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Boo-Birds and Soreheads

Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States of America

Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States of America

In the past, I have been critical of what I sneeringly referred to as the Confederate States of America. Now, as I am slowly working my way through the second volume of Shelby Foote’s magnificent The Civil War: A Narrative, I realize that further distinctions need to be made.

On the Southern side were such admirable and talented men as Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, and such great generals as Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Nathan Bedford Forrest (though the latter, as founder of the Ku Klux Klan, was not terribly admirable).

Where I was mistaken is that certain political partisans, such as the Tea Partiers, have more in common with the people who were like a saddle sore to Davis and Lee. The diminutive Alexander Stephens, Davis’s Vice President, got so disgruntled by the politics of Richmond that he just moved back to his home state of Georgia and stayed there. The Confederate paper dollar plummeted in value, eventually sinking to one-twelfth the value of a gold dollar. As Foote writes:

[T]here were many behind the southern lines who disagreed with [Davis]; who were also for peace, but only on Union terms. Some had lost heart as a result of the recent reverses [at Gettysburg and Vicksburg], while other had had no heart for the war in the first place. The latter formed a hard core of resistance around which the former gathered in numbers that increased with every Federal success. It was these men Davis had in mind when, after referring to “threats of alienation” and “preparation for organized opposition.”

I cannot help but think that the Limbaughs and Hannities of our time would also have fought against their government at Richmond. There is a certain strain of sorehead or boo-bird that is incompatible with any leader who is actually trying to accomplish something even halfway laudable—even if we were to assume that States’ Rights was a laudable goal (which I myself do not).

After Gettysburg, Lee asked Davis to be relievbed of his command.  Davis responded with a heartfelt letter that made the Army of Northern Virginia take back his resignation:

RICHMOND, VA., August 11, 1863.


Commanding Army of Northern Virginia.

GENERAL : Yours of the 8th instant has been received. I am glad that you concur so entirely with me as to the wants of our country in this trying hour, and am happy to add that, after the first depression consequent upon our disasters in the West, indications have appeared that our people will exhibit that fortitude which we agree in believing is alone needful to secure ultimate success.

It well became Sidney Johnston, when overwhelmed by a senseless clamor, to admit the rule that success is the test of merit, and yet there is nothing which I have found to require a greater effort of patience than to bear the criticisms of the ignorant, who pronounce everything a failure which does not equal their expectations or desires, and can see no good result which is not in the line of their own imaginings. I admit the propriety of your conclusions, that an officer who loses the confidence of his troops should have his position changed, whatever may be his ability; but when I read the sentence, I was not at all prepared for the application you were about to make. Expressions of discontent in the public journals furnish but little evidence of the sentiment of an army. I wish it were otherwise, even though all the abuse of my self should be accepted as the results of honest observation.

Were you capable of stooping to it, you could easily surround yourself with those who would fill the press with your laudations and seek to exalt you for what you have not done, rather than detract from the achievements which will make you and your army the subject of history, and object of the world’s admiration for generations to come.

I am truly sorry to know that you still feel the effects of the illness you suffered last spring, and can readily understand the embarrassments you experience in using the eyes of others, having been so much accustomed to make your own reconnoissances. Practice will, however, do much to relieve that embarrassment, and the minute knowledge of the country which you have acquired will render you less dependent for topographical information.

But suppose, my dear friend, that I were to admit, with all their implications, the points which you present, where am I to find that new commander who is to possess the greater ability which you believe to be required ? I do not doubt the readiness with which you would give way to one who could accomplish all that you have wished, and you will do me the justice to believe that, if Providence should kindly offer such a person for our use, I would not hesitate to avail of his services.

My sight is not sufficiently penetrating to discover such hidden merit, if it exists, and I have but used to you the language of sober earnestness, when I have impressed upon you the propriety of avoiding all unnecessary exposure to danger, because I felt your country could not bear to lose you. To ask me to substitute you by someone in my judgment more fit to command, or who would possess more of the confidence of the army, or of reflecting men in the country, is to demand an impossibility.

It only remains for me to hope that you will take all possible care of yourself, that your health and strength may be entirely restored, and that the Lord will preserve you for the important duties devolved upon you in the struggle of our suffering country for the independence of which we have engaged in war to maintain.

As ever, very respectfully and truly,


I take back my words about the Confederates States of America. Even in the South, there were Archangels, and there were also malignant spirits.

3 thoughts on “Boo-Birds and Soreheads

  1. With respect, I disagree. In the first place, the Civil War wasn’t ultimately about “states’ rights”, it was about chattel slavery. States’ rights was no more a valid argument then than it is now, when many of the red states are trying to nullify federal laws they don’t like.

    Keeping that in mind, calling Jeff Davis an Archangel is a bit of a stretch. Eloquent, yes. Generous and loyal to those who deserved it, yes. Being faithful to the wrong cause when others were not might be a sign of personal character, but it doesn’t rise to being a high-office representative of God herself.

  2. To the South, the bone of contention was States’ Rights; to the North, it was Slavery. They were fighting at cross-purposes, it seems.

  3. Strangely , we may have avoided the whole thing if they had not been at cross purposes. The real scary thing is the current group we have in Washington is doing exactly the same thing right now , that was done by the group who gave us the civil war. Maybe different subject matter but the same mind set .
    I have always loved the statement that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it

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