Monday, June 1, 2015

From Secession 1861 to Appomattox 2015: The View of a Sesquicentennial Tourist

Georg preparing to surrender

This is a guest post from my Sesquicentennial battle buddy Georg Snatzke.  We only spent two days together, but those days are the bookends of my Sesquicentennial real time experiences.  I met Georg as I was heading to the Cornfield at Antietam on the morning of September 17, 2012 and reconnected with him at Appomattox.  I am very pleased that he has agreed to share his thoughts on the Sesquicentennial here.  I considered putting a different title on this, but have stuck with his.

Guest article by Dr. Raymond Georg Snatzke, Putzbrunn, Germany

I first met Peter Reilly on the morning of September 17th, 2012, on the fields north of the little village of Sharpsburg, Maryland. Both of us went there for the same reason: To be on the very same ground where exactly 150 years before America experienced the bloodiest day in her history. That infamous record stands until today, neither Pearl Harbor nor 9/11 eclipsed the death toll on these fields along the banks of Antietam Creek on September 17th, 1862. Peter and I spent the day together but lost touch thereafter. Some weeks ago, on April 11th 2015, Peter recognized me again - during the remembrance of the 150th anniversary of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, Virginia. We decided not to lose touch a second time.

Burnside Bridge Antietam

Real Timer

If not for Peter, I wouldn't even know of the term "real timer", but I admit that it fits. For the last four years I have been following the events of the War Between the States. Each year, I picked out one historic event 150 years ago around which I would arrange my three to four week-long trips. Besides chosing an important event, I tried to cover different regions as well. From 2011 to 2015, these were my travels:
Lee and Grant in front of restored Maclean house

April 2011: Bombardment of Fort Sumter; South Carolina and Georgia

September 2012: Battle of Sharpsburg (Antietam); Maryland, Pennsylvania, Northern Virginia

June/July 2013: Siege and Fall of Vicksburg; Louisiana, Mississippi, Western Tennessee

September 2014: Siege and Fall of Atlanta; Georgia, Alabama, Eastern Tennessee

April 2015: Surrender at Appomattox; Virginia, Washington D.C. and North Carolina
Peter has asked me to write as a guest in this blog about my experiences in the USA and my personal take on the very specific history both of us are interested in: The war between North and South. While I was only one of many at the vast majority of the destinations I visited, I was the single foreign visitor most of the time. I suppose this is why Peter thinks I might be able to offer a differing point of view. Because of this, I feel compelled to talk a little bit about my personal background.

The Fascinating American Civil War

There is one question I am asked all the time during my travels: What sparked my interest in the War Between the States, why am I so fascinated to come back to these historic places year after year? To be honest, I don't have a clear cut answer for this question myself, only fragments of possible explanations.

As far as I know, I have no however distant relatives who fought in the War Between the States or have any other relation to that conflict. I do not even have any living relatives in the US now. Nevertheless, my family background is likely to be one important source for my interest in the War. My mother grew up in an area that changed hands several times between 1918 and 1945: From Austrian to Polish to German and back to Polish again. After the Second World War she ended up behind the Iron Curtain. In 1964, she managed to flee to West Germany where I was born in 1971. That I was able to grow up in the free West is something I will always be grateful for to my mother.

Soviet Cold War Propaganda Poster

Because of that background I spent my teenage years very well aware of the Cold War and its frontlines. While many of my classmates in school embraced the peace movement and often some sort of Anti-Americanism, our family stood firmly with the West, the USA and NATO's Double-Track-Decision to deploy additional nuclear missiles in West-Germany if negotiations with the Soviet Union failed - as they predictably did. The Cold War front in Europe for us was a clear dividing line between good and evil - and evil was East.

We loved to watch Western movies, where good and evil most of the time were likewise clearly discernible, but there was a disturbing backdrop hinted at in some of these movies: At some time in their past, the Americans - the good guys, the inventors of liberty and democracy, our guarantors for peace and freedom - have been fighting a terrible war between themselves. That it lasted from 1861 to 1865, was called "American Civil War", pitted North against South and the North won was common knowledge - but that was about it. Well, the war was about slavery somehow, too.

