially good job of this as some of the products being advertised actually existed. It ultimately reveals an alternative history that in some ways is completely inaccurate and offensive, but in some ways is not too far off from what actually happened. It is extremely interesting to reflect on what would have happened if the Confederacy would have won the Civil War and C.S.A.: Confederate States of America hits the nail on the head.

 

The American Civil War Not Initially an Abolitionist War

In chapter 15 of Inhuman Bondage, Davis discusses the death and destruction the American Civil War caused, providing the reader with statistics that are very difficult to grasp. As the author of “A Bloody War” mentions, “both sides of the war lost so many men, with the number of casualties over 600,000.” Poorly maintained prisoner-of-war camps, unwarranted executions of these prisoners, and warfare-related casualties all contributed to these staggering numbers and Davis does a great job of explaining that neither side deserved more blame than the other; the Civil War was one of especial deep-seated hatred and both sides were willing to do whatever it took to win the war. Nevertheless, Davis reiterates the claims of many American historians and abolitionists by maintaining that the Civil War was a “necessary and good war.” In addition to resulting in the emancipation of four million slaves, he explains that “the war led to the nation’s first civil rights legislation and to constitutional amendments that extended to blacks full citizenship and equality before the law as well as the right to vote (for adult black males).”

However, as Davis mentions, the American Civil War was not always an “abolitionist war.” He notes that in 1862, Washington politicians and even Lincoln himself, knew that fighting this kind of war would be impossible as “any radical policy against slavery would alienate not only Unionists in the secessionist South but also supporters of the Union in the absolutely crucial slaveholding border states.” In fact, when General Fremont proclaimed the emancipation of slaves in Missouri, Lincoln overruled this order in order to protect his executive authority and more importantly, to appeal to the border states of Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri, and eventually West Virginia. Lincoln explained why he believed it was necessary to maintain the support of the border states early in the war: “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game. Kentucky gone, we can not hold Missouri, nor, I think, Maryland. These all against us, and the job on our hands is too large for us. We would as well consent to separation at once, including the surrender of this capitol.” Although Lincoln identified slavery as the cause of the nation’s problems at this time, it is no wonder why he adopted a more conservative stance early in the war – there was no chance of the Union winning an abolitionist war.

Eventually, Lincoln became more radical and on January 1, 1863, publicly issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which successfully liberated all slaves in the states that were still in rebellion. Davis ultimately does a wonderful job at once again revealing the complexities that are rarely talked about in American history. He presents the issues Lincoln was dealing with and successfully explains the president’s hesitancy at making the Civil War an abolitionist war in the first couple years of the conflict. My only complaint with Davis’ account is the lack of clarity he exhibits when describing the turning point in Lincoln’s agenda. Davis explains that Lincoln came to the conclusion “that it was a military necessity absolutely essential to the salvation of the Union” to free the slaves on July 13, 1862, but in my opinion, he does not do it clearly enough.

The Iliad of Southerners’ Woes

Although many secessionist leaders denied it in the decades after the American Civil War, the institution of slavery was undoubtedly the cause of the conflict that left the United States divided in the 1860s. Identifying these self-justifying denials as the reason for one of the greatest falsifications in American history, Sean Wilentz attempts to set the record straight, claiming that Southern secession was directly related to slavery. By referencing the state secession conventions of 1860 and 1861, he justifies his assertion. According to Wilentz, the conventions clearly identified the attacks on slavery by the northern democracy as the fundamental issue of their secession; he mentions that even cooperationists agreed with this, quoting a moderate Alabama delegate who recognized the fight to extend slavery as “the Iliad of all our woes.” Wilentz continues, contending that “nothing could disguise the Confederacy’s overriding purpose, dear to Rhettist aristocrats and southern Master Race democrats alike: to create a republican government formally based on racial slavery.”

