Civil War, slavery, professors, and what the Army’s been teaching cadets since the 1970s

During the last week, a video from the Prager University (not really a “university” in the sense of a place to get a degree… but I digress) became the “hot topic” within some Civil War discussions:

As the video states, the presenter is Colonel Ty Seidule, a professor at West Point.  This presentation has received no end of flattering commentary.  To the point one wonders if the keyboards from which the comments flow must be toweled.  The attention the video received has me smiling, if not openly snickering.

I’ve never met Colonel Ty Seidule in person.  I do know of him by way of mutual acquaintances.  And those acquaintances speak highly of Colonel Seidule’s ability – both as a soldier and historian.  He speaks well on this topic and deserves to be heard.

So why would I snicker?  Well not at the message, or the messenger…  but the reaction.  If you do a search on “Ty Seidule” and “video” you net dozens of links to opinion pages which laud this presentation, as it is clearly not from “some revisionist academic,” and then go on at lengths to avoid saying what they assume to be true – that anyone wearing a military uniform must be a staunch conservative… and thus this Army officer’s opinion demonstrates some new thaw in the thinking on the right… (A point further strengthened by the host – Prager University – and their right-wing opinions).   As if the Army and the ranks of conservatives have this long held belief that “states’ rights” caused the Civil War.

What have the Army’s professors been teaching cadets about the Civil War?  As in, what has been the Army’s official stance (from their history department) on  the cause of the Civil War?  Well the official Army textbook says this:

During the administration of President James Buchanan, 1857-1861, tensions over the issue of extending slavery into the western territories mounted alarmingly and the nation ran its seemingly inexorable course towards disunion.  Along with slavery, the shifting social, economic, political, and constitutional problems of the fast-growing country fragmented its citizenry….

And after discussing particulars of the John Brown raid, the text continues:

Abraham Lincoln’s election to the Presidency on November 6, 1860, triggered the long-simmering political crisis.  Lincoln’s party was opposed to the expansion of slavery into the new western territories.  This threatened both the economic and political interests of the South, since the Southern states depended on slavery to maintain their way of life and their power in Congress….

Yes, pretty much what Colonel Seidule said in the video.

The text I quote here is from the 2009 version of the textbook. Specifically Volume 1 of American Military History.  When I was a cadet, we only had one volume of American Military History (so much history had yet to be written??? Or perhaps expounded upon?).  But the gist of the text was the same.  And the teaching was the same (I can refer you to my ROTC instructors if you wish to press that point).  The same in the sense that teaching pinned the “cause” of the war as slavery, not states’ rights.  In fact, if you were to look back at the 1973 and even the 1969 editions of the same textbook, the only reference made to “states’ rights” is where such political doctrine worked against the Confederate war effort (i.e. where Governor Brown’s pets were not made available to General J.E. Johnson).

Clearly Colonel Seidule’s remarks are not the result of some change in thinking at West Point, the Center of Military History, or in the Army in general.  It is the teachings of the organization (the Army) dating back almost fifty years.   In my experience, when the Confederacy was mentioned it was in the context of being “the enemy” or “an insurgency” or, with respect to individual leaders or soldiers, a foe who’s experience is to be studied and learned from.  And as a southerner, I found nothing objectionable about that approach.  It was the right, proper way to approach the subject.

And I must take pause to ensure the reader understands the approach to teaching military history as part of military science, in context with other course offered to the cadet (student).  Some will complain that Colonel Seidule’s and the Army’s textbook are lacking in some details about slavery, secession, abolition, and some other political aspects of the war.  That might be valid criticism if the cadet’s only exposure to American history is the Military History course.  Such is not the case.  Under the normal curriculum, the cadet is first given the standard American History 101 and 102 courses, to impart the full understanding of the social, political, and economic factors, before exposure to the military history course.  Such ensures proper footing before the deep dive into the history of military science.  In other words, not much different than any other field of study – going from general to particular.

All this said, I can see where this “gushing and flattering” about an Army opinion about the war will go.  The voices which embrace the video as an educational tool will soon question the messenger… oh wait… it’s already happening….

Legacy of the Confederacy on military service: Do “Confederates in blue” have influence?

Robert Moore has, as he often does, posted a thought provoking piece today.   Some of the present debates about the Confederate legacy in play in our present day brought Robert to think about how that intersects with notions of military service:

I know how people like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson touched something within me, and inspired a sense of dutyhonor… and, frankly, I knew from an early age that I was going to serve my country. It wasn’t debatable (I can’t help but hearing, right now, some of my old shipmates calling me a “dig’it”. Lol.).

