I have to admit, I began reading Roger D. McGrath’s article “The Real McCoy,” (Sins of Omission, August) about Tim McCoy with the suspicion that he was just pulling my leg, but was drawn in enough to read it to the end. There really are people in this world like Tim McCoy, whose lives keep people like McGrath and others busy telling their tales over and over.
I’m more of an “armchair cowboy,” enamored by the romance of that world, but not one to live in it. It is a fascinating part of the American story, even if some of it is fanciful. Two favorite books of characters from the Old West are The Nicest Fella: The Life of Ben Johnson, by Richard D. Jensen, self-published in 2010, and Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry, by Holly George-Warren (Oxford University Press, 2007).
Ben Johnson really was an Oklahoma cowboy, and lived and died in a gated community where I lived in Mesa, Arizona, for a few years. I liked him best as Marshall Dave Bliss in Clint Eastwood’s 1968 film Hang ’Em High. I grew up as a kid going to the Saturday matinee for ten cents to see Gene Autry, my favorite. He had an interesting early career and was a good role model for the kids, but his later life as a cowboy (before he became a businessman) was an unhappy episode.
Thanks for publishing Roger McGrath’s story. It caused me to dig out the Johnson and Autry books again and relive the lives of two really great cowboys.
—Ronald E. Keener
Philip Jenkins makes the case (in “The Wrong War,” Breaking Glass, July) that if only the North had allowed the South to secede peacefully, slavery would likely have ended a decade or two after it actually did. Leave aside the fact that the North was never going to allow the nation to be torn in two without a fight, for reasons that had nothing to do with slavery. Professor Jenkins contends that, in the decades after secession, an independent South would have had no place in a progressive world to market its cotton and would have faced overwhelming economic pressure to end its slave system.
If that were true, the planter aristocracy that led the South into war would have been doubly foolish, since there was no chance to preserve slavery (their primary reason for secession), win or lose. However, the institution was deeply entrenched in the South, and it is much more likely that the South would have either maintained some form of slavery for years to come if the rebellion had been successful or, at best, become a bastion of white supremacy as it did during the Jim Crow era following Reconstruction.
The world’s “overwhelming pressure” would have paled in comparison to the military and economic devastation its citizens actually endured over four years of war to preserve their “right” to buy and sell human beings. Even the Union’s slave-holding border states rejected Lincoln’s compensated emancipation scheme as late as 1862. Professor Jenkins is right, but for the wrong reasons: The Civil War was not a necessary catastrophe, and could and should have been avoided. But it was wrongly precipitated by the South’s obsession with maintaining its “peculiar institution” and its imprudent decision to secede from the Union.
Professor Jenkins Replies:
Mr. Burtner makes a reasonable case. Ultimately, any suggestion of “what might have been” is a very risky enterprise, and the outcome is unknowable. But I can be confident about a couple of points, chiefly about the quite impossible situation that a slave-owning C.S.A. would have faced once independent; and, I repeat, that situation could not have persisted for long. I base that on my knowledge of the policies and attitudes of the other powers of the time, among which Britain was the key. Would the planter aristocracy have felt angry, betrayed, and foolish by an emancipationist outcome? Assuredly.
As to whether the U.S. would have let the Confederacy go without a fight—as Mr. Burtner rightly says, almost certainly not. Nonetheless, matters might have changed rapidly if the Confederacy had won a couple of key battles in 1862 and 1863, opening the door for a combined intervention of Britain, France, Russia, and possibly others, and at that point, an independent C.S.A. would have been a real possibility. Antietam/Sharpsburg was decisive here. What I am suggesting is that even if this had happened, the C.S.A. would not have been a slave state much longer.