In addition to targeting slavery as the main cause of Southern secession, Wilentz maintains that slavery also served as “the highest good that united the secessionist cause.” He notes how “ the secessionists propagandized the interests of both slaveholders and nonslaveholders as… identical” in order to strengthen the secessionist movement and cites prominent editor James De Bow who acknowledged that although there were a great number of nonslaveholders, they directly benefitted from the institution of slavery. In addition to benefitting them economically, slavery also had the potential to benefit them socially as purchasing slaves signified upward mobility in the South. Therefore, it made sense for nonslaveholders to support the secessionists in order to protect their own interests. As the author of “The South Gaining Support” mentions, the secessionists also attempted to unify their cause by appealing to the nonslaveholders’ “white supremacist pride and fears.” Immediate emancipation would mean a shameful submission by slaveholders and nonslaveholders alike. The ultimate result was a strong sense of nationalism in the South. As Wilentz notes, “throughout the lower South, men dressed in uniforms and waving flags of various designs volunteered to fight for a nation that did not yet exist.”

Overall, Wilentz does a great job at uncovering the true cause of the American Civil War and justifying his assertion. He combats the denials of secessionist leaders by turning to the declarations of the secession conventions. Furthermore, Wilentz makes a strong argument as to how the South became so unified. Slavery was clearly the Iliad of Southerners’ Woes.

Great Britain’s Impact on the Politics of Slavery in the United States

In the fourteenth chapter of Inhuman Bondage, David Brion Davis examines the impact Great Britain had on the politics of slavery in the United States, a topic often bypassed by most historians. Noting the South’s political dominance from 1789 to 1861 and the “pathetically weak and politically ineffective” abolitionism of the 1830s and 1840s, Davis goes to great lengths to explain how the United States’ monarchic “mother country” influenced the constant threats of disunion from Southern officials when it came to abolitionism. According to Davis, Southerners viewed abolitionism as a “British-sponsored crusade to destroy American society” and therefore was the reason for their “paranoid, disproportionate response” to Northern critics.

One of the main reasons why Southerners believed abolitionism in the United States was British-sponsored was because of the recent emancipation of slaves in British colonies – a point the author of “International Politics of Slavery” points out. Citing John C. Calhoun, Davis explains that the only way Great Britain was to remain financial superior was to eliminate its rival slave societies. Numerous influential Americans saw through Britain’s philanthropic veil however. Proslavery writers referred to Jamaica, a recently emancipated slave colony of Great Britain’s, when contending Great Britain had ulterior motives; Abel Upshur’s State Department published in 1843 that “the price of freeholds in Jamaica had declined by half; coffee and sugar production had declined by as much as 50 percent, and some large plantations were worth less than 10 percent of their preemancipation value.” Thus, it is no wonder why the South responded so hysterically to abolitionism in the decades leading up to the American Civil War. Only threats of disunion could stem what the South believed to be British-sponsored abolitionism and the consequent economic ruin.

Davis continues, explaining that as the nation came closer to civil war, the South began viewing the North as “a perfect replica of the British enemy.” Like Britain, the North was attempting to destroy their economy under a mask of “misguided humanitarianism.” Secession appeared to be the only act that could save the South’s economy. Overall, Davis does an excellent job of illuminating an often-unmentioned cause of the American Civil War. Great Britain did indeed play its part in the deadliest conflict in American history.

Irish Catholic Support of the Confederacy

In their previous blog posts, my classmates referenced the Ask A Slave web series to address the common misconceptions and general lack of knowledge surrounding slavery in this day and age. The author of Ask A Slave’s Critique of the American Education System goes so far as to suggest the ignorant inquiries presented in the series reveals a fundamental flaw in the way American history is taught. He even claims that these uninformed assumptions need to be corrected. However, the institution of slavery is not the only subject in American history where greater understanding needs to be achieved. As Dee Dee Joyce publicizes in Charleston’s Irish Labourers and Their Move into the Confederacy, a significant (yet far less important) misconception also surrounds the considerable percentage of Irish Catholics that constituted the Confederate forces during the American Civil War. According to Joyce, Irish workers “were not hapless pawns of slave owners” they are often portrayed to be. “Nor did they incorporate pro-slavery ideologies as fashioned by the Southern elite.” Instead, Joyce claims that “Irish labourers were self-motivated actors who took constrained actions to place themselves in positions of best advantage within existing social networks.”

