6 Civil War Myths Everyone Believes That Are Total B.S.
Ever since the election of Barack Obama, some politicians have thrown around talk about secession from the Union -- aka, launching a sequel to the Civil War. But even before that, one got the sense that the war was a wound that never healed -- America has seen endless controversy over groups who still insist on rallying around the Confederate flag, for instance.
We might be going out on a limb here, but we're guessing that most of our readers aren't hardcore Civil War historians. And since VH-1 discontinued their I Love the ... series before they got around to the 1860s, a lot of us are walking around with Civil War misinformation firmly wired in our brains. Now is as good a time as ever to clear up some of those myths. Such as ...
The Emancipation Proclamation Ended Slavery in the United States
It only makes sense that we'd think of the Emancipation Proclamation as the law that freed the slaves; "emancipation" is right there in the title. It's like calling something the "Patriot Act" and then not legislating that everyone wear American flags capes, festoon their cars with airbrushed bald eagles and sing that Lee Greenwood song at dinner every night. Of course the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves. What else would it do?
"The right to vote? Don't push it, guys."
Why it's Bullshit:
It freed some of them. Thanks to a loophole, about a million individuals were still legally slaves after the EP (there were about four million slaves in captivity at the time; it declared three million of them free). The loophole was that the proclamation only applied to states and territories "in rebellion against the United States." In short, if you were a slave in Delaware, Kentucky or even the recently-captured Confederate territories of New Orleans or Tennessee ... sorry, but your freedom-princess was in another castle.
"You got an emancipation proclamation! Collect four pieces total. More documents mean more freedom!"
Why did Lincoln only go half-way? Because as far as political waffling goes, the Emancipation Proclamation was Lincoln's masterpiece. Yes, Lincoln personally detested slavery, but abolition was still a touchy subject on account of four border states remaining loyal to the Union while still being hardcore slave states. There was also the matter of turning the war into a crusade to end slavery, which frankly was not the kind of thing your average Northerner would gladly have his head exploded over.
Other touchy subjects include socialized health care, evolution and sweeping generalizations.
In Lincoln's own words, "I would do it if I were not afraid that half the officers would fling down their arms and three more states would rise."
Lincoln: Just wanted to get home from the office early and have a bit of a sit down, really.
If this sounds out of character for the side that was trying to rescue Africans from bondage, we have to address another myth ...
The North Was Anti-Racism
Ask a Southern Civil War enthusiast what the Civil War was really about, and he will probably give you one answer: States' rights. Ask anybody else and they'll probably give you another answer: Slavery. And if you think we're diving into that shitstorm here and now, you're mistaken. But it does reveal something about how most of us perceive the Civil War -- that the North was on the right side of history because they understood the fundamental truth that all men, no matter what color, were created equal.
"As long as they don't rub it in our faces and take all our jobs."
Why it's Bullshit:
The North was so prejudice that white people acutally discriminated against other white people. So you can bet that life was not a bowl of cherries for nonwhites. And for blacks, the 19th century was nothing but a bowl of crap, no matter where you lived.
And we can bet this is not the milk of human kindness.
True, the North had a larger number of abolitionists and progressives, but they also had blatantly racist laws preventing free black people from actually getting rights as citizens. And also, lynch mobs. Which was why it was the North, not the South, that hosted the country's most violent race riot in history. What started out as a protest against the Union's draft policy, ended as a full-on assault on any African-Americans unfortunate enough to exist and get caught.
Back in those days, freed blacks were exempt from the draft, probably so they could put more time into putting out their racially motivated house fires. This exemption didn't sit well with poor whites who couldn't afford the $300 to buy their way out of the draft -- and by "didn't sit well" we mean "infuriated to the point of a frenzied rage." By the end of the four-day riot, at least 11 blacks were lynched throughout Manhattan, hundreds more were assaulted and a children's orphanage was burned to the ground. It took no less than 4,000 federal troops fresh from Gettysburg to subdue the insurrection. New York City's black residents were so terrorized by the riots that by 1865, the black population plunged to the lowest it had been in 45 years.
