What if Robert E. Lee had been hanged?

I’m currently reading the biography of Grant by Chernow, and I’ve just gotten to Appomattox. It was kind of distressing reading. Robert E. Lee shows up all stuffy and pompous, and Grant is all charitable and humane, and everyone from Lincoln on down to the press and the Washington establishment, and apparently, Chernow, (all white folks, by the way) are patting each other on the back about how the generous terms given to the traitors will lead to reconciliation and unity, while I’m reading this from the perspective of the 21st century. I can’t help but think, given the century and a half of abuses and oppression, that maybe, rather than a grand gesture of forgiveness, it was all a terrible mistake. Maybe Lee and his generals should have been arrested and imprisoned, maybe even hanged. Maybe the tabled suggestion to restructure the borders and governments of the Confederate states should have been implemented. Maybe the much-praised gentleness of Lincoln and Grant at the end of the war was an overly kind gift to a nation of racists and terrorists that allowed the “original sin” of the United States to fester anew.

I’m finding it disconcerting that the account of the war itself praised Grant’s strategy of total war, and Sherman’s and Sheridan’s ruthless actions to bring an end to the conflict as quickly as possible, yet we abruptly switch to nothing but confidence that the conciliatory approach was the best way to handle the victory. It smacks of hagiography. It has led to a situation where Southern cities maintain celebratory statues of traitors, and name streets and parks and schools after them, and a still divided country where racism is tolerated.

What if, instead of trials, the perpetrators of Nazi atrocities had instead been embraced and forgiven, and even praised for their administrative and military skill, all in the name of smoothing over the transition to peace? Because that’s what we did, and the historians and biographers are still reassuring us that what we did in America was the wisest choice.

I haven’t gotten to Chernow’s discussion of the Grant presidency or Reconstruction yet, so maybe there’ll be a more balanced discussion of the failings of America’s post-war policies to come. Right now it’s all very Whiggish, and I’m feeling less impressed with Chernow.

Imagine a Federal leadership that had Lee sign his surrender at Appomattox, and then slapped irons on his wrists, put him in a wagon with bars, and shipped the racist slave-holding traitor off to trial in Washington. We’d be a better country now, I think, with precedent set.

I think I need to read a black scholar’s perspective on the Civil War, because these pleasant reassurances that our country did the right thing aren’t so reassuring any more.


  1. PaulBC says

    I don’t have an answer, but it raises an interesting question about human psychology. Do we view John Brown as a martyr because he was hanged? Brown’s legacy is actually pretty complicated. I have no problem seeing him as a hero. He certainly fought on the right side of history even if he failed. But it is hard to find a lot of people who really hold him up as a model of virtue (some to be sure). Now if his raid had started a war in which he eventually participated in a more regular capacity and won, he would have a very different and more favorable legacy.

    Would Lee have been made a martyr by hanging? To some, but on the other hand, going off into peaceable retirement as a Southern “gentleman” makes him seem better in retrospect than if he had been hanged. Sadly, most people interpret punishment as proof of the crime and impunity as proof of innocence. So, yuck, I am against capital punishment, but all other things equal I speculate we’d live in a better nation if John Brown had somehow fled and wrote pamphlets but Lee had been hanged as a traitor. I would unequivocally support his exile to some remote place where he would not be permitted to publish his views.

    Mengele and Pinochet, among others, escaped justice, and we’re worse off for it.

  2. starfleetdude says

    FWIW, Henry Wirz, the commanding officer at the infamous Andersonville, GA POW camp, was executed after the end of the U.S. Civil War.

    As for the Nuremburg trials, sure, most of the top Nazi figures were executed. However the U.S. did not forbid former Nazis from holding positions in the West German government after the war, and while this was perhaps repugnant Germany in the end didn’t suffer for it.

  3. colinday says

    But after the first round of trials at Nuremburg, the Allies were more forgiving. Operation Paperclip.

  4. brucegee1962 says

    The problem is, any reasonable crime that we could have charged Lee with, also would have applied to every single slave-owner who joined the Confederate cause. Of course, it’s true they were all guilty of treason, but we can hardly blame the Union for not wanting to end the war by dedicating themselves to years more of bloodletting.

    Of course, that isn’t to say that there couldn’t have been a better middle ground besides “carry on with slavery in all but the name” that we got under Johnson. Hanging seems a bit much, but confiscation and redistribution of property would’ve been entirely fair at the time.

