Soothing the Collective Conscience
The year 2011 marked the sesquicentennial of the start of the Civil War in the United States, a war in which more Americans were killed than in all other conflicts involving Americans combined.
It remains the greatest conflict fought on this soil—the “foreign power” fighting against the United States, however, was a secessionary group of insurrectionists who had formerly been part of the United States.
The enemies, in other words, were other American citizens.Credit: 1861
Not Between the States
This was not a “War Between the States” as Southern apologists/revisionists like to call it. South Carolina, for example, did not declare war on Kentucky, nor did Texas declare war on Maryland.
This was a true civil war, an internal insurrection against the established, legal government. It is similar to the English Civil War in that one faction of a country’s populace fought another. The difference is the British Civil War involved shedding a parasitic, tyrannical monarchy.
The Southern American “Cause”, in contrast, was not so ennobling. The American Civil War was started by the South and fought for one reason and one reason only: to preserve slavery, the human bondage referred to obliquely and quaintly in the earliest versions of the US Constitution as “that peculiar institution”.
“The South” was those states lying below the Mason-Dixon Line, and those beneath a westward diagonal drawn downward to the southwest to the lands below the parallel separating Kentucky from Tennessee. The term “Southern” itself can be misleading. It is not necessarily geographical in nature. Missouri, for example, though not technically in “The South”, sympathized with the “Southern Cause”. Therefore, it is “Southern” even though the state is in the Midwestern Plains. Texas, likewise, is truly a part of the American Southwest, but its sympathies lay with the South.
Even today, there exists some confusion over what is, and is not, the South. The Commonwealth of Kentucky is considered by many to be in “The South”. It is not. It is firmly in the Midwest, and its sympathies overwhelmingly lay with the Union during the Civil War.
Many Kentuckians, however, for whatever misguided reasons, hold with its having been “Confederate” in its leanings. A perfect example of this confusion exists today in Todd County, Kentucky. The local high-school, and its county population, have adopted a “rebel” caricature for its school mascot (years ago), and they celebrate all things Confederate. However, record searches for the relevant period show the majority of this county’s male populace fought for the Union, and it really was a pro-Union county.
The economy of the “true” South was mostly agrarian. At the time of the Civil War the South supplied a large percentage of the world’s produce and cotton. Southern plantation holders made huge profits, profits they could not have garnered if not for the fact they had free labor in the form of slaves. The invention of the cotton gin (a gleaning device that handily removed seeds from the cotton bolls, a process formerly done by hand) increased productivity greatly. This meant the greedy plantation owner could have more arable land planted, and this meant more slaves were needed.Credit: 1863
These slaves lived at subsistence levels at best. [The practice of eating “chit’lins”—the word is actually “chitterlings”, but bastardized by the lazy Southern speech patterns of the day—among African-Americans comes from this horrific period. The Master would have a hog butchered for his family’s household (“The Big House”). The entrails were then tossed away as useless and picked up by slaves who cooked and ate them; slaves were always underfed, and any food was better than none.]
The atrocities of slavery are well documented and need not be overstated. It is sufficient to simply say this is a group of people who did not voluntarily come to this country, and probably never would have except in very limited numbers.
Once here (although working themselves literally to death at forced labor) they were not welcomed or wanted. They were grudgingly needed and that is a whole different mind-set, and they were treated as inferiors.
“We can’t use ’em, so you don’t need ’em, either”
People’s preferences for being either “fer” or “agin” something aren’t relevant in the face of truth.
The plain truth of the Civil War is that it had its roots in slavery: the North did not want to see slavery prosper. And bear in mind this position is not born of the altruism Northerners oftentimes feign.
The real reasons for Northern slave abolition had to do with industrialization. The North’s growing season was nothing as compared to the southern States. However, the North had been an agrarian society as well (Connecticut, for example, was once a major tobacco producer).
The shift to industrialization occurred relatively rapidly in the United States, at least in the North. These economies found more money could be made with machinery and a limited labor pool than could be garnered with slave-worked, plantation-sized farms. Thus, in the North, slavery came to an end largely because Northerners simply did not need slaves any longer. And considering almost no Northerners considered their African brethren as potential neighbors, they didn’t want them around, either. It was only decades later that the true spirit of abolition, based upon humanitarian compassion, came to the fore.
In contrast, the South was deeply entrenched in its agrarian economy. Industrialization did not take root there as quickly; it simply wasn’t necessary for the times. [This philosophy similarly explains why the early Chinese did not spread out and conquer the entire known world (although they certainly had the advanced technology and man-power to have done it). No, the Chinese felt they had everything they needed right at home; hence, there was no reason to go outside into the world. This view also informed their reluctance to admit Westerners into China hundreds of years ago. China had everything; what could a bunch of red-faced Portuguese sailors possibly have of interest to them?]
