Why the South Lives On

It was in this month, one hundred and fifty-seven years ago, that the Civil War ended. I have seen aficionados of both sides lament what happened, while they might argue over who was right, and what was lost.

I am not an aficionado of the Lost Cause Theory. While some defenders of Dixie claim the issue was states’ rights, the chief underlying cause of the war was slavery. In his "Cornerstone Speech" of March 21, 1861, Confederate VP Alexander H. Stephens' stated bluntly that slavery was the very foundation of Southern society. Four states: Mississippi, Texas, Georgia, and South Carolina, even listed slavery among their reasons for leaving.

Four states went further. Texas, Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina all issued additional documents, usually referred to as the “Declarations of Causes"…

Two major themes emerge in these documents: slavery and states' rights.  All four states strongly defend slavery while making varying claims related to states' rights. -- Battlefields.org

The usual reply is that the South rejected the proposed Corwin Amendment which would have protected slavery in the south; hence, the issue was states’ rights.

The problem with that argument is that the South did not want slavery to be “protected.” Rather, the South wanted slavery to expand to the Pacific. They wanted New Mexico, Arizona, and even Southern California to allow slavery. In their minds, the Corwin Amendment wasn’t enough.

The Arizona Territory voted to join the Confederacy in March 1861, but it wasn’t until 1862 that the territorial government got around to officially proclaiming it part of the Confederate States of America. -- History

One group even wanted to expand slavery throughout the Caribbean.

In 1854 a small group of pro-slavery sympathizers formed the Knights of the Golden Circle, a secret society whose goal it was to create a vast new empire for slavery -- one that traced a “golden circle” from the deep South through Mexico, Central America, parts of South America, and the Caribbean. -- Smitsonian Associates

On more than one occasion, a Tennessee-born mercenary named William Walker tried to set up slaveowner republics in  Latin America. The idea of extending slavery was not some fanciful discussion over mint juleps.

For a region that claimed to love states’ rights, the South was furious when the North exercised “states’ rights” by forbidding the transit of slaves across their territories…that is, until the Dred Scott decision, which overruled Northern sensibilities. So much for states’ rights.

States’ rights was not the underlying cause. In a way, the Civil War was a collision of cultures: free vs. slave…to paraphrase Lincoln. But there is still much more to it.

I am utterly amazed how much how media downplays the casualties, especially concerning the South. We are told the Civil War was terrible, but not just how terrible it really was.

So let’s do a back-of-the-envelope calculation, a technique made famous by the physicist Enrico Fermi, who demonstrated how much can be gleaned by just simple logic.

At the start of the Civil War, there were 9 million people in the South.

In the Confederacy, the population was listed as 5.5 million free and 3.5 million enslaved… -- National Park Service

Of that 9 million, only 5.5 million were white.

Of those 5.5 million whites, half or 2.75 million, were male.

Of the 2.75 million, roughly half were either too old or too young… leaving roughly only 1.4 million available for the draft.

Remember, these were a rural people, given to large families, probably leaning to a lot of young’uns. This is not a far-fetched conclusion. Historically, fertility does not drop until people are urbanized.

Of that 1.4 million, probably 30% or more were unfit due to health reasons or from legitimate exemptions.

So, in theory, the South could only muster roughly a million men at the maximum. In practice, the South mustered 880,000 men, very close to the absolute maximum it could have. Other sources list higher numbers. When gender, age, and health are factored in, about one-fifth or one-sixth of any population is all that is available to fight. And the South came close to the theoretical limit.

The National Park Service lists the Confederate casualty rate as:

94,000 killed in battle

164,000 diseases

194,026 wounded in action

31,000 prisoners of war

Remember that a lot of those wounded men were seriously maimed for life. Modern reconstructive surgery did not exist in the 19th century.

Now, reflect that almost half of the theoretical limit were killed, wounded, or died of disease.

Also note that recent historiography seems to indicate that, the deeper one looks, the higher the numbers become. Add in post-war starvation, disease, etc. My educated guess is that these newer numbers are still low.

By combing through newly digitized census data from the 19th century, J. David Hacker, a demographic historian from Binghamton University in New York, has recalculated the death toll and increased it by more than 20 percent -- to 750,000…

It helps you understand, particularly in the South with a much smaller population, what a devastating experience this was.”

-- New York Times (2012)

These were the men who carry on a culture, a civilization. The old rarely reproduce, while those under 14 are not yet fully educated in the civilization that they are going to carry on. Those who are sick may reproduce, but often they do not -- certainly less so in the pre-antibiotic 19th century.

So the 880,000, or higher, who went out to fight under the Stars and Bars were close to being all that was available to carry on Southern culture… and roughly one-third -- quite possibly more -- did not come back fit enough, or did not come back at all.

Essentially, an intermediate generation came close to being wiped out. Had the Southern casualties been just a slight bit worse, any Southern cultural distinctives -- and I am not even considering race relations -- would have been lost.

Children, especially the sons, learn from their fathers. And if one-third to one-half of them do not make it home in good condition, who transmits the culture?

The women? Well, maybe to the daughters. But who instructs the sons?

It would have been Northern troops and/or Northern men who migrated down South to fill in the gaps. Catastrophes like this are precisely how nations are seriously changed.

Devastation of such magnitude eventually forced the Highland Scots and the Irish to lose their Gaelic tongue. It is why the Welsh now speak English for the most part.

Had the South fought on for just a few months more -- against incredible odds, with the North getting ever stronger as the South got weaker -- the casualties would have approached genocidal levels. Genocide not necessarily in the sense of population destruction, but in the sense of cultural destruction, which is an accepted definition.

Now, I am not a fan of the Confederacy, and some of the apologists for the Lost Cause drive me nuts with their easily refutable defense of secession. However, as one examines the Civil War and the Reconstruction, I am amazed that the South, as a distinct American subculture, survived at all.

I am amazed that a more thorough population replacement did not occur. Credit has to be given to Southern women for hanging tough on that. Lesser females would have collapsed under the strain.

This, more than anything else, more than racism -- though racism does exist in the South, as elsewhere -- explains why it will be impossible to wring Neo-Confederate sympathies out of many Southerners. It explains why so many respect Confederate monuments, and were opposed to their dismantling.

Consider the King Arthur legends which bemoan the Anglo-Saxon conquest of Celtic Britain 1600 years ago, hoping for a future Celtic King to return.

The historic figure of Arthur as a victorious fifth-century warrior, leading [Celtic] Britons into battle against Saxon invaders… BBC

It is why Scotland erected monuments to William Wallace centuries after England had won the contest.

Finally, consider how many of those Southerners are descended from those Scots and Welsh, and one may anticipate the legends of Confederate heroes will linger on, long after our woke leadership has gone back to sleep… should the Lord tarry. 

Again, I am not a fan of the Confederacy, but I can understand why it holds such an appeal to so many.

Mike Konrad is the pen name of a writer who wishes he had paid more attention in his Spanish class, lo those many decades ago.

Image: Pixabay

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