So, when we see the current trend of removing the Confederate flag, discussion of moving/removing monuments, vandalizing monuments, etc. – all because it “inspires hatred”, and therefore, must be removed to eliminate, at least that much “inspiration” (because, certainly, there’s more out there that serves as “inspiration”), I wonder just how many out there find another kind of “inspiration” in Confederate iconography… the positive kind… especially U.S. military veterans. I’m really curious as to how many have been inspired, in some way, by the legacy of Confederate leaders such as these? I’ve mentioned it before… some key people in WW1, like Lejeune; and in WW2, like Patton, Puller, Buckner.. and many others, are just a few examples.

An interesting observation and a point to ponder.

As I mentioned with respect to the Confederate memorials, it is important to consider the subject of those public fixtures.  The surface intent of those memorials was to force the audience to recall the service and sacrifice of individuals who answered the call to war.  Now that war was for, we must agree, a terrible cause.  But it was a call placed by society, none-the-less.  We certainly should discuss that cause.  However, it is important to caveat that discussion with the separation of “causes” and “motivations” in respect to the soldier’s service.  We might enter the same logical start point with respect to the Vietnam War (or maybe the wars in Iraq?).  This changes the foundation of the discussion somewhat.

And thinking to Robert’s observation, can we find inspiration… or at least some redeeming quality … from the service of Confederate veterans?

Robert has a poll on his site that addresses that question.  Please click over there and offer your take.

However, let me take Robert’s point and step to another…. Consider if you will our oral history, and to a degree the ‘pop’ history, with respect to the Confederate veterans.  As Robert and others say, there is a legacy of reconciliation and … in general… “coming to terms.”  Indeed the vast majority of former Confederates reverted to U.S. citizenship, and for all measure there was little to question that loyalty.  (And lets remember… there are a lot of loyal Americans who disagree with Presidents, Congress, or particular laws.  That disagreement is well below the measure of disloyalty.)

Some of this plays out in our collective memory of those post-war years.  Again, the oral and pop history give us plenty of examples to lean on, if we are searching for inspiration of the kind Robert alludes to.  One stereotypical figure is the “Confederate in blue.”  Not talking specifically of the “Galvanized Yankees” who were more so a wartime convention, being recruited from the prisoner camps.  More so the former Confederates who after the war served in the US Army.  As the stereotype works, that was linked to the frontier.  We see that stereotype personified in the westerns of the 20th century.  An ample example is “Trooper John Smith” from that classic “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.”


Here’s a clip of that movie in which “John Smith’s” Confederate service receives notice, at about the 1:40 mark:

Later, as Captain Nathan Brittles lays Smith to rest, he offers this eulogy:

I also commend to your keeping, Sir, the soul of Rome Clay, late Brigadier General, Confederate States Army. Known to his comrades here, Sir, as Trooper John Smith, United States Cavalry… a gallant soldier and a Christian gentleman.

Another dialog occurs in the movie “Fort Apache” as Captain Yorke (John Wayne again) discusses a detail with Lieutenant-Colonel Thursday, with some situational humor laced in:

 Lt. Col. Owen Thursday: I’m for it, Captain. How many men will you need?

Captain Yorke: One, sir. Sergeant Beaufort.

RSM Michael O’Rourke: PRIVATE Beaufort, sir!

Lt. Col. Owen Thursday: Why him?

Captain Yorke: He speaks Spanish – so does Cochise. My Apache has its limits.

Lt. Col. Owen Thursday: Shouldn’t you take another officer instead?

Captain Yorke: Well, Sergeant Beaufort was…

RSM Michael O’Rourke: PRIVATE Beaufort, sir!

Captain Yorke: Private Beaufort was a major in the Confederate army… an aide to Jeb Stuart.

Lt. Col. Owen Thursday: Hmm. I remember “Kaydet” Stuart. He was…

Captain Collingwood: Quite.

Lt. Col. Owen Thursday: Were you saying something, Captain?

Captain Collingwood: I said, “Quite,” sir.

Some will wash this off as just the “reconciliationist” attitudes still persistent in 1949.  Like much of our history, there is more here than a simple explanation.

How many former Confederates went west to serve in the US Army?  I don’t think anyone has ever quantified that.  There were without doubt some “Trooper John Smiths” and “Sergeant Beauforts” were out there.  Though I don’t think it was a significant portion of the force.

Hollywood… or specifically, John Ford… looked to bring some positive and inspirational qualities out from the story of individual Confederate veterans. Yes we need to put it in context of an overall “we are Americans and reconciled” theme.  But we also need to consider why the writers and directors chose to pinpoint these particular details.  Is it not to show that individuals are… well… individuals?  And there is something to everyone’s story that is worth consideration?

I dare say that trend, with respect to Confederate veterans, continues in Hollywood today:

I think the study of such characters – Trooper John Smith, Sergeant … er.. Private Beaufort, and Cullen Bohannon – serves a valuable purpose.  These were individuals.  And individuals can be measured both “inside of” and “aside from” what ever causes they might have served.

What do you say?