The U.S. Government and the Civil War

I was recently in a hotel owned by the U.S. Federal Government that had this picture on the wall in my room:

Isn’t it a bit strange to see the military leader of a rebellion being honored by the government he rebelled against?  I know this isn’t exactly strange in the sense of being unfamiliar  given that the US and the states have often chosen to deal with the history of the Confederacy and its leaders rather gingerly (to say the least).  But it is a bit jarring to see Lee here in my government room.  And imagine how one would feel as an African-American government employee assigned to this room knowing that the Confederacy for which Lee fought was at root all about preserving the institution of slavery.

As a Yankee and advocate for the individual rights of all men and women, I don’t particularly care for the Confederacy or its leaders.  Fortunately, libertarians like David Beito and Ron Bailey have provided a lot of good arguments for why all libertarians should share my antipathy to the C.S.A.  Here is a nice quotation from a piece by David Beito and Charles Nuckolls:

The primary documents of the period make crystal clear that the Confederacy and slavery went together like hand and glove. The declarations of “immediate causes” of secession of South Carolina and Mississippi say nary a word about the tariff or, for that matter, states rights; but they say quite a bit about the urgent need to protect slavery. Of course, any stress on states rights would have been out of character. During the 1850s, many of the authors of these documents had defended federal supremacy against Northern states that had enacted liberal laws to protect runaways.

Instead, these declarations for secession stress a compact theory that indicted the federal government for failing to live up to its end of the Constitutional bargain by not enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act and by blocking the expansion of slavery into the territories. During the war itself, the Confederacy often trampled on both state and individual rights through the nationalization of industry, inflation, and conscription.

One other thing about Lee.  Even aside from the terrible cause for which he was fighting, it is arguable that the US military shouldn’t even celebrate Lee as a great American general.  Fortunately for the North, Lee didn’t remember George Washington’s more judicious generalship against a superior force or realize the simple lessons of insurgency later popularized by people like Lawrence of Arabia and Mao.

11 thoughts on “The U.S. Government and the Civil War

  1. it is arguable that the US military shouldn’t even celebrate Lee as a great American general. Fortunately for the North, Lee didn’t remember George Washington’s more judicious generalship against a superior force or realize the simple lessons of insurgency later popularized by people like Lawrence of Arabia and Mao.

    I have zero sympathy for the CSA or its modern-day apologists. And it is undeniable that Lee made mistakes (like the decision to invade Pennsylvania in 1863).

    Still, Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia held off multiple Union forces and bested multiple Union commanders over a four-year period. This does not strike me as an insignificant accomplishment or the mark of a poor general. Lee also had to deal with the fallout from bad decisions by Davis, Johnston, and Hood, among others; bad outcomes in Tennessee and Georgia, for example, would affect Lee’s ability to operate in Virginia.

    Also, as far as “insurgency later popularized by people like Lawrence of Arabia and Mao,” on the morning that Lee left to negotiate surrender with Grant, Lee’s artillery chief, Porter Alexander, did urge Lee to disperse the Confederate army into small guerrilla bands and have them melt into the Appalachians to wage a Lawrence-style insurgency. Lee declined to do so, and that decision may have saved the United States from years of protracted counter-insurgency like the British faced in Ireland.

    That said, a lot of this is nitpicking. And: None of this means that Lee belongs on that hotel room wall.

  2. Fair enough. The odds were quite long for the South given its many relative weaknesses/problems – so you are right that Lee was able to accomplish quite a bit against opponents that had so many advantages. But ultimately he made many bad choices with the resources at hand and his/the CSA’s strategy failed to properly connect ends and means. He also lacked an awareness of what was required to achieve victory (itself perhaps the product of being boxed in by conventional thinking about what victory would look like and how to achieve it). Fortunately for the US, Washington and Nathanael Greene were better strategists.

      1. Well, but that’s Lee as a defeated, paroled prisoner. Note he’s in a business suit, not a uniform. That’s a colorized version of a famous Brady photo taken in Union-occupied Richmond, a few days after Appomatox. If you look at his face, you’ll see he’s clearly not a happy man.

