Guest Post by HK, not by Gary Farber
As the seemingly remote Civil War Sesquicentennial gradually floods into our lives over the next four years, we'll find -- just as those of us who were around for the Centennial did -- that a surprising number of issues from that period which we thought were settled, weren't really settled.
Nowhere is this more striking than in the Teapartiers' cries of "States Rights" -- the great rallying cry of the Lost Cause movement. You have to wonder whether the modern Teapartiers have any better understanding of who they are really fighting for than the the hapless soldiers depicted in that poignant scene from Gettysburg where Union soldier Tom Chamberlain is trying to understand his Confederate captives, right after the battle of Little Round Top:
When Chamberlain asks the soldiers what they are fighting for, one of the Confederates responds that he doesn't care about slavery one way or another.
Instead: "I'm fightin' for my rats!"
Disbelieving, Tom Chamberlain repeats his question. But even more earnestly the Confederate repeats that he is fighting for his "rats." After a surrealistic split second, Chamberlain realizes that the man is saying that he's fighting for his "rights."
But the informed veiwer is left shaking his or her head, No, my poor son. In fact, you are not fighting for your "rats" or even your "rights." What you are truly fighting for is slavery. You are fighting and dying for demagogues who are trying to secure their slave-based wealth.
And the leaders know this very well. Following in line with Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens's notorious "Cornerstone Speech," the Constitution of every Confederate State mentions its central goal of protecting slavery. And all the so-called property rights are elaborated in relation to that one goal alone. The "rats" of the hapless foot soldiers from the lower classes are a complete fiction.
Similarly, regardless of the "rats" which the foot soldiers of the modern tea party are led to believe they are fighting for, the Koch brothers and their friends know that the real goal of their so-called tea party revolution is protecting and securing their ever-increasing wealth. Michael Moore eexposes how the wealthy are manipulating the poor to do their bidding.
And looking at the right's attacks on collective bargaining, you start to wonder how much the goal might be to re-establish something ever closer to slavery, in which the workers have little to say about their working conditions or compensation.
Fascinatingly, even 150 years ago, William Tecumseh Sherman understood that the same thing was happening to the poor whites of the South. Sherman is a complex individual. As a woman, I'm taken aback by the level of violence he brought into the war. On the other hand, Sherman played a pivotal role in freeing the slaves, and (mostly forgotten) was an exceptionally magnanimous victor in accepting the surrender of Joseph E. Johnston's 89,000 troops, two weeks after the surrender at Appomattox. (Sherman and Johnston became BFF as a result of the terms.) He also deserves more credit in terms of his commitment to provide practical help for the newly freed slaves.
But as relates to the topic at hand, I'm especially impressed by how astutely Sherman analyzed the exploitation of the lower classes of whites by the wealthy plantation owners. At the end of the war, looking to the post-war situation, Sherman wrote a particularly insightful letter to Secretary of War Henry Halleck, predicting the future social relations in the South:
Second. The smaller farmers, mechanics, merchants, and laborers. This class will probably number three-quarters of the whole; have, in fact, no real interest in the establishment of a Southern Confederacy, and have been led or driven into war on the false theory that they were to be benefited somehow—they knew not how.
They are essentially tired of the war, and would slink back home if they could. These are the real tiers etat of the South, and are hardly worthy a thought; for they swerve to and fro according to events which they do not comprehend or attempt to shape.
When the time for reconstruction comes, they will want the old political system of caucuses, Legislatures, etc., to amuse them and make them believe they are real sovereigns; but in all things they will follow blindly the lead of the planters. The Southern politicians, who understand this class, use them as the French do their masses—seemingly consult their prejudices, while they make their orders and enforce them.
As William Faulkner said, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."
Guest Post by HK, not by Gary Farber