A reflection on The South Carolina Secession Ball


Fort Sumter Ball

South Carolinians celebrate the taking of Fort Sumter each year at the Fort Sumter Ball -- this photo from the 2010 event.

News item: Monday, Dec. 20, 2010 the Confederate Heritage Trust will host The Secession Ball in Charleston, S.C., marking the 150th anniversary of South Carolina’s decision to initiate the Southern secession from the Union.  At this $100 per person “event of a lifetime,” table sponsors (encouraged to wear period militia costumes) will have the opportunity to be photographed with “the ORIGINAL ORDINANCE” of secession.

Once upon a time, we were wealthy.

(At least, some of us were.)

And we measured our estates not in acres

as they did in the mercantile North
nor by crops produced
as they did in the money-mad North
but by souls.

Souls!

As empires have always been measured.

“How many souls owe tribute to you?
I receive the tribute of a thousand souls.
My empire is greater than your empire of eight hundred.”

And each of my thousand souls owed its own peculiar tribute:

So many back-bending bales of cotton plucked from the bolls and hauled.

So many eye-wearying stitches carefully threaded through elegant draperies and linens.

So many butterbeans shelled, hogs killed and cured, dazzling dinners prepared for Sunday guests.

So many reluctant embraces granted away from the sight of a broomstick spouse

So many searing welts landed when all else fails.

Yes, once upon a time we were wealthy.

And tonight, we shall remember.

Related Links:
South Carolina Secession Ball web site 
The State, 12/16/10: Celebrate or Commemorate: Debate Rages
Institute for Southern Studies: The Secession Ball’s Revisionist History

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About Carlene Byron

Writer, editor, publicist, communications project manager ... I've written technology and infrastructure; I used to edit New England Church Life and The New England Christian and I've freelanced to publications ranging from Commonweal to Christianity Today. I'm now living in my hometown in Maine and am speaking about global perspectives on suicide prevention.
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5 Responses to A reflection on The South Carolina Secession Ball

