Not Fighting for Slavery
There is no chain so heavy or yoke so oppressive as that which men will unwittingly place upon their own necks, or bend their necks to receive, while being beguiled and led along by liberty shriekers under their pretended banner of freedom. – William Watson
On February 16, I sent the following email to the 14 members of the history faculty at my alma mater, Davidson College, as well as to one emeritus history faculty member. They were all open copied. At the same time, I blind copied 148 members of my class. At the closing of the email, I identified myself as a member of the graduating class of 1965:
My freshman English professor at Davidson, James Purcell, introduced me to noted journalist, H.L. Mencken, in the fall of 1961 in the thick assigned compendium called Readings for Liberal Education. I have been a fan ever since. More than anything, Mencken has given me insights into American history that I have not found from those whom Mencken called “the timorous eunuchs who posture as American historians.” You might be interested in my own variations on a theme by Mencken. (link to assigned book not in original email)
For good insights on the American scene, one might fare better reading the work of the Frenchman, Laurent Guyénot, than that of any practicing American historian I know of. Guyénot has the good sense to take my historical work seriously. I fear, though, that Guyénot’s work might not be very well received at an institution that would employ William Kristol to teach ethics, of all things.
The arch-neocon warmonger Kristol was made Vann Professor of Ethics in Society at Davidson at the beginning of 2019-2020 school year, giving him a position from which he could continue to poison national discourse, after the perennially money-gushing magazine he edited, the Weekly Standard, finally threw in the towel.
I heard nothing from anyone for a few days, and then finally this short email came in from the emeritus professor:
Thanks for sharing Mencken’s–and your–thinking about the Gettysburg Address.
Interesting, but not a point of view that I agree with. To me, the North was fighting (even if many soldiers didn’t know it) for the values expressed in the Declaration of Independence that all people are created equal, while the South was fighting above all to perpetuate an institution (slavery) that contradicted that basic American value.
I don’t think we need to have further correspondence, as we are unlikely to persuade each other differently.
Needless to say, this solitary, expressly close-minded profession of faith in the conventional wisdom regarding President Abraham Lincoln’s protracted, extremely bloody, though eventually successful, precipitant military response to the secession of a few Southern states from the Union in 1861 hardly did anything to raise my opinion of the American history profession. Readers will notice, furthermore, that my email was really directed more toward my ground-breaking work on the death of our first Secretary of Defense James Forrestal, which is what the Guyénot article is about, and the respondent had nothing to say about that. He also failed to address himself to a single point that I made about the very devious, though slick and inspiring, Gettysburg Address.
What Were They Dying, Killing, and Maiming For?
Reading carefully, one will notice, actually, a small concession on the emeritus professor’s part. “Even if many soldiers didn’t know it,” he says, the “it” being that the Union soldiers were putting their lives on the line to bring an end to the institution of slavery in the United States. It looks like he might actually know a thing or two about American history, and what he surely knows is that virtually no one at the time, North or South, saw that as what they were fighting over. The Northern leaders, most especially the commander in chief, Abraham Lincoln, didn’t tell them that that was what the war was about. “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so,” he had stated in his inaugural address.
That brings us to the primary subject of this article, the 1887 memoir of the British citizen and native Scotsman, William Watson, who was an engineer and businessman and a longtime resident of New Orleans. He was well-connected in the city, an opponent of slavery, like virtually all of the Confederate generals and other officers who gave up their commissions in the United States Army to lead the soldiers of their home region, and like my own ancestors in the foothills of North Carolina. He could have been an officer, he tells us, but for the fact that he would have had to give up his British citizenship, which was required by Confederate law. As it was, he was a high-ranking noncommissioned officer who rose to an important leadership position in his military company. He gives us this account from the Battle of Farmington, Tennessee, after they had overrun a Union position:
Several hundred prisoners were taken, some fine heavy siege guns, several hundred stands of arms, and a large quantity of camp equipage fell into our hands. The advance of the enemy on our right flank was checked, and they would be compelled to change their tactics in that direction.
