Lee and His Cause:
The How and the Why of the War Between the States
by John Richard Deering (1907)
paperback; 183 pages
Confederate patriot, soldier, and preacher John Richard Deering accomplished a delicate task in his 1907 "Memorial Day" address: namely, the Reverend Doctor Deering succinctly expressed with great precision the exact causes of the War Between the States, presenting with clarity and, sometimes palpable dry humor, the facts of the conflict. The Confederate Reprint Company reprints his message, originally given on Robert E. Lee's birthday, in a very readable, 183-page paperback. Accelerated junior high readers through adults will find the basics of the war couched between the covers, in which Deering covers secession, the press, revisionist history, women's roles, Yankee duplicity, and the war itself.
Frankly, I immediately liked the preacher and his transparent style. He won me over with statements like this: "I am not concerned that this little book shall please everybody
. My ambition is to state facts, not to get money" (page 8). Rev. Deering further says he means not to compete with other more extensive and more costly titles about the war and the Federal Constitution, which are "little read and less understood" (page 7), but rather to simply answer some basic questions. It is important to remember that this address was delivered only 42 years after Appomattox when there were yet enough survivors of that war with clear memories who could subdue attempts at Yankee mythology and revisionist "history." Being now more than 140 years past that epoch, we even more so need this clear-thinking epistle to remind us of the truth:
The truth, the only antidote for the poison of falsehood, should be set to work at once, or the evil effects will become incurable. No time is to be lost. Soon the cemetery will hold us all. What shall be then thought of our cause and conduct will depend upon what we leave in the books of our era. Books live on. They should not misrepresent us or our dead. But think of the stream pouring from the press, a stream so strong and so full of ignorance of us, and of prejudice against us think of the political interests, and sectional rivalries, and financial superiority, and numerical preponderance, and commercial advantages, and the immense Governmental influence, all combined upon the successful side will posterity ever know who we were or why we fought? It all depends on what they read. This book is a soldier's small contribution of something reliable and readable (page 9).
Deering writes with a touch of sarcasm against injustice in the Reconstruction South where men who lived the history of the war "must not dare to write it" (page 16) and, instead, the histories presented in that era's schoolrooms were written by those who did not help to make the history. "Just why a man who wasn't born for a century after Lee had gone to God, will be able to see and know and describe him better than the one who camped, marched and fought under him, does not yet appear to me; but I believe it, of course, because I see it so often in the newspapers!" (page 16) Alas, freedom of the press seems to have taken a beating in Deering's time, too.
Turning back to the subject of the speech, Rev. Deering gives this warm description of "our hero," Robert Edward Lee:
As he stood in her (Virginia's) Convention to accept this trust (being named commander of all her troops), he was thus described: "Tall, straight, strong, brown-eyed, of gentle and benevolent countenance, and of remarkable beauty, of unaffected dignity and gravity. In robust health, and of almost boundless powers of endurance, a perfect and beautiful model of manhood.
He was a foe without hate, a friend without treachery, a soldier without cruelty and a victim without murmuring. He was a public officer without vices, a private citizen without wrong, a neighbor without reproach, a Christian without hypocrisy, and a man without guilt. He was Caesar without his ambition, Frederick without his tyranny, Napoleon without his selfishness, Washington without his reward. He was as obedient to authority as a servant, and as royal in authority as a king...." (pages 19-20)
Rev. Deering continues with several pages of authoritative descriptions of General Lee, quoting from people who knew and honored the peerless man, for whom "to know his duty was to do it" (page 27). The General was maligned by some but never sought to clear his name. Instead, he wrote, "My only object is to transmit the truth to posterity and to do justice to our brave soldiers" (page 34). Indeed, General Lee wrote to General Jubal A. Early in Mexico on 15 March 1866, referring to attacks made upon President Davis and himself: "The accusations against myself I have not thought proper to notice, or even to correct misrepresentations of my words and acts. We shall have to be patient, and suffer for a while at least; and all controversy, I think, will only serve to prolong angry and bitter feelings, and postpone the period when reason and charity may resume their sway" (page 34).
