by Andy Hall
One of the canon beliefs of the modern Southron Heritage™ movement is that blame for all the violence and bloodshed that followed the Southern states' secession lies, solely and completely, at the feet of Abraham Lincoln and his administration. Had the Southern states been allowed to "peacefully secede," none of the "late unpleasantness" would have happened.
The actions or missteps of the major players in the path to secession are always open to historical discussion and analysis. What's invariably missing from the arguments of those who now actively defend the secession of South Carolina and the states that followed is a recognition that, at the time, the conflict over slavery and secession was anything but peaceful. It was often direct, personal, and angry, and sometimes led to violence and murder. Supporters of secession across the South organized local vigilante committees to root out those they thought disloyal to the cause, and silence them one way or another, either through intimidation or violence. Years of inflammatory speeches, editorials and demagoguery by the fire-eaters created an environment across the South where dissent -- or even suspicion of dissent -- was often met with threats and violence.
This letter, included in the Texas State Library's online exhibit, "Under the Rebel Flag: Life in Texas During the Civil War," is an example of the tactics employed by the secessionist vigilante committees. It was written a few weeks after Texas' secession, to a man named A. Newman, suspected by the committee of having abolitionist sympathies:
May 28th 1861.
Mr. A. Newman.
It has been reported to the Committee of safety of this County that you have expressed abolition sentiments before truthful and trust-worthy citizens living in our midst and as the present crisis will admit of no such expressions we are authorised [sic] to advise you to leave our Country at once, or at least within thirty days from this time. Else you will be dealt with according to Mob law. The excellence of your family against whom no one can say ought is the only reason of the above extension of time.
We sincerely hope you will not put us to the painful necessity of putting our designs into execution.
Prepare therefore and leave as you will be carefully watched and should you heedlessly disregard the above warning, your friends if you have any, will deeply regret your folly.
By order of the secret
Committee of Safety
I don't know who exactly A. Newman was, or what happened to him. There were a number of men by that name in the state in 1860, several of them German immigrants, who as a group generally tended to support the Union. Perhaps A. Newman was one of those men.
In my research queue right now at a couple of cases where men suspected of abolitionist or Unionist sympathies were murdered by secessionist "vigilance committees" in my area early in the war, so the threat in this letter was very real. There's nothing peaceful, or particularly honorable, about that. This letter, and the tactics it represents, is the ugly, dark side of lofty arguments about "states' rights" personal liberties and the Bonnie Blue Flag. Today's self-described "Southern Confederate Americans" will happily count off the ways the Lincoln administration worked to silence its critics in the North, but remain curiously silent about the threats and violence used by dozens or hundreds of local "committees of safety" formed across the South.