John Kelly’s "Jim Crow" Version of Civil War History Skip to content

John Kelly’s "Jim Crow" Version of Civil War History

7 min read

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, President Trump’s press secretary, warned a reporter that it was “highly inappropriate” to question “a four-star Marine general.” She meant John Kelly, the retired Marine brass hat who is the president’s chief-of-staff.

This reporter-turned-historian wouldn’t for a second quibble with Kelly’s military record. By every account I’ve seen, he was an outstanding Marine with a long and distinguished career. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have ended up with a quartet of shiny silver stars on each shoulder and a chest full of ribbons—”fruit salad” to World War II vets like my dad, a sailor who fought in the Pacific Theater.

But Kelly’s take on the Civil War is way off base.  A pair of big-league historians agrees with minor-leaguer me.

The “Lost Cause” Myth

Kelly went on a Fox News show and claimed “the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War, and men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.”

Historians Stephanie McCurry and Stephen Blight gave the general a history lesson.

“That statement could have been given by [former Confederate general] Jubal Early in 1880,” McCurry, a Columbia University professor, told the Washington Post.

McCurry authored Confederate Reckoning: Politics and Power in the Civil War South (Amazon) and other books. Early, one of General Robert E. Lee’s subordinates, helped start the post-war “Lost Cause” myth, which glorified the Confederacy. (Watch this Vox explainer to learn more.)

Added McCurry: “What’s so strange about this statement is how closely it tracks or resembles the view of the Civil War that the South had finally gotten the nation to embrace by the early 20th century. It’s the Jim Crow version of the causes of the Civil War.

Blight, a Yale University professor, whose books include Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, also challenged Kelly’s comments in the Post. He said they revealed the general’s “profound ignorance…at least of pretty basic things about the American historical narrative.”

Blight said that Kelly’s views are “also rooted, frankly, in a Lost Cause mentality that swept over American culture in the wake of the war, swept over Northerners. This idea that good and honorable men of the South were pushed aside and exploited by the ‘fanatical’ — ironically — first Republican Party.”

“Honorable” Robert E. Lee?

Kelly also praised Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy’s most successful general, as “an honorable man” who “gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important than country. It was always loyalty-to-state first back in those days.”

The “honorable” Lee led a powerful army that killed or wounded thousands of U.S. soldiers. Lee played a major role in a massive rebellion against the lawfully-constituted and freely-elected American government. The rebels’ aim was to create a separate Southern nation based on slavery and white supremacy.

The U.S. government considered the “honorable” Lee and the Confederates traitors. The Sons of Confederate Veterans and other Confederate apologists almost pop veins when anybody suggests their gray-clad ancestors were guilty of treason.

Nonetheless the U.S. Constitution defines “treason against the United States” as “levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.”

The Kentucky constitution of 1850, the charter in effect during the war, says “treason against the Commonwealth shall consist only in levying war against it, or in adhering to its enemies, giving them aid and comfort.”

After rejecting secession, abandoning neutrality, and siding with the Union in 1861, the General Assembly passed legislation outlawing Bluegrass State Confederate soldiers, or their aiders and abettors, as traitors to the state subject to imprisonment or fines or both.

State First, or Country First?

The “honorable” Lee, a Virginian, opposed disunion but went with Virginia when it seceded, Columbia University historian and author Eric Foner wrote in The New York Times. Though he owned some slaves in his lifetime, he described “slavery as an evil, but one that had more deleterious effects on whites than blacks.”

When he led his army into free state Pennsylvania, where he fought and lost the battle of Gettysburg, the “honorable” Lee “did nothing to stop soldiers in his army from kidnapping free black farmers for sale into slavery,” Foner also wrote.

“In Reconstruction, Lee made it clear that he opposed political rights for the former slaves. Referring to blacks (30 percent of Virginia’s population), he told a Congressional committee that he hoped the state could be ‘rid of them.’ Urged to condemn the Ku Klux Klan’s terrorist violence, Lee remained silent.”

Too, it wasn’t “always loyalty to state first” in 1861-1865. A pair of Lee’s fellow Virginians stuck by the Union: Gens. Winfield Scott and George H. Thomas. When the war started, Scott, nearly 75, was commanding general of the army. Because he was too old and infirm to lead troops in battle, he begged Lee to command the army. An old friend urged Scott to go over to the Confederates, wrote Ezra J. Warner in his book, Generals In Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders. Scott, dubbed “Old Fuss and Feathers,” flatly refused. “I have served my country, under the flag of the Union, for more than fifty years, and so long as God permits me to live, I will defend that flag with my sword, even if my native State assails it,” he vowed.

Thomas was a capable commander whose stubborn stand at the battle of Chickamauga, a Union defeat, earned him the nickname “The Rock of Chickamauga.”

