Uncivil War History

As an avid reader of Hamodia I was sorely disappointed to read Rabbi Shafran’s article titled “Statues of Limitation” (September 6, page 7). While I’m sure it was not his intention, it was actually quite misleading.

“There was a reason, after all, that all of the Confederate states were slave states, and all of the free states remained in the Union.” This statement does not do any justice at all to the facts of the times. While it is true that all the seceding states were slave states, it does not let the reader know that in fact not all Northern states were free. On the contrary, five slave states remained and fought for the union: Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and West Virginia. (For this reason, President Lincoln refused to allow blacks to join the Union army for the first year of the war, so as not to antagonize the Northern slave states.) Thus, this shatters the premise that the war was fought over the right to own slaves.

To suggest that it was a strictly Southern view that “the Negro is not equal to the white man,” is a theory that falls apart when considering that, in 1850, the U.S. Congress passed the “Fugitive Slave Law,” which allowed any black, even just suspected of being a runaway slave, to be arrested without warrant and returned to his master. Consequently, although New York abolished slavery in 1799, it was as hospitable to a slave owned by a Southern master as Virginia was.

But perhaps the ultimate clincher to this argument would actually be “The Emancipation Proclamation” itself. While often hailed as the very essence of decency, it was actually no more than a pressure tactic by Lincoln and a means to punish the South. Lincoln actually threatened the rebel states on September 17, 1862, that if they did not rejoin the Union their slaves would be freed. On January 1, 1863, that’s what he did.

It is quite telling that only Rebel slave owners had their slaves freed, while it was still considered morally just for Union slave owners to keep their slaves.

The Civil War was more accurately a war over states’ rights. Because the South made their money from exporting cotton but imported most basic necessities, the import taxes levied by the North to keep out European competition allowed greater prosperity for the Northern industries; however, this did not help matters for the South. In fact, 18-year-old Southern boys who laid down their lives did not do so for their neighbors’ right to own slaves; they were fighting, in their own words, their “Second War of Independence.”

Thus, a statue of General U.S. Grant is just as deplorable (or rather, not) as Stonewall Jackson or The Grey Fox himself, Robert E. Lee.

As for the argument that there was no other reason to erect a statue of Robert E. Lee in 1948 in Baltimore if not to invoke white supremacy, the statue still does not mean slavery because inherently it doesn’t. And furthermore, to compare it to a stone swastika is all the more absurd when considering that black Southern soldiers served with distinction, for the Southern army. I have yet to hear about the Jewish soldiers of the Nazi Army.

R. C. U., Lakewood, New Jersey

Rabbi Shafran responds:

Dear R.C.U.,

Slavery indeed existed in some Northern states at the time of the Civil War. And the worst sort of racism existed (and still persists) too, not only in the South but in the North as well. But the fact remains, as I wrote, that “there was a reason … all of the Confederate states were slave states, and … all of the free states remained in the Union.”

As I explicitly stated in my column, the Civil War stemmed from “a number of reasons,” including “states’ rights and economic independence.” But slavery, all historians agree, was deeply intertwined in those issues, as well as an issue unto itself.

Mississippi’s declaration of secession, for instance, stated baldly that “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.” Texas declared that “the governments of the various States, and of the Confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity,” and that “the African race” is “rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race.”

The reason the Emancipation Proclamation excluded Northern states was simply because it was based on the president’s constitutional authority as commander in chief of the armed forces to suppress rebellion. In other words, it was all Lincoln could do on his own, without Congress’ mandate. He was, however, a declared foe of slavery itself, and, in fact, was assassinated for that stance.

As to black Confederate soldiers, they did exist, and some may have willfully tied their fates to those of their owners. More likely typical, though, of blacks fighting for the South were people like John Parker, who recounted that “We wished to our hearts that the Yankees would whip us. … We would have run over to the other side but our officers would have shot us if we had made the attempt … we only fought because we had to.”

Thank you for spurring this brief American history lesson. But I hope it doesn’t obscure the essential point of my column. Namely, that millions of Americans see certain Confederate statues, and reasonably so, as honoring the enslavement and abuse of their forebears (or those of their fellow Americans); and that the middah tovah of empathy, of acknowledging others’ pain, is something that should inform our feelings about the issue.