Joyce explains that the Irish support of the Confederacy is puzzling because it presents an important paradox: many Irish Catholics – most of whom were property-less – willingly joined a fight that seemingly did not concern them. However, Joyce asserts that the Civil War did concern them. Her first argument revolves around the Nativist Know-Nothing party’s racial attack on the Irish as inferior beings. Noting that the Nativist party received little support in the South, Joyce claims the Irish made a calculated decision in supporting the South because they “knew that social inclusion mattered as much in America as it had in Ireland.” Another argument Joyce makes concerns religion. The Southern Catholic Church’s validation of slavery alleviated suspicions of Irish Catholic involvement with abolitionism and combatted Nativist party attacks. Finally, Joyce claims Irish immigrants had a direct influence on the South Carolina legislature’s attempts to restrict slaves and free blacks from working jobs that Irish laborers desired. Ultimately, Irish Catholics supported the Confederacy in order to gain a better social position than African Americans.

Overall, Joyce does a great job of explaining the motives behind the Irish Catholic support of the Confederacy during the American Civil War. However, it is still important to note the work of James R. Barrett and David Roediger. They claim that many immigrants “conceived Americanization in racial terms: becoming American meant becoming white.” It was more important to the Irish Catholics to embrace their “white heritage” and turning against African Americans than fighting for their individual rights. In doing so, they gained an important social advantage; one that explains their support of the Confederacy.

The Paradox of American Democracy

America has long been celebrated as a country founded upon individual liberty and universal equality. However, as freedom expanded in early America, so did slavery. Exploring this paradox in their respective books, The Rise of American Democracy and Inhuman Bondage, both Sean Wilentz and David Brion Davis explain why this happened.

Davis highlights the apparent contradiction of the American Revolution by referencing Samuel Johnson’s quote on Americans during this momentous period: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” While the Americans attempted to promote liberty and free themselves from British “enslavement,” they also protected the institution of slavery of Africans (Davis 144). This paradox appeared in the drafting of the Constitution in 1787 as well, as slavery was intentionally avoided in the final draft. As the author of “Democracy and Slavery” mentions, slavery persisted in the early history of the United States because the infant government was not in the position to abolish it completely. Doing so would mean alienating the southern states whose economies depended upon the dehumanizing institution. Therefore, compromises had to be made if there was to be any Union at all (Davis 155).

The specifics of the compromises are covered well in Wilentz’s book. The delegates who met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1787 decided that the federal government had no say on slavery in the states, deemed slaves three-fifths of a citizen for the purposes of representation in both the House of Representatives and the Electoral College, promised slave owners the return of their runaway slaves, and guaranteed the transatlantic slave trade for another two decades (Wilentz 14). As a result, slavery became deeply embedded in America and would cause numerous problems in the near future – two points touched upon by the author of “Democracy and Slavery.” Davis brings up a fantastic point that if these compromises were not made, “the Founding Fathers could take no immediate and effective actions to secure America’s borders, or strengthen the nation’s shaky credit, or attract foreign investment and diversify the economy” (Davis 155).

In sum, both authors explain why the Founding Fathers compromised on slavery. For the most part, they were not the self-interested hypocrites that history has made them out to be. Instead, they were men who made a calculated decision to delay the emancipation of slaves in order to strengthen the Union. The rich political history that both Wilentz and Davis offer is something that has been noticeably absent from Taylor’s narrative.

Indian Impact on the Seven Years War

Traditional histories fail to fully explain the role Indians played in the Seven Years War. Falsely portraying the numerous Indians that allied with either the British or French forces as mere “bodies,” they ignore the impact the natives had on the outcome of the war. Taylor on the other hand, does a great job of expounding upon the Indian tribes’ critical role in Chapter 18: Imperial Wars and Crisis.