For the South, slavery meant a booming economy. For the North, it was an evil done by others. For the Union it was trouble. And for John Brown slavery was the ultimate indignity.Credit: mural by John Steuart Curry, 1938
Brown was a lay preacher of the fire-and-brimstone variety, and a fierce abolitionist. Dependent upon how one views Brown’s actions he can be described as a freedom fighter or as a martyr. His cause was noble and just; his methods, however, were neither.
Another term can also be applied to Brown and there is no way to avoid this gently: Brown was a home-grown terrorist, no different in his vehement belief in his own “rightness” from any other domestic terrorist. Unlike today’s domestic terrorists and “militia/patriot” groups, however, Brown was not motivated by racism or his own self-interests. He had once lived (by choice) in close quarters in New York with blacks for his neighbors and friends—he genuinely hated slavery.
Missouri was a slave state; Kansas was a slave-free territory (under the terms of the Missouri Compromise) on the brink of statehood. Brown wanted Kansas to remain slave-free (it was one of the reasons he had moved there in the first place, to remove himself from the slave culture back East). He staunchly did not agree with the institution; when he lived on the Kansas/Missouri border he and his followers were a scourge.
In retaliation for a pro-slavery faction burning Lawrence, Kansas, in 1856 Brown (with a long and rich family history of mental illness behind him) went overboard in his zealotry. He and his group killed five pro-slavery people in Kansas, unprovoked, in cold blood, hacking them to death with cutlasses.
Brown and his followers raged against slavery, adopting an abolitionist perspective of “freedom by violence” since peaceable, legal means had not worked up to then. This culminated in 1859 when Brown and a group of followers encamped in a house near Harper’s Ferry (then part of Virginia). They planned a raid on a federal arsenal in Harper’s Ferry. With the munitions they acquired from the raid, Brown meant to arm all the slaves in the surrounding Maryland and Virginia countryside; it was his belief that once armed the slaves would rise up and rebel, breaking their shackles.
This did not happen. The slave population in the area didn’t know of Brown’s intentions on their behalf, nor did they ever get the chance to “rise up”. Brown and his raiding party met with disaster at the federal depot. Although they successfully secured the armory, a group of local farmers and militiamen surrounded the depot, driving Brown and his raiders into an engine house. Brown’s party killed four of the locals in gunfire and injured ten others.
Thirty-six hours after the assault on the depot a US Marines detachment led by Colonel Robert E. Lee stormed the building, captured Brown, and captured or killed most of his party (including two of Brown’s sons). Brown himself was tried for treason; on December 2, 1859, he was hanged.
What Brown did accomplish, however, was he single-handedly escalated the slavery controversy to the point that the Civil War probably started ten years sooner than it might have otherwise. His actions were so public and so reckless he successfully stirred a pot of rage on both sides of the issue. The South, reacting out of fear of a possible slave uprising, reactivated its militia groups (this actually allowed the South to have military personnel on hand when the real war started a little over a year later). Northerners rattled the abolition saber more loudly.
The North Won. Get Over It, South.
The American Civil War was fought, and it was won by the North. The Southern defeat was humiliating, particularly given they now had to live and work with freed blacks. The next decades were tumultuous.
At the time of the Civil War itself there was no Southerner alive who did not know the war had to do with the issue of slavery. But later, in roughly the 1890s, Southerners began looking nostalgically and wistfully at the “Cause”, and longed to revisit the history and give credence to some romantic “Southern ideal” that actually existed only in the imagination.
There came a point where apologists began revising the reasons for the Civil War, ignoring the one true reason, slavery. In the terrible downturn in race relations (the years after 1890 when Reconstruction and all its progressive programs came to a grinding halt) many towns in the North became all-white “sundown towns”. And state after state in the South stopped blacks from voting.
It was during these ludicrously more ignorant years the “anything-but-slavery” explanations of the Civil War gained support.
It Was Not About States’ Rights
Revisionists of the late 19th Century began by asserting the Civil War was about states’ rights.
South Carolina complained bitterly to the Federal government in Washington, DC, about The Federal Government’s failure to aid in enforcing the Fugitive Slave Laws. This flies in the face of the “states’ rights” belief—South Carolina, ignoring its own supposed sovereignty as a state, was asking the Federal government for help.
