An excerpt from Legends, Lies & Cherished Myths of American History by Richard Shenkman



The 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."


But 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 politicians.


One 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.


The 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."

Would 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 military superiority.


Only 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.


Other 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.

Whoever 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

discharged, and one was captured and became a Confederate.


As 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.


More 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 guarded them.


As 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 by women."

No 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.