"Sunny, south-facing house in a friendly suburb. Nonsmoking tenants preferred, who don't mind the occasional burning cross in the front garden."
And if you're thinking the Draft Riots were one little blip in an otherwise happy and racially harmonic region, try again. Town Line, New York, successfully seceded from the Union altogether during the war and were not readmitted to the nation until ... no joke, 1946.
The Confederate Flag Looked Like This
While the U.S. is likely to continue debating the display of the Confederate flag on everything from mudflaps to prom dresses ...
... it is reassuring to know that your average Connecticut Yankee and Confederate apologist can still agree on one thing: what the Confederate flag looked like.
It is now most often used by white bearded supremacists.
Why it's Bullshit:
The first Confederate flag was the "Stars and Bars" flag, which served as their official standard until 1863. It originally showed seven stars (and later 13) despite the fact that there were only 11 states in the Confederacy. These last two stars represented Kentucky and Missouri, states the South really wanted to secede but never got around to it. In short, these states were imaginary.
The "Stars and Bars" flag, also known as "Ol' Futility."
However, this flag ended up looking too much like the American flag on the battlefield, and by 1862 Confederates were already grumbling for a new flag that was as "unlike as possible to the Stars and Stripes of the United States." Their solution was a second design that incorporated the square "Battle Flag" of the Army of Northern Virginia onto a brilliant white sheet that would have made any white supremacist proud. However, in yet another fine example of Southern ingenuity, this "Stainless Banner" looked a lot like a flag of surrender. After two more years, it was dumped for being "too white" even by a slave-owning society's standards.
On March 4, 1865, with the war nearly over, the Confederate Congress decided "whatever" and adopted a third and final flag: "the Blood Stained Banner." It was the same as the previous design except with a vertical red bar so that it would not be confused with the actual flags of surrender the Confederates would start flying one month later. According to your most die-hard imaginary Confederate armies today, this third flag "is still the official flag of the Confederacy."
"Ol' Running out of Ideas."
Now, we know what you're thinking: What the hell is that "Confederate flag" everyone keeps fighting over today? It's a dark blue variant of the Second Confederate Navy Jack. Although occasionally used on the battlefield as just one of countless regimental colors, this particular version enjoyed renewed popularity after its use by several "Rebel Companies" in the Pacific during WWII. Now completely misunderstood throughout the country today, this flag endures as a powerful symbol to how little the South should be trusted with their own Civil War history.
It was the Bloodiest War In American History
Here's a fun experiment: Google the phrase "bloodiest American war." We did, and the phrase "Civil War" popped up on the page no less than 16 times. That's three time more than "Revolutionary War," "World War I" and "World War II" ... combined.
And about 2000 more times than the Whiskey Rebellion, although the details get a bit fuzzy about that.
Why it's Bullshit:
More Americans actually died in the battles of World War II than during the Civil War. Now, this is not to suggest that the Civil War was not bloody; it was. But "only" 207,000 American lives were lost on the battlefield (as opposed to the nearly 300,000 who died in combat during WWII) while 414,000 of the Civil War casualties died simply because the mid-19th century was a terrible time for five million men to go camping for six months.
Had they been counted, fashion victims would have made up 40 percent of confederate losses.
Medicine in the 19th century was so medieval it might as well have walked around in a tunic and leggings while strumming a lute. Add in all of the soldiers who died of disease or infections during the war and you get a horrific 625,000 lives lost. So for every one soldier who died in battle, two more died of sickness.
You have to remember that back then, learning to be a doctor was like learning to be a plumber -- most American physicians learned their trade by attending a couple of lectures and then apprenticing with an older doctor. And at a time when even the best doctors in the world had a shaky understanding of the spread of disease, it was no wonder that barely trained field medics struggled with everything from cholera to smallpox to the runs.
"All right men, for maximum realism, I'll battle on heroically while you shit yourself and die."
