A Soldier’s Recollections

This book by Randolph Harrison McKim contains not only McKim’s recollections of his experiences in the Army of Northern Virginia, but it also contains a load of lost cause nonsense and attempted distortions of history as McKim tries to justify the confederacy’s treason in the Civil War. The book is valuable for being the perspective of a participant in the war, and those who wish to read it can download it and read it for free here, here, and here.

McKim was a Marylander who attended the University of Virginia and enlisted in the 1st Maryland (Confederate) on July 11, 1861. A brave soldier, he rose through the ranks quickly, and became an aide-de-camp to George H. “Maryland” Steuart. He participated in several campaigns, including the 1862 Valley Campaign, the Gettysburg Campaign, and the 1864 Valley Campaign. In the fall of 1863 he resigned to study to be ordained in the Episcopal Church and returned to the army the following year as a chaplain in the 2nd Virginia Cavalry. His book is proof that even the most pious among us are susceptible to lying in print to justify their actions.

Early in the book, McKim writes, “Virginia loved the Union which her illustrious sons had done so much to establish. She refused to secede from the Union until she was called upon to assist in the work of coercing the already seceded States back into the Union. This she refused to do. She would not raise her arm to strike down her Southern sisters. She would not be a party to the coercion of a sovereign State by the general government. That, she had been taught by the fathers of the Constitution, Washington, Madison, Jefferson, and Hamilton, was an unconstitutional act.” [p. 11] Much of this is patently wrong. The most important factor in Virginia’s secession was the concern over the protection of slavery. Additionally, Washington, who put down the Whiskey Rebellion and argued for a strong central government that would be able to enforce its will on recalcitrant states would not teach that coercion of a state was unconstitutional. Madison and Jefferson specifically talked about coercion being possible. Here’s what Madison wrote: “I found on my arrival here that certain ideas unfavorable to the Act of the Convention which had created difficulties in that body, had made their way into Congress. They were patronised chiefly by Mr. R.H.L. and Mr. Dane of Massts. It was first urged that as the new Constitution was more than an Alteration of the Articles of Confederation under which Congress acted, and even subverted these articles altogether, there was a Constitutional impropriety in their taking any positive agency in the work. The answer given was that the Resolution of Congress in Feby. had recommended the Convention as the best means of obtaining a firm NATIONAL GOVERNMENT [Emphasis in original]; that as the powers of the Convention were defined by their Commissions in nearly the same terms with the powers of Congress given by the Confederation on the subject of alterations, Congress were not more restrained from acceding to the new plan, than the Convention were from proposing it.” [James Madison to George Washington, 30 Sept 1787] “A political system which does not contain an effective provision for a peaceable decision of all controversies arising within itself, would be a Govt. in name only. Such a provision is obviously essential; and it is equally obvious that it cannot be either peaceable or effective by making every part an authoritative umpire. The final appeal in such cases must be to the authority of the whole, not to that of the parts separately and independently. This was the view taken of the subject, whilst the Constitution was under the consideration of the people. It was this view of it which dictated the clause declaring that the Constitution & laws of the U. S. should be the supreme law of the Land, anything in the constn or laws of any of the States to the contrary notwithstanding.” [James Madison, Notes on Nullification] “It is remarkable how closely the nullifiers who make the name of Mr. Jefferson the pedestal for their colossal heresy, shut their eyes and lips, whenever his authority is ever so clearly and emphatically against them. You have noticed what he says in his letters to Monroe & Carrington Pages 43 & 203, Vol. 2, with respect to the powers of the old Congress to coerce delinquent States, and his reasons for preferring for the purpose a naval to a military force; and moreover that it was not necessary to find a right to coerce in the Federal Articles, that being inherent in the nature of a compact. It is high time that the claim to secede at will should be put down by the public opinion; and I shall be glad to see the task commenced by one who understands the subject.” [James Madison to Nicholas Trist, 23 Dec 1832] And here’s Thomas Jefferson: “It has been so often said, as to be generally believed, that Congress have no power by the Confederation to enforce anything; for example, contributions of money. It was not necessary to give them that power expressly; they have it by the law of nature. When two parties make a compact, there results to each a power of compelling the other to execute it. Compulsion was never so easy as in our case, where a single frigate would soon levy on the commerce of any State the deficiency of its contributions.” [Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 4 Aug 1787] “There never will be money in the treasury till the confederacy shews it’s [sic] teeth. The states must see the rod; perhaps it must be felt by some one of them. I am persuaded all of them would rejoice to see every one obliged to furnish it’s contributions. It is not the difficulty of furnishing them which beggars the treasury, but the fear that others will not furnish as much. Every national citizen must wish to see an effective instrument of coercion, & should fear to see it on any other element but the water. A naval force can never endanger our liberties, nor occasion bloodshed; a land force would do both.” [Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 11 Aug 1786] McKim’s assertion, then, has no basis in fact.