Some who read Lee and His Cause may be surprised at the facts presented: not all Southerners believed in secession or slavery, "but the war was something different; it was forced upon us, and it was for political self-preservation, 'For God, and Home, and native Land!' The war was for the very existence of sovereign States, for 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,' not to break up the Union. We had nothing against the Union, but very much against the party which was running the Federal Government" (page 39). And so, the war raged, forever changing land, culture, people, and the government. Supporting those who took up arms were "domestic legions" who furnished what the troops needed: "Women of whom the world was not worthy! These equipped up for the field and cared for us in the camp, cheered us to the battle and nursed us in the hospital. Why! The war furnished more trained nurses the first year than schools of christendom had in all her centuries!" (pages 45-46)
Deering notes that everyone in the South was involved in some way: "Oh! Its transforming power was marvelous. It made the old young, the weak strong, the sick well, the foreigner as the native, the sojourner as the citizen, or it made them get out of Dixie Land!
The very negroes shared the general feeling and hundreds went with young Marse to help whip 'Dem Yanks'" (page 46).
Next, Deering covers the right to secede, its history, and threats to use it, dating back to the end of the 18th Century of this right revisionist historians would have us ignorant: "The Confederate cause was as good as the support it had; it couldn't be so now, of course, for the case is altered, the law is different; the amendments are ratified and respected; but then the Constitution had not a line in it against secession, and all analogy favored it" (page 54). Deering thus begins an exhaustive accounting of attempt after attempt and threat after threat to secede most coming from Northern States, beginning with Rhode Island: "Rhode Island's ratification [of the U.S. Constitution] was on May 29th, 1790, and even at that late day, such was her fear of imperiling her precious sovereignty that she expressly reserved the right to withdraw again, if her welfare should require it; declaring 'that the powers of government may be reassumed by the people whensoever it shall be come necessary to their happiness'" (page 55). Consider Massachusetts' 1804 resolve, "That the annexation of Louisiana to the Union transcends the power of United States' government. It forms a new Confederacy, to which the States united by the former compact are not bound to adhere" (page 56). Connecticut's Governor Oliver Wolcott wanted the North to secede from the South upon Jefferson's election. In 1805, "New England patriots" considered breaking up the Union by way of a military coup. "Violent secession" advocate Josiah Quincy of Boston was endorsed by the House of Representatives in 1811, "provided only that it be done by sons of Massachusetts" (page 59). A year later, the governors of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut denounced the war with England and declared themselves free, refusing to send troops to fight the invasion. This "Hartford Convention" met in 1814, with the nation's capital in British hands, to consider disunion. It did not convey an ordinance of secession after Andrew Jackson's New Orleans' victory precluded the perceived need. The War of 1812 ended, and these New England States quietly resumed their status in the Union, but not before reasserting States' rights and the legality of secession:
If secession should become necessary by reason of the multiplied abuses of bad administration, it should if possible, be the work of peaceable times, and deliberate consent.... It is as much the duty of the State authorities to watch over the rights reserved as it is of the United States to exercise the powers delegated.... In case of deliberate, dangerous, and palpable infractions of the Constitution, affecting the sovereignty of the State and liberties of the people, it is not only the right but the duty of each State to interpose its authority for their protection (pages 61-62).
Fifty years later, such States decried similar Southern attempts, seemingly having some sort of politically expedient amnesia.
Deering's citations continue with more threats of dissolving the Union from Massachusetts and Ohio in 1842 due to the "coming power of the Southwest" (page 65), another Massachusetts threat in 1844 because of Texas' coming annexation, and yet another secession convention in Massachusetts in 1857. "In celebrating the glorious Fourth, July, 1854, [Abolitionist and Massachusetts journalist/publisher] William Lloyd Garrison 'publicly burned a copy of the United States Constitution with the words The Union must be dissolved'" (page 66). In 1861, "rabid" Massachusetts politician Wendel Phillips declared, "'The States that think their peculiar institutions require a separate government have a right to decide that question without appealing to you or me'
For long years after this, he supported every bloody attempt of government to deny to eleven sovereign States the very right that he himself had allowed" (page 67).
