Revising And Unrevising History (1861-5)

Categories: History
Comments: 5 Comments
Published on: 2014.11.18

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”.

“…it has been my purpose to design Confederate American Pride as a virtual online resource for the Confederate Nationalist in need of the tools and information that is necessary to defend himself and his heritage in the war that is constantly being waged against that 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”:

“Technically the 10 causes listed are reasons for Southern secession. The only cause of the war was that the South was invaded and responded to Northern aggression. ”

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.

“This stipulation was so material to the compact, that without it that compact would not have been made. The greater number of the contracting parties held slaves, and they had previously evinced their estimate of the value of such a stipulation by making it a condition in the Ordinance for the government of the territory ceded by Virginia, which now composes the States north of the Ohio River.”

And further:

“For many years these laws were executed. But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution… Thus the constituted compact has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the non-slaveholding States, and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation. ”

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:

“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.”

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,

“…maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery — the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits — a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.”

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:

“…the new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions — African slavery as it exists among us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution… Our new Government is founded upon … its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.”

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”):

“My own convictions as to negro slavery are strong. It has its evils and abuses… We recognize the negro as God and God’s Book and God’s Laws, in nature, tell us to recognize him, our inferior, fitted expressly for servitude… You cannot transform the negro into anything one-tenth as useful or as good as what slavery enables them to be.”

So yes, the civil war was about slavery.

  1. Zane says:

    I think wars are incredibly complex things that get boiled down into chapters in history books and hour specials on TV until they congeal into oversimplified statements. I agree with you though, the main underlying cause of the war was slavery and the economy that was based on the slaves. But, I’m sure that all of those millions of men had their own reasons for fighting, and ideas on what the war was about for them at the time. Perhaps our ancestor’s reason was personal gain.

    I think most of the “southern pride” and nostalgia today is just regional pride based on simple ignorance or racism. However, some of it might stem from those who actually fought for the Confederacy and felt strongly about why. When the war was lost, there must have been a lot of resentment and hatred that remained for a lot of people, and I think that has been passed down through the generations. When those Confederate men went home from fighting they still thought they were right, and maybe we’re still dealing with it.

    • Zane says:

      All of the crap on those websites could be just translated as “we were right all along, but we lost the war.”

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      Much like today, I think there’s a wide gulf between Average Joe’s motivations and Joe-in-Charge’s motivations, even when the action might be the same — which I alluded to above in the States Rights paragraph above.

      (With continuing apologies to anyone named Joe…) Average Joe Voter has different reasons for wanting Obamacare repealed than the reasons that motivate someone like, say, Ted Cruz. And I’m sure it was the same in those days. In the case of the Civil War, it was Joe-in-Charge who wrote down his motivations in official documents that survive.

      To take the case of a non-slave-owning, non-racist, non-political farmer in the South, it’s easy to imagine his motivation being: “I’m afraid the North’s armies will lay waste to my possessions” or something else entirely, maybe even something sublime as “My friends will think I’m a coward if I don’t join up.”

  2. Shari says:

    Looks like you’ve done some good research here. This is one of those areas that can be touchy, and I have heard some arguments for State’s Rights as the point of the war. I haven’t taken the time to look up the original documents you’ve quoted from, as I should have.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      It does look like States Rights was a major factor, but (as noted above), the question was inextricably tied to slavery in those days. There was really no other issue about which states disagreed on a year-to-year basis, at least not to the point of suggesting secession — which had been suggested for a couple of generations prior to the Civil War.

      And it really looks like States Rights was a completely different question back then than it is now. Now it’s usually a hypocritical cry. The same governors don’t shout “States Rights!” when a president or Congress of their own party passes a nationwide law, but use it any time the opposing party does.

      But yes, in the end, I looked up these resources to answer the questions in my own mind. :-)

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