        “As a Yankee and advocate for the individual rights of all men and women,” look at that picture and smile. 🙂

      2. Rea’s point is an interesting one and a perceptive catch. I’m not sure about his comment at LGM though: “That photograph is a trophy of the Union victory.” Do you think that was the actual intent behind placing the photo there even if it could be interpreted that way? I highly doubt it is given how the federal government has acted towards Lee since some time after creating Arlington (as Rob at LGM notes here, the US govt even named a sub after Lee!: (And see

        On Arlington, see

  3. Sometimes a picture is just a picture. At least it’s not a photo of a crappy floral arrangement.

    I don’t think any commenter here can know with certainty why Lee or any other soldier chose to fight for the CSA. Anyone who has studied the historiography of the the civil war knows that explanations for secession have changed roughly every generation for the last 140 years.

  4. As both a Southerner and something resembling a libertarian (at times), I’ve grappled with the Confederacy frequently, far more than a damn Yankee (jokingly) might have.

    The Confederate nostalgia among some members of libertarianism (more of the paleo-libertarian variety) is concerning to the extent that it tars and feathers the rest of us as fellow travelers with racists and the like.

    What I’ve found fascinating is turning to my own family tree and discovering a member of that tree was elected to the Confederate Congress . . . as an anti-secessionist, anti-war candidate!

    There were obviously Southerners who resisted secession and had no need for either the Confederacy’s slavery defending or its heavy handed authoritarian tactics employed to win. Current attempts at writing the history of the era, which paint a black and white fight between Union and Confederacy, overlook these far more sympathetic and freedom loving characters, in my mind.

  5. Yes, instead classical liberals should fawn over pictures of the likes of Lincoln (a great proponent of limited government, don’t you know) and Sherman (certainly a tactical genius and not at all a barbarous fellow)…

    In short, this post is quite disgusting. Though I surely appreciate your frank admission that you are a Yankee. My kith and kin would prefer “sanctimonious and heavy-handed” precede that moniker, but oh well. At least you’re no scalawag.

    The “evidence” you cite here is tired, as tired as any evidence proclaiming the obviousness of the Southern motivations for secession. Instead, like most high-minded and self-righteous Yankees, you make the war into a morality play wherein Yankee-dom takes the upper hand. Why, imagine, the first war in the history of the world fought merely and simply over the matters of “right and wrong.” (!!!) I’m sure the Yankee worries were predominantly over their black brethren down South, and not over the fact that their manufacturing empire would ruin without resources from below the Mason-Dixon line…I’m sure, as apparently are you, that tariffs had nothing to do with it. Like you, I’m sure that was it. Absolutely sure. No room for ambiguity there. None.

    But this takes the cake. “And imagine how one would feel as an African-American government employee assigned to this room knowing that the Confederacy for which Lee fought was at root all about preserving the institution of slavery.” Did you get a case of the vapors, sir, as apparently all right-thinking “African-American government employees” do (because we all know that “they” all think precisely like you do, i.e., the right way). Imagine an entire block of people…that Lee is evil and his picture hanging on a federal wall is inappropriate i just as obvious as “2+2=4.” It’s strange to me that you apparently take yourself seriously.

    I’m sure this makes you sleep better at night, knowing that you have fought the good fight against the gummint daring to frame a portrait of one of the greatest generals this continent has ever known, notwithstanding one of the greatest and honorable persons. Rest assured, however, that I sleep fitfully at night at night as I try not to wish (as any Christian should not) that both Lincoln (whatever his tender-hearted motivations for his black brethren – who, it seems, he wished to see transported back to Africa) and Sherman are rotting in a cozy corner of hell.

    Please continue to congratulate yourselves. I have been an avid reader of this site for over a year now, like one of your fellow hosts a professional philosopher and very much sympathetic to _your_ cause. [Yes I see do see the irony in those words.] But I was a southerner before a philosopher. And I do believe, now that I have had my say, I’ll be pleased to leave you fellows to it.

    Good day, sir.

  6. Vicksburg: Thank you for that brilliant parody of the irate Confederate apologist. Damn, you sure nailed the morally bankrupt and completely obtuse arguments that breed inflicts on the rest of us. I especially loved the “Good day, sir.” closing. Touché!

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