A matter of treason: is it really so hard to accept?

Posted on May 7, 2010 by


Kevin’s post earlier this week left me thinking about several things. I think it is an excellent piece about separating our sentiments today, from the sentiments of people from the past… and the complications that historians may find in being objective. I’d like to expand on this more later, in another post, but, for now, a quick thought…

How many descendants of Confederate soldiers say that their ancestors did not feel they were a party to treason, yet have no evidence to back this up? Did your ancestor(s) actually say that they didn’t think it was treason? For many descendants of Confederate soldiers, it is offensive to associate the very idea of treason with participation in the Confederacy, whether that be in the military, government, or as a civilian in the middle of it all. Yet, it is very likely that, like those of the Revolution, many Confederates knew darn well that what they were engaged in could be considered treason. It was a gamble. If you win, you are a patriot. If you lose, you could be deemed guilty of treason. If the Americans of the Revolution had hesitations because of the fact, and clearly discussed it even as they debated the Declaration of Independence, why is it so hard for some people today to acknowledge that their Confederate ancestors could have easily been aware of the same?  Frankly, I find it no harder to accept than the label “rebel”as applied to Confederates. Honestly, the denial of treason (especially without support that one’s ancestor/s actually believed they were not engaged in a potentially treasonous endeavor) is more offensive as it suggests that one’s ancestors were oblivious to/ignorant of the potential consequences of their actions.

*Follow-up/addendum: To those who read this post and want to make an argument using postwar theory about how Confederates were not engaged in treason… don’t bother. My point in this post is to understand what they thought and said at that time. Don’t attempt to make arguments based on 1) “the sovereignty of states” as understood in 1781, 2) the “right” for people to abolish government and institute a new government as outlined in the Declaration of Independence, 3) the quote from Lincoln (1848) about the right to “shake off the existing government”, or 4) a weird and warped tie to the Hartford Convention of 1814. As I’ve pointed out in a response to a comment, there were many Southerners who identified secession with treason. Just as an example, many Virginians(**) were condemning thoughts of secession in the 1860 Presidential race, equating it with “treason” (most especially within the campaign for Constitutional Unionist John Bell). Some of these same people later sided with the Confederacy, after Lincoln’s call for troops. Since these very people recognized the act of secession as treason, arguments based on numbers 1-4 above are compromised in any efforts to suggest some generalization/blanket statement over all Southerners, or even those who eventually become affiliated with the Confederacy. Note also that I am not saying that ALL Southerners and ALL Confederates were of the same mindset as that exhibited by the Constitutional Unionists. To suggest that would be just as absurd as the suggestion that ALL Confederates were of the belief that they were serving/fighting for states’ rights or that they were all under the impression that they were not party to treason as “defined” under any or all of 1-4 above.

**From the Staunton Spectator

October 23, 1860:

To break up the Government under these circumstances, simply because Lincoln should be elected, would be adding madness to treason.–The danger is in the Cotton States, and not in the North. The spirit of prohibition as represented by Lincoln will be impotent for mischief, but the spirit of disunion, as represented by Yancey and other extremists of the South may be potential for indescribable evils. The people should do all they can to elect the Union loving conservatives, Bell and Everett(***), for then there would be no danger of disunion and civil war.

October 30, 1860:
Calls for those who love the Union to defeat the forces of sectionalism and treason at the ballot box. Spectator believes that the masses do not want disunion, but still hold to party loyalties and thus divide their vote. Claims that to defeat sectionalists, the vote of the masses must be concentrated on the candidacy of John Bell.

November 13, 1860:

It is with deep pain that we announce the triumph of a Northern Sectional party. We have labored earnestly to prevent that result, and supported the only ticket which carried the flag around which all the conservative strength of the country could rally without sacrifice of principle. The ticket we supported bore aloft a national banner around which conservatives North and South should have rallied with the view of preventing the success of sectionalism North or South. Our efforts were unsuccessful, though applied in the right direction, and sectionalism has triumphed over nationality.–Though we are mortified at the success of the Black Republicans in the Presidential election, yet we are rejoiced to know that the elections for Congressmen have resulted in giving us a very safe and decided majority against the Republicans in Congress. The success of the Republicans in the Presidential election is but a barren victory, and its fruits, like the apples of the Dead Sea, will turn to ashes upon their lips. They will have the Executive, but no other branch of the Government, and will, consequently, be impotent for mischief–they will not have the power to do any harm, however much disposed they may be to do so. We have the Senate, the House of Representatives and the Supreme Court in our favor, either one of which would of itself be a sufficient protection to our rights. As we have all three there can, by no possibility, be any danger that our rights can be violated. No law can reach the President for his signature without first having passed both Houses of Congress, and we know that as at present composed no bill violative of our rights can pass either House. So that we are perfectly safe. The President cannot even make an appointment without the consent of the Senate, so that we have nothing to dread in that respect. If we remain united we have nothing to fear from the Black Republicans, because, as before stated, we have both Houses of Congress and the Supreme Court in our favor. The danger is in secession. If several of the Southern States secede, they will leave us in a minority in Congress, where we now have a safe majority. This may be the reason why some of the Southern States are in such a hurry to secede. They think that if they secede and leave us at the mercy of a Black Republican majority in Congress, that we will secede likewise. This is the way in which they expect to drag us into a like destiny with them. They will secede when we have a safe majority and there can be no danger, that we may be left in a minority where danger will threaten, in the confident belief that we will then secede and unite our fortunes with theirs. To secede when there can be no danger would be adding cowardice to treason. To give up when we have the game in our own hands would be cowardly, foolish and criminal. South Carolina, and other States disposed to secede, should remember that comity due to neighboring States should restrain them from taking action without consulting the wishes and interests of other States, particularly such as Virginia which is more deeply interested than all the Cotton States combined. As no man has a right to destroy even his own property when by so doing he will endanger that of his neighbor, so no State has the right to secede when that act will involve other States in the common ruin. Virginia has interests independent of the Cotton States, and she should take care of them in spite of the action of those States.

***Bell carried Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky in the 1860 Presidential vote, largely due to the fracture in the Democratic vote and the split of votes between Breckinridge and Douglas. Nonetheless, the returns show that there were a significant number of people in these three states – as well as Maryland, North Carolina, and Georgia – who understood part of Bell’s message… that secession equated to treason. See this map for an overview of the vote.