 Further, detailed knowledge and information about that great conflict was well beyond my reach in rural Bavaria in the middle of the Eighties. This was before the time of the internet, and no bookstore or local library had anything at all to offer about American history. Thus the War Between the States was not only a fascinating occurrence (Why did Americans fight each other?), but also sort of an untractable mystery that had to be solved.

In the meantime I think I have discovered a third motive for my interest in the War: It offered a neutral study ground for me to analyze war and its underlying conflicts in depth and thus gain a better understanding of the wars and conflicts in Europe, where our own involvement as a family was just too painful to have any chance of getting an unbiased view on the matter. I have now been studying the War Between the States for close to thirty years and it still fascinates me. And it indeed proved to be complex enough to offer comparative case studies for nearly everything that happened or still happens in other wars and conflicts worldwide.

 But I have to admit that I am no longer neutral concerning that old war one hundred and fifty years ago. As you can see from my choice how to call this war, I have thrown in my lot with the losers - what Peter once called my "odd affection for the Confederacy".

Why My Heart Wears Gray: Early Influences

I quickly became sympathetic to the South. My second major breakthrough to more information about the War Between the States - the first one was Bruce Catton's "Picture History of the Civil War"  which I found in a militaria bookstore in Munich - were games, conflict simulation games (CoSims). These board games depicted historical wars and battles in a more or less realistic manner: The map corresponds to the historical battlegrounds and these games are most decidedly not fair - if one side had a numerical superiority in the historic battle, it will experience the same superiority in the game. And really - what challenge could it possibly be to win the battle of Sharpsburg (that bloodiest day mentioned above) as General McClellan with his boys in blue with a solid two-on-one superiority over General Lee's Confederates, not counting better weapons and more supplies for the North? And what is true for Sharpsburg is true to different degrees for every single big battle of the War Between the States except one: The Northern troops always outnumbered the South, most of the time quite heavily. That the Confederate armies often managed to stem the tide and actually defeat their superior foe just enlarged my sympathy for the underdog. The one exception, as far as I know, was the battle of Chickamauga, where the Confederates thanks to the once-and-only strategic use of their railway system managed to eke out a small numerical superiority over their foe.

A Gleam of Bayonets: CoSim Game About the Battle Of Sharpsburg

Another early source of Confederate affection for me was being southern. A quick glance on a map of Germany will show that Bavaria is in the South of Germany. And Munich, near which I grew up, is in the very South of Bavaria. Germany had its own brother's war in 1866, also literally a "war between the states" of Germany. Habsburg-Austria, to which Bavaria was allied, lost to the North led by Prussia. In Germany as in America the North was the industrialized part, the South the rural one. And up to this day Bavaria as a state ("Bundesland") within Germany pronounces the federal structure of Germany and is the most outspoken defender of states' rights in Germany. Franz-Josef Strauß, probably the most important Bavarian politician since the Second World War, once said during a trip to Texas "We Southerners must stick together!" Being pro-Southern in Bavaria is just like rooting for your local football team. Logic or ethics have nothing to do with it.
Bavaria Commemorates the Rebellion Against Austrian Occupation: 1705 - 2005

Enter Slavery

When my main point of interest about the War Between the States slowly drifted from the purely military to the political arena, I finally could no longer ignore that ethics were heavily involved in this conflict, and it seemed to be common knowledge that the South actually was the villain, its status as underdog and my Southern affection notwithstanding. The obvious reason was slavery. When the South was fighting for slavery and the North to free the slaves, there seemed to be no way to still side with the South.

But this easy, politically correct mainstream view of the root causes and motives of the war was soon challenged. Already in Germany I stumbled upon heavily pro-Confederate history books. If you are looking for a basic 101-course in "Why the South was right" I suggest to look up writings by the SCV, the Sons of Confederate Veterans. They have little gems like the "Gray Book" published almost a century ago. This and other publications of the SCV should offer a challenge to anyone who thinks the moral evaluation of the War Between the States is a clean and easy affair.

