Ironing out our differences

I have been reading Civil War history for about 10 years, but I do not remember any piece that I enjoyed and appreciated as much as Winston Groom’s “Irreconcilable Differences” (September 2010). It provided an understandable and engaging representation of the dynamics that led to the outbreak of the war. My hat is off to Mr. Groom for his work and to America’s Civil War for its publication.

I would love to see a similar discussion on whether states that voted to join the Union were expressly prohibited from voting to leave it. Obviously, President Lincoln and others believed that those prior voluntary associations with the Union could not be undone. Was there something in the Constitution, its adoption process or the statehood application process that addressed the irrevocable nature of the states’ relationship to the Union?

Rusty Welch

Churchville, Va.

Editor’s note: You’re in luck! Constitutional scholar Jonathan Turley weighs in on the legality of secession on p. 44.

“Irreconcilable Differences” is a worthy introduction to the causes of the Civil War, but it errs in saying that the Presbyterian Church avoided the schism over slavery that split other denominations. The church did split in 1861, with the Southern branch calling itself the Presbyterian Church of the Confederate States of America. In 1983 the Southern branch—then the Presbyterian Church in the United States—and the Northern branch—the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America—united to form a single denomination: Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Calvin Goddard Zon

Washington, D.C.

I enjoyed “Irreconcilable Differences,” but I have a bone to pick with Winston Groom. His claim that the South failed to industrialize as early as New England did because Southerners were “too attached” to growing cotton misrepresents the real and very reasonable explanation: Growing, rather than processing, cotton was usually a more profitable use of Southerners’ money.

Falling water powered early mills. In the South the fall line was distant from the ocean, and this area was thinly settled. In New England it was near the ocean and thickly settled. Cotton could be floated downriver to Southern port cities from which it was cheaply transported by ship to New England. Only a short haul by road was then necessary to get it from port to where a cotton mill could be built.

Carole E. Scott

Professor of Economics (retired)

University of West Georgia

Fighting words

Harold Holzer closes his “Cease Fire” column (September 2010) by stating, “Surely we can celebrate…the heroes, black as well as white, North as well as South, who fought, bled and died to make us one nation, indivisible.”

Which Southerners fought for “one nation, indivisible”? It seems they fought for exactly the opposite reason, that is, to divide the nation.

R.H. Flint II

Golden, Colo.

I take issue with Harold Holzer’s premise that the Civil War was fought to eliminate slavery. As you read of the blatant discrimination against the South by Northern politicians and businessmen, you understand that more was at stake. The people of the South had declared that their common destiny was not linked to the desires, aims and prejudices of their Northern neighbors. This is called self-determination, a basic right according to American philosophy. Lincoln and the U.S. government violated this tenet.

David Caskey

Shreveport, La.

It never ceases to amaze me that modern historians always want to tie the war down to one reason. I assure you that my poor German ancestor from Alabama did not pick up a rifle to preserve slavery. They fought to defend their homes from a foreign invasion. Same as we would do today!

David Brantley

Alpharetta, Ga.

Harold Holzer doesn’t want us to think that a sectional Republican Party used slavery as a tool to capture the Northern states, and thus the national government, in order to impose a program best suited to Northern economic development. Instead, he wants a national commission to make us all “admit” that the Civil War was a great humanitarian crusade waged by Northern armies of freedom and guided by that most luminous of luminaries, infallible of infallibles, holiest of holies: St. Abraham of Springfield.

Wayne Binning

Prairieville, La.

Harold Holzer’s column reveals a profound contempt for any sort of history other than the officially generated sort. “Replace state hubris with a national overview”? Why on earth would we want the current federal government to control the message during this sesquicentennial remembrance? Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell should be congratulated for declaring Confederate History Month in his state, not condemned by yet another academic who fears Civil War history being in the hands of anyone but the elites who tell us to please remember that the war was about slavery. If the South found solace in the Lost Cause as a means of absorbing the trauma of the war, these academics are obsessed with what might be described as the “Just Cause” theory, insisting that from Fort Sumter on it was all about “a new birth of freedom.”

David Krayden

Carleton Place, Ontario

(Re-enactor with the 5th Virginia Infantry, Co. K)

Harold Holzer replies: Impossible as it is to respond to all these interesting letters in but a few words, I can say only that this is exactly the kind of vigorous discussion we need going forward as we mark the Civil War sesquicentennial. I still think a national commission—with representatives from many sections—can only help. But one issue I maintain is simply beyond debate, much as die-hard Lost Cause advocates have long been insisting. Sorry, but as my friend James McPherson puts it, slavery caused secession and secession caused the war. To dismiss slavery as the predominant reason for the conflict is simply addled.

Eternal Hope

Thank you for the article on Captain James Hope (September 2010). My relative was in the 132nd Pennsylvania at Bloody Lane in Antietam, and Hope’s painting brought out the horror of that battle. I live 15 miles from Watkins Glen, N.Y., and went to the Glenwood Cemetery there to find Hope’s grave. Keep up the good work!

Chris Paul

Horseheads, N.Y.

A method to his madness?

It is widely accepted at face value that Dr. Luke Pryor Blackburn believed his plan to spread yellow fever in the North would work (“Partisan, Terrorist, Soldier, Spy,” May 2010). But has the possibility been considered that because of his past experience in managing yellow fever epidemics, he knew very well that the disease could not be contracted from infected clothing? Blackburn kept meticulous records and personally treated fever victims without becoming ill. So if he knew better, what were his motives for proceeding with this nefarious alleged scheme?

Blackburn likely understood the strategic value the threat of yellow fever epidemics would have. Biologic weapons only need to appear ready for actual use to succeed in creating fear, intimidation and leverage. Under the threat of mass civilian casualties, would the Lincoln administration have sued for peace with the South, as did the Japanese after the atomic bombings in World War II?

Dan Rush

Johnson City, Tenn.


Originally published in the November 2010 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.