Rumsfeld and the Civil War

As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld looked at the faces of the young soldiers before him, you could see him hesitate for an instant. Should he mention the Civil War? Should he draw the comparisons which seemed to obvious to him? After all, many of the young soldiers attending the Town Hall meeting in Baghdad were from the Confederate states. Would they appreciate comparisons to a war which their side lost? Would they understand what he was trying to say?

The Civil War, he told his listeners, was horrifically costly in terms of carnage. One thousand, two thousand, three thousand or more soldiers 'lost in two or three days.' Indeed, Rumsfeld understated the case. At the battle of Antietam, 23,000 men were killed, missing or wounded in a single day. President Lincoln's Democratic opponents accused him of cracking jokes and asking for a ribald song as he toured the battle afterwards.

Accustomed as we are to revering Lincoln as the greatest of presidents, it is surprising to read contemporary newspaper accounts which condemn him as an 'obscene jokester.' One New York journalist wrote that 'Lincoln is a barbarian and a buffoon.... [Lincoln's] face is a faithful chart of his soul, and his face is that of a demon, cunning, obscene, treacherous, lying and devilish.' And these were Yankee newspapers!

Rumsfeld told the young soldiers that even before the days of talk radio and 24 hour news stations, 'the debate [over the Civil War] was vigorous —— indeed I would say vicious."

The Secretary of Defense is undoubtedly aware of other parallels between the Civil War debate and our contemporary one, even if he forbore mentioning them at that time and for that audience.

Just as George W. Bush's opponents accuse him of rewarding his neocon friends with lavish contracts, some even suggesting that this was his primary purpose in going to war, so Lincoln's Democratic opponents believed that 'the Republican party have so thriven and fattened on this rebellion, and it has brought them such an overflowing harvest of power, patronage, offices, contracts and spoils....that they are in danger of forgetting that their country is bleeding and dying on their hands.'

Bush's opponents warn that his Administration is eroding civil liberties. So did Lincoln's foes. A Kentucky politician wrote that 'Since men see the best and quietest citizens in the country... mysteriously and suddenly snatched away without assignable cause, and kept in the mysterious confinement of a political Bastille, they cannot but feel that their own liberty is very precarious, and that any military whim or the malignity of a slanderous political enemy or a villainous detective may at any time work their ruin....' 

'The times are truly alarming,' he added. 'There is no knowing what coup d'état may be attempted by our well organized opponents with their secret societies, their limitless control of the national wealth, national arms and soldiers, their hordes of Negroes and detective spies, their subservient Congress and State Governors, and their general disregard of laws.'

The 'how dare you attack my patriotism' gambit is not an invention of the modern politician, either. Does this sound familiar? 'It is customary with [the Republicans] to pronounce every man disloyal who is opposed to Mr. Lincoln, and to the continuance of the present ferocious war.' At the 1864 Democratic convention, the Democratic Party adopted a 'peace platform,' which declared that the war had been a 'failure.' But their nominee was a military man —— handsome, dashing General George McClellan.

Newspaperman Horace Greeley, seldom a defender of Lincoln, recognized that the Democrats had more in common with the Confederates than with their fellow Yankees. As setback piled up upon setback, as the death toll mounted, Greeley wrote, 'Who does not see, that [Democratic candidate General McClellan's] fortunes rise as the country sinks, and that his chances would be brightened by his country's ruin?'

And, while Rumsfeld praised his audience for liberating 25 million Iraqis from a brutal despot, he might have been thinking of how the Democrats of Lincoln's day felt that liberating the slaves was not worth shedding American blood. One of the Democratic Party's greatest orators argued, 'We are not for propagating philanthropy at the point of the bayonet. We are not for wading through seas of blood in order to re—organize the whole social structure of the South.'

The less subtle Democrats pointed out that Lincoln was advancing a course that would bring on 'Negro Equality.' To be clear, this was, to the Democrats of that day, a terrible idea which would lead to 'universal anarchy and ultimate ruin.' General McClellan himself believed that the Republicans only wanted to free the slaves and give them the vote to keep 'permanent [Republican] control... through the votes of the ignorant slaves.' (This is one parallel which is not exact —— Democratic views on whether blacks owe loyalty to a particular political party have since been modified.)

Lincoln re—won the election with 55 percent of the popular vote, but he did considerably better among the soldiers in the field, who felt betrayed by the Democrat peace platform. One soldier wrote home, 'What! now lay down our arms and offer terms with traitors in arms against the United States government? Oh! no, no, no. The spirits of our murdered comrades would stand constantly before us, calling on us to avenge their death.'

The Democrats were on the wrong side of history then, just as they are on the wrong side of history today. Rumsfeld didn't say so in so many words. Instead he told the soldiers, "You're going to look back on this conflict, on these debates, these difficulties...and you're going to be proud of your service and you're going to say it was worth it."

Lona Manning is a freelance writer who was written about General George McClellan and the 1864 presidency.