  5. PaulBC says

    However the U.S. did not forbid former Nazis from holding positions in the West German government after the war, and while this was perhaps repugnant Germany in the end didn’t suffer for it.

    And Wernher von Braun, an unrepentant Nazi complicit in the use of slave labor in extermination camps, was rehabilitated as an avuncular figure of the US space program. He’s even portrayed favorably in a brief scene in the move October Sky (!999) at a point in time far enough removed from both WWII and the Cold War that we really ought to know better.

  6. starfleetdude says

    And because this never gets old, here’s a golden oldie:

    Gather ’round while I sing you of Wernher von Braun
    A man whose allegiance
    Is ruled by expedience
    Call him a Nazi, he won’t even frown
    “Ha, Nazi, Schmazi” says Wernher von Braun

    Don’t say that he’s hypocritical
    Say rather that he’s apolitical
    “Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
    That’s not my department” says Wernher von Braun

  7. says

    It wasn’t just Operation Paperclip. A lot of important figures under Hitler became important figures in the postwar regime. One that stands out is Reinhard Gehlen. He was head of the Wehrmacht FHO, the intelligent unit that dealt with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. He leveraged the information the FHO collected, and the intelligence assets that continued to operate in Soviet controlled territory, into a role with the US postwar. He eventually became the first head of the BND, West Germany’s foreign intelligence agency. There were also people like Erich Hartmann, the fighter pilot with the most shootdowns ever, 352, who became a high ranking officer in the postwar Luftwaffe.

  8. starfleetdude says


    The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. weren’t at all hesitant to seize as much German military technology as they could, and ballistic missiles, unlike jet aircraft, was something only the Germans possessed.

    But the civilian government of Germany, after an initial period of de-Nazification efforts, never really excluded former Nazis. Here’s more about that:


  9. consciousness razor says

    What if Robert E. Lee had been hanged?

    I thought you were against capital punishment. Whatever the manifestos may say, it doesn’t sound humanistic or SJWish to me.
    If Lee had been hanged in 1865, he wouldn’t have died in 1870 of natural causes. And there would still have been hundreds of thousands killed in that horrible war.

  10. PaulBC says

    consciousness razor@9

    PZ’s question poses a false dichotomy, but was there justice in leaving Lee’s reputation intact? Whether he died years five years later or a week later, the point is that (like Josef Mengele) he got to do it on his own terms. I’m against capital punishment, but allowing the myth of gentleman soldier Lee to become enmeshed in American culture is arguably a worse injustice than simply taking a life (though I do not advocate that either).

  11. Kip Williams says

    Tony Hendra pointed out that a worshipful biography of Von Braun was extruded, titled I Aim For The Stars, and Mort Sahl added “…But Sometimes I Hit London.”

  12. Pierce R. Butler says

    starffleetdude @ # 2: … Henry Wirz, the commanding officer at the infamous Andersonville, GA POW camp, was executed …

    Wirz was the only Confederate officer executed. The Union really should’ve, at minimum, done the same to, e.g., Nathaniel B. Forrest for the massacre of surrendered northern troops at Fort Pillow.

    brucegee1962 @ # 4: … any reasonable crime that we could have charged Lee with, also would have applied to every single slave-owner who joined the Confederate cause.

    Not necessarily – but how about to every US military officer who violated his oath by joining the rebellion (and all the federal-level elected officials [waves at Jeff Davis] ditto)?

    … confiscation and redistribution of property would’ve been entirely fair …

    Now that would’ve made a huge difference. The idea got some serious discussion, but was dismissed on the moralistic grounds that it would not be right to just “give” land to former slaves who didn’t “work for it” – their lifetimes of unpaid labor before emancipation apparently somehow not counting.

  13. Zeppelin says

    I’m uncomfortable with the way liberal Americans use the word “traitor” as a condemnation against the South…reminds me of ostensibly woke people calling female Republicans sexist slurs. There’s nothing inherently wrong with treason.

    Nazi defectors were traitors. Chelsea Manning is a traitor. Basically everyone involved in any revolution ever was a traitor. The problem with the Confederates isn’t that they “betrayed their country” — blind loyalty to a political institution isn’t a virtue. The problem is that they fought for an unworthy cause.

  14. PaulBC says

    their lifetimes of unpaid labor before emancipation apparently somehow not counting.

    That’s a good point. What would “reparations” look life they consisted only of back pay at market rates and 150 years of compound interest?

