The Trumpization of Civil War history

As a general rule, I am not a fan of the term “history buff”.  Whenever I see someone referred to as a “history buff”, I tend to become a little irritated.  In my mind, history buffs collect the Civil War Chess Set and Stonewall Jackson beer steins.  Historians do research and then usually present their findings in one way or another.  Just because you read history doesn’t mean you are a historian, just as the fact you can speak English does not mean you could be an English teacher, you know?

So when I read about Paul LePage, Governor of Maine (and living example of how the combination of poor anger management and eating too much poutine is really bad for you), making the (to me) astounding claim that 7,600 men from Maine fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, I nearly coughed Coke Zero through my nose.  

Allow me to place some context here.

For over 25 years I have been studying the Civil War.  I have a degree in history and my thesis was on Unionism in Kentucky.  Southern Unionism is one of my specialty fields, and part of that research was trying to find examples of Northerners fighting for the South.  While there were some 100,000 men from the states of the Confederacy who volunteered to fight for the Union, plus another 150,000 plus from the border states, plus at least 100,000 slaves who volunteered to enlist in the Union Army, there simply was no large-scale equivalent going in the other direction.

Are there scattered examples of individual Northern men choosing to side with the Confederacy?  Sure – men like Bushrod Johnson and John Pemberton, men who had lived in the South for years before the war and/or had Southern wives.  But while there were individuals, there were no large-scale enlistments from any Northern state, with one minor exception*.  There was no 1st Ohio Infantry, C.S.A. or 1st Minnesota Cavalry, C.S.A.  But there were units like the 1st Alabama Cavalry, U.S.A. and the 1st Tennessee Cavalry, U.S.A.  We know this because rosters and other documentation exist for these units.  They are mentioned in the Official Records of the war.  There are photographs of men in these units.

So what records exist of these men that Governor LePage claims fought for the Confederacy?

I’m guessing none.  Because that’s how Governor LePage rolls.

There is some evidence that students from Bowdoin College and other Maine institutes of higher learning went South to fight for the Confederacy, but that number is well under 50, and those students were probably from the South to begin with.

But like a certain President we know, LePage doesn’t let silly things like facts or reality get in the way of a good Civil War story.  Both men seem to have some sort of love affair with a fictional, idealized idea of the Civil War, what I like to call the “moonlight and magnolias” version of the war.  This version is somewhat perpetuated by United Daughters of the Confederacy, Sons of Confederate Veterans, and many Confederate reenactors and other neo-Confederates.  Margaret Mitchell is their unofficial goddess, as Gone With the Wind as a book and a movie has done  more to perpetuate the Lost Cause Myth than virtually anything else in all of American popular culture, Birth of a Nation included.**  Sorry, film fans, but it’s true.

So if you are the sort of person who prefers Confederate fan fiction to the actual history (*cough* Guns of the South *cough*), then be sure to get all of your history from Fox News and chain emails like these two idiots and you will never go wrong.  Because they are never wrong.

-Geoff

*There is a documented example of a group of men from Southern Illinois going to Tennessee and enlisting in a Confederate unit there.  But it was two or three dozen, not hundreds or thousands.

**I can’t talk about the Lost Cause myth without bringing up that godawful film called Gods and Generals.  That film is so horrifically pro-Confederate that I honestly think Ron Maxwell let Sons of Confederate Veterans write the script for him.  I wish I could link the old review done by Mr. Cranky, but it doesn’t seem to be around anymore.  Oh well.

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