Deering rightly observes:
The right to secede, so freely asserted, and so strongly held by the North, was not prohibited by any word of the Constitution. In the "Articles of Confederation" it had been plainly denied. The last sentence in that document is this "That this Union be perpetual!" But the Constitution has no such declaration. The duration of the Union was left by its authors to the future free choice of the States that had voluntarily entered it....
The though of an actual secession from the Union by an aggrieved State may not have had any large place in the minds of those who made our Constitution, but the idea of failure in duty and of nullification of law did occur to some persons and a proposal to give Congress the power "to call forth the force of the Union against any member of it failing to fulfill its duty" was actually made and voted down" (pages 67, 71-72).
In considering how ludicrous it seemed for a war between States, George Mason asked rhetorically, "Will not the citizens of the invaded State assist one another, until they rise up as one man and shake off the Union altogether?" (page 72) Famous Federalist Alexander Hamilton, a man well-known for his desire for a strong, centralized national government, told the New York convention:
To coerce the State is one of the maddest projects that was ever devised. What picture does this idea present to our view? A complying State at war with a non-complying State: Congress marching the troops of one State into the bosom of another! Here is a nation at war with itself! Can any reasonable man be well disposed toward a government which makes war and carnage the only means of supporting itself? A government that can exist only by the sword? But can we believe that one State will ever suffer itself to be used as an instrument of coercion? The thing is a dream! It is impossible! (pages 72-73)
Would that it had been a dream. It would appear that Hamilton was an unacknowledged prophet.
Inevitably, slavery is tossed about in discussions of this war. As Deering puts it, "One owned the slaves and the other sold them to him" meaning the Southerner owned the slaves (or the majority of them by 1861), and the Northerner sold the slaves to him:
Slavery was not the cause of the war, 'any more than the tax on tea was the cause of the American revolution;' but it was the occasion of secession, for it was the matter that the Abolitionists could never let alone.... It had existed from the beginning in every colony and was popular in Massachusetts a century before the Declaration of Independence. Those pious people had bought cargoes of slaves of the Dutch, and had sold into bondage their Pequod Indian prisoners; but bye the bye, they found it more lucrative to trade their gin and rum for black men in Africa, and to sell these black cargoes to planters in the Carolinas and Georgia, and so it was done (page 92).
By the early 1830s, however, "when experience had shown slavery to be unprofitable in the North, and that free negroes were a 'dead-weight' and a nuisance among them,
we can see a strong antipathy developing for everything connected with slavery. Legislation now turned against it, and State by State, it was outlawed. The poor negro became himself an object of disgust, suspicion and petty persecution" (page 99). Deering outlines the persecution wrought upon former slaves by infamous "black laws," including arson fires, destruction of property, "Jim Crow" laws, and an incident in Boston, where "an Ethiopian pew-holder had his own pew-door nailed fast to keep him out for the awful crime of failing to 'change his skin.' In the great church of Dr. Storrs, no pew-deed might be made except 'to respectable white persons.' The color line was drawn as distinctly in Boston as in New Orleans!" (page 100) It might also be prudent to point out that at least eighty percent of Confederate soldiers, per Deering, owned no slaves, and many emancipated the ones they did have as soon as laws permitted it. On the other hand, U.S. General Ulysses Grant did own slaves, refusing to free them until after the War.
Deering provides an animated discussion of Protective Tariff Laws, Uncle Tom's Cabin and its author's later reversal of opinion, the teaching of the lawful doctrine of secession in national schools, specifically West Point Academy, the "wicked and awful rage" of Sherman, et. al, prisoner exchanges, the horrendous deaths of Confederate soldiers in Yankee prisons, and more. The book is thorough, well-rounded, meticulously documented, and easy to understand. It is recommended for all who care to understand the "late unpleasantness" and be instructed and corrected in heretofore false teachings.
reviewed by Deborah Deggs Cariker