Admiral David G. Farragut, the Union’s greatest naval hero, was a Tennessean. On the way to winning the battle of Mobile Bay, he led his fleet through enemy mine fields, famously declaring “Damn the torpedoes [mines], full speed ahead.”

On the Confederate side, Gen. John C. Pemberton, defended, then surrendered, Vicksburg, Miss., to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Pemberton was a Pennsylvanian. Kentuckians John C. Breckinridge and John Hunt Morgan, both of Lexington, were Confederate generals.

“Failure to Compromise”?

Failure to compromise didn’t bring on the Civil War. Slavery did. Latter-day Johnny Rebs say it was “states’ rights.” But by “states’ rights,” real Confederates meant the right of states to sanction slavery.

“Slavery was a moral issue,” explained the late historian Roy Hatton, my major professor at Murray State University. “In the end, you can’t compromise a moral issue.”

Similarly, McCurry explained, “In 1861, they were very clear on what the causes of the war were. The reason there was no compromise possible was that people in the country could not agree over the wisdom of the continued and expanding enslavement of millions of African Americans.”

Some politicians, most notably Henry Clay of Kentucky, did try compromise before the Civil War, America’s most lethal conflict.

Nicknamed “The Great Pacificator,” Clay helped broker a trio of compromises, two of which were directly connected to slavery’s expansion: the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850.

His compromise of 1833 stemmed from a dispute between the federal government and South Carolina over the tariff. But slavery lurked below the surface. South Carolinians feared that if Uncle Sam could enforce a tariff, Washington could also abolish the South’s peculiar institution.

Simply put, 11 Southern states seceded from the Union in 1860 and 1861 because their leaders feared President Abraham Lincoln and his “Black Republican Party” aimed to end slavery. South Carolina, the first state to go out, invited the 14 other slave states to “join us, in forming a Confederacy of Slaveholding States.”

And in Kentucky …

While Kentucky spurned South Carolina’s invitation, between 25,000 and 40,000 Kentuckians fought for the South (as opposed to 90,000 to 100,000 who joined Northern forces) according to A New History of Kentucky by Lowell H. Harrison and James C. Klotter. The state’s disunionist minority included newspaper editors who made no bones about why they thought Kentucky should exit the Union.

Kentucky’s most important secessionist papers were the Louisville CourierFrankfort Yeoman and Lexington Statesman.

On March 12, 1861, eight days after Lincoln’s inauguration, the Statesman demanded to know if Kentucky “by an alliance with States whose interests, sympathies and institutions are identified with her own, [will] maintain and conserve African slavery, or place that institution under the ban of moral, religious and political proscription by entering a family where it is condemned by an overwhelming majority of those in power [?]”

The paper argued that the central issue had to be stripped “of unnecessary verbiage and conditions until it presents itself in the simple form of African Servitude or Free Labor, Emancipation or Slavery.”

On July 16, 1861, the Yeoman was aghast that Lincoln “plainly avowed the policy of elevating the negro race to the rank of equality with the white race, as indispensable to the very existence of the government.”

The Courier was the state’s largest and most influential secessionist sheet. “If the North shall succeed in their effort to conquer the Slave States, whatever else may happen, it is absolutely certain that slavery will be exterminated,” the Falls City paper predicted on July 27, 1861.

The Courier pandered to less well-heeled whites, small-scale farmers, and town laborers. “Have the non-slaveholders of Kentucky ever thought of the consequences of the success of this policy?  Have they ever thought of the effect of the emancipation of all the slaves in the country? Do they wish to send their children to schools in which the negro children of the vicinity are taught?”

Rapid-fire, the questions continued: “Do they wish to give the negro the right to appear in the witness box to testify against them? Do they wish to see the negro privileged to serve on juries sitting on their property, liberty, or life? Do they wish to be met at the polls, and have their votes neutralized, by the suffrage of the freed negroes? Do they wish to have the emancipated slave brought into competition with them in the field, in the workshop, in all the pursuits of life?”

Finally, the Monuments

Later, Kelly also lamented the removal of Confederate monuments. “I think it shows you just how much of a lack of appreciation of history and what history is,” he said.

“Like all monuments, these statues say a lot more about the time they were erected than the historical era they evoke,” Foner also pointed out in The Times. “The great waves of Confederate monument building took place in the 1890s, as the Confederacy was coming to be idealized as the so-called Lost Cause and the Jim Crow system was being fastened upon the South, and in the 1920s, the height of black disenfranchisement, segregation, and lynching. The statues were part of the legitimation of this racist regime and of an exclusionary definition of America.

Added Foner, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery: “The historian Carl Becker wrote that history is what the present chooses to remember about the past. Historical monuments are, among other things, an expression of power — an indication of who has the power to choose how history is remembered in public places.


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