McKim next writes, “All acknowledge that the right of Secession does not exist to-day. The fourteenth amendment has changed the character of the Federal Constitution. The surrender at Appomattox, moreover, involved the surrender of the right of Secession.” [p. 12] This is another false claim. The Fourteenth Amendment had no effect on secession, nor did it change the character of the Constitution. There was never any right of unilateral secession to surrender at Appomattox.

McKim hits all the propaganda points the historical charlatans have used over the years, all of which have been decisively shown to be nothing but drivel. He also claims, “And now I turn to the consideration of a grievous reproach often directed against the men who fought in the armies of the South in the Civil War. When we claim for them the crown of patriotism, when we aver that they drew their swords in what they believed to be the cause of liberty and self-government, it is answered that the corner-stone of the Southern Confederacy was slavery, and that the soldiers who fought under the banner of the Southern Cross were fighting for the perpetuation of the institution of slavery. That is a statement which I wish to repudiate with all the earnestness of which I am capable. It does a grievous injustice to half a million patriot soldiers who were animated by as pure a love of liberty as ever throbbed in the bosom of man, and who made as splendid an exhibition of self-sacrifice on her behalf as any soldiers who ever fought on any field since history began.” [pp. 17-18] He would like us to disregard and forget the words of the secessionists themselves who said they were acting to protect slavery. He would like us to disregard and forget the words of Alexander Stephens who said slavery and white supremacy were the cornerstones of the confederacy. He would like us to disregard and forget the writings of many soldiers themselves who specifically said they were fighting to preserve slavery. He claims, “Only a very small minority of the men who fought in the Southern armies–not one in ten–were financially interested in the institution of slavery. We cared little or nothing about it.” [p. 22] That’s a complete lie. About 40% of the Army of Northern Virginia, according to historian Joseph Glatthaar, came from slaveholding households, meaning they had a financial interest in the institution of slavery. Add to that those who rented slaves. They had a financial interest in the institution of slavery. Add to that those who made their living from the institution, including overseers, slave patrols, and those who provided goods specifically used to support the institution. They all had a financial interest in the institution of slavery. Then add those whose livelihoods depended on planters and other slave holders. They all had a financial interest in the institution of slavery. McKim would like you to not think about them.

McKim next claims, “Mr. Lincoln consistently held and declared that the object of the war was the restoration of the Union, not the emancipation of the slaves. Mr. Davis as positively declared that the South was fighting, for independence, not for slavery. And Robert E. Lee expressed his opinion by setting all his slaves free Jan. 8, 1863, and then going on with the war for more than two years longer.” [p. 22] The Union war effort was primarily aimed at preserving the Union. That doesn’t affect the fact that the confederacy wanted its independence so it could protect and preserve the institution of slavery. Davis said in his first message to the confederate congress that slavery was at the heart of what they were doing. And there’s no documentation at all of Lee freeing all his slaves, especially not on January 8, 1863. Lee wrote to Secretary of War Seddon after Lincoln released the Final Emancipation Proclamation: “In view of the vast increase of the forces of the enemy, of the savage and brutal policy he has proclaimed, which leaves us no alternative but success or degradation worse than death, if we would save the honor of our families from pollution, our social system from destruction, let every effort be made, every means be employed, to fill and maintain the ranks of our armies, until God, in His mercy, shall bless us with the establishment of our independence.” [R. E. Lee to James Seddon, 10 Jan 1863] Here is Robert E. Lee saying emancipating the slaves was a “savage and brutal policy,” that the confederates are fighting to maintain the institution of slavery [“our social system”] and to maintain white supremacy [“degradation worse than death” and “honor of our families from pollution”]. Later that same year, Lee in fact would lead an army into Pennsylvania that did all it could to kidnap and enslave as many black residents of Pennsylvania as they could find, providing even more evidence the confederacy itself was all about the enslavement of African-Americans.

McKim hits several popular lost cause notes in his discussion of the Gettysburg Campaign. He blames confederate defeat on JEB Stuart’s absence, Richard S. Ewell’s not taking Cemetery Hill on July 1, and James Longstreet not attacking on the morning of July 2. He also blames Longstreet for the failure of the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Charge on July 3. Each of these phony reasons for confederate loss have been dealt with in many other places. That’s not the only place he dissembles. He claims the battle was a tactical draw, not a Union victory, and he claims, “The Federal Army was more seriously shaken than its opponent. Its losses were considerably larger.” [p. 179] That’s patently absurd. The Federals had 23,000 casualties while the confederates suffered 28,000 casualties.

While McKim’s account can be useful for his insights into the everyday lives of the soldiers, his account is so filled with outright lies and distortions that it can’t be used unless corroborated by other sources.



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