Reunion of the South Carolina Division of the SCV, Charleston, April 9th, 2011

Concerning slavery, these "SCV textbook arguments" - as I like to call them - have two main thrusts: First, the North didn't fight to free the slaves. The evidence for this claim is ample: Lincoln's first inaugural address or his letter to Horace Greely, where he openly states that he is fighting this war just to save the Union; the emancipation proclamation itself, where only slaves in Confederate territory are "freed";  the fact that four slave-holding states remained in the Union and fought with the North; the history of the New England states as the seat of many trans-Atlantic slave traders etc. etc. Second, the South didn't fight for slavery. Arguments supporting this claim are: The conflict over tariffs and internal improvements as alternative cause of the North-South rift; the fact that the vast majority of the white Southern population and thus of the Southern soldiers didn't own any slaves; the legislation of the Confederate congress at the end of the war to offer freedom for slaves in return for fighting in the Southern army etc. etc.

These are not bogus arguments, they are valid and stand up to historic scrutiny. (To be honest, there are a lot of bogus arguments floating around, too.) I eagerly sucked up these arguments, seeing my Southern sympathies redeemed. The main problem I have with these arguments now is that - while true - they are just heavily onesided, they ignore the other side of the truth, all that evidence that supports the claim that the South was indeed fighting for slavery and the North fighting for emancipation. Most important of them all is the simple fact that before the war there was slavery in America, after the war and a Northern victory there wasn't.

Old Slave Mart Museum in Charleston April 2011

If you want a serious and sincere moral comparison between North and South on the issue of slavery, you have to sum up all the evidence for both sides, line it up next to each other and evaluate it. But that's a painstaking effort. And whatever opinion you had before, it's likely to get blurred in the process. I didn't go through this procedure explicitly myself, but I have read enough to know most of the arguments and have pored them over in my mind for many years.

It is my personal conclusion that these arguments work very well to take away the moral high ground from the North, but at the same time they do little to redeem the South. To name just one piece of evidence supporting the claim that the South's major goal was the perpetuance of slavery: The "Declaration of Immediate Causes which May Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union" was an accompanying document to the Ordinance of Secession of South Carolina of December 1860. It was authored by German (Southern Germany) born Christopher Memminger who later served as Secretary of the Treasury in the Confederate cabinet. This document clearly states that the one and only reason for South Carolina to secede is to protect slavery. Period. Read from the perspective of today, it is a document of shame for the South.

On Secession and War

But my heart still beats "Dixie". The reason for this is that there is another major part to the equation, and this is the war itself. Even if the simple formula - that the North fought for freedom and the South for slavery - were all there was to the war, I would doubt that this can justify an all-out four-year war with most likely close to a million deaths. As it was not at all such a clear cut affair, I can see no sufficient justification for this war.
Balance Sheet of the War Between the States at Antietam National Battlefield, September 17th 2012

Our contemporary sentiments about the war, centered on the issue of slavery, are based on modern attitudes. But only the most die-hard abolitionists of 1860 would have made the claim that President Lincoln should fight a war to end slavery. For the public opinion of the North during the secession crisis, if there was a war, it was to be fought over the question of Union.

Quite interestingly, while the matter of slavery is debated seemingly endlessly, the question of the right to secede is rarely addressed. It is well to consider President Lincoln's own main argument why secession from the United States was allegedly illegal: The "Articles of Confederation" of 1777 of the thirteen colonies in revolt against Great Britain, which formed the basis of cooperation between these colonies before the US constitution, state explicitly that their Union shall be perpetual. The US constitution of 1789 on the other hand states in its preamble - not the articles itself - that its goal is to create "a more perfect union". Lincoln's conclusion: The union was perpetual before, now it is more perfect, so it can only be perpetual still, hence secession must be illegal.

This, in my honest opinion is the sort of legal argument you could expect from a lawyer who is desperate to score a point in a minor inheritance case or something similar. But this shall be the legal basis on which the President of the United States mobilizes two million soldiers to wage a war of invasion and aggression, kill hundreds of thousands of people, burn and devastate the countryside, closes down hundreds of newspapers, infringes on the basic rights of the citizens and interprets the constitution as he sees fit?

It seems nearly superfluous to me to name the counter-arguments from the Southern side: How can someone claim secession to be illegal, as the term is never even mentioned in the constitution (especially considering the tenth amendment reserving any right not explicitly mentioned to the individual states); that the United States itself are founded on the very concept of secession; that the thirteen colonies would never have united would anyone have told them they might never get out of the Union again; that three of those thirteen colonies explicitly reserved for themselves the right to secede etc. etc.

