That Flag

PrintPrintEmailEmail

In fact, many of the South’s leaders—particularly those in the congressional delegation and state government of South Carolina—were badly disappointed when Brown’s foray into Harpers Ferry did not immediately lead to secession. By December of 1859 they were actively weaving their own plot to sunder the Union.

Their conspiracy centered on an anti-slavery book, The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It , by one Hinton Rowan Helper. Helper was, ironically, both a North Carolinian and a ferocious racist, whose argument against slavery was based on the claim that it hurt the South’s small white farmers. Helper’s book was vociferously denounced throughout the South—and endorsed by sixty-eight congressmen from the fledgling Republican party, including Ohio’s John Sherman.

Sherman would claim that he had endorsed the book without actually knowing what it said. This may well have been true. Throughout his long and successful career in the House and Senate, Sherman seems to have often been gloriously unaware of what was done in his name, including such major pieces of legislation as the Sherman Antitrust Act and the Sherman Silver Act. Or he may have simply been trying to withdraw his endorsement because, thanks to a Democratic-party split, he had a chance to be elected Speaker of the House.

The flag has at least re-created the civil-rights-era coalition of blacks and white businesspeople.

The South’s congressional delegations made it plain that they would try to block the ascension of any man who had endorsed The Impending Crisis . William Porcher Miles, a prosecession congressman from Charleston, announced that South Carolina’s legislature should go one step further and pass legislation that would force its representatives to resign from the House should Sherman be elected.

However, as Steven A. Channing traces in his prizewinning Crisis of Fear: Secession in South Carolina , Miles was playing an even deeper game. Correspondence between the congressman and South Carolina’s governor, William Gist, discloses that Miles and others considered seizing control of the House chamber if Sherman was chosen and “ejecting the speaker elect by force.”

Governor Gist replied that he preferred “a bloodless revolution” or at least one that “should begin in sudden heat & with good provocation rather than a deliberate determination to perform an act of violence which might prejudice us in the eyes of the world.”

These qualms aside, Gist made it clear that he would support whatever Miles chose to do: “If however, you upon consideration decide to make the issue of fire in Washington, write or telegraph me, & I will have a Regiment in or near Washington in the shortest possible time.”

Here is an opportunity for the alternative historians: a Civil War that begins with a coup on the floor of the House, backed by a regiment of South Carolina militia rushed to the capital. As it happened, the plot fizzled when Sherman failed to win election. Instead, South Carolina’s leading politicians set themselves to wrecking the Democratic party, something they succeeded in doing the following year at its national convention, conveniently held in Charleston. The result was the election of Lincoln, secession, and the most terrible war in America’s history, a war that would end with John Sherman’s brother, William Tecumseh, burning his way through South Carolina.

Why were so many leading Southerners so eager to wreck the Union and risk a war that was always at best a desperate gamble? The awful effects of a slave society must have been obvious to any intelligent Southerner; one need only read Mary Chesnut’s revulsion at living on her father-in-law’s South Carolina plantation, surrounded by slaves who were her husband’s half-brothers and -sisters.

The South’s leaders could not all have failed to see what slavery was doing to all their people. They simply could not see how to do without it. They thought instead that they could switch flags to compensate for their lack of vision—and ended up leading hundreds of thousands of brave young men to their deaths.

Is this flag, then, an appropriate memorial to the South’s heritage? Well, if the compromises currently being floated fail to take, one might make the argument that the South’s Civil War dead are already well commemorated by the monuments in every Southern town.