William B. Turner
It’s a gift that keeps on giving! Someone pointed out on Twitter that the number of Republicans resigning from Congress is at a forty-four year high. I checked and found a story making that claim here. My first thought was, huh, forty four years ago was 1974, the year Nixon resigned from office. Isn’t that interesting? Sort of bookends to a political era. We can hope.
Then it occurred to me — a huge problem for the Confederate Army during the closing days of the Civil War was desertion. Confederate generals posted soldiers behind the lines to shoot anyone who tried to run away. This problem fed into Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s attrition strategy — Grant didn’t care if he won any given battle, because he knew he could always field more troops than the Confederacy could, so all he had to do was bleed them dry. As long as he continued to inflict considerable casualties on the Confederate armies, he would win.
Grant may or may not have known about the wound the Confederacy inflicted on itself. Secession was always only the idea of the largest slave owners and their allies. It held no benefit at all for most people in the South. What is now West Virginia, the mountainous region in the northwest corner of Virginia, which never had many slaves, seceded from the state of Virginia after Virginia seceded from the Union because they saw no good in joining the Confederate cause. Throughout the period when the South was solidly Democratic, beginning before the Civil War and continuing through the early 1970s, when the white supremacists left for the Republican Party because Democratic president Lyndon Johnson had taken the lead in passing major civil rights legislation, which was anathema to most white southerners, east Tennessee, the mountainous part of the state, with few slaves, was solidly Republican and never wanted to secede. They bordered no Union territory, so becoming a separate state was not a viable option for them.
Regardless, sort of in anticipation of the bad idea of voting for Donald Trump, lots of ordinary southerners, most of whom never owned any slaves, signed up to defend their “homeland,” sort of like defending Confederate monuments as symbols of their “heritage.” Neither idea makes much sense. The Confederate Congress only exacerbated the problem in 1862 when it passed a conscription act to ensure sufficient troops for the Confederate Army. That Act included what we now know as the “Twenty Negro Rule,” according to which any man who owned 20 or more slaves was exempt from the Confederate draft on the logic that his labor was more valuable at home supervising his slaves for war time production than serving in the military as a soldier or officer.
There is a fascinating memoir by a man from Tennessee who served in the Confederate Army from the beginning of the War to the end, called Company H. He reports that many Confederate troops expressed outrage at the 20 Negro Rule, setting up the cry of “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.” The Rule only exacerbated the problem the Confederate Army had keeping enough troops to continue fighting the War.
In some sense, the Republican leadership, if we may call it that, in Congress stands to the rank and file members who are now quitting in droves as Confederate generals stood to ordinary Confederate soldiers, except that Congressional leaders do not have the option of threatening to shoot resigning members of Congress to try to keep them at their posts.
But the analogy holds nicely in terms of how secession was never good for most people, just as the Republican policy agenda, such as it is, has never been good for most people, but a lot of ordinary people were willing to be foot soldiers in the Republican Army for no apparent reason. Given that they have nothing worthwhile to fight for, once they had a thoroughly incompetent general like Donald Trump at the head of their Army, it became very difficult for the ordinary soldiers to justify their service, so they’re quitting.
Keep on quitting, girls and boys.