  15. brain says

    Well, ok, but in this case why limit yourself to hanging racists from the Civil War? The first and biggest example of American’s racism (and the one which inspired Hitler’s “total solution” against Hebrews) is the extermination of Native Americans.
    So, start banning most of old-school western movies, giving back land to natives etc.

  16. Zeppelin says


    “[…] and while this was perhaps repugnant Germany in the end didn’t suffer for it.”

    Germany has suffered plenty for it, and continues to suffer to this day. There’s an unbroken legacy of far-right cliques in the secret service and the police, for example, whose recruitment goes right back to the Nazis allowed back into those institutions after 1945. During the Cold War the German secret services collaborated closely with neo-Nazi groups. But even the recent NSU Nazi terror cell was supported and shielded for years by sympathetic Verfassungsschutz agents. The postwar justice system was also full of former Nazi judges and administrators, who shielded their Nazi friends from prosecution and led the Cold War crackdown against the left.

  17. says

    I highly recommend the 1865 podcast, which is a radio drama-style exploration of the events surrounding Lincoln’s assassination by southern white supremacists, and the takeover of the government that occurred when a southern white supremacist vice president took office and mooted Lincoln’s plans for reconstruction.

    One thing I had not realized was how closely connected these things were. One of the reasons that the south got such generous terms was because Lincoln got a bullet in the back of the head for his pains, and it appeared that there was a much larger conspiracy that might reignite the war.


  18. PaulBC says


    Right, no nation is going to turn down valuable military technology, but von Braun was turned into a folk hero with hagiographies written about him, and portrayed as just a big kid who always wanted to go to the moon. He never stopped being a Nazi. He never atoned for exploiting a system that used slave labor to attain his goals.

  19. starfleetdude says


    Hindsight being 20/20, a case certainly can be made today for Forrest’s guilt. Back then however it wasn’t as clear cut. Even W.T. Sherman didn’t outright condemn Forrest over Fort Pillow.

    Battle of Fort Pillow

  20. says

    What would “reparations” look life they consisted only of back pay at market rates and 150 years of compound interest?

    Back pay and interest is far from it, though. There is also opportunity cost and ongoing damage. You can’t just count the labor of slavery, there is the economic cost of jim crow. One can argue easily that black slave labor built the south, this the southern states rightly belong to them. But black slave labor also built the north – the northern economy was based on processing and transshipping southern cotton and tobacco. (Also sugar cane) Never mind the labor costs, one can easily argue that a big chunk of the US economy was trade in stolen goods.

    Fair reparations would be to give everything west of the Mississippi back to the natives, give Texas and New Mexico back to Mexico, and part out the south to black people who suffered from slavery, or jim crow, or redlining or hiring prejudice (i.e: all of them)

    Obviously, that is not going to happen. Nor will white european descendants fuck back off to Europe. Can you imagine trying to talk the germans into taking back Trump and his anchor babies?

  21. starfleetdude says


    Actually, von Braun did always want to go to the Moon, so that part isn’t made up. I do agree with you that von Braun did cynically go along with the Nazi regime so he could develop his rocket technology. It wasn’t exactly a secret back then either, as a few comics that have been quoted here noted.

  22. says

    There is more than a little bit of 20-20 hindsight in the very question here. We’re questioning a “merciful” solution from 1865, from people who knew very little of history outside of Western Europe, from people who were scared to death of fomenting further rebellion… and the three primary examples that they had were the English Civil War, the Napoleonic era, and the Thirty Years’ War. Given those three as the main examples, choosing not to execute all of one’s opponents — if only on the grounds that democracy must embrace, not just tolerate, dissent, and that that is necessarily messy — was a rational attempt to try to reach a different result than had been reached after two of those three by following part of the path of the third one (which, after all, at its earliest stages included mass executions of the traitorous self-interested enemy).

    Lincoln didn’t want to be Robespierre. That’s, on balance, a good thing. Blaming dead Lincoln for the… near treason of those who followed him and refused to even denounce the opposition after Lincoln’s death is unfair to both Grant and Lincoln. (Especially if you expect Grant to take it sober.)

  23. consciousness razor says

    I’m against capital punishment, but allowing the myth of gentleman soldier Lee to become enmeshed in American culture is arguably a worse injustice than simply taking a life (though I do not advocate that either).

