A Rich Man’s War But A Poor Man’s Fight

A. Lincoln and Cabinet

I’m a Civil War buff.

No, I’m not one of those re-enactors who take a perfectly good summer weekend and ruin it by dressing in wool suits and running around playing good guy vs. bad guy (and take your choice which side is which).

As a matter of fact I’m not terribly interested in battles fought on muddy fields or “gallantly” charging men storming up a hill that will never be forgotten till after the test. I learned all that in both high school and college American history classes.

I’m more interested in what is so lightly if ever taught at any level of American education, the politics of the Civil War. Oh yeah, plenty is talked about the politics of the pre Civil War era, the Missouri Compromise, the Dred Scott decision, the election of 1860, but so little is taught of what was going on politically during the fighting. Movies like LINCOLN and GANGS OF NEW YORK have highlighted the political machinations behind the passage of the 13th Amendment or what led to the New York City Draft Riots, but as a rule the American educational system has chucked out the political portion of the narrative or at least kicked it down the road to only those truly interested in an Masters or PhD in 19th Century American History.

It’s a shame, because if they taught the politics at least on the high school level then this whole cult of The Lost Cause would go up in smoke.

I get amused when some Southern boy clutching the Stars and Bars flag goes on about how “they” are trying to cancel his heritage. I want to ask him, which heritage are you speaking of? Can you trace your lineage back to plantation owners? Well then your heritage is one of the certainty of the righteous belief in the concept of one group of people holding as property another. Do you still believe that?

And if your heritage search gets you only to a white planter living a subsistence existence on a small farm you might be interested to know that most of those folks not only were against leaving the union, they were against slavery. They thought it was unfair they had to compete with giant factory farms who didn’t have the debit line on their balance sheets for wages.

In fact it is estimated that somewhere between 75 and 90 percent of the white male heads of households (i.e. those who could vote) in the slave states held no slaves. Unfortunately it’s also shown that somewhere between 75 and 90 percent of those states’ legislators were slave owners. To ensure themselves of that proportion they rigged elections, making it hard if not impossible for poor whites to vote (sound familiar?) and if they did vote just plain out chucking any ballot not in their favor. This is where poll taxes and literacy tests first came about.  It’s also where the fine art of voter intimidation was perfected. Vote to stay in the Union and you might find yourself at the wrong end of the whipping post. Or the hanging tree.

Too bad there wasn’t a 19th Century equivalent of Stacey Abrams to help them out. So many of them, their sons, their brothers, and their friends could have been spared a horrible battlefield death.

If the politics were taught then the food riots throughout the Confederacy, caused by plantation owners refusal to stop growing cotton and tobacco in favor of edible crops to feed the army and the civilian population, would be more widely known.

If the politics were taught then the simple explanation for Confederate Army desertions, which grew larger and larger the longer the fighting went on, wouldn’t be explained away as being from exhaustion or heart wrenching missives from home. They would be understood as the final culmination of the prevailing view among the troops that this was a “rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight”.

If the politics were taught then Copperheads, the Northern Democrats who were against the war, would be understood as the pawns of the Northern Mercantile powers that liked cheap cotton and tobacco they could sell to Europe.

If they were taught the politics they’d learn the first military draft was conceived by the Confederates and quickly mimicked by the Union. Of course both sides let you off the hook if you could find someone to take your place or come up with $300 to buy your way out, the 19th century equivalent of bone spurs.

A rich man’s war, but a poor man’s fight.

But most of all if the politics were taught then the blame for the massive election fraud perpetrated by the Southern planter class to ensure “their kind of people” were in the position to make the decision to leave or stay in the union would be taught as a cautionary tale to not allow those with the most money be the ones making the most important decisions. Students would learn to deeply analyze politicians and look for what vested interests in a particular outcome they may have, especially when that outcome is the antithesis of what is good for the people at large.

If the politics were taught we might have a more educated electorate, one that views politicians, all politicians, through a more jaundiced lens and asks the most central question of democracy today: who is backing them and why?

