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Major J. Scheibert (of the Prussian Army) on Confederate history. A review.

[The editor has held some pleasant correspondence with the chivalrous and genial Major Schiebert during the past few months. Major Schiebert in charming idiomatic English expresses the pleasure that the perusal of the Southern Historical Society Papers affords him. He holds in endeared memory his service in the Confederate army, and transmits many messages of regard to his former comrades and friends. He expresses his intention to translate for the German press articles from the Papers. The editor is not a German scholar. He has availed himself of the kind service of Mr. Charles Poindexter, of the State Library of Virginia, in translating an article recently received from Major Schiebert. The readers of the Papers are indebted to Mr. Poindexter for the article which follows.]

European writings about American, and especially about Southern affairs, are so generally characterized by ignorance and blundering, that it is refreshing to meet anything like intelligent discussion of Confederate history and policy from the pen of a foreigner; and it becomes a grateful pleasure to note and acknowledge the friendly zeal of a foreign student who has intelligently informed himself on the subject, and has endeavored to impart to his fellow-countrymen a true knowledge of the facts of our history, and their significance. [423] The pleasure of acknowledging such historical discussion is enhanced, when, as is the case with the matter in hand, the foreign writer is an old friend of the South, who evinced his interest, in the first place, by a visit to us during the war, and since that time has shown his zealous interest by several books and papers relating to us and our history.

The name and presence of Major J. Scheibert, of the Prussian Engineer Corps, will be remembered by many old soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia, with which this accomplished German officer saw some service during the Chancellorsville and Gettysburg campaigns. The respect and esteem won for himself while here is evinced by the friendly admiration in which his name and memory are yet held by his comrades and acquaintances of that period. The results of his observations and the impressions made during that sojourn among us were embodied in a little volume (‘Sieben Monate in den Rebellen Staaten’), published in 1868; a work marked by such good sense and power of observation that it well deserves translation as a valuable contribution to the history of the times. Subsequently, in 1874, there came from his pen a volume of military studies of the war (‘Der Burgerkrieg in N. Amerika’), in which the Major does justice and pays intelligent tribute to the ability and skill of our leaders. The value of this work, as an able discussion, from a military standpoint, of the subject treated, may be inferred from its esteem abroad, where its importance as a professional treatise is evidenced by the fact that a society of French officers deemed it worthy of translation into their language. Intelligent criticism is always to be welcomed, even if it sometimes discovers our faults. The more welcome is it, of course, when it resolves itself, as Major Scheibert's comments often do, into a eulogy of our people, and finds so much to admire in the splendid abilities and achievements of Lee and his fellow-officers and soldiers.

In a Berlin journal of recent date Major Scheibert has again contributed a series of articles to the literature of the subject, and in a manner that entitles him anew to our respect and gratitude. In this latest utterance he has attempted to enlighten the dense ignorance of his fellow-countrymen on the historical and political questions of our great controversy. In an admirable series of short studies of the subject, these questions and the material facts of our history are presented in a light that is doubtless new and surprising to his readers; who, getting their ideas of American history from partisan sources bitterly hostile to the Confederacy and all it represented, have generally [424] looked upon us with the feelings of contempt meted to ‘Rebels,’ in the European sense of that word. In a brief resume of our history, tracing it down from the Colonial period to the adoption of the Constitution, and thence to the outbreak of the war in 1861, Major Scheibert cites the facts and states the arguments, so familiar to us, but unknown and novel to the vast majority of his countrymen; and from these facts and arguments shows how unmeaning and absurd is the stigma of ‘Rebels,’ as applied to the people of the Confederacy. In reciting this history for the enlightenment of his countrymen, he had not only to meet and counteract the belief, almost universal among European nations, that the institution of slavery was the casus belli, but also to refute the assumption that the emancipation of a down-trodden race and the achievement for them of human freedom were the original purpose and direct intention of the war on the part of the North. In the opinion of probably nine out of ten foreigners the Southern people were, and are, regarded as the inhuman oppressors of their fellow-beings, the champions of a detested cause, alike hostile to the spirit of American institutions and opposed to the genius of modern freedom and civilization.

It is not necessary in this notice to repeat to readers familiar with the history the facts and arguments by which Major Scheibert shows the groundlessness and falsity of such an assumption and such charges. It is, however, a pleasure to express our satisfaction and gratitude that the studies of at least one German of intellect and character have supplied him with the facts and arguments of the case, and that his friendly zeal has prompted his utterance in an attempt to prove to his countrymen the co-equal responsibility of the North for the original institution and continued existence of slavery in this country, and to show that emancipation followed the war, not as the original intention and purpose of the Northern government, but as a measure of military and political expediency, that was disowned and denounced at the time of and even after the outbreak of the war. The prejudice against us, prevalent among European peoples, was the foundation of that hostile public opinion that enlisted against us the so-called moral sentiment of the world, from which it followed that practically we were fighting the world. It is highly probable that the results of this foreign prejudice, favorable to the enemy but pregnant with threats to us, were so disastrous as to nullify the effects of splendid victories and achievements on our part, and it is no exaggeration to say that they multiplied the privations and sufferings of every man, woman and child in the Confederacy. [425]

Despite, however, this adverse opinion, so prejudicial to us, intelligent thinkers in Europe have been puzzled to account for the display of intellect, courage and devotion exhibited during four long years in the achievements and endurance of a people whom they have been taught to look on as a horde of semi-barbarous rebels.

That Major Schiebert has endeavored to dispel this prejudice and enlighten his countrymen by presenting to them an able statement and argument of the case, on historical grounds, is a fact honorable to him as the acknowledgment of it is grateful and pleasing to his friends here.