  1. Cornelius P. Donovan says:

    This poem is a wonderful piece of writing, and at least partially true; but let us not bring up the lot of the common worker in the north at the time of the so called “Civil War”. Suffice it to say, that in many ways the treatment of immigrant labor in the North, at this time mostly Irish, did not compare favorably with that of the bond slave of the South. Irish were disposable, slaves were expensive investments. By and large however, I have to side with the people who will be celebrating the anniversary.
    As a historian I have to realistically look at an issue from all sides, and most importantly I have to avoid Historicism, i.e. the imposition of modern ideas and attitudes on the past. First, slavery was legal, period. Distasteful to modern people, but undeniably a fact of life that existed. It was also an economic fact that a huge amount of capital was invested in it, equivalent to billions of dollars in todays money. To have out of hand made the possession of slaves illegal without some kind of repayment to those who had so much invested in them would have been patently illegal under the constitution, i.e. no due process, and probably some form of emminent domain would have been called for as well. In fact Lincoln proposed an amendment to the Constitution that would have done this gradually. But there was no way that the Federal government could have afforded to pay for them. It would have been as if the Congress had declared that it was illegal to own a mill or factory in the North and to have confiscated them from the Northern business interests who owned them without any form of compensation.The very idea was unthinkable (though not so unthinkable now, think GM).
    Second: The idea that the soldiers who gathered on both sides were doing so over the issue of slavery is ludicrous. The soldiers of the North were sold the idea that somehow the Southern states were engaged in some sort of illegal activity by secession from the Union (not true by the way, see below). If they had been told that they were going into war to free their “colored brethren” they would have most likely deserted. They simply didn’t care about slaves. As far as the soldiers of the South, their reason for fighting was very clear. They were being invaded by a foreign army. They were defending their homes and families. In fact the very term,”Civil War” is a misnomer. By definition a civil war occurs when two or more competing factions within a country fight to control the whole. The Confederacy was only interested in obtaining its independence. They were in no way interested in holding sway over ANY northern state. Not so the forces illegally called up by President Lincoln. They were invaders pure and simple. If the war had been about eliminating slavery, then why not free all the slaves held in the North? Or the border states? The “Emancipation Proclamation” did not free a single slave. It was merely a propoganda device very cleverly used by Lincoln to keep Great Britain and France out of the war. If McClellan had been any more incompetant at Antietam and his so called victory, tactically marginal at best, had been a clearcut Confederate victory instead, then most likely the “Emancipation Proclamation” would never have seen the light of day and President Lincoln would have been receiving visits from the English and French Ambassadors informing him that their countries were bestowing full recognition on the Confederates States of America. End of war.
    To revisit the idea of whether it had been legal for the states of the Confederacy to secede, consider the Constitutional Ratification documents from the Sovereign states of New York, Rhode Island and Virginia.
    New York, fourth paragraph: “That the powers of government may be reassumed by the people whensoever it shall become necessary to their happiness; that every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by the said Constitution clearly delegated to the Congress of the United States, or the departments of the government thereof, remains to the people of the several states, or to their respective state governments, to whom they may have granted the same; and that those clauses in the said Constitution, which declare that Congress shall not have or exercise certain powers, do not imply that Congress is entitled to any powers not given by the said Constitution; but such clauses are to be construed either as exceptions to certain specified powers, or as inserted merely for greater caution.”
    Rhode Island, article III: “That the powers of government may be reassumed by the people whensoever it shall become necessary to their happiness. That the rights of the states respectively to nominate and appoint all state officers, and every other power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by the said Constitution clearly delegated to the Congress of the United States, or to the departments of government thereof, remain to the people of the several states, or their respective state governments, to whom they may have granted the same; and that those clauses in the Constitution which declare that Congress shall not have or exercise certain powers, do not imply that Congress is entitled to any powers not given by the said Constitution; but such clauses are to be construed as exceptions to certain specified powers, or as inserted merely for greater caution.”
    Virginia, in their opening paragraph: WE the Delegates of the people of Virginia, duly elected in pursuance of a recommendation from the General Assembly, and now met in Convention, having fully and freely investigated and discussed the proceedings of the Federal Convention, and being prepared as well as the most mature deliberation hath enabled us, to decide thereon, DO in the name and in behalf of the people of Virginia, declare and make known that the powers granted under the Constitution, being derived from the people of the United States may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression, and that every power not granted thereby remains with them and at their will: that therefore no right of any denomination, can be cancelled, abridged, restrained or modified, by the Congress, by the Senate or House of Representatives acting in any capacity, by the President or any department or officer of the United States, except in those instances in which power is given by the Constitution for those purposes: and that among other essential rights, the liberty of conscience and of the press cannot be cancelled, abridged, restrained or modified by any authority of the United States.
    All three of these states stated in very plain language that they reserved the right to opt out of our little Federal arrangement when ever it suited them. And if they could do it, then any of them could do it.
    I accept that slavery existed. The true revisionists are those who embrace the modern idea that the war was all about slavery. Yes it was an issue. But it was not the primary issue. Those who today discount the issue of States Rights are engaging in a conscious desceit, are engaging in historicism or are plain ignorant. The real issue was more one of who was going to be in control. The free and sovereign states that Formed the Federal Government for their own purposes, or those who wanted a Unitary government. The only thing is, the winners (the Unitary government people) never fixed the Constitution after the war. They didn’t remove the 10th amendment for one thing. Also consider this, look at the timelines for the 13th and 14th amendments. They are very interesting. The 13th was ratified on December 6, 1865. In fact 8 of the 11 former Confederate states ratified it. Now let us consider the 14th amendment. It was ratified July 9, 1868. You might ask why is there a three year gap between the two amendments. I’ll tell you. It is because the states of the Confederacy refused to ratify it. Look at the text, specifically sections 3 and 4 which are ignored nowadays. Look at them from the perspective of those southerners asked to ratify it:
    Section 3. No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may, by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.
    Section 4. The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.
    To have ratified it would have been tantamount to disenfranchising themselves. And it removed all hope of reimbursing those who had had their “Property” stripped from them with no compensation. Would YOU have ratified it? I wouldn’t!
    When the Radical Republicans lost the first vote of ratification for the 14th amendment what happened? They removed the legally elected governments of those states at bayonette point with Federal Troops and occupied them. They refused to seat the legally elected Federal Representatives and Senators of those states and then disenfranchised all veterans etc… in accordance with the text of the 14th amendment and appointed officials more in agreement with their ideas and then made ratification of the 14th amendment a condition of their recognition as states and their readmission back into the Union. Now I ask you, isn’t it true that a state has to be a member of the Union before it can ratify an amendment to the Constitution? If the former states of the Confederacy were not legally states, and were NOT members of the Union, then how could they ratify said amendment? Makes you wonder doesn’t it? I am not so sure if the 14th amendment is actually legal at all.
    Don’t even go into the “Black Codes” of the South. When the Civil War ended, 19 of 24 Northern states did not allow blacks to vote. Nowhere did they serve on juries before 1860. They could not give testimony in 10 states, and were prevented from assembling in two. Several western states had prohibited free blacks from entering the state. Blacks who entered Illinois and stayed more than 10 days were guilty of “high misdemeanor.” Even those that didn’t exclude blacks debated doing so and had discriminatory ordinances on the local level. The so called “Free States” were far from it.
    Many of the modern experts will tell you how unfair the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was, but it was a Federal law, duly ruled Constitutional by the Supreme Court. And yet most Northern States passed laws refusing to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act? These same experts will tell you that “Nullification” is unconstitutional. Really? I think not. You can’t have it both ways.
    Now enough of what I have to say, what do you think?

