Misunderstanding the Civil War

There’s no such thing as a “popular” revolution.

Indeed, since the Opposite Rule of Liberalism never fails, you can be sure that the louder the Revolutionaries talk about The People, the higher up the food chain they, the Revolutionaries, actually are.  Pick any “people’s” movement you like.  Just off the top of my head, you’ve got Mao, Kim, and Lenin (sons of the minor nobility or equivalent); Castro and Che (failed law student and failed medical student, respectively); Abimael Guzman (philosophy professor; of course his movement was psychopathically violent even by Communist standards); all the way back to Marx and Engels themselves (a failed philosophy professor from a long line of rabbis and the son of a factory owner, respectively).  Hell, take it all the way back to the first true Revolutionary, Oliver Cromwell — he talked a good game about the rights of Englishmen, did that descendant of Henry VIII’s chief minister, but he ended up as England’s first military dictator since the Romans ran the place….

But that’s boring, because we’ve seen the same show far too many times.  The interesting ones are the so-called “conservative” revolutions — the ones by the Elite, for the Elite, against another segment of the Elite, in the name of the Elite.  So far as I know, there have been only three of them: The two American Revolutions (1775-1783 and 1861-5), and the Meiji Restoration.  Let’s focus on the Second American Revolution, as it’s the most relevant to our times.

They don’t teach it this way in college (for obvious reasons), but the Civil War was a revolt of the Elites.  Put polemically, but not unfairly, The American People were offered four choices for President in 1860:

  1. tacitly pro-slavery;
  2. pro-slavery;
  3. fanatically pro-slavery; or
  4. fuck you.

These were embodied by John Bell, Stephen A. Douglas, John C. Breckinridge, and Abraham Lincoln, respectively, but the names on the tickets really didn’t matter, because it all boiled down to two options: Some flavor of politics as usual, or fuck you.  And here’s the important part:  The vast, vast majority of the country voted for politics as usual.  “Fuck you” got 39.82% of the vote, which by my math means that 60% of a country that would soon be conducting the largest military mobilization yet seen in the history of warfare wanted things to keep going as they were.

In fact, it’s worse than that.  As much as I hate to credit him with anything, Barack Obama was right — He truly was a Lincolnesque figure, in that Lincoln was vague to the point of incoherence about his origins, aims, and platform, too.  A vote for Lincoln wasn’t a vote for disunion; it was a thumb in Dixie’s eye, no more.  In other words, it was a vote to put the ball in the South’s court — an electoral-college version of the double dog dare.  We voted for “none of the above,” pro-slavery people, now whatcha gonna do about it?

We know the answer — they haven’t yet forbidden us from teaching the fact that secession happened sorta-kinda-quasi democratically — but for obvious reasons they don’t teach that the secession conventions were all rigged in favor of the fire-eaters, and even then the motions barely passed.  Which, again, means that “politics as usual” was nearly the default position of guys specifically summoned to discuss ending politics as usual.  If you want to say that the Civil War was started by about twenty guys nobody’s ever heard of, with names like “Louis T. Wigfall” and “Laurence M. Keitt,” you won’t hear much argument from me.

Since this is the Internet, and therefore the merest mention of the Unpleasantness of the Mid-19th Century makes everyone lose their shit, I’ll spell out my point: Though the Great National Divorce was already well advanced by 1860, and most Americans, North and South, were spoiling for a nasty custody fight, it took lots of detailed, coordinated action by a group of fanatically dedicated Elites to actually get it started. Guys like Maxcy Gregg, who wanted secession specifically so he could go kill him some Yankees, and Edmund Ruffin, who actually fired the first shot at Ft. Sumter.

And since ditto, I’ll further elaborate: This isn’t some alt-history, neo-Confederate fantasy about the CSA peacefully coexisting with the Yankee Empire.  The fight was gonna happen, and it was gonna be nasty no matter what (the phrase “nasty custody fight” is redundant; there’s no other kind).  But the specific form the fight took, its precise timing, was almost entirely due to the conscious, deeply cogitated decisions of specific men….

…..the very men who had the most to lose if their decisions turned out to be wrong.  Sound like anyone we know?

History’s second rep is always a farce, remember?  Just like in 1860, it won’t be the Republicans who start the shooting.  It won’t be The People, and it sure as hell won’t be the “Alt-Right,” or whatever we’re calling it now, who when it comes to action are far less real and effective than the Ineffectual Dork Web crowd they so love to mock.  It’s the other guys who will do it — the entrenched Elite, the people with everything to lose, who will for some unfathomable reason stake everything they have on the outside chance of getting a little more.  Slap a big fire-eater beard on Peter Strzok — there’s your modern Wigfall, Keitt, Ruffin, whatever.  The Opposite Rule of Liberalism, remember?  I’m not at all worried that Trump will launch a bloody coup if he loses the 2020 election; I’m terrified that Joe Biden will.

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10 thoughts on “Misunderstanding the Civil War

  1. Pickle Rick

    Now, while the Fire Eaters come in for deserved criticism, don’t forget the Black Republicans weren’t exactly angels of pacific methods. They bankrolled John Brown and cheered him on as a martyr after Harpers Ferry, and those exact radical revolutionaries were solidly and clearly backing Lincoln. By the way, some of my ancestors fought in Maxcy Gregg’s brigade, and they weren’t doing it because Maxcy wanted to be President of the Confederacy. Gregg, by the way, put his ass where his mouth was and buckled on a sword, and ended up dying on the battlefield, as well as Kiett.