We remained on the field for some time awaiting orders. The place where the enemy had camped was being cleared and the ground was strewn with debris. Knapsacks, clothing, newspapers, letters, and other small articles lay scattered about. I packed up and examined some of the letters. They were mostly all headed with some patriotic motto, and a great many printed cards were enclosed or lay scattered about bearing emblematic figures and inscriptions, such as female figures pointing to Fort Sumter with the words: “Sumter first, peace afterwards.” Others with the emblem of the Union—the eagle and the motto, “E pluribus unum,” with the words: “Fight for the Union and the Union only,” and many similar representations, but never one having the slightest reference to the question of slavery. (emphasis added)*
From what else I know, that sample is very representative. The Northerners were fighting to restore the Union, as though it were something sacred, very much that holy entity in their eyes as captured by Lincoln in his brief Gettysburg oration, and their immediate casus belli, as President Lincoln had played it to the hilt, was the “vicious assault” on American lives and property (though as with the Iranian retaliation for the killing of General Qasem Soleimani, no one was killed) by the Southerners in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina.
Even less than the Northern soldiers saw themselves fighting for the cause of abolitionist fanatics, as most people North and South regarded them at the time, Southern soldiers were not fighting to preserve slavery. It’s quite understandable in the case of one of my great grandfathers who fought in General Robert E. Lee’s Army and was captured first at the Battle of Hanover County Courthouse, was paroled after some period of time as a P.O.W., rejoined and was captured again at the Battle of the Wilderness, spending the remainder of the war in the Yankee hell hole of P.O.W. camp at Point Lookout, Maryland. The residents of his home county of Yadkin were virtually all subsistence farmers; slavery was virtually non-existent there. His case was representative of much of western North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia, and also of northern Georgia and Alabama, and even of northern Mississippi and Louisiana and much of Arkansas and Texas.
But what of the soldiers from the lowlands where slavery was prevalent? Watson lived in the heart of the Deep South and he fought alongside soldiers from the region. Here is what he has to say about them:
I may here state with some authority that the greater part of the men of the Southern army, who really fought the battles of the South, did not fight to maintain slavery, and the question of slavery was never before their eyes. So far as my observations went, slavery was only a minor point of little or no interest to a large portion of the population, and could never of itself have led to secession and war. Any interference in that or any other law of the State which did not conflict with the Federal Constitution involved a principle of much greater importance, almost unanimously cherished by the Southern people, which was, the sovereign rights of individual States to make and maintain their own laws, and it was upon this principle alone that slaveholders and politicians got the large body of the people to follow them.
He then goes on to explain how, in his view, they were maneuvered first by Southern “fire-eating bullies” into secession from the Union upon the election, by only about a third of the total vote in an election split four ways, of a regional Presidential candidate in 1860 (Lincoln did not receive a single vote in my great grandfather’s generally anti-slavery home North Carolina county nor in the entire state of Mississippi.) and then into the devastating war by cynical Northern politicians.
The really big question, though, is not what the contestants on both sides perceived that they were fighting for or even what they were actually fighting for, but why they were fighting in the first place. Never in my education nor in any public discussion that I can recall is a separation ever made between the hasty actions of a few Southern states in the wake of the disastrous outcome—in the view of those states’ leaders at the time—of the 1860 presidential election and the horrendous war that followed soon after. One great value of Watson’s memoir is that it permits us to see the situation at the time that it occurred through the eyes of a very articulate and well-informed person. The fact that he was not native to his New Orleans home also lends a greater-than-average objectivity to his point of view. Neither he nor many around him believed that the ill-considered—in his view—actions of seven Deep South states meant that they were inevitably going to war over it. Even the leaders of the secession movement dreaded such a possibility, not just because war is a truly horrible thing, but also because the imbalance of population and resources was so great that it would be a war that they would be very unlikely to win. Here Watson describes the general view as Lincoln was taking office:
As to what Mr. Lincoln’s policy might be there was nothing to indicate, and it was the subject of much speculation among the bulk of the population within the seceded States.