    You’re saying it’s arguable, and you won’t argue it. Okay. Perhaps someone would make this argument, even though it’s a bad one.
    It’s presumably just false, that killing him would have disallowed the propagation of that sort of myth about a person’s character, because such myths may spread whether or not that happens. (There are plenty of examples throughout history: those who are executed can and do get a mythical treatment, just like those who aren’t.)
    And if it were true, the next part of the argument which derives that moral implication is also crap. It’s nice that you’re not arguing this…??

  24. PaulBC says

    consciousness razor@24

    I need to resist the urge to have a long pissing match today. Some kind of punishment would have been better than full rehabilitation of Lee’s image. I do not agree that he should have been hanged.

  25. kome says

    This post reminded me a bit of your earlier post about the fetishization of Sparta and its relationship to white supremacy.
    White supremacists have to contort history and science and reality in general in so many different ways for their worldview to be protected and safe.

  26. PaulBC says

    As I tried, I think, to “argue” in my first comment me@1, Lee is perceived more favorably today than John Brown (no, I don’t have polling results so I’m curious if anyone disagrees), suggesting that “most people interpret punishment as proof of the crime and impunity as proof of innocence” (or many if you think “most” is overstating the case).

  27. numerobis says

    Left to live, Lee is celebrated as the noble warrior who surrendered the Lost Cause. Hanged, he’d be celebrated as the noble warrior who surrendered the Lost Cause and was martyred. Not a huge difference.

    What in went terribly in reconstruction was that there was no land reform.

  28. Rob Grigjanis says

    Marcus @21:

    Can you imagine trying to talk the germans into taking back Trump and his anchor babies?

    After living in the US for a while, his granddad tried to go back. The Germans wouldn’t have him. Donald’s mum was a MacLeod from the Outer Hebrides. Maybe they could put him and his spawn on a remote island.

  29. unclefrogy says

    Hanging seems a bit much, but confiscation and redistribution of property would’ve been entirely fair at the time.

    hanging a bit much? maybe, maybe not but 40 acres and a mule however would have been a net positive. At a time when the ruling class was predominately white educated wealthy men, wholesale confiscation was not likely to have been a very popular idea and racism would have surly made the idea of then giving the land to inferior Negros not even a question better to ship them off to Liberia instead. deference to wealth and class added to racism and weariness of war added to the desire to maintain privilege and power by the ruling class, we are not that far removed from that time that the same forces are not still at play thwarting broader liberty, justice and equality now. we ain’t through yet
    uncle frogy

  30. PaulBC says


    Right. There is always a risk of martyrdom. I believe it is less of a risk than commonly assumed*, but I’m against capital punishment for other reasons. The point is that the handling of Lee’s legacy could have been much better one way or the other. I also agree it’s not even close to the worst mistake of the post-Civil War era. It’s just the subject of this thread.

    There’s always time to correct the legacy. On a personal level, I was very happy to hear about the removal of the Lee/Jackson equestrian monument in Baltimore. I walked past that monstrosity on a regular basis and it always pissed me off.

    *I am certain the Chinese government is far more satisfied to have June 4 martyrs than living protesters with a lasting political voice. Silencing people even with the most open and grotesque use of force turns out to more effective in practice than a lot of the “soft” strategies like martyrdom. Despots seem to understand this a lot better than deep thinkers.

  31. consciousness razor says


    Some kind of punishment would have been better than full rehabilitation of Lee’s image.

    Who actually thinks he’s got a good image? Not me.
    If a former confederate (e.g.) thinks so, would “some kind of punishment” be likely to change that? That’s very doubtful. Certain people would probably think he’s a war hero, no matter what — maybe even more than otherwise, because it could have a “martyr” effect.
    It’s also not necessary to punish a person, if your goal is to change another person’s mind about them. You can, for instance, just communicate with the person who you want to persuade into having a different belief or opinion. That’s an obvious and sensible choice, and it’s how I’ve been persuaded of many things in my life.
    Besides, whenever I have learned that someone was punished, I don’t think of it (generally or maybe ever) in the same ways as the person who administered the punishment. So, there’s definitely no guarantee that it will have the intended effect, because it happens to be the case that this is just not how things work in the real world.
    So, kind of like torture, it’s clearly unnecessary, it doesn’t even work well as one of the possible (if not necessary) options, and it’s morally indefensible. It seems to involve a bunch of false assumptions, which I think should be addressed if you do want to take this any further.

  32. thirdmill301 says

    The problem was not Robert E. Lee. The problem was the millions of Southerners who continued to believe that blacks were born to be slaves, that the Northerners were evil for ending slavery, that God ordained the racial superiority of the white man, and that no outsiders can tell them what to do. And they would have continued to be the problem no matter what became of Robert E. Lee.