    Strozk wouldn’t have the balls to be a Fire Eater. He’s perfectly happy to let other men fight while he smirks like a bitch. In that, he’s a Yankee intellectual, through and through.

    1. Severian Post author

      The Black Republicans deserve their own post, but The Unpleasantness of the Mid-19th Century has more misinformation taught about it than anything other than Cat Fancy. One can sit through an entire college-level class on the Civil War and never hear the phrase “Black Republicans” (I have!) I assume that any audience we have outside the 14 Readers is a typical product of the American school system, so I have to hope they’ve heard of the term “Fire Eaters” and write from there.

      Agreed that Gregg didn’t want to be president of the CSA. I said so, in fact — he backed secession because he wanted to kill him some Yankees. Keitt too, and Ruffin, and Wigfall too I think (briefly a TX cavalry commander IIRC). They had balls, the Chivalry — as even their bitter enemies had to acknowledge. Strzok definitely wouldn’t draw the sword himself, but he’d have no problem pulling the strings that make sure the sword gets drawn. If I’m ever dictator, he and his kind are the first ones on the lampposts (that’s a figure of speech, FBI goons).

      Which is the point. The sword is going to get drawn, 99.98% certainly not in a metaphorical fashion, and then as now this is solely because a dedicated activist fraction of the Elite want it that way. I’m writing this because a) all the Keyboard Commandos in Our Thing seem to think they’ll be the ones who start it, and b) thanks to that kind of misperception, which thanks to 24/7 media bleating is almost gospel outside Our Thing, most everyone will still be looking for the shit to hit the fan even as they’re being covered in flying feces.

      1. Pickle Rick

        Yes, because don’t forget that Virginia and Tennessee (along with Lee, Jackson, and the nucleus of the Army of Northern Virginia) did not secede until after Lincoln’s declaration of rebellion and calling out of Virginia’s military to suppress it alongside the United States Army. The Virginia Convention voted overwhelmingly against secession before Sumter and Lincoln’s declaration of insurrection, and overwhelmingly for it after.

          1. Pickle Rick

            That didn’t work out so well, since both sides ignored it. In the coming fun just like back then, you choose a side, or they choose one for you. There’s no neutrality in a civil war.

  2. MBlanc46

    Please not to forget Robert Barnwell Rhett and William Lowndes Yancey. Unless (4) is just a throw-away line, I’m afraid that I don’t get it. The Lincoln Repubs had a nuanced (to use a trendy Lefty word) position on slavery: No expansion in the territories acquired from Mexico. That’s why, in the usual account, he got the nomination over “Irrepressible Differences” Seward. That, plus the fact that they held the convention in Chicago and the Lincoln people packed the hall. But that’s just politics as usual.

    1. Severian Post author

      Them too.

      4) is a nod to reality. Yes, the Republicans had an official position on slavery, but it’s like Trump’s blather about how illegal immigration has to stop, but we must vastly expand legal immigration — it’s the only politically palatable way to talk about what must be done. Serious people know that ALL immigration has to stop (though admittedly it’s an open question if Trump himself knows this); in the same way that all serious people in 1860 knew “no slavery in the territories” wasn’t going to cut it. Politics is, among other things, the art of selling serious policies to a deeply unserious polity. Seward was an old abolitionist from way back; Lincoln could be anything to anyone re: slavery (John the Baptist to Obama’s Messiah, as Pharaoh Three-Putt himself said).

  3. Maus

    I confess that I’m woefully ignorant of the particulars of America’s Civil War history. I have no bone to pick with your theory of WHO will start the conflict, but I am much more interested in the HOW it will be initiated and sustained. Yankee versus Reb was more or less symmetrical warfare, and initially the South had access to sufficient men and material to put the Yankees on their heels. I was always taught that eventully the strategy of attrition favored the North’s greater industrial capacity despite the Southern generals’ greater tactical brilliance. Any civil war initiated by disgruntled elites today, who do not have direct access to large numbers of trained soldiers or advanced armaments, would be an asymmetrical proxy war. Indeed, if the lead-up skirmishes between Antifa and the Alt-Right have shown anything, it is that matters rarely escalate to a point where law enforcement (an official paramilitary wing of so-called legitimate state authority) engages at all. In the uncertainty about what federal armed forces would do, or upon whose side most would choose to fight; the confidence displayed by Our Thing is not so much related to starting the conflict, but in resisting it successfully. It is hard to argue with the idea that in a low-level engagement with semi-automatic rifles as the primary weapon, the elites and their hirelings will be outgunned by companies of pissed-off Joe Sixpacks. The open question is whether the initial tactical advantage likely enjoyed by the more organized and well-funded elite can be countered by shear numbers or rapid strategic leadership development. Judging by the underwhelming response of the Alt-Right to the past few years of elite-sponsored propaganda, we have some work to do.

    1. Maus

      I am now sipping on some fortifying Rebel Yell bourbon to soothe my nerves. Between Sev and Zman today, and being mid-book in J. Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind,” I realize that I am a man born out of his time. But I will play the cards I’ve been dealt. God save Sev and the Fourteen Readers. I am certain we would be a band of brothers IRL.

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