Referencing an observation an English trader made in 1755, Taylor notes that “Indians determined the military balance of power within North America.” He explains that their strategic location between the British and French colonies, combined with their guerilla method of fighting, made them an important asset to both the British and the French in the North American theater of the Seven Years War (424). While the French ultimately had more Indian allies because they treated them better, the British were able to gain some Indian support. As the author of “Britain’s Rise to Power” mentions, the British had an advantage in trade; they were able to trade mass quantities of goods to the Indians that were both superior to and cheaper than French goods. This not only prompted some Indians to ally with the British, but it also made Indian allegiance with the French weaker (428). Native assistance would ultimately prove invaluable to the British cause.

Initially, the British failed to utilize their Indian allies appropriately. When British general Edward Braddock marched on Fort Duquesne – a French fort located in what is now modern-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – only eight Indians accompanied his army of 2,200 men. The British would suffer nearly a thousand casualties and wounded men. Taylor astutely argues that “no expedition through the forest could prosper without significant Indian support and without heeding Indian expertise” (429). However, the next British attack on Fort Duquesne would be much more successful. Deploying new “ranger units” that consisted of colonists who used Indian tactics and British infantrymen equipped with rifles and tomahawks, the British, under the command of William Pitt, forced the French to abandon and destroy Fort Duquesne. The British would consequently build a much larger fort known as Fort Pitt (431). While this is only one example, the British attacks on Fort Duquesne display the critical role the Indians played during the Seven Years War. Without native assistance, it is possible that the British could have lost the war.

Taylor’s thorough history of the Seven Years War reveals an Indian population far more influential to the development of Colonial America than most history texts impart. I enjoyed reading about the economic forces that factored into many British-Indian alliances and thought his unique narrative of the war was captivating. In addition, he does a great job setting the stage for the American Revolutionary War.

Religious Awakening in Colonial America

In his chapter on the religious revivals that transpired in British colonial America during the eighteenth century, Taylor debunks the popular myth that North America was colonized solely for the purposes of religious freedom. Aside from the Quakers, who genuinely sought a plurality of religions in the colonies, the majority of the colonists who settled North America intended to replicate the homogenous religious atmosphere that dominated England during this time period (339). He explains that every region of colonial America was peppered with different congregations, each competing for religious dominance. The Congregationalists primarily dominated New England, the Anglicans largely controlled the South, while the Quakers and the Presbyterians composed the largest denominations of the Protestant faith in the middle colonies (342).

As the author of “Religious Awakening in the Colonies” astutely notes, religion in the colonies was far more complex than numerous denominational divisions. In addition, each congregation was internally divided between rationalists and evangelicals. The rationalists rejected the traditional foundations of Christianity, opting instead to focus their faith on science. They believed that God never interfered with the laws of the natural universe since he had created it. Therefore, rationalists believed epidemics and natural disasters to be “natural” instead of interpreting them as divine anger. Additionally, rationalists preached eternal salvation through good behavior (344 – 345). Evangelicals, on the other hand, believed eternal salvation could only be attained through God’s grace. The evangelicals emphasized emotions and individualism, disturbing listeners with images of terror during their sermons to remind them of “their impending and eternal sentence in hell.” They balanced these depictions however, with images of eternal joy in heaven. The purpose of these “revivals” was to get their listeners to surrender to God and ultimately feel the exhilaration of God’s saving grace (345). Known as the Great Awakening, these series of revivals were led by prominent religious figures such as Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and Gilbert Tennents.

The evangelicals would eventually be referred to as the New Lights while their opponents – those who dismissed the emotional sermons of the evangelicals and defended the traditional foundations of the Christian faith – became known as the Old Lights (351). In addition to this divide, the evangelicals split into moderates and radicals. The moderates rejected the radicals’ belief in the free flow of divine grace and attack on the establishment of the Christian church. They accepted evangelical preaching, conversions, and most of the professional clergy who supported the revivals, but denounced the emotional outbursts of the poorly educated exhorters in order to maintain their own power and authority in colonial society (353). Overall, I enjoyed and favorably received Taylor’s take on the Great Awakening. His account thoroughly dissected the religious complexity of colonial America that is noticeably absent from traditional American history texts.