No one thought that he would adopt a coercive policy; it was now too late for that.
It had been pointed out by [outgoing President James] Buchanan in his message to Congress, that the executive of the United States had really no power under the constitution to coerce sovereign States.
The States had seceded separately from the Union, each remaining for a time a separate and independent Government, and afterwards formed themselves into a Confederacy, and all without any protest or hindrance on the part of the Federal Government. They had the sympathy of the Middle States, and also of a large number of the Northern Democrats. They were now well organized and had become powerful, and the President could not but see that any attempt at coercion would lead to further secession, and meet with the most determined resistance, and must result in civil war and bloodshed. (emphasis added)
As we can see, at that point the very idea that Lincoln might choose policies that could only result in a war between the North and the South was pretty close to unthinkable. In the opening days of the Lincoln administration, the seceded states had also sent negotiators (Commissioners) to Washington offering, among other things, appropriate payment for federal properties within their territories. Although little initial progress had been made, people saw the parlay as a hopeful sign.
The future Confederate soldier Watson, perhaps like my future-soldier forbears and much of the population of the South and even the nation at large, saw what those seceding Deep South states were engaged in was a quixotic venture. Free of them, the remainder of the country would then be able to get rid of the anachronistic form of labor that they had inherited once and for all. Meanwhile, says Watson:
[The seceding states] would find themselves almost alone in maintaining their peculiar institution in the face of the civilized world. They would be surrounded and hemmed in by the free States of the more powerful Union, and they would have no fugitive slave law to protect their institution. The largest portion of the population being non-slaveholders, their sympathies would be with the old Union of which many of them were natives, and they were bound to it by strong ties of traditional attachment. In short, there was a great probability of these States again seeking admission severally back into the United States.
Alas, patience did not prevail and the hopes of the Watsons of the country were dashed. Who did the dashing? On this subject, writing in 1887, not professing to be any sort of a scholar, Watson comes up with what seemed to be a plausible answer, but he and lots of other people were clearly wrong:
It was the opinion of many quiet but wise and intelligent men in the South, that although Mr. Lincoln might be an honest, upright, and simple man, and had no bad feeling or intention towards the South, still he had as an adviser in Mr. Seward, a subtle and deceitful man possessed of great ability, and having an intense hatred toward the South.
Not Seward’s Folly, or Malevolence
The fact of the matter, we now can see in greater retrospect, is that Lincoln’s chosen Secretary of State, William H. Seward, former Governor of New York and Senator from that state, as an outspoken and principled opponent of slavery might have gained the reputation in the South as a hater of the region, but he was no Thaddeus Stevens, and it was inaccurate to characterize him that way. Neither could one say that about Lincoln, but when it comes to those other adjectives, we shall see in the light of how the hopes for peace were dashed, Watson has Seward and Lincoln reversed.
Watson places the onus for the firing of the first shot at Fort Sumter heavily upon Seward as the supposed power behind the Lincoln throne and, of course, upon Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, where it belonged to a degree, but perhaps not to the degree that he and most of the world to this day believe. The subject under discussion here by Watson is the resupplying of the federal island fort in Charleston’s harbor:
It was therefore very natural that [Army Chief of Staff] General [Winfield] Scott, a military man of great ability, should advise the withdrawal of the troops as a military necessity while an opportunity still existed, for had hostilities broken out the Federal garrison would have been prisoners of war and so much loss to the United States.
But Mr. Seward knew his own game; he had effectually measured the patience, and sagacity of Jefferson Davis and his cabinet.
While it seems inexplicable that the Confederate leaders should without any apparent necessity act so precipitantly, and incur the onus and responsibility of the war by bombarding the fort and actually commencing hostilities, I have never heard any satisfactory reason given for the rash act. Of course, the excuse set forth by the Confederate leaders was the importance of the fort and the great danger to be apprehended to the Confederate cause should the Federal Government be able to send an expedition to force an entry into Charleston harbor and occupy and strengthen Fort Sumter.