    After the war, the North had two choices. Having preserved the Union, they could withdraw and permit the South to revert back to what it had been before, which after 20 years of reconstruction is basically what happened. Or they could have stayed and tried to impose liberal values by force, with about the same degree of success that American attempts at nation building have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Ku Klux Klan would have added terrorizing feds to its mission.

    You cannot civilize people who are determined to be savages. The question is how much blood and treasure are you willing to spend trying. All you can do is put outer limits on how much damage they can do to others.

    And by the way, I, too, am opposed to the death penalty. That doesn’t mean I can’t recognize that when Robert E. Lee died, the world became a better place, and that there are some people the world would be better off without.

  33. unclefrogy says

    there was some confiscation however and I could not imagine a more fitting one Arlington National Cemetery was the former home of Lee and filled with the dead of the war he made possible.
    uncle frogy

  34. brucegee1962 says

    @15 PaulBC

    That’s a good point. What would “reparations” look life they consisted only of back pay at market rates and 150 years of compound interest?

    Reparations is an example of a policy that is entirely just and fair, but also sheer political idiocy.

    Done in 1865, it would have been utterly reasonable and inarguably fair to divvy up the plantations among the slaves who worked there. But the proposals that are being put forward now just seem to be a recipe for Democratic political suicide.

    First of all, if we’re talking about reparations for prolonged injury, the Native Americans ought to be first in line.

    Second, “divide and conquer” has always been a prime Republican strategy, and this is doing their work for them. The cold reality is that Democrats cannot win elections without white, working-class voters. Traditionally, they’ve tried to unite white and black voters by focusing policies on economic rather than racial disparities. But if they get led into the trap of reparations (which several Dem candidates seem to have done), then the white auto worker in Michigan or Ohio or Wisconsin will be saying this:
    “I’ve got nothing against Bill, the black guy works next to me on the line. Actually, he and I have a lot in common, and we get together on weekends to watch football. So how come it’s fair that he gets a big check from the government from MY taxes? Heck, my great-grandparents came from Poland and Italy in the 1930s — I didn’t even have any ancestors in the US in 1860. Besides, I thought that things like affirmative action were supposed to be a kind of reparations already. No way I’m going to vote for someone who’s going to support something like that — and if Bill’s in favor of it, maybe I’ll stop inviting him over.”

    Basic political calculus is that you want to unite and inspire your voters, not turn them against each other. I’m sure this talk is making Republicans rub their hands in glee.

    And before you flame me: Don’t come after me with reasons why reparations are morally just and fair. I will agree with you. I want you to explain to me why it’s worth promoting something that’s morally just and fair, when it’s likely to lose us an election upon which (due to global warming) the fate of the entire human race may depend.

  35. PaulBC says

    Who actually thinks he’s got a good image? Not me.

    Millions of fans of the Dukes of Hazzard? Beloved cartoonist Morrie Turner of Wee Pals whose comic included an “African-American boy who always wears a blue or grey American Civil War kepi, and has a dog named General Lee”? (apparently based on Turner himself as a child) I grew up with that comic and a TV offshoot of it in the 70s. I was a white kid in the northeast, and it confused the fuck out of me, though Turner is a national treasure. It is certainly a strange way to treat one of the United States’ most notorious traitors. And then there was the Lee-Jackson monument in (predominantly black) Baltimore that I walked past on a near daily basis.

    He sure seems to have a good image to a lot of people even if not to you or me. I never saw Hitler get this much positive PR outside The Producers.

    I am sorry I used the term “punishment” which misses my point. I do not claim some kind of abstract justice matters. I do think that a lot of people perceive those to get away with stuff to be right in the first place. And that’s what happened with Lee.

  36. dma8751482 says

    If memory serves, initially the terms on which the former Confederates were going to be dealt with were much harsher, but at that point the only thing the general public wanted was an end to the fighting. If Grant et al. were even thinking about long term repercussions, I would assume they were dismissed as being less important than simply avoiding continued hostilities in the name of the country’s reunification.

    Maybe hanging Lee would have blunted the racism that ended up growing in the South following reconstruction- but it could have just as easily turned him into a martyr, inspiring the Confederacy to continue the war instead. We can’t be entirely sure how Lincoln ultimately planned to handle the matter since he was assassinated before the war ended, but Johnson and Grant at least knew that their positions would be in jeopardy if they didn’t handle the South with kid gloves. Didn’t help that the whole of Reconstruction was tainted by partisan bickering and Johnson’s own sympathies with the South.

