The Confederate Reader

This book by Richard B. Harwell is the companion to his book, The Union Reader, reviewed earlier. Like the previous book, this book relies on hearing from the people who lived through the events to tell the story of the events.

One thing about it is there is a slight but noticeable decrease in the percentage of firsthand accounts and a greater reliance on things such as media reports. For example, there is this from the October 11, 1862 issue of the Southern Illustrated News: “Lincoln seems to be in a state of desperation. He has issued a proclamation, declaring all negroes belonging to rebels free. as his armies have freed the negroes wherever they have been, this proclamation does not at all alter the character of the war. He has issued another, in which he proclaims martial law all over the United States. As he has no authority in the Southern States, of course it is altogether inoperative there. But it does operate in the Yankee States, and was no doubt designed for them. The Democratic party has of late begun to show itself very formidable in those States, and there was fair prospect of their beating the Abolitionists proper, at the next elections. This proclamation is intended to keep them quiet, or to dispose of them in the most summary manner, if they should succeed in their ticket.” [p. 137] This shows us an example of the propaganda fed to people in the South as well as their overwhelming concern about the slavery issue.

Harwell also gives us an account of the capture of Vicksburg written by newspaperman Alexander St. Clair Abrams of the Vicksburg Whig: “The conduct of the negroes, after the entrance of their ‘liberators,’ was beyond all expression. While the Yankee army was marching through the streets, crowds of them congregated on the sidewalks, with a broad grin of satisfaction on their ebony countenances. The next day, which was Sunday, witnessed a sight, which would have been ludicrous had it not galled our soldiers by the reflection that they were compelled to submit to it. There was a great turn out of the ‘contrabands,’ dressed up in the most extravagant style imaginable, promenading through the streets, as if Vicksburg had been confiscated and turned over [to] them. In familiar conversation with the negro wenches, the soldiers of the Federal army were seen, arm-in-arm, marching through the streets, while the ‘bucks’ congregated on the corners and discussed the happy event that had brought them freedom. So arrogant did the negroes become after the entrance of the Federal forces, that no white Confederate citizen or soldier dared to speak to them, for fear of being called a rebel, or some other abusive epithet. One of the Confederate soldiers, happening to enter the garden of the house that this author of this work resided in, for the purpose of picking a peach, a negro, belonging to a gentleman of Vicksburg, who had charge of the garden, brought out a gun, and, taking deliberate aim at the soldier, was about to fire. We immediately drew up the gun, and, drawing a knife, threatened the negro if he fired at the man; no sooner was the threat made, than the negro, with an oath, levelled [sic] the gun at us and drew the trigger; luckily the cap snapped without exploding, and we succeeded in getting the gun away and discharging it. While making these observations about the negroes, we would say that it was confined to the city negroes alone. The slaves brought in by planters, and servants of soldiers and officers, did not appear the least gratified at their freedom. The majority of those connected with our army were very desirous of leaving with their masters, and General Grant at first consented that those who desired it should leave; but as soon as a few passes were made out, he revoked the order, and compelled the balance to remain. These differences in the conduct of city and country negroes should  not be a matter of surprise, when we consider the privileges given to the negroes in the cities of the South, and demands a change of policy on the part of slaveowners residing in densely populated places. Many of the negroes, who were compelled to remain in Vicksburg, when their masters in the army left, afterwards made their escape, and returned to the Confederate lines.” [pp. 200-201] In this excerpt we see the attitude toward African-Americans that was prevalent, as well as the use of dehumanizing terms in referring to them. We also see propaganda displayed. Note how he tells us that giving “privileges” to “negroes” leads to what he regards as bad behavior, so he’s arguing that “privileges” not be given to them. We have the myth of the “happy slave” perpetrated as well.