But there was not the slightest grounds for this apprehension, and the Confederate commanders had no such apprehensions. The time was now gone past for this. It would have been impossible for the Federal Government to have got ready an expedition in less than three months which could with any chance of success attempt to force a passage into Charleston, whilst it was well known that the garrison could not hold out for more than ten days at the very utmost.
The military argument, which from his own ample Civil War experience Watson was on good grounds for making, was that Fort Moultrie, which was on a spit of land more seaward than Fort Sumter and which the Union had been forced to abandon upon South Carolina’s secession, effectively guarded the harbor. The Confederates had loaded it up with cannons and it would have required an overwhelming force that the Union could not muster to dislodge them. More Watson:
It was evident that Mr. Seward, who was the real head of affairs at Washington, saw very well that the vanity and pugnacity of Jefferson Davis and his cabinet, and the defiant and warlike attitude of the Confederate leaders, would soon overcome their patience and wiser judgment, and cause them to commit themselves by striking a blow somewhere which would thoroughly rouse the indignation of the North and make the war against the South popular.
Nor was he wrong in his conjecture.
The Confederate government, if they now wished to avoid the responsibility of striking the first blow, acted with a rashness quite uncalled for and amounting to stupidity.
Watson was wrong to include Davis’s entire cabinet in his indictment. Seward’s counterpart in the new Confederate government saw the rashness and stupidity ahead of time:
One of the few Southern statesmen who understood what the master politician and experienced trial lawyer from Illinois was up to was Confederate Secretary of State Robert Toombs, who, before Fort Sumter, warned that firing on the fort “is suicide, murder, and will lose every friend at the North.” Toombs was right. The bombardment of Fort Sumter, even though it injured no one, helped to end the secession movements in the middle states as well as the support for secession among many Northern opinion makers. (Thomas DiLorenzo, The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, pp. 121-122)
Jefferson Davis, in his own book, A Short History of the Confederate States of America, appears to validate Watson’s and Toombs’s view of his judgment as he attempts to justify opening fire upon Fort Sumter:
To have waited further strengthening of the enemy by land and vessel forces, with hostile purpose, now declared, for the sake of having them “fire the first gun,” would have been as unwise as it would be to hesitate to strike down an assailant who levels a deadly weapon at one’s heart until he has actually fired. He who makes the assault is not necessarily he who strikes the first blow or fires the first gun.
Let him try telling that to the court of public opinion, and as we have seen, the analogy that he has made is a very bad one from a purely military standpoint. And then it gets worse for him, again, in his own words:
The Federal garrison was generously permitted to retire with the honors of war. The event, however, was seized upon to inflame the minds of the Northern people. The disguise which had been worn in the communications with the Confederate Commissioners was now torn off, and it was craftily attempted to show that the South, which had been pleading for peace and still stood on the defensive, had, by this bombardment, inaugurated a war against the United States.
Could the man have been so deluded as not to have anticipated that Lincoln would play it that way and that he would be very successful in doing so? It saddens me to think of my forbears having to live under such leadership. But at that point, in North Carolina, they were not yet under Davis’s leadership, but Lincoln’s. Lincoln’s subsequent actions would take care of that, though. Here we return to Watson’s narrative describing the very predictable response to the Fort Sumter bombardment:
The Lincoln newspapers of course made the most of it. The Northern people, few of whom knew the position or understood Mr. Seward’s game, were fired with indignation, and the bombardment of Fort Sumter was declared to be the opening of hostilities and the commencement of war.
Mr. Seward took care to take the tide at the flood. He did not give the Northern people time to reflect, or allow any pro-Southern papers time to comment on his shuffling game or plead any extenuating circumstances on behalf of the Confederates, few as there were to plead, but followed up the news of the bombardment so quickly with an exposition of Mr. Lincoln’s policy by his proclamation and declaration of war that it was obvious he must have had it all prepared and ready before the bombardment took place. He at the same time turned to the commissioners whom he had kept waiting for an audience and gave as his reply—“No compromise with traitors.”
