When I was in grade school, it was called the Civil War, and it was about slavery. Keep it simple for the little kids who aren’t paying attention anyway, right? When I was in high school, it was still the Civil War, but now the causes were more complicated: states rights, the economy, different ways of life, and yes, to some degree, slavery.
It didn’t exist in college, because I didn’t attend a traditional college.
Later in my adult life, when I lived in Arkansas (that great bastion of intellectualism), I was suddenly surrounded by people who had Confederate Flags* hung in their houses, spoke quietly amongst themselves that black folk “ought to be owned”, and used “The War of Northern Aggression” to describe the 1861-5 conflict between the U.S.A. and Confederate States of America.
(* What is now called the “Confederate Flag” was never formally adopted by the CSA and was in fact rejected at one point. It was the battle flag of the Army of Tennessee and similar to the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee.)
I was reminded of all this recently when I read an article about California’s recent ban on the “Confederate Flag”. (The headline was inaccurate; all California did was prohibit “state agencies from selling or displaying items bearing the Confederate flag.”) The comments under the story are interesting, to say the least.
I’ve read at least two history books which regularly referred to the conflict as “The War Between The States”, which got me to thinking.
Civil war is defined as: “a war between groups of people in the same country”. In the eyes of the North, the “Confederate States Of America” was never a real country; everyone in those states was still a citizen of the U.S.A. In that sense, it was a civil war.
In the eyes of the South, they had seceded from the Union and formed a new country. If so, it could not possibly have been a civil war.
“War Between The States”, then, seems to me the most accurate of the various descriptions, though it’s primarily used by people in the South. If northerners are correct that the CSA was never a real country (it was never formally recognized as such by any outside nation), then they were still states within the U.S. “War Between The States” is accurate either way. “Civil War” is only accurate if a particular belief is held.
However, the term Civil War is shorter, easier to pronounce and type. It is also used in an overwhelming majority of historical texts, reference books, dictionaries, encyclopedias, scholarly journals, and mass media, since long before I was born. At this point, using any other name is simply an attempt at obfuscation.
What’s mind-boggling to me is how many people still feel so strongly about this.
There is no shortage of websites promoting “southern pride” and historical nostalgia for the “good old days” of the South. Take as an example Confederate American Pride, which is “dedicated to Americans who are proud of their Confederate heritage”.
This site (and many others) works hard to convince the reader that the war was not caused by slavery, listing “The 10 Causes of the War Between the States”:
Well. Pretty much any nation that has part of itself break away will attempt to bring that part back. That pretty much supports the name “Civil War”. (I do find it ironic that the U.S. supports every single breakaway in every other country in the world, except in the U.S. and UK.)
The 10 “causes”? (1) an unfair sectional tariff, (2) centralization versus states rights, (3) Christianity versus secular humanism, (4) cultural differences, (5) control of western territories, (6) northern industrialists wanted the South’s resources, (7) slander of the South by northern newspapers, (8) New Englanders attempted to instigate massive slave rebellions in the South, (9) slavery, and (10) northern aggression against the southern states.
Just to be clear, numbers 4, 5, 7, 8, and 9 are all “slavery”. Go ahead, read the paragraphs listed under each “cause” on this website. See? Five of the 10 causes are slavery. Number 1 is a minor matter at best. Three is a red herring. Christians in the North were just as abundant as Christians in the South, and in fact had been fighting for abolition for quite some time. Six is unsubstantiated at best; the north had plenty of “resources”, which in fact was one of the reasons it won the war. Number 10 is what you’d expect any nation to do if a giant block of it broke away, especially in those day.
That leaves states rights (vs. federalism) and slavery. While “states rights” is still something that southern governors yammer about in the 21st Century (usually related to the Affordable Care Act, the Voting Rights Act, and public education, all federal programs that attempt to solve issues disproportionately affecting non-whites), in the 1800s the states rights movement was inextricably tied to the slavery question.
Perhaps it’s arguable that the vast majority of southerners who flocked to the various militias weren’t interested only in the institution of slavery. I can believe that — much like many southerners today — they simply didn’t want the interference of the faraway federal government in their “way of life”.
But for the men in charge of the secession, and the men who ran the Confederate States of America, slavery was the primary cause of their break from the Union and their willingness to war over it.
On Christmas Eve, 1860, South Carolina’s government adopted a long-titled document explaining their secession. The first paragraph mentions “other slaveholding states” as South Carolina’s peers, but the document goes on. It says that the Fugitive Slave Clause of the Constitution (Article IV, Section 2) was a primary cause of joining the union in the first place.
The document names several northern states that passed individual laws against the federal Fugitive Slave Clause, and complains that these states aren’t honoring federal law. (Wait! Is South Carolina against states rights? Yes, if it pleases South Carolina’s slave owners.)
Three other southern states — Texas, Alabama, and Virginia — also mentioned the plight of the slaveholding states at the hands of the North, when they announced secession. Mississippi, Georgia, and Texas each published lengthy explanations similar to South Carolina’s, all of which mention slavery as a primary reason. From Mississippi’s document:
It also complains of a growing “hostility”, which “advocates negro equality, socially and politically.”
Texas’ explanation for secession points out that she was a slaveholding state from the beginning,
Any time states rights are mentioned in these documents, it is in direct reference to being able to own slaves. Most of them mention the “black race” or “negroes” specifically.
After secession and the formation of the C.S.A., newly elected Vice President Alexander H. Stephens (governor of Georgia, after the war) said in 1861:
These remarks were interrupted by applause, according to those who transcribed the speech at the time.
And, according to Jefferson Davis (called by one neo-Confederacy site “our Fist President”):
So yes, the civil war was about slavery.