For me the South wins the secession argument hands down. Even the Federal government itself seemed to have come to the same conclusion as they did not dare to try Confederate President Jefferson Davis in court after the war. "Secession is not treason" was what their lawyers told them, so they just released Jefferson Davis after two years of imprisonment instead of risking that their whole legal basis for the war they just fought and won would blow up in their faces.

Statue of Jefferson Davis at Vicksburg National Military Park, Vicksburg, Mississippi, July 5th, 2013

What the debate about the legality of secession demonstrates most of all in my opinion is that it simply doesn't matter. From the Southern point of view, they seceded with a clear mandate from the people of the Southern states (the male, non-slave population, that is), honoring the American traditions of freedom and self-determination and adhering to the common-sense argument that when you voluntarily enter into a compact you can leave it of your own accord if you didn't explicitly consent to a different agreement. At least the Lower South also seceded for one of the worst possible reasons imaginable, as I have stated before, the perpetuation of slavery.

Even for Abraham Lincoln himself I think the legal basis for his war against secession was not the main concern. In many of his speeches, the Gettysburg Address being the prime example, I got the impression that something else was foremost on his mind. I believe he saw democracy and republicanism itself at stake. Democracy means that the minority accepts the rule of the majority. The minority cannot just quit whenever they see fit. The United States of 1860 were still something like the only beacon of democracy and liberty in a world ruled by emperors, kings and dictators. It is my impression that Lincoln believed this beacon destroyed, the best hope for mankind in ruins and ashes, if the South were allowed to leave. This is why Lincoln thought he had to save the Union no matter the cost.

Abraham Lincoln, Julia and Ulysses S. Grant at Fort Negley, Nashville, Tennessee, September 2014

And this is exactly the focal point where I find myself in fundamental opposition to Old Abe. Here we have two abstract principles, democracy and union, which Lincoln not only thought worth dying for, he considered his personal interpretation of democracy and union worth killing for and he was willing to throw all the might of the United States economic and military power behind this conviction. He would order his armies to conquer the seceding states, to kill their soldiers, burn their farms and cities, destroy their crops and infrastructure until the Southern people would concede that he was right and they were wrong. I consider killing a single person for abstract principles like these a crime. But waging a war for them... While I concede at once that democracy, maybe even union, are good principles, this attitude nevertheless reminds me of the socialist hypocrisy that to reach their goal of a communist utopia on Earth every sacrifice they feel necessary to force on the population under their power and every violation of human rights are justified.

Whatever else can be said about the War Between the States, for the United States to win this war, they had to invade and subjugate the South. They had the role of strategic aggressor. This in itself, while not a conclusive proof, is a strong indication which side carries the lion's share of the blame for the loss of life, human suffering and destruction wrought by a war. And this fact also supplies probably the easiest and most basic motivation for the Confederate soldier to fight: To defend his home.

There is this proverbial anecdote about the encounter of a Yankee and a Confederate soldier somewhere down South during the war. The Northerner asks the Southern soldier, what he is fighting for. Is it for slavery? "No", the Southerner replies, he never owned any slaves nor is he likely to own any in the future. Is it for states rights? But this abstract concept is of no importance for the Confederate soldier either. "So then," the US soldier asks a little bit exasperated, "why are you fighting?" "Because you are here" is the simple answer.

Confederate Prisoner-Of-War Camp, Andersonville, Georgia, October 2014

These considerations coincide with my personal political views, which are something between conservative and libertarian. I came to the conviction, and I believe my study of the War Between the States was probably instrumental in acquiring this opinion, that accumulation of power is something that should be avoided. At some point, power will be abused. I fear the evil power could do more than I hope for the good the same power could achieve. The right to secession in my point of view is a fundamental principle to keep political power in check. Without the right to walk away peacefully, political power can and will accumulate and finally it will wreak havoc.

This is why I consider the War Between the States and its outcome, besides bringing an end to slavery in the USA, a tragedy, too. Not only did the cause of secession lose the war, it is also inextricably mingled with the colossal crime of slavery.

Secession in Europe Today

The question of secession and war has acquired a new bloody urgency for Europeans in the last years. Up to the end of the Cold War, frontiers in Europe seemed to be immovable, even sacrosanct. Then, starting with German reunification in 1990, boundaries began to change dramatically. Czechs and Slovaks separated peacefully - a model how to handle affairs like this, as was the referendum on Scottish independence last fall. The Soviet Union disintegrated in the early nineties. Events especially in the Caucasus ominously foreshadowed worse things to come.