As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld looked at the faces of the young soldiers before him, you could see him hesitate for an instant. Should he mention the Civil War? Should he draw the comparisons which seemed to obvious to him? After all, many of the young soldiers attending the Town Hall meeting in Baghdad were from the Confederate states. Would they appreciate comparisons to a war which their side lost? Would they understand what he was trying to say?

The Civil War, he told his listeners, was horrifically costly in terms of carnage. One thousand, two thousand, three thousand or more soldiers 'lost in two or three days.' Indeed, Rumsfeld understated the case. At the battle of Antietam, 23,000 men were killed, missing or wounded in a single day. President Lincoln's Democratic opponents accused him of cracking jokes and asking for a ribald song as he toured the battle afterwards.

Accustomed as we are to revering Lincoln as the greatest of presidents, it is surprising to read contemporary newspaper accounts which condemn him as an 'obscene jokester.' One New York journalist wrote that 'Lincoln is a barbarian and a buffoon.... [Lincoln's] face is a faithful chart of his soul, and his face is that of a demon, cunning, obscene, treacherous, lying and devilish.' And these were Yankee newspapers!

Rumsfeld told the young soldiers that even before the days of talk radio and 24 hour news stations, 'the debate [over the Civil War] was vigorous —— indeed I would say vicious."

The Secretary of Defense is undoubtedly aware of other parallels between the Civil War debate and our contemporary one, even if he forbore mentioning them at that time and for that audience.

Just as George W. Bush's opponents accuse him of rewarding his neocon friends with lavish contracts, some even suggesting that this was his primary purpose in going to war, so Lincoln's Democratic opponents believed that 'the Republican party have so thriven and fattened on this rebellion, and it has brought them such an overflowing harvest of power, patronage, offices, contracts and spoils....that they are in danger of forgetting that their country is bleeding and dying on their hands.'

Bush's opponents warn that his Administration is eroding civil liberties. So did Lincoln's foes. A Kentucky politician wrote that 'Since men see the best and quietest citizens in the country... mysteriously and suddenly snatched away without assignable cause, and kept in the mysterious confinement of a political Bastille, they cannot but feel that their own liberty is very precarious, and that any military whim or the malignity of a slanderous political enemy or a villainous detective may at any time work their ruin....' 

'The times are truly alarming,' he added. 'There is no knowing what coup d'état may be attempted by our well organized opponents with their secret societies, their limitless control of the national wealth, national arms and soldiers, their hordes of Negroes and detective spies, their subservient Congress and State Governors, and their general disregard of laws.'

The 'how dare you attack my patriotism' gambit is not an invention of the modern politician, either. Does this sound familiar? 'It is customary with [the Republicans] to pronounce every man disloyal who is opposed to Mr. Lincoln, and to the continuance of the present ferocious war.' At the 1864 Democratic convention, the Democratic Party adopted a 'peace platform,' which declared that the war had been a 'failure.' But their nominee was a military man —— handsome, dashing General George McClellan.

Newspaperman Horace Greeley, seldom a defender of Lincoln, recognized that the Democrats had more in common with the Confederates than with their fellow Yankees. As setback piled up upon setback, as the death toll mounted, Greeley wrote, 'Who does not see, that [Democratic candidate General McClellan's] fortunes rise as the country sinks, and that his chances would be brightened by his country's ruin?'

And, while Rumsfeld praised his audience for liberating 25 million Iraqis from a brutal despot, he might have been thinking of how the Democrats of Lincoln's day felt that liberating the slaves was not worth shedding American blood. One of the Democratic Party's greatest orators argued, 'We are not for propagating philanthropy at the point of the bayonet. We are not for wading through seas of blood in order to re—organize the whole social structure of the South.'

The less subtle Democrats pointed out that Lincoln was advancing a course that would bring on 'Negro Equality.' To be clear, this was, to the Democrats of that day, a terrible idea which would lead to 'universal anarchy and ultimate ruin.' General McClellan himself believed that the Republicans only wanted to free the slaves and give them the vote to keep 'permanent [Republican] control... through the votes of the ignorant slaves.' (This is one parallel which is not exact —— Democratic views on whether blacks owe loyalty to a particular political party have since been modified.)

Lincoln re—won the election with 55 percent of the popular vote, but he did considerably better among the soldiers in the field, who felt betrayed by the Democrat peace platform. One soldier wrote home, 'What! now lay down our arms and offer terms with traitors in arms against the United States government? Oh! no, no, no. The spirits of our murdered comrades would stand constantly before us, calling on us to avenge their death.'

The Democrats were on the wrong side of history then, just as they are on the wrong side of history today. Rumsfeld didn't say so in so many words. Instead he told the soldiers, "You're going to look back on this conflict, on these debates, these difficulties...and you're going to be proud of your service and you're going to say it was worth it."

Lona Manning is a freelance writer who was written about General George McClellan and the 1864 presidency.