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The Reactionary Utopian (classic)
September 17, 2010

Heritage of Savagery
A classic by Joseph Sobran
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ARLINGTON, VA — Through no fault of their own, most Americans study American history in school. This is why they have so many misconceptions about American history.

One of these misconceptions is that the Civil War was a noble struggle against slavery and that Abraham Lincoln finally abolished slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation.

The United States and civilized warfare

If you accept this mythology, you have to wonder why some previous president didn’t just abolish slavery with a stroke of the presidential pen. In fact, Lincoln knew he had no such power; he merely claimed the power, as commander in chief of the armed forces, to strip rebels of their property. So he announced that slaves in the rebellious states were to be released.

Some observers gibed that Lincoln had freed all the slaves over whom he had no authority, while doing nothing for those over whom he did have authority. But this is to misunderstand what Lincoln thought he had authority to do, since he claimed authority over the “rebel” states. In his view, there had been no legal secession from the Union, and the so-called Confederate States were still subject to the United States.

Europe was shocked by Lincoln’s brutal treatment of the South, which violated traditional rules of civilized warfare, according to which civilians and their property were to be spared any molestation. But in Lincoln’s view, citizens of the Confederate States who were loyal to the Confederacy weren’t entitled to any such exemption. They were all “rebels” and “traitors” to the United States and could be justly treated as criminals.

Idealizers of Lincoln have blamed the brutality of the war on generals like William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan, who devastated civilian areas, destroying crops and property. But they were merely executing Lincoln’s policy, with his full approval. Responsibility for Sherman’s March to the Sea and Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley campaign rested with Lincoln.

By Lincoln’s Manichaean logic, it could have been much worse. Since most of the people of the South were guilty of the crimes of rebellion and treason, millions of them could have been executed after the war. But that would have been too much even for Lincoln.

The South, much more attuned to European culture than the North, had assumed that Lincoln would be inhibited by the rules of civilized warfare. They underestimated the factor and the fanatical logic of Northern ideology, according to which the holy end of “preserving the Union” justified nearly any means of subduing “rebels.”

When Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, many war-crazed Northerners were furious that Lee wasn’t arrested, tried, and executed as a traitor. But Grant, to his credit, still adhered in part to the old code of honor. He had given his word to Lee, whom he deeply respected, and he kept it. The Southern officers and soldiers were allowed to go home in peace.

But the idea that the Southern cause was evil died hard. The harsh Northern occupation of the South during the “Reconstruction” period remains a shameful memory. Jefferson Davis, the gallant president of the Confederacy, was arrested, shackled, and cruelly imprisoned on charges of treason (and, absurdly, conspiring to murder Lincoln) for two years, but eventually the charges were dropped and he was never brought to trial. An outstanding lawyer, he would probably have won acquittal and dealt the North a severe propaganda blow.

Even now, the North’s Manichaean view of the Civil War survives, as witness the fury the Confederate flag still arouses. The United States formed some savage habits during that war which have unfortunately proved permanent. During World War II, Franklin Roosevelt dispensed with all principles of civilized warfare by terror-bombing German and Japanese cities, developing the first nuclear weapons, and demanding unconditional surrender.

Today Roosevelt is honored as a hero for his conduct of that war, just as Lincoln is honored for winning the Civil War and “ending slavery.” Many rank them as our two greatest presidents, though they not only lowered the level of civilization but destroyed the constitutional balance of powers between the federal government and the states.

One of the dangers of winning wars is that the victors may be seduced by their own propaganda — as we have been.

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This column was originally published on January 6, 2000 by Griffin Internet Syndicate.

Copyright © 2010 by Joe Sobran and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved.

Joe Sobran is an author and a syndicated columnist. See complete bio and latest writings.
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