Mr. Lincoln’s proclamation, which was issued immediately after the bombardment of Fort Sumter, was a declaration of war against the States said to be in rebellion against the United States, and a call for 75,000 men to crush the rebellion. To each State outside of the Confederacy was issued an order to furnish its quota of men. And an imperative demand was made upon these states in rebellion to lay down their arms and submit to the authority of the United States within 10 days.
The purport of the proclamation was so sweeping and imperative and so menacing in its tone, that it caused the greatest excitement not only within the Confederate States but throughout the whole of the Southern States. It seemed to outdo even the arrogance and pugnacity of Jefferson Davis and his cabinet. It left no opening for any peaceful settlement, and it entirely ignored the existence of any loyal or peaceful citizens within the Confederate States. It made no appeal to them. It held out to them no guarantee or protection of amnesty. It gave them no alternative but unconditional surrender or the sword.
It was that proclamation that forced the hands of Arkansas, Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, who threw in their lot with their adjoining fellow Southern states. None of the Fort Sumter provocation nor its aftermath was Seward’s doing, though, as we see from this summary of the spurned wise advice that he offered to Lincoln on the matter:
Secretary of State William H. Seward eloquently argued for abandoning Sumter. Seward based his case on the impossibility of peacefully provisioning the fort. Since the attempt would involve military action, it would “probably initiate a civil war.” While he would defend the Union by force if necessary, civil war was, next to disunion itself, a national calamity. The fundamental question for Seward, then, was how to restore the Union by a peaceful policy that would not provoke civil war.
Seward’s solution was to allow the secession crisis to subside by avoiding new provocations. Southerners were fundamentally devoted to the Union, but this sentiment had temporarily been silenced by fears associated with Lincoln’s election. Conciliatory policies, however, by denying to the disunionists new offenses, would permit loyal southerners to regain their governments and restore the Union. For evidence of the beneficial effects of conciliation, Seward pointed to the stalling of secessionist momentum after the initial surge.
Seward especially emphasized the good effect of conciliatory measures on the upper South, whose continued loyalty would help patriots in the deep South return to the Union. Time must be provided “for reason to resume its sway. Time will do this, if it be not hindered by new alarms and provocations.”
As for Fort Sumter, Seward contended that even if held, it had no military value for the United States. It was only as a symbol, “a monument” of the government’s “authority and sovereignty.” He would continue to hold it as long as it could be done without involving problems greater than the advantages of continued possession. But, he warned, sending reinforcements or supplies would entail using military force, and would appear as though the government initiated conflict without adequate justification.
Seward stated that he would, in certain circumstances, advocate the use of force. But he “would not provoke war in any way now.” And he would not initiate war “to regain a useless and unnecessary position on the soil of the seceding States,” or one which could not be defended when in federal hands. (emphasis added)
Watson—and his Southern friends—would have been surprised to discover how close Seward’s views were to his own, and how decent and reasonable the man comes across in his recommendations. The culprit was Abraham Lincoln, himself, or whoever was pulling his strings, and that person or group of people was clearly not Seward.
Dishonest, Diabolical Abe
It has long been known, as laid out in the DiLorenzo book previously cited, that Lincoln successfully baited the South into firing the first shot of the war and then quickly capitalized upon the fact, but only more recently has California trial lawyer Joseph Ryan revealed Lincoln’s full perfidy in pulling off the deed: “Lincoln, the sly country lawyer,” he writes, “tricked the Confederate government into believing that he intended to use naval warships to invade the harbor. The hook for Lincoln’s trick was the U.S.S. Powhatan.”
Here is the problem that Lincoln faced, as Ryan explains it:
How, in riling the country to war, was Lincoln to hide the fact that he was the aggressor? How to make it seem that South Carolina was the aggressor and that Lincoln’s government was merely defending itself from such aggression. How, in other words, to provoke South Carolina into bombarding the fort without, apparently, any provocation?
