'Long May the Battle Flag Wave'

A Defense of the Confederate Cause
Published: 1995-03-01

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Thomas DiLorenzo is professor of economics at Loyola College in Baltimore, and an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute (Auburn, Ala. 36849-5301). This essay is reprinted from the October 1994 issue of The Free Market, a monthly newsletter published by the Mises Institute.

The NAACP is threatening to boycott South Carolina businesses unless the state permanently furls the Confederate battle flag in the state capital of Columbia. The threat has rallied passionate supporters of the flag who see it not as a salute to slavery, but as a symbol of other aspects of the Southern heritage that all Americans should be proud of.

The average Confederate infantry soldier was not a slave owner and did not fight and die to preserve this institution. As Charles Adams points out in his book For Good and Evil, slavery is a most unlikely reason for the start of the War Between the States. In his first inaugural address Abraham Lincoln promised that he would not disturb slavery; abolition never appeared in the platform of any major political party; the Supreme Court upheld slavery in the 1857 Dred Scott decision.

In his famous response to Daniel Webster's defense of the union, John C. Calhoun offered three rationales for secession: fear that the new territories would side with the North and out-vote the South on economic issues, fear of the unconstrained and unconstitutional growth of the federal government, and oppressive taxation that disproportionately harmed the South. Slavery was not one of the rationales. "The institution of slavery," historians Charles and Mary Beard wrote in the 1929 classic, The Rise of American Civilization, "was not a fundamental issue during the epoch preceding the bombardment of Fort Sumter."

Evidence of what the average Southerner did fight for is found in historian James McPherson's new book, What They Fought For, 1861-1865. McPherson read more than 25,000 letters and 100 diaries of soldiers from both sides in the War Between the States to try to understand what, in their own words, these young men thought they were fighting for.

"These were the most literate armies in history to that time," McPherson writes. Their median age was 24; most of them had voted in the 1860 election, "the most heated and momentous election in American history." And they were voracious readers of newspapers who frequently engaged in ideological debates and expressed strong political opinions in their letters and diaries.

McPherson concludes that most Confederates "fought for liberty and independence from what they regarded as a tyrannical government." A young Virginia officer wrote his mother that the North's "war of subjugation against the South" was comparable to "England's war upon the colonies" and that he thought of the war as a "second War for American Independence."

An enlisted man in a Texas cavalry regiment wrote his sister that just as their forefathers had rebelled against King George III to "establish liberty and freedom in this western world ... so we dissolved our alliance with this oppressive foe and are now enlisted in 'The Holy Cause of Liberty and Independence' again."

An Alabama corporal who was taken prisoner at Gettysburg proclaimed he was fighting for "the same principles which fired the hearts of our ancestors in the revolutionary struggle." A soldier who was killed at Chancellorsville viewed the war as "a struggle between Liberty on one side, and Tyranny on the other." The letters of many Confederate soldiers "bristled with rhetoric of liberty and self government," McPherson found, coupled with "a willingness to die for the cause."

Confederate soldiers also believed they were defending their country against foreign invaders. In the words of a Union army officer from Illinois, "We are fighting for the Union ... a high and noble sentiment, but ... they are fighting for independence and are animated by passion and hatred against invaders."

And for good reason: although there were many atrocities committed by both sides in the war, it was the South whose civilians were pillaged and plundered by an invading army. During Sherman's march through South Carolina, "Columbia was ... burning fiercely, in more than a dozen places simultaneously," writes Shelby Foote in his trilogy, The Civil War. "Cotton Town, a section of poorer homes" was "put to the torch" along with "stores and houses along the river front."

"One object of special wrath was the Baptist church where the South Carolina secession convention had first assembled," writes Foote, "but the burners were foiled by a Negro they asked for directions." He was "the sexton of the church they sought and he pointed out a rival Methodist establishment ... which soon was gushing flames from all its windows." Also gushing with flames was "the nearby Ursuline convent, whose Mother Superior was known to be the sister of ... an outspoken secessionist."

Rampaging Union soldiers "hurried from block to block, carrying wads of turpentine-soaked cotton for setting fire to houses ... while others used their rifles to bayonet hoses and cripple pumpers brought into play by the civilian fire department." When the sun finally rose on the morning of February 18, 1865, "two-thirds of Columbia lay in ashes."

"Agonized mothers, seeking their children," were "rushing on all sides from the raging flames and falling houses" as "invalids had to be dragged from their beds, and lay exposed to the flames and smoke," wrote E.A. Pollard in The Lost Cause.

In Sherman's March, Burke Davis writes that "black women of the city suffered terribly," many of them being "left in a condition little short of death" after regiments of Union troops subjected these women to "the tortures of their embraces." Southerners understood that the Confederate army – and its battle flag – was all that stood between them and debauchery and destruction.

Since the battle flag represents a fight against high taxes and centralized government, every freedom-loving American should honor it. South Carolina, don't tear it down!

"If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind ...

"The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it.

"If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error."
—John Stuart Mill, Essay On Liberty

Additional information about this document
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Author(s): Thomas Dilorenzo
Title: 'Long May the Battle Flag Wave', A Defense of the Confederate Cause
Sources: The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 15, no. 2 (March/April 1995), pp. 34f.; reprinted from The Free Market, October 1994.
Published: 1995-03-01
First posted on CODOH: Dec. 17, 2012, 6 p.m.
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