We have a selection from Rev. Joseph Cross’ 1864 work, Camp and Field: Papers from the Portfolio of an Army Chaplain. He purports to quote from an Irish newspaper, the Belfast News Letter: “His [Lincoln’s] Emancipation proclamation is nothing more or less than a premium for murdering men and outraging women. It is the most odious and atrocious outburst of brutal and cowardly vindictiveness that ever emanated from a pagan or ‘christian’ [sic] tyrant. The author of it, and the ‘christian’ [sic] people who approve it, are more debased than the besotted savages of the Feejee [sic] islands; and, if the great powers of Europe do not step in to prevent it, they will deserve, as assuredly they will incur, the execration of posterity. Heretofore the patriots of the South have scorned to avail themselves of servile defenders. The last and foulest crime just perpetrated by the Lincoln administration will, however, justify any use to which they may now convert the enormous and undeveloped power within their hands.’ ” [p. 218] This may be an accurate quotation from the Irish newspaper. In any event, it serves confederate propaganda needs and points out the confederate viewpoint that emancipating slaves is a horrible thing.

Harwell reproduces Judah Benjamin’s letter to James Mason in Paris regarding the peace mission of Colonel James F. Jacquess and J. R. Gilmore. Benjamin wrote, “Mr. Gilmore then addressed the President, and in a few minutes had conveyed the information that these two gentlemen had come to Richmond impressed with the idea that this Government would accept a peace on the basis of a reconstruction of the Union, the abolition of slavery, and the grant of an amnesty to the people of the States as repentant criminals. In order to accomplish the abolition of slavery, it was proposed that there should be a general vote of all the people of both federations, in mass, and the majority of the vote thus taken was to determine that as well as all other disputed questions. These were stated to be Mr. Lincoln’s views. The President answered, that as these proposals had been prefaced by the remark that the people of the North were a majority, and that a majority ought to govern, the offer was, in effect, a proposal that the Confederate States should surrender at discretion, admit that they had been wrong from the beginning of the contest, submit to the mercy of their enemies, and avow themselves to be in need of pardon for crimes; that extermination was preferable to such dishonor. He stated that if they were themselves so unacquainted with the form of their own government as to make such propositions, Mr. Lincoln ought to have known, when giving them his views, that it was out of the power of the Confederate Government to act on the subject of the domestic institutions of the several States, each State having exclusive jurisdiction on that point, still less to commit the decision of such a question to the vote of a foreign people; that the separation of the States was an accomplished fact: that he had no authority to receive proposals for negotiation except by virtue of his office as President of an independent confederacy; and on this basis alone mus proposals be made to him.” [pp. 307-308] It is interesting to compare this response with the so-called “Kenner Mission,” in which a confederate emissary named Duncan Kenner went to Europe to ask for intervention in return for confederate abolition of slavery. Seeing here that Davis acknowledges he had no authority over slavery in the confederacy, we see the Kenner mission was nothing more than an attempt to deceive the Europeans, an attempt for which they didn’t fall, primarily because by that time [February of 1865] it was clear the confederacy would lose.

One of the documents Harwell gives us is R. E. Lee’s General Orders No. 71, in which he upbraids his army for the way it treated confederate citizens: “The General Commanding has heard with pain and mortification that outrages and depredations amounting in some cases to flagrant robbery, have been perpetrated upon citizens living within the lines, and near the camps of the army. Poor and helpless persons have been stripped of the means of subsistence and suffered violence by the hands of those upon whom they had a right to rely for protection. In one instance an atrocious murder was perpetrated upon a child by a band of ruffians whose supposed object was plunder.” [pp. 331-332] Related to this is the excerpt of an account from a woman in Scriven County, Georgia in a letter she wrote to The Countryman and published on January 17, 1865: “I must tell you how shamefully Gen. Wheeler’s men acted. Though they have a wide-spread reputation of being the greatest horse thieves in the country, they never acted worse than they have recently. While the enemy were burning and destroying property, on one side of Briar creek, they were stealing horses and mules on the other. Only a few yankees [sic] crossed over on our side, and there was a large force of Wheeler’s men dodging about, who could have captured, and killed all the enemy, and saved much property.” [p. 338]

This is another book I can highly recommend for putting us in direct contact with the people who lived through the Civil War.

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