And here was his solution. The Powhatan was the flagship of a flotilla of four warships that Lincoln ordered to fight its way into Charleston’s harbor and provide provisions for Fort Sumter. Those were the orders that went through the normal channels of the Navy Department. The final assault was not to be made until the word came down from the flagship’s commander, Captain Samuel Mercer. But Lincoln had been informed that the Navy Department, much like the current Trump administration is laced with Deep State operatives, was thoroughly infiltrated by sympathizers with the South, and the word of Lincoln’s orders would reach Jefferson Davis and his boys well before the ships reached Charleston. This, then, was the “deadly weapon” that Davis perceived to be leveled at his new nation’s heart. At the same time, Lincoln sent a lieutenant with sealed orders for Capt. Mercer, not to be opened until the Powhatan was at sea and completely out of reach of the Confederacy’s spy network. Those orders changed the destination of the Powhatan from Fort Sumter to the other federal fort in Southern territory, Fort Pickens, at the harbor of Pensacola, Florida. Fort Pickens was not the political flashpoint that Fort Sumter was. It was easily defended and was of far less strategic importance. General Scott had no problem with doing what was militarily necessary to hang onto it, as Lincoln had indicated in his inaugural address he was determined to do. Most importantly, the Southern leaders had apparently accepted it as something that they could tolerate, de facto, if not in principle.
The three ships left floating at sea near Charleston were never to receive the attack order. Lincoln had no intention of firing his deadly weapon. His purpose was only to persuade the Southern leaders that that was his purpose, forcing them to make the move that made the most military sense to them, to force the surrender of Fort Sumter while the forcing was still relatively easy, with immediate menace looming.
Accepting the case that Ryan makes, Jefferson Davis does not appear to be quite as foolish as William Watson and lot of us thought he was, but he was foolish, nonetheless, in his apparent inability to see the big picture.
The man who is revealed by the Fort Sumter episode as a conniver extraordinaire was Abraham Lincoln, who was hell bent on war as the response to the secession of those Southern states. If there were people pulling his strings, it does not appear that they were in the executive branch of the government. It was almost certainly not Seward. But why was Lincoln so determined to resort to bloodshed, not as a last resort, but right off the bat?
At this point, I think what I believe to be the general consensus of those generally unreliable professional historians of the country provides one good answer. He and a lot of the people around him thought that it would be a relatively quick and easy affair. Had matters progressed the way Lincoln expected, the seceding states would have been quickly bludgeoned back into the Union well before he would have had to resort to the showy war measure known as the Emancipation Proclamation, which proclaimed freedom for the slaves only where the federal government had no power to bring it about, in Confederate held territory.
For the other big reason, we turn to John V. Denson’s 2006 article, “Why Did Lincoln Invade the South?” He examines the little known Hampton Roads Peace Conference between high officials of the federal and Confederate governments in February of 1865. Its purpose was to negotiate either a temporary or permanent burying of the hatchet in order to do something about the French encroachment into Mexico in violation of the Monroe Doctrine. I commend the entire article to your attention, but here is Denson’s summation. From the Union side, we were really back to the terms of Lincoln’s first inaugural address, as though there had never been any Emancipation Proclamation:
In summary, the South wanted independence, not the protection of slavery, and the North wanted reunion rather than abolition of slavery. This is what President Lincoln had stated in the very beginning before the war and again what he had stated near the end of the war.
It was generally recognized in both the North and the South by 1865 that slavery was a dying institution, not just in America, but throughout Western Civilization. It was also obvious to both the North and the South that slavery would be hard to maintain in a separate Confederate South without the constitutional and statutory fugitive slave provisions which had required free states to return escaped slaves. In fact, many abolitionists had advocated Northern secession before the war as a means to end slavery by depriving the Southern states of the benefits of the fugitive slave clause in the Constitution and the laws relating thereto. The offer of the North to pay for the freed slaves was merely an added inducement to rejoin the Union but Lincoln had always been willing to accept slavery where it already existed if the South would remain in, or later, rejoin the Union. The right of a state to secede clearly had been accepted in the North and the South at the time of the formation of the Union and up until the time of the War Between the States. For example, the New England states frequently asserted the right of secession and threatened to use it on five occasions: in 1803 because of President Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase; in 1807 over the Embargo Act; in 1812 over the admission of Louisiana as a state; in 1814 at the Hartford Convention because of the War of 1812; and finally, in 1845 over the annexation of Texas.