    It all goes to show that the smart move in the short term is not necessarily a wise move in the long run.

  37. Pierce R. Butler says

    thirdmill301 @ # 35: … after 20 years of reconstruction …

    Eleven: Rutherford B. Hayes essentially bought the hung election of 1876 by agreeing to end Reconstruction in exchange for the White House. Unfortunately for the nation, he kept his promise.

  38. Rich Woods says

    @Rob Grigjanis #30:

    Donald’s mum was a MacLeod from the Outer Hebrides. Maybe they could put him and his spawn on a remote island.

    Sorry, those islands are all full. Seabirds need their nesting places left undisturbed and even the heart-warming thought of the Trumps being daily vomited upon by fulmars does not change that.

  39. ORigel says

    I don’t think the death penalty is moral. Other than that, Lee and other Confederates should have been arrested and the South should have been restructured for ever.

  40. says

    @#1, PaulBC

    John Brown was considered to be heroic and a martyr more or less without reservation until the same movement which started erecting statues of Confederate figures years later started to proclaim that he was a villain who incited violence. It was part of the strategy of declaring that the Civil War was about “States’ Rights” rather than slavery, and the fact that Lee is now regarded more positively than Brown is deliberate.

  41. springa73 says

    I suspect that the generous surrender terms were largely motivated by a relatively straightforward desire to bring a bloody war to a quick end and to avoid guerilla warfare. I find it difficult to fault that way of thinking.

    No, the real mistake of anti-slavery northerners was to abandon Reconstruction a decade later and to effectively leave the African American population in the south at the mercy of the same people who had fought to preserve slavery, then to accept the lost cause myth as a way of promoting national reconciliation, again at the expense of African Americans. The problem was that there just weren’t enough whites in the north committed to real equality. There were some outspoken ones, but they were a distinct minority. Ultimately, most northern whites were too racist to side with African Americans against other whites when push came to shove.

  42. says

    I suspect that the generous surrender terms were largely motivated by a relatively straightforward desire to bring a bloody war to a quick end and to avoid guerilla warfare.

    Well kinda. Lincoln had plans for reconstruction that the south was not going to like, so a southern diehard terrorist blew them out of his head with a pistol. The “relatively straightforward desire” after that was Andrew Johnson’s desire to nullify the outcome of the war, which he did. The generous terms happened because the south immediately began guerilla warfare (only in a theater) to perform a legal coup d’etat.

    It would be as if someone shot Trump and Pence so Pelosi could complete Trump’s agenda…

  43. PaulBC says

    Vicar@43 Of course you’re completely right.


    Historian James Loewen surveyed American history textbooks and noted that historians considered Brown perfectly sane until about 1890, but generally portrayed him as insane from about 1890 until 1970, when new interpretations began to gain ground.

    But today Brown is “controversial” while the myth of Robert E. Lee as the kindly gentleman doing his duty remains the predominant one. Brown is either ignored entirely or viewed with suspicion. I am trying to remember back to high school when this was covered (early 80s). There was little to it besides the neutral point that Brown’s raid help precipitate the war.

    He was certainly not a madman in any sense of the word, though his strategy was unrealistic, and not only in hindsight. Frederick Douglass knew and warned him against it.

  44. gc64 says

    You might want to check out Jay Winik’s book – April 1865: The Month That Saved America. He makes a pretty convincing case that both Lincoln and Grant were worried about the South sinking into guerrilla warfare after the Southern armies were defeated and that Lee played a major role in preventing that. Jefferson Davis and several of the other Southern leaders were pushing Mosby and some others to start a guerilla campaign. Plus Lee took steps to get Johnston to lay down his arms after Lincoln was shot.

  45. Jonathan Dresner says

    A lot of current historians – Chernow is, like David McCollough, an English major and journalist who writes a lot of biographies – consider the surrender of the Confederate forces only a brief pause and transition in the drive for white supremacy. I’ve read more than a few recent studies (not my field, but that’s a long story) which are exceptionally clear-headed about the failure of Reconstruction and the re-establishment of conditions racial exploitation supported by violence and under the color of law.
    Stephen Hahn’s “Nation Without Borders” is a survey of 19th century American history which essentially calls Southern resistance to reconstruction a continuation of the Civil War (and is quite explicit on the connection between Sheridan’s wartime tactics and his career [before and after] in genocidal warfare against Native Americans).
    Two new books that I have gotten hold of which are also very clear on this: Kevin Levin’s “Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth” has the additional benefit of putting the Confederate Memorial debates into context; W. Caleb McDaniel’s “The Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America” is a visceral, deeply researched study of the experience of living with and in enslavement before, during, and after the war.
    There are more examples, but these are literally the last three books I’ve looked at on the subject, and they are essentially unanimous.