The following translation of a few of the more important paragraphs of Major Scheibert's article will illustrate his style and mode of presenting this subject:

Besides the differences of race and religion, nature itself, through the varied geograpical position of the States had created relations of such varied character that: not only must conflict ensue, but the least law affecting the whole Union often aroused diametrically and sharply opposed interests; the consequences of which were to embitter sectional opinions to an intolerable degree.

When the North demanded tariff protection for their industries as against European competition, the Southern States insisted upon free trade, so as not to be compelled to buy the costly products of the North. The New England States strove for concentration of power in the national government; the Southerners believed that the independence of the individual States must be maintained, and when the Southerners demanded protection for their labor, which was performed by imported negroes, the North answered with evasion of the laws, while, in direct opposition to these laws, it denied to the master the right to his escaped negroes. From any point of view, there existed, and exist to-day, interests almost irreconcilably opposed, which make it difficult for the most earnest student of American affairs to find the certain clew in such a tangled labyrinth. The difficulty in the present undertaking is to make good the fact that the so-called Confederates, who have been by almost all German writers represented as “Rebels,” stood firm upon a ground of right and law.

If the central government at Washington was the soverign power, then the (Southern) States were in the wrong, and their citizens were simply rebels. If, on the other hand, the individual States were separate and sovereign political bodies, then their secession, independent [426] of considerations of expediency or selfishness, was a politically justifiable withdrawal from a previous limited alliance; and in this case it was the duty of citizens of the States to go with their States. As a proper consequence of these different views, the Federals considered as a traitor every citizen who opposed the central government, however his individual State may have determined; while the Confederates, after the declaration of war on the part of the Union, looked on the Federalists indeed as enemies, but considered as traitors only those citizens, who, in opposition to the vote of their States, yet adhered to the Union. * * * * * * Instead of enquiring into emotion and sympathies, the question is an historical one as to the origin of the Union; that is, to seek in the founding of the United States, in what relation—at that time—the States stood to the central government, the mode of their covenant, and how the relation of the several States to the common union was developed. The colonies, therefore, united not because the citizens in general were oppressed by the British Government, but because one colony felt, whether rightly or not, that it was oppressed and insulted as an independent political body. In the first movement of independence was exhibited clearly the conciousness that the colonies felt themselves separate political bodies. Even at that time the assembly of delegates designated itself as a congress of ‘twelve independent political bodies,’ and in this Union each of the colonies issued its separate declaration. In May, 1775, the delegates of the thirteen colonies met in their first congress, in which the first permanent Union was founded; which was ratified by each colony as a separate body, as one by one they entered the Union, &c., &c.

Let us suppose, by way of illustration, that German citizens with the best good will to the Empire, yet found that intolerable differences, year by year, bred contention and bitterness; that Prussians, Suabians or Bavarians, or any group of States, should determine on separation from the Empire. Such separation might be condemned as unpatriotic, inopportune, and unloyal, and an attempt might be made by force of arms to bring back the seceded members to the Empire, but no one would denounce as traitors the individual Prussians, Suabians or Bavarians, because, as citizens of their respective fatherlands, they have submitted to the decision of their individual States—Prussia, Wurtemburg or Bavaria. The odium would be cast upon the States, and not on the citizens. And yet a great part of the German press has not hesitated to brand as traitors to their [427] country such men as General R. E. Lee—men of the highest honor, who, though with heavy heart, but followed the lead of their mother State.

If for clearer statement of the argument the German Empire is cited as an illustration, it must yet be expressly observed that the several States of the Union had much more right to withdraw from the common alliance than the members of the German Empire will ever have; for the latter are united with their free will, without reservation, and in loyal agreement of their lawful princes and their States. The United States, however, were founded not only as the result of a revolution, but they have solemnly and for all time sanctioned revolution as the basis of their State structure, as witness the Declaration of Independence. Language could not be clearer in pointing the way for the guidance of American citizens dissatisfied with their government; so clearly is it prescribed that there can be no doubt of a moral justification of such a step for the citizens; and, if these have the power and majority in their several States, there is an equal moral right in the States to change a government whose misdeeds and usurpations, in their opinion, threaten them with despotism. * * * * * * *

At most the question to be decided is, whether the dissatisfactions were light and transient, or whether the usurpations were intolerable. The Southern States believed the latter to be the case. We may not here anticipate the judgment of later and impartial history, but we must distinctly maintain, in accordance with the clear tenor of the Declaration of Independence, that even if the uneasiness were inconsiderable, the States have at most acted unwisely, but in no case as traitors or rebels. * * * * With the question as to the origin of the war, the enemies of the South have mingled another—the slavery question—which strictly does not belong to it. This slavery question was inscribed on the banners of the war, when it was seen that thereby could be enlisted on the side of the North the sympathies of the old world, and of a great part of their own inhabitants, especially of the German immigrants. This question could never legally be the cause of the war, for the Constitution expressly says that the question of slavery should be regulated by the State legislatures. * * * * At the time of the founding of the Union, eleven of the thirteen States were slave-holding, and it is a remarkable fact that it then occurred to no writer nor humanitarian in America or Europe even to think that this ownership (of slaves) was a wrong or a crime. It is enough to say that the institution was accepted not only [428] as a matter of course, but that it was also especially protected, the farming interest being granted an increased suffrage in proportion to the number of negroes on their plantations. * * * * * Even in the last days, before the outbreak of war, when the press and demagogues raised the slavery question in order to inflame the masses, the statesman (of the North) carefully avoided such a blunder, since the slavery question was not the ground of the war, and could not be proclaimed as such.

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