The War Between the States was not a noble war to abolish slavery, but instead was a war of conquest to require the Southern states to continue paying the taxes which paid for the federal government and to change the system of government given to us by our Founders and instead replace it with a strong national government thereby removing most of the political power from the states and the people. When the famous British historian, Lord Acton, wrote to Robert E. Lee after the war, in a letter dated November 4, 1866, he inquired about Lee’s assessment of the meaning of the war and the result that would follow. Lord Acton’s letter stated, in part, that:
“I saw in State Rights the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will, and secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction but as the redemption of Democracy . . . Therefore I deemed that you were fighting the battles of our liberty, our progress, and our civilization; and I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo.”
Lee replied in a letter dated December 15, 1866, and stated, in part, what the result would be:
” . . . [T]he consolidation of the states into one vast republic, sure to be aggressive abroad and despotic at home, will be the certain precursor of the ruin which has overwhelmed all those that have preceded it.”
Good and Bad Leaders
General Lee was one of the leaders that the war veteran Watson, like a lot of other people at the time and later, held in very high esteem. He contrasts him with Davis in that he feels that Lee would have had the good sense to concede defeat and save a lot of lives when it had become clear that there was no hope for victory. In this case, Watson’s opinion was based upon Lee’s reputation, not upon any direct experience. Watson served in the West, never under Lee in the East. He does speak highly of two Confederate generals under whom he did serve, Benjamin McCulloch and James McIntosh. Jefferson Davis, however, in order to resolve the conflict between western commander McCulloch and the commander of the Missouri forces, Gen. Sterling Price, sent General Earl Van Dorn to assume command over both of them. Van Dorn then managed to get both McCulloch and McIntosh killed in what Watson saw as both the ill-conceived and executed Battle of Pea Ridge. As Watson described McCulloch and McIntosh, their losses to the Confederate military leadership were right up there with the deaths of Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville and Albert Sidney Johnston at Shiloh. That’s another thing Watson probably held against Jefferson Davis. It’s beyond the scope of his book, but when the notorious womanizer Van Dorn was shot to death by a cuckolded husband in Tennessee, Watson probably regarded it as no great loss to the Confederate army.
Watson also differed sharply with Davis over the general who has given his name to both the U.S. Army’s Fort Bragg in North Carolina and the coastal resort town in Northern California, also named Fort Bragg after the frontier fort that was once there. We are speaking of General Braxton Bragg. Watson describes him as an almost sadistic martinet, while Davis saw him as a fine disciplinarian. As bad as Bragg was, he was probably several notches up the humanitarian scale in Watson’s eyes than “Beast Butler,” that is, General Benjamin Butler, the man Lincoln appointed as military governor when Union forces conquered New Orleans.
When he is writing about things beyond his direct experience, like in his assessment of the role of Secretary of State Seward in starting the war, one might take Watson’s observations with something of a grain of salt, but I, for one, felt that I got a better grasp on the reality of the War between States from Watson than from almost anything that I have encountered from our professional historians. I might say the same thing for the more recent writings of the practicing attorneys Joseph Ryan and John V. Denson and the Ph.D. economist, Thomas DiLorenzo, a man whose credentials the current writer shares. For their part, the professional historians, when it comes to the War, I have found to be hardly more reliable than they are about James Forrestal’s death.
March 19, 2019
*All quotes from Watson’s book and further on from Jefferson Davis’s book lack page number citations because they are from the Kindle edition. If you want to find the quotation in its context, you can search a selection from the quote on the Kindle, if you have one. Amazon has made it cheap and easy to become a relative expert on the War between the States by providing a number of first-hand accounts of the war for the bargain basement price of $.99.