  46. wzrd1 says

    I find it interesting that you brought in for comparison, your very method of common mode failure, if your suggested approach were embraced.

    OK, we adopt a treaty of Versailles style peace, execute all officers, or at least senior officers and senior Confederate officers, exact reparations.
    Now, the south, rather than annoying, is restive ever since, federal property gets bombed, convoys blown up, resistance that’d last a century.

    I’m aware of two models, one rather obsolete, from the civil war end stage, the other involving a non-negotiable removal of the Emperor of Japan at the end of WWII.
    Both had seriously bad endings and massive mutual loss of life.

    Meanwhile, the war wasn’t exceptionally popular in the north or south, as far as popular support went. Most middle class and lower citizens didn’t have slaves or interest in tariffs. They got dragged along, so both sides had potential secondary civil wars within their own borders, plus the primary civil war.
    Poor and middle class got conscripted by both sides, leaving farms and businesses without their proprietor or employees, both equally destructive to said businesses, be it a small market or farm.
    In NYC, things got so bad, the US Army shelled the Bowery to put down rioting over conscription.

    So, popular support was, ahem, waning, such as it was. Demands upon the economy were increasing, demands upon the populace also increasing.
    Frankly, had we done as was suggested in executing people, we’d likely still be at war, save if Hitler saved us from it, to kill each other per his orders.

    So, an imperfect solution was found, for an utterly perfect mess, which gave lip service to what wasn’t actually believed by Saint Lincoln.
    Who expressed doubts over arming former slaves, lest “the darkies take our weapons to give to their former masters”, or something so close to being the actual, recorded phrase (he did refer to African American now former slaves as “darkies” and the entire sentence was to the effect of arming former masters to fight Union forces).
    Our nation formed a legend about Lincoln, essentially crafting him as a saint of some sort. He wasn’t. He was like any other human, flawed, good in their own ways, but still a human of his period. Baggage comes along with him and his education and experiences.
    He didn’t trust former slaves, thinking them so weak willed as to return to their former masters and arm or fight for their former masters.
    He also did accept virtual slavery, which was aborted via a lead ball into his head and his failed impeachment VP followed through with a slightly less generous pathway forward, but falling short of a treaty of Versailles level impact in Reconstruction.

    That said, I have frequently suggested that Reconstruction should have continued for a full century.
    Usually, when beating down some southerner’s deficient viewpoints or erroneous history revisions of what the history actually was.
    Frankly, I think that would’ve optimized things and even eugenics would’ve been rejected, when first suggested.

  47. colinday says

    #1, #28

    Also, Lee led the assault that recaptured Harper’s Ferry from Brown. Perhaps Americans want a winner?

  48. DLC says

    I sincerely doubt that harsh punishment of the Confederates would have done anything to limit Southern refractory sentiment. Lee would simply have been a Sainted Martyr. Lincoln would still have been assassinated by the Booth conspiracy. Reconstruction ? why reconstruct anything ? let them starve with ruined infrastructure, burned cities and destroyed crops. The mythology of “The Gallant Lost Cause” would still have been there. People would be drinking toasts To the President (of the CSA) much as some Scotsmen toast the King (when there is a King) with their wine glass over their water glass. The mythology “The South’s Gonna Do It Again” would have been even worse. The Klan would not have ridden at night in small numbers, but during the day in squadrons. No, I don’t see any way in which the southern insurrection could have been eradicated. In fact, it is that very spirit of Southern Racism and Race-based Fascism that today calls itself the Modern Conservative Movement. or, Trumpism.

  49. keinsignal says

    Apologies if somebody already dragged the War Nerd into this, but here’s an interesting, if cold-blooded take:

    TL;DR: Hanging Lee probably would have been a mistake, but there were a number of good candidates among his subordinates, several of whom went on to do real damage after the war.