In many situations states’ rights were an explosive issue. The silliness of a state’s sovereignty in the face of a strong Federal government was put to the test during the Nullification Controversy between 1831-1833.
To paraphrase, this Nullification issue meant any law the Federal government enacted that an individual state did not like, the state could choose to ignore. Nullification never came into reality, though; then President Andrew Jackson threatened military action against any state refusing to comply with Federal mandate. They were properly and rightfully cowed.
What became the Confederate states did claim the right to secede, however. But not one of them at the time reported they were actually seceding for that right. In fact, Confederates openly opposed states’ rights: they opposed the rights of Northern states to not support slavery. So, the states’ rights argument is out the window. Credit: 1860
On December 24, 1860, delegates at South Carolina’s secession convention adopted a “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce & Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.”
A particular grievance (relating to the lack of enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Laws which Washington, DC, failed to support) was “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery”. They protested that Northern states had failed to “fulfill their constitutional obligations” because the Northerners interfered with the return of fugitive slaves to bondage! Again, this is more proof that the issue of slavery, and not states’ rights, led to the Civil War.
Furthermore, South Carolina was agitated because New York State no longer allowed “slavery transit.” For example, in the past, if a visitor from Charleston, SC, went to New York to spend the summer he could bring his slave entourage with him.
This was abolished; New York wanted no slaves, regardless of source, in the city. South Carolinian slave-holders were outraged. They also objected to the New England states’ letting black men vote. The New England states also allowed abolitionist societies to form and speak publicly against slavery. This, too, incensed South Carolina; it reported that states should not have the right to let their citizens assemble and speak freely when what they said threatened slavery.
Other seceding states emulated South Carolina’s stance. “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery, the greatest material interest of the world,” Mississippi declared when it seceded on January 9, 1861. “Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of the commerce of the earth. A blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.”
In the South opposition to states’ rights should not have been surprising. Up to the time of the Civil War, it was Southern presidents and lawmakers who had dominated the Federal government. Those in power in Washington always oppose states’ rights; doing so preserves the rights of the empowered at the Federal level.
So, the War started over states’ rights? No!
Weren’t ’Bout Taxes, Neither
Some revisionists will attempt to argue the War began over high tariffs and taxes. Confederate sympathizers continue to float this false claim. At the absurd Secession Ball in South Carolina, hosted annually in December by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the ball’s supporters report that high tariffs and the Northern states’ use of Southern tax money to build their own infrastructure were the reasons for the War.
This “explanation” couldn’t be further from the truth. High tariffs had prompted the Nullification Controversy in 1831-33, when, after South Carolina demanded the right to nullify Federal laws or secede in protest, President Andrew Jackson (a no-nonsense president) threatened force. No state joined the Nullification/Secession movement at the time, so South Carolina backed down.
Tariffs were apparently not an issue in 1860; Southern states said nothing about them. There would be no reason for Southerners to complain about the tariff schedule in 1860—Southerners had written the Tariff of 1857, under which the nation was functioning. In fact, its rates were lower than at any time since 1816!
So, no: high tariffs and taxes were not the reason for the Civil War.
“I Wants Me Some Danged Slaves, Too!”
An intriguing argument that claims slavery was not at issue involves the number of slaveholders in the South. In this case, it is rightfully stated that most white Southerners didn’t own slaves. The argument extends, therefore, to extrapolating that because most Southerners didn’t own slaves, slavery was not a reason for the war.
Less than half of white Mississippi households owned one or more slaves, for example, and that proportion was smaller still in “whiter” states such as Virginia and Tennessee. It is also true that, in areas with few slaves, most white Southerners did not support secession; no slaves means no slavery issues which means no need to secede—another explanation proving issues of slavery caused the War.
West Virginia broke away from Virginia to stay in the Union. Confederate troops actually had to occupy parts of eastern Tennessee and northern Alabama to hold them in line because of the locals’ opposition to secession.
But it was not white people who owned no slaves (in the majority) who made far-reaching political decisions at the state level. It was slaveholders, the wealthy, landed gentry.
However, two factors led most Southern whites, even those without slaves, to ultimately defend slavery.
First, Americans generally look to its upper class for its examples of behavior and its thinking. In 1860, many subsistence farmers dreamed of becoming large slave-owners, just like the plantation overlords they admired. So poor white Southerners supported slavery. When it was their turn, they wanted to be sure they could own slaves, too. Of course, it was the landed gentry who controlled the lawmaking bodies in these states, so anyone else’s opinion didn’t matter much, although it perhaps was nice to have the support of the hoi polloi.