Critical race theory? Hell, first you have to teach critical thinking. But that’s not in the vested interest of the planter class…er…I mean the billionaire class behind the Repugnicant Party. “I love the poorly educated“, said Donald Trump. Of course he does.

He and his buddies at Fox News have made sure the vast majority of voters are uneducated by cutting funding for education and presenting opinion and outright lies as fact on the nightly news. It might be good for them, but it’s bad for the country.

And it’s bad for the idea of democracy.

5 thoughts on “A Rich Man’s War But A Poor Man’s Fight

  1. I agree with the sentiments, though these days I always draw up short when statements like “it is estimated that somewhere between 75 and 90 percent of the white male heads of households (i.e. those who could vote) in the slave states held no slaves”; what that obscures is that one of the leeching poisons of the slave economy was that non-slave owners nevertheless benefited from the slave economy. A perusal of era newspapers, for example, reveals a depressing print-era version of Slavery Craigslist, with human beings being offered and sought for loans and rentals like the chattel property the laws and society made them; one didn’t need to own slaves to have them working in one’s field or salt mines (re: the latter: indeed, the economy in western Virginia–the part of the state that seceded from Virginia in the middle of the war to form West Virginia–depended upon leasing slaves from eastern plantations, making the idea that West Virginians weren’t slaveowners a wee bit disingenuous).

    Anyway, all this (I think) reinforces your main point: it’s a part of the history that isn’t well taught and isn’t widely understood, and that most Americans have no clue about. It leads to modern apologists for the Confederacy to sometimes trot out the “most Southerners didn’t even own slaves” as “evidence” the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery (the Secession Statements of nearly every state that passed a Secession Act notwithstanding), when the reality was that ownership was only one aspect of an economy in which people were not only bought and sold, but leased and lent as well.

    1. A particular area of interest to me is California’s role in the Civil War. Though rarely taught, even here in California, it is fascinating to see how the issue of leasing slaves was one of the main reasons California stayed not only in the Union but a free state. Even though the excitement of the Gold Rush was fading, gold mining was still the major industry. In fact California gold can be said to have financed the Northern armies. However by the mid 1850s most gold mining was being done by corporations with the actual miners pretty well paid employees. But there was a fear that if slavery were to be allowed, mining corporations would simply lease slaves to work the mines and thus deprive skilled diggers a job. These leased slaves would be coming from the southern states, excess “property” to their owners. Northern California, home to the mines, was anti-slavery. Southern California, home to many second and third sons of the South, was pro-slavery and was poised to become the leasing agency through their family connections. Eventually the north part of the state, with more money and more people, was able to win out. But throughout the war there was distrust and wariness of the Southern California “Cavaliers” (as they were known) and a fear they would try to somehow hijack or sink a gold ship heading out of the Golden Gate for the trip around Cape Horn. Thus were built Fort Point on the San Francisco side, Fort Baker on the Marin side, and another fort to create triangulation on an island in SF bay called Alcatraz.

  2. The best response I’ve seen to the “heritage not hate” argument was on a message board (Democratic Underground? It’s been a few years). The assertion was “My great-great-grandpappy fought alongside Stonewall Jackson, and it’s my fambly heritage” blah, blah, blah. The response was, “Well, my great-great-grandpappy fought in the 133rd Indiana Irregulars (or whatever), and it’s my fambly’s heritage to shoot any Rebel sumbitch flyin’ that flag.” The discussion sort of dries up after that.

    1. Heritage always seems to be the battle cry the descendants of the losing side in any conflict intone. Interesting though that the Bars and Stars is rapidly being replaced with another loser’s flag: Trump 2020. Which just goes to prove that in point of fact it’s really “hate not heritage”.

  3. Yup, rich folks wage the wars that poor folk fight and die in.

    I wonder how much outcrying would bubble up if copies of your column, along with the comments, got sent to every school in the U.S. (and associated territories).

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