Having grown up in the capital of the Confederacy in a family riddled with unreconstructed rebels, I was always sensitive to these imputations of inferiority directed at the South and Southerners: my section and my people. Although I felt in my heart that something must be wrong, that we could not have been that bad, it was not until I began research for my doctoral dissertation that I discovered hard evidence which showed me to my own satisfaction what the war had been about. One’s own research brings a unique kind of conviction, the more so when, as in my case, the discoveries leaped unexpected and unlooked for from the documentary record. The more I studied that record, the more convinced I became that the job of the historian is not to pass judgment, but to try to understand.
Through the years, such research as circumstances permitted me to conduct confirmed this view of history and this alternative view of the War of Secession. More and more, as I brought my findings to bear in my teaching, it seemed as if some large and important matters were either glossed over or omitted from that mainstream interpretation mentioned earlier. True, the mainstream was slightly disturbed by some new eddies, for the history industry, manned by the legions of graduate students and their professors in search of new topics, had been turning out a multitude of monographs, some of which revealed less than admirable aspects of Northern society. Yet none of this changed the moral balance of the prevailing view of the period, not least because, still looming over it all, still largely impervious to historical criticism, there remains that brooding giant seated in the Lincoln Memorial whose wisdom, compassion, and self-sacrifice sanctified the Northern cause and gave plenary absolution for any of its imperfections. So, not to split hairs, the basic image remained the enlightened, progressive North versus the benighted, backward South, and everyone should be thankful that Lincoln and the righteous North had saved “the last best hope of earth.”
But what of those large, angular, refractory facts so conspicuously inconspicuous even in this modified orthodoxy? How could the Northern cause have been so noble when, as had been amply documented, anti-black prejudice with so widespread in that section? When the unresolvable issue, territorial slavery, with so firmly rooted in racism and partisan politics? When Lincoln, in his first inaugural, stated his willingness to accept a constitutional amendment that would forever put slavery beyond the reach of Federal authority? When, as the war was ending, he suggested that southern states lay down their arms, re-join the union and either delay or defeat the pending Thirteenth Amendment? When the openly avowed purpose of the war according to the ruling Republican Party was to make that party a permanent majority in the nation? And when every act of congressional reconstruction flagrantly pursued that object? When the prosecution of the war was accompanied by what even high-ranking Northern officials called a carnival of corruption? When Lincoln himself presided over a system of illegal commerce that allowed his friends and supporters to enrich themselves by selling supplies to Confederate armies? When Union soldiers not only needlessly laid waste large areas of the South, but robbed, tortured, murdered, and raped defenseless civilians, blacks as well as whites? When in a boasted government of laws, ruthless force and military occupation were used to rewrite the Constitution in order to enthrone the Republicans in power forever? When, after Southern blacks had served their political purpose, the Republicans abandoned them to those same Southerners whom they had so long denounced as merciless brutes?
Without belaboring the point further, I thought that this book was as good a place as any to look at the era from a different angle and to emphasize some of the neglected aspects of the American Iliad. If the result was to make the picture of the North as America’s Moral Majority less plausible, if it made Yankees seem to have as much of original sin as rebels, so be it. I am happy to leave such matters to those who see history as a kind of morality play, or, what is worse, propaganda.
—Preface to the 1995 edition of North against South: The American Iliad, 1848-1877
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