  2. You raise lots of valid points, Neal; and of course what can be said in a poem and an essay are quite different. I think that one point I was trying to get across is, in fact, something that you did raise: that the outcome of the war was to decimate the Southern economy and disenfranchise the region’s prior leadership. These are historical abstractions for most people; I’ve actually met someone whose family lost their farm because all the sons who would have run it were killed in the war.

    All that just to say that I agree — the South was fighting for States Rights, but the specific rights they were concerned about were the rights to manage their economy in a way that the rest of the federated states, and the rest of the world, was beginning to question. The Ordinance of Secession makes specific reference to “the peculiar institution” that South Carolina sought to preserve; the “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina From the Federal Union,” produced four days later, makes the exact nature of that “peculiar institution” entirely clear.

    The economic change the South was facing if slavery were ended would be devastating: on the order of what globalization is beginning to be for the American empire today. And I suppose for a strict constructionist like yourself, ordering slaves freed is kind of like having a federal minimum wage, or OSHA, or food and drug laws. Because some employers consider every one of those to be legalized government theft of their property. Personally, I consider them to be valuable protections of our common good. And while we will always debate over time as to what protections are of such importance to us all that they should be federal protections, we have come at least to agreement that slavery is wrong.

    What I think you might find interesting, since you are an historian, is some of the Southern history that we’ve been fortunate to read since moving here. Much of it has been written in the past 20 years, so I missed it in my college history classes. I would commend: “Blood Done Sign My Name” by Timothy Tyson (about a lynching during our freshman year of high school); “Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot and Its Legacy” (about the only coup d’etat in the history of our country); “Lay that Trumpet in Our Hands” (a novel about standing up to the Klan in Florida); “In the Warmth of Other Suns” (about the Great Migration north); “The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921” (one of my relatives was shot in this riot).

    Learning is fun, eh, Neal?

  3. Omari M. Wilson says:

    As an African American, I am highly offended that anyone would attempt to put forth any argument to justify the enslavement and brutalization of human beings. To suggest that the experience of the immigrant Irish in the North did not compare favorably with that of the bond slave of the South because Irish were disposable while slaves were expensive investments is to trivialize and justify such a brutal, horrid practice in the trade of human souls and the near destruction of the culture of an entire race of people. Just because something is legal doesn’t mean that it’s right or moral. I seriously question the thought processes and intelligence of anyone who would attempt to do something as foolish and callous as to justify and defend the institution of slavery in this country or anywhere else in the world.

    To suggest that the federal government should have compensated slaveowners for the illegalization of slavery under some kind of emminent domain structure is utterly ridiculous. I understand fully that African people were to be regarded solely as property of another, mostly white men. That concept is most objectionable in my mind, and any defense of any wrongly held property rights in slaves is completely shocking to me. Anyone who would make such an argument seems to be not too far from waving the banner in support of such a horrible practice of that of slavery. The last time I checked, thieves are not compensated for their “loss” when the authorities confiscate items or moneys that were stolen. Why should the federal government compensate any slaveowner for the loss of slaves through the abolishment of slavery when those brutal, racist slaveowners never had any business, or more importantly, any right to own any other human being? The right of the slaves to live as free human beings resoundingly trumps any slaveowners’ right to own slaves. That will also be the case regardless whatever Constitutional argument you wish to manufacture.

    If these lost, ignorant people want to continue to get together and waste their money and time celebrating a period in history that is and should be long gone, that’s their business as long as no tax dollars are going to fund that foolishness. I don’t respect any celebration that glories and justifies the ownership and brutalization of human beings.

    • Omari, I very much appreciate your work toward reparation of the losses that were sustained well into our lifetimes, as justice failed (and fails) to be equally served. I’m not sure there’s any way the immediate post-war period could have been handled that would have prevented the sense of personal loss and wave of personal resentment that fueled the subsequent history — and the repression of that history, as complete as the 50-year obliteration of Holocaust history from German schoolbooks.

      And of course, we all need to deal with what Pulitzer Prize-winner Isabel Wilkerson so trenchantly documents: that riots in the North pretty much did the same job that lynchings did in the South. That while a Negro was hung or burned alive every four days over a period of five decades (starting in the 1890s) in the Southern states, a rather remarkable number of Negroes were being killed during the same period in white-incited riots in Northern states. You probably remember that my father’s great-aunt was non-fatally shot while standing on her porch — allegedly just watching — in Tulsa, but I can only explain the pattern of her injuries if she was holding a rifle. I’m not proud of this, but to the extent it forces me to become part of the history, I’m glad, if you know what I mean.

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