In the middle of the nineties war hit Europe in full force with the decomposition of Yugoslavia. Secession, rejected on principle for such a long time, suddenly became somewhat in vogue as the Soviet Union was seen as sort of a compulsive prison of peoples and the Serbs were considered to be the principal villains in the Yugoslav wars by world opinion, whatever that may be. Since then, it seems, many European politicians have become frightened by this lax handling of international borders and try to prevent any more frontier-reshuffling, lest it gets out of control.

It may already be out of control now, as war has broken out in Europe again. The current war in the Ukraine has brought the question of secession once more onto world stage and it is as bloodily contested as in the past. I have mentioned before that the War Between the States can provide a role model for nearly any conflict of today - the question is how to apply it.

The obvious application is to compare the separatists in Eastern Ukraine with the Confederate secessionists of 1861. The Ukrainian rebels seem to hint in this direction themselves with their astonishing choice of a "national" flag.

When I first saw a press photo similar to this one a couple of months ago I thought I have seen a ghost - it literally sent shockwaves through my body and mind.

Separatist tank

By the way, the Ukrainian separatists denounce any connection to the Confederate flag. They claim their standard is derived instead from an old Czarist naval flag.

But you can also revert the roles, viewing Ukraine as a Confederacy fighting for her independence with the Crimea and the Donbass region playing the roles of West Virginia and Eastern Tennessee, respectively, a comparison that is probably not as far off as one might think at first glance.

Statue of Andrew Johnson, Southern Unionist Senator and 17th US-President, Greeneville, Eastern Tennessee, September 2014

So while the latter interpretation has far more appeal to me than the former, both are likely off the mark. The underlying conflicts are completely different. And luckily the war in Ukraine, notwithstanding all the death and destruction is has already brought forth, is still far from the level of total mobilization and nearly total war that the War Between the States had reached. But the potential for escalation and foreign involvement is also far greater in Ukraine. Thinking along these lines one gets into scenarios that are too frightening to contemplate.

On the other hand, there are similarities, too. As the War Between the States, the war in the Ukraine is pitting brother against brother and literally tearing families apart. If past developments in America are any guide, we can expect a bitterness and enmity to grow out of the conflict in the Ukraine that could last for decades.

The questions which side is responsible for the war and who actually is the aggressor are as hotly debated behind a smokescreen of propaganda as in most modern wars. As far as I follow the news, the Ukrainian government in Kiew as well as the Separatist leadership seem to be more driven by circumstances than able to plan or act on their own. The only clearly discernible actor in this whole affair seems to sit in Moscow, and his role is not a positive one. President Putin fairly obviously tries to grab more power. His tools are to destabilize neighboring countries, most of all Ukraine itself, and to project fear and timidity into the hearts of the people and politicians of Western and Central Europe, who are quite obviously frightened of Russian military might although no one will openly admit it. Up to now Putin seems to be quite successful.

 National Pride in the USA 

In a certain way, most modern American politicians seem to agree with President Putin on one matter: Gaining more power for your own nation is a good thing. At the same time, they would probably be quite irked that I dare to compare the US pursuit of power to that of Russia. While I certainly prefer power residing in Washington to power residing in Moscow, I have stated before that I reject accumulation of power on principle as I am convinced it will eventually be abused with dire consequences.

 Peter has mentioned in one of his blog posts that I feel sometimes confused by the American reverence to their national symbols and don't know how to behave during ceremonies as e.g. the pledge of allegiance to the flag. Let me state first that in many ways I consider the American attitude to their own nation as more normal than that of some Germans. As a consequence of the Holocaust and German crimes during World War Two, there exists an extreme form of German anti-nationalism or self-hatred that actually denounces everything German as pure evil: "Nie wieder Deutschland!" - "Germany never again!" I find this attitude disturbing.

 On the other hand, US national symbols are often put on a very high pedestal. If it's the flag or the anthem, people stand, hats go off, the hand is on one's heart. At least in this combination I would give this sort of reverence only to the Lord, not to my own nation. Speaking about God: What really irritates me is the American habit of displaying their flag in church. For me this turns priorities on their head, as it seems to elevate the American nation to the level of a religion.