The other factor was more important. It was the belief in white supremacy, and this belief provided a rationale for slavery. A French political theorist in the mid 18th Century wrote, somewhat wryly:
“It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures [enslaved Africans] to be men; because allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that we ourselves are not Christians.”
Given this philosophy (blacks could not be men otherwise the white Southerners couldn’t be Christians) most white Southerners could not imagine life in states such as South Carolina and Mississippi (enslaved blacks were the numeric majority of each of these states) unless the blacks were in chains, and therefore, shown to be less than human.
A Georgia Supreme Court justice, in an attempt to convince Virginia to secede, predicted a race war if slavery was not protected:
“The consequence will be that our men will be all exterminated or expelled to wander as vagabonds over a hostile earth; and as for our women, their fate will be too horrible to contemplate even in fancy.”
Secession, therefore, could be counted upon to both maintain slavery and bolster the prevailing ideology of white supremacy.
Brutally Honest Abe
Some bleeding-heart revisionists, in trying to reconcile the discomfort over the slavery issue, will point to Abraham Lincoln and say he went to war to abolish slavery.
Unfortunately, even the sainted Great Emancipator’s motives were not necessarily based in concerns about freeing African-Americans from bondage.
Credit: Alexander Gardner, 1863In the first place, Lincoln did not start the War (for any reason). He did not launch the first aggressive act of the War; the South did that on the attack at Fort Sumter. [Some revisionists laughably call that conflict “The War of Northern Aggression”!]
Since the Civil War did end slavery, however, many Americans believe that was the Union’s goal.
The North initially went to war to hold the nation together; as painful as it might be to admit, abolition was not on Lincoln’s mind then. Lincoln’s personal anti-slavery beliefs, though widely known, were not determinants in his decision to go to war with the South.
On Aug. 22, 1862, Lincoln wrote to the New York Tribune a letter that included this:
“If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”
In the same letter to the Tribune, he wrote:
“I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.”
A month later, Lincoln merged his official duty andCredit: Matthew Brady, 1870 his personal wishes in his preliminary version of the Emancipation Proclamation. White Northerners’ fear, in the wake of the Proclamation, of freed slaves migrating North en masse caused Republicans to lose the Midwest in the Congressional elections of November 1862.
As Union soldiers found help from black civilians in the South, and black recruits impressed white units with their bravery, many soldiers (and those they wrote home to) became abolitionists.
By 1864, when Maryland voted to end slavery, soldiers’ and sailors’ votes made the difference.
So, although the War was not started by the Union, nor was it started by the Union to end slavery, slavery ended just the same.
“It Was a-Goin’ Away, Anyhow”
One of the more fanciful arguments the revisionist throws out is that at its rate of development the South could not have survived much longer as a slave society (thus leading one to believe slavery would have simply petered out on its own).
Slavery was not anywhere near being on its last legs in 1860, however. That year, the South produced almost 75 percent of all US exports, and slaves were worth more than all the manufacturing companies and railroads in the nation combined. No “entitled” class in history has ever, or would ever, give up such an immensely valuable commodity voluntarily. Such abolishing is done either by force or only grudgingly because the tide of public opinion is so overwhelming.
Confederates, moreover, eyed territorial expansion into Mexico and Cuba as slave-holding territories for exploitation. [It is an interesting side-note that after the Civil War many Confederate expatriates found their way into Latin America and the Amazon region in hopes of starting up another Confederacy, complete with slavery.] Short of a war, this expansionist movement could not be stopped. [As it stood, bitter arguments had already been waged over which new territories, on the cusp of achieving statehood, would be slave-holding states.] No one could have curtailed the South’s slave expansion; although importing humans for slaves had been outlawed outright, there were no prohibitions on the continued breeding, selling, and trading of slaves.
To say, or claim to believe, slavery would have ended on its own by the early 20th Century is hard to accept. In 1860, slavery was growing more entrenched in the South, not less (as the revisionist would like to believe). Unpaid labor made for big profits; the Southern élite grew increasingly richer.
Freeing slaves became more difficult for their owners (the loss of a valuable asset is always painful). Free blacks in the United States, both in the North as well as in the South, had trouble simply living freely thanks in no small part to the discrimination they faced and a lack of formal education (intentionally denied them in the South). For the foreseeable future, slavery appeared to be safe. There was no reason for the South to give up its slaves voluntarily; they had to be forced.
What Caused the War?
The Civil War was not instigated by any noble, cerebral ideal; nor was it fought over states’ rights; nor was it a rebellion against high tariffs. It was fought because slavery as an issue could be resolved no other way: its time, long overdue, had come to be abolished.
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