An excerpt from Legends, Lies & Cherished Myths of
American History by Richard Shenkman
Civil War has been both celebrated and mythologized. The only trouble is that
no two historians seem to agree on what is truth and what is fiction. They
agree in general that slavery was a fundamental cause of the war, but that's
about all. Was the conflict "irrepressible"? Were "natural
causes" to blame? Were the abolitionists at fault? Don't ask historians.
They don't agree. All this proves, if anyone needs such evidence, is that one
person's truth is another person's myth. This is, of course, true about most
historical arguments, but seemingly truer about the Civil War than about many
others. "There must be more historians of the Civil War than there were
generals fighting in it," historian David Donald has observed. "[And]
of the two groups, the historians are the more belligerent."
if there is no consensus on what caused the conflict, people have agreed on
what didn't cause it. No respectable person today blames the war on a
slaveholders' conspiracy as contemporaries did. Neither does anyone attribute
the war to fanatical Republican politicians, as once was the fashion. Except
for historian E. B. Smith, no one recently has seriously argued that the war
was caused by a blundering generation of pompous, self-interested, fanatical
still does hear the self-flagellating idea that slavery was harsher in the United States
than anywhere else in the modern Western world and that therefore, only here
was war required to root it out. The classic statement is made by one Frank Tannenbaum
in an influential little book called Slave
and Citizen, published in 1946. As Tannenbaum puts it, slavery in Latin
America was milder than in the United
States, and manumission (the release of
slaves), easier. "The principle of manumission," writes Tannenbaum,
"provided Latin American slavery a means of change.
denial of manumission [in the United
States] encrusted the social structure in
the Southern states and left no escape except by revolution, which in this case
took the form of a civil war."
it were so, for the American Civil War would then be easy to explain. It isn't.
Thorough investigation has revealed that while the Civil War was exceptionally
violent, the abolition of slavery in Latin America
occasioned serious disruption as well. David Brion Davis, who has studied
slavery more closely probably than any other living person, has discovered that
the abolition of slavery in Brazil
and the Caribbean closely followed the pattern of the United States.
In Brazil, says Davis, "there was a radical abolition movement, an
underground railroad, and sectional cleavage," just as in North America. And abolition brought down government
leaders; in the case of Brazil,
it ended the monarchy. In the Caribbean British planters threatened secession
when the crown ordered the slaves freed; the planters relented only after they
realized it would be suicidal to resist in the face of overwhelming British
in the United States
did abolitionism lead to civil war, but that may have been for any number of
reasons. One scholar has even suggested that federalism may have been to blame.
Civil War myths concern the famous Bixby letter, the Andersonville prison, and Jefferson Davis's
"dress." Although the celebrated letter to Mrs. Bixby sounds like Lincoln, scholars say
there's no proof he wrote it, read it, or even signed it. Like most of the
letters he sent to strangers, this one, addressed "to the mother of five
sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle," may have been
written by one of his secretaries. Lincoln's
secretary John Hay, indeed, claimed he had written the letter, though it's unclear
whether he meant he had composed it or just penned it.
wrote it, it was a beautiful letter - but it was also a beautiful hoax.
According to War Department statistics, only two Bixby sons were killed, while
one deserted, one was honorably
and one was captured and became a Confederate.
for Andersonville, it was a vile prison. It
may have been the worst prison. But it wasn't the only prison where captured
soldiers died cruel and needless deaths. POWs died in northern prisons, too. In
fact, death rates in POW camps in the North and South were comparable. Of the
195,000 Union soldiers imprisoned in the South, 15.5 percent died in prison; of
the 215,000 Confederates imprisoned in the North, 12 percent died in prison.
POWs died in Andersonville than in any other
prison - more than twelve thousand in all, more than a hundred a day. But it's
not as if the South had deliberately planned things that way. The Confederates
just couldn't afford to do better. While rations were meager, records show that
the prisoners received the same amount of rations as the Confederates who
for Jefferson Davis, for all his humiliations, the Confederate president did
not disguise himself in his wife's clothing to try to avoid capture. When he
was arrested, he was wearing regular clothes, including a man's hat. All the
pictures showing him dressed like a woman, all the cartoons-all are wrong.
"I was in the party that captured Davis,"
Captain James H. Parker wrote later, "and saw the whole transaction from
its beginning. I now say, and hope that you will publish it, that Jefferson
Davis did not have on, at the time he was taken, any garments such as are worn
one knows how the rumor got started. But we know how it spread: by military
officials. They got it from hearsay. Reporters got it from them.