    There are some obvious guidelines for thinning the ranks of a dangerous group:
    • You don’t kill the top, the figureheads. They’ve got enough name recognition to become martyrs quickly, and they’ve usually passed their peak by the time of their defeat.
    • You don’t kill incompetents. Keep those incompetents alive as long as possible.
    • You don’t kill the corrupt. You buy them and use them to turn your former enemies against each other.
    • You kill the exceptional, the most ruthless, fearless, unkillable leaders in the defeated army. If you don’t kill them now, at their weakest point, you’ll regret it.

    The WN settles on two prime candidates, Nathan Bedford Forrest and Wade Hampton III:

    Nathan Bedford Forrest, un-hanged, went on to front for a little group you may have heard of, called the KKK. Wade Hampton, who gets less press but was probably the worse of these two monsters (admittedly, it’s a tough competition) created America’s first homegrown fascist group, the Red Shirts, and used them to terrorize black voters, ensuring his election as South Carolina’s first postwar racist senator in 1876.

  50. pacal says

    WZRD 1 #52

    The Treaty of Versailles did NOT lead to the mass execution of German Officers etc., in fact virtually no one was even tried much less convicted of anything. (What War Crimes Trials there were utter farces.) And once again we have repeated the old hoary myth of the punitive, brutal Treaty of Versailles. The whole notion that it was a Carthaginian Peace, (Basically the end of the Third Punic War, with Carthage’s surviving population sold into slavery, the city destroyed and sowed with salt.), is utter rot and a collection of total lies. The Treaty lefty Germany the most economically powerful nation in Europe and only stripped away areas that were not German. The hysteria about reparations was just that hysteria and the Reparations agreed to were in fact quite payable. And in the end Germany actually paid very little in reparations. In fact when it came to net flows of capital Germany actually by 1930 took more than it paid out. (And shafted American investors in the process.)

    And of course Germany’s two treatys in Eastern Europe, (Brest Litovsk and Bucharest), were actually quite savage and ruthless, which didn’t prevent Germany from breaking each treaty before the war ended in order to get even more goodies. And of Course Germanys plans for its other enemies were a further sequence of savage, absurd treaties of peace. In comparison the Treaty of Versailles was pretty mild.

    During the war Germany was afflicted with a class of ultra-Nationalists idiots who pursued pie in the sky, absurd aims. After the war these same idiots who had helped to shackle Germany to stupid war aims screamed hysterically about being stabbed in the back etc. What really got their goat was that they were not grinding their enemies faces into the dirt. t was a cosmic injustice that Germany lost. And even before the war was actually over they were laying the groundwork for the stab in the back myth, and blaming the emerging German Republic for the peace. (Hindenburg and Ludendorf, who had been running Germany for years, called and screamed for peace from early October 1918, then quite deliberately avoided signing the Armistice and then both proceeded for years and years to claim that the Army had been stabbed in the back.)

    The main problem with the Treaty of Versailles was not so much the Treaty itself but the hysterical, lying response of the German Ultra Nationalists. This response was so effective that to this this day the Treaty of Versailles is often regarded has a ruthless peace. That is pure shit.

    The similarities with Lost Cause shit are not accidental. After the war Neo-Confederates created the myth of a brutal terrible peace, (I.e., the “horrors” of Reconstruction.), were “Whites” had to endure unimaginable pain and suffering. Thus we get works like Gone With the Wind which in its second part goes on and on about these mythical horrors. The worst “horrors” were Black Legislators, Judges and voters. It was an unbearable torment to have to treat Black people like people. (snark) But fortunately this dark era of pain and suffering came to end when “White” people righteously took back the South, by means of terror, violence and disenfranchisement. (Thus we get that scene in Birth of Nation celebrating the Klan keeping Blacks from voting.) And of course just like the German Ultra Nationalist view of the Treaty of Versailles it was backed by a vast engine of lies and propaganda. (Biggest lie, that Slavery was not the main cause of the Civil War.) And just like the lies told by German Ultra Nationalists about Versailles, lost cause lies continue to influence people.

  51. arresi says

    “I think I need to read a black scholar’s perspective on the Civil War, because these pleasant reassurances that our country did the right thing aren’t so reassuring any more.”

    John Hope Franklin. “Reconstruction after the Civil War, 2nd ed.” was one of my college textbooks for the Civil War and Reconstruction, and it’s really very good. Pretty readable, too.

    Not black, and not focused on the Civil War, but maybe try Gary Nash’s work on the American Revolution? It’d be an interesting contrast to the biographical approach, I think.