Speaking of the runs, dysentery and diarrhea alone affected 78 percent of the troops annually. Germ theory, sanitized instruments, the whole concept of not drinking toilet water were all innovations that would come along too late to help the victims of the Civil War.
"In honor of my forefathers, I will lick this delicious food off the floor. For freedom."
If the South Had Done ___________, They Would Have Won
Not to be confused with the popular myth regarding Hank Williams, Jr.'s life prospects had the South actually won ...
... this myth goes something like this: With generals like Robert E. Lee, Southern pride and all those fields of cotton on their side, the Confederates should have won the war, had it not been for a few minor blunders.
Why it's Bullshit:
The South never, ever had a chance of winning the Civil War. Never.
It all came down to a numbers game, starting with population. The North had a population of 22 million against the South's 9.1 million which included the slaves.
The North rejected repeated offers to "settle this like men via cotton pick off."
The Union possessed a navy the South couldn't touch, industry and armaments the South couldn't match, currency backed up in California gold, and women not encumbered by hoop skirts so wide you could hide 30 children under them.
"Oh darn it, I've lost Kevin again."
Now, this is not meant to suggest that there weren't some close calls for the Union throughout the war -- there were. But the U.S. government had already been through several wars the past fourscore years while the Confederate government was never able to get their shit together. While the Union had transformed Washington, D.C., into the most fortified city on the planet, the Rebels were still fighting over what flag to use.
"Well, the red says 'we're fighting for our freedom,' but the stars say 'we're doing it flamboyantly.' Tough choice."
When the threat of foreign intervention cropped up, Lincoln threw ambassadors like John Quincy Adams' son at the Europeans while the Confederates had nothing to offer but peach cobbler and the overuse of "y'all." In short, the South never stood a chance against the Union politically, militarily or diplomatically.
But what about the brilliant strategy? Didn't they have Robert E Lee and all those guys? Well ...
The American Civil War Was Defined by Brilliant Generals and Strategy
How many Dodge Chargers have you seen running around sporting Union flags and blasting The Battle Hymn of the Republic? And of those zero, how many were christened The General George McClellan? You know a commander had to be spectacular to get his name slapped on the getaway car of moonshine running Southern outlaws.
Why it's Bullshit:
General Lee aside, both the North and the South had their share of dumbass generals, and the case has been made that the Confederates had the larger share, which is not too surprising when you consider that they lost.
The biggest problem was that the military elites from both the North and South were educated in old school battle techniques, but were firing off state of the art weaponry. Which meant they were still lining up and squaring off against each other in battle, but instead of shooting Revolutionary War muskets, they were shooting longer ranged rifles and the very first machine guns. Which made as much sense as taking grenades to a water gun fight -- one where no one shows up with water balloons. And why early Civil War battles like Shiloh killed more soldiers than every war in American history up to that point put together ... in just two days.
"I can't help thinking we're not using these guns very efficiently."
But better guns coupled with opposing soldiers so close they could foxtrot together wasn't the only problem for the generals. Both the North and South executed some bafflingly stupid strategies that cost the lives of thousands of men. Like when Robert E. Lee ordered Major General George Pickett to lead over 12,000 soldiers across an open field and into the
loving arms firing rifles of Union soldiers, getting half of his men killed on the spot. Or when Union commander George B. McClellan became one of the few commanders in U.S. history to desert his troops not once or twice, but three times on the battlefield.
When clouds cover the sky, and America is in dire need of a hero, they say his statue comes to life and runs away.
Seriously, with friends like that, who needs anything other than a last will and testament?
When not writing about history for Cracked, Jacopo writes about history for Wordplague, a collective of artists and Cracked writers. Their book is available for Kindle here. All proceeds go to the charity, Kiva.org
For more misconceptions that need to be corrected, check out 6 Things From History Everyone Pictures Incorrectly and 6 Ridiculous History Myths (You Probably Think Are True).
And stop by Linkstorm to learn a delicious recipe for peach cobbler.
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