US Flag in Saint Bridget Catholic Church, Richmond, Virginia, April 2015

Then there are instances where US national pride actually does make me angry. As many Southerners had severe difficulties to see Sherman's soldiers as heroes - burning their way through Georgia and South Carolina - I regularly get upset when Americans celebrate as heroes the veterans of their bombing campaigns in the Second World War.

 I am glad not only to have been raised in the free West, but also to live in a World were German Nazism has been defeated. I don't want to contemplate how a world would look like where the allied forces in World War Two had not been victorious.

But the massive bombing raids on German and Japanese cities that killed many hundreds of thousands of civilians, many of them refugees, had no justification. It was pure projection of terror. I still remember the Museum for the "Mighty Eighth" in Savannah, Georgia, where the deeds of that bombing squadron were hailed as pure heroism while not a single word was lost to the gigantic suffering and death these bombers brought to the people on the ground - while the benefit for the allied war effort was doubtful at best. The only - little - exception was a short mention of the destruction delivered by the atomic bombs.

Museum for the "Mighty Eighth", Roll of Honor, Savannah, Georgia, April 2011

There is another aspect of US national pride that troubles me on a much deeper level and is actually directly connected to the War Between the States and its outcome. It is rarely displayed, but through my travels during the last four years I encountered it a couple of times: At a historical podium discussion in 2012 in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where Prof. Allen Guelzo brought it to my attention as well as in Appomattox in 2015 in the official keynote speech of Prof. Bud Robertson during the otherwise very thoughtfully designed official commemoration ceremony.

The principal motive is to deal with the United States as an absolute, especially power for the USA. The United States is depicted as the force per se to promote the good in this world. Even more so than I see this theme in Lincoln's speeches, the USA is described as the one and only force that through its striving for and standing as the shining archetype of democracy and freedom can bring forth peace, prosperity and liberty to all mankind. It was Prof. Robertson who at the Appomattox commemoration spoke of the United States as being "all powerful" and that global democracy is more secure because of this. It was Robertson again who one day later addressed his audience at Appomattox High School more or less directly as "God's chosen people".

Prof. James "Bud" Robertson at the Sesquicentennial Commemoration at Appomattox, April 9th, 2015

And whether it was Prof. Guelzo in Gettysburg or Prof. Robertson at the Appomattox High School, I remember the audience rising spontaneously from their seats, cheering and applauding wildly. While I reject the type of German self-hatred mentioned above, I accept the consequences of the German experience that national pride is an ambiguous animal at best. The line between love for your own nation and disregard for others can be thin. To state this clearly, neither the speeches of Guelzo or Robertson or the reactions of the audiences were in any way hostile or directed against anyone, it was pure celebration of the greatness and glory of the United States of America and its people. But there can also be no misunderstanding that the statement is clearly an absolute: On the scale of good and evil the USA is ranked "best". And thus more power to the USA must be welcomed, too.

It is no coincidence that all of these speeches were made in direct connection to the War Between the States: In this line of thought, the complete victory of the United States over the Confederate States was necessary and good, as only through this victory could the USA be the united, "all-powerful" nation of "God's chosen people" and act as the force for good in the world it is today. Probably more than anything else, it is the thinking that an all-out war against the own people 150 years ago - and who knows which other acts of violence and abrogation of the rights of the individual, too - is somehow justified by an envisioned role of protector of all that is good today that lets me fly the Confederate flag. For me the Confederate flag stands as a symbol of defiance to the notion that an abstract principle or the pursuit of a political utopia count more than the fundamental rights of the individual: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.


Somehow the pictures had disappeared from this post.  I think they are now properly restored.

I find Georg's closing compelling enough that I am saving my response for a separte post.

1 comment:

  1. I am also a foreigner - not a North American and I find the current anti south revisionism also quite distressing, the Lost Cause has over the years transmuted and intertwined with cultures way beyond the borders of the US. I find current activism has no understanding of the complex ramifications of the southern myths in other countries, and seem to be playing the game with the same myopia, and narrow focus as had white supremacy before it, same play, different cast. I have always seen the celebration of the Confederacy as also indicating a refusal of the Darwinian certainties of capitalism and neoliberalism, remove the monuments and you will have a public sphere where losing is restored to its expected place in the symbolic order