The First To Secede

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After 1890 such obfuscations came to rule the day. Some old Confederates were appalled. In 1907 John Singleton Mosby, a Virginia cavalry leader known as “the Gray Ghost” of the Confederacy, wrote in “disgust” about these attempts: “The South went to war on account of Slavery. South Carolina went to war—as she said in her Secession Proclamation—because slavery would not be secure under Lincoln. South Carolina ought to know what was the cause for her seceding.” He pointed out that the future Confederate president hardly favored states’ rights when “in February, 1860, Jeff Davis offered a bill in the Senate which passed making all the territories slave territory,” regardless of the sentiment of their inhabitants.

But this reasonable voice went unheeded. During the nadir of race relations, that terrible era from 1890 to about 1940 when racism surged to its highest level in white America, Northern historians offered little opposition as neo-Confederates rewrote the past. Now the Civil War became the “War between the States,” a term no one had used during the conflict, and secession was for—rather than against—states’ rights. In the wake of this disinformation campaign, the Confederacy appeared gallant in defeat. Anyone who had ever had a dispute with the Internal Revenue Service could identify with such a David against the federal Goliath.

So it is that today reenactments boast two to four times as many men in gray as in blue. So it is that candidates run for—and even win—office who argue that secession is an American tradition worth reviving. And so it is that just one of the 100 questions on the U.S. history exam required today of persons seeking citizenship has two “correct” answers—“slavery” and “states’ rights”—even though the latter is counterfactual, as South Carolina so clearly demonstrated 150 years ago.