Civil War

The Civil War Was Fought Over Slavery. Period.

David Frum wrote a nice piece about this topic in the context of commemorating the 25th anniversary of Battle Cry of Freedom. His salient points:

From time to time, we hear denials of the centrality of slavery to the Civil War. That’s apologetics, not history. Slavery was always, always there: the war’s fundamental cause, the war’s shaping reality. [...]

Whether American civilization was to treat some men as property – whether in fact the right to treat men as property was indispensable to American freedom – that was the question for which Americans fought and died a century and a half ago.

I’m contemplating a book that utterly turns over the notion of the Confederacy as this noble, gallant Lost Cause and re-casts all of the appropriate players, Lee, Davis, Jackson, and all of their apologists, as treasonous, sadistic, sociopathic villains who disguised the inherent cruelty of the South under the almost translucent banner of states’ rights and liberty, and, in the name of preserving their terrible “institution” of slavery, were responsible for 650,000-plus dead Americans. Pull no punches.

  • LeShan Jones

    There are currently a few books to draw on for a good look at the lost cause myth;

    The Bloody Shirt: terror after Appomattox by Stephen Budiansky; This book looks at the terror campaign waged by the south in order to brutally reinstall white supremacy throughout the land, this was outside of KKK terror and was the terrorist actions taken by the many states as coup against the government.

    The Confederate and neo-confederate reader, James Loewen and Edward Sebesta; reprints a variety of not so well known documents that tell exactly why the south seceded as well as what their motivations were after the war.
    The myth of thelost cause and Civil War history, Gary Gallagher & Alan Nolan; Looks at the men responsible for the lost cause myth as well as the tenants of that myth and the truth that the myth attempts to obscure.
    The California gold rush and the coming of the Civil War, Leonard Richards; Chronicles the souths attempts to spread slavery into every new territory they could including California.
    It’s always been about slavery, just look up a character named John C. Calhoun, former Vice President and senator from S. Carolina. A major supporter of secession.

  • TheRaven

    TaNehisi Coates has explored the ACW to great depth over the past several years. The TNC commentariat includes a few historians. Amazingly high-quality discussion. Book recommendations have been plentiful and excellent.

    The age-old question regarding the ACW is a test of history literacy. You can divide America by many constituencies but the most pernicious are those who insist the war was about ‘states rights’, tariffs or anything else but slavery.

    Liars figure but figures don’t lie. The aggregate market value of slaves in 1860 was approximately $4 billion, which was about 16-times greater than the entire federal budget. Slaves were the largest asset class in America, eclipsing all railroads and manufacturing enterprises combined.

    No wonder southern elites led the white peasantry into armed rebellion.

    • Nanotyrnns

      TheRaven sez-

      “No wonder southern elites led the white peasantry into armed rebellion.”

      I so agree with that characterization. I’ve come to believe that essentially the South’s landed nobility convinced the poor to go to war to protect the property of the wealthy.

      • Bob Rutledge

        The original Southern Strategy.

  • AJ Slemmer

    William Tecumseh Sherman’s one of my favorite historical figures. Loved his work.

    • TheRaven

      Sherman was too kind.

      • villemar

        I’m kind of a big fan of what John Brown did in Pottawatomie Creek.

  • SlapFat

    Write that book!

  • Nanotyrnns

    I got my dad “Battle Cry of Freedom” when it came out. That didn’t go over well.

  • Chachizel

    write the book Bob, stop bullshitting.

  • Andrew Sharp

    I would buy that book.

  • trgahan

    I vote the opening chapter be a review of the fight over slavery as it raged even before the Constitution was even ratified. Too often “lost cause” apologists present the slavery debate as some creation of a small number of New England intellectual’s ca. 1860 with no precedent in American history.

    Also, the southern “cause” isn’t made noble because some people north of Mason-Dixon line were also racist and/or Lincoln didn’t initially intend to free the slaves. To expect such an institution so economically and socially ingrained and maintained by exploiting the fears and hatreds of a small number of people to be cleanly dismantled and not have residual effects is naïve at best.

  • nathkatun7

    “Whether American civilization was to treat some men as property – whether in fact the right to treat men as property was indispensable to American freedom – that was the question for which Americans fought and died a century and a half ago.”

    While I agree that slavery was the fundamental cause of the Civil war, I don’t entirely agree with the rest of the above quotation. If the confederate states had heeded President Lincoln’s call to end the rebellion by Dec. 31, 1862, I doubt that slavery -“the right to treat men as property-” would have been abolished. From the onset of the war, Lincoln was very clear: this was a war to preserve the Union and not to abolish slavery.

    • D_C_Wilson

      That was Lincoln’s view, though he did hope for its eventual abolition, but the view of the Confederacy was that it was a war to preserve slavery.

      • nathkatun7

        As I said, slavery was the cause of the Civil war. You are absolutely right that Southern states that formed the confederacy wanted to preserve slavery. My point is that the war was not initially about abolishing slavery. As a matter of fact, in the first four months of the war, the policy of the U.S. government was to enforce the Fugitive slave Law of 1850; thus the U.S. military was required to return to the South slaves who run away.

        I think we do a great disservice to TRUTH if we don’t acknowledge the fact that for the first two years of the war, the abolition of slavery was not at all the central goal of the war. As Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation clearly states, the freeing of slaves in the “states in rebellion” was brought about by military necessity. Moreover, the Emancipation Proclamation did not include over one million slaves in slave states loyal to the United states or parts of the confederate states, like Virginia and Louisiana, that were under Union control. Therefore, slaves in the loyal states were to remain property of their masters under Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln may have hoped for the “eventual” abolition of slavery. But I think it’s a stretch to assert that the Civil war was about determining “whether American civilization was to treat some men as property.”

  • JozefAL

    Of course, there are several truly ironic aspects of the slavery issue in the Civil War.

    #1 would be the fact that the overwhelming majority of the men who fought on the Confederate side didn’t own enough property that would allow them to be slave owners or even have any real chance of obtaining enough property to merit being slave owners. (Does this remind anyone of contemporary GOP politics? “All you need to do is work hard enough and you too can join the billionaires’ club”–even as the majority of the most recent stories of “new millionaires/billionaires” seems to have much more to do with *luck* than “hard work.”)

    #2 would be the fact that, during the last year of the War, many Confederate leaders sought to emancipate slaves who fought for the South. Naturally, the plantation owners opposed this, even as there was a dwindling supply of available *white* draftees and volunteers.

    #3 would be the fact that the Emancipation Proclamation–so well-remembered for “freeing the slaves”–did NOTHING to free a single slave. ALL Union-controlled territories were SPECIFICALLY exempt from the terms of the Proclamation. This didn’t simply mean “Confederate” territory under the control of the Union Army (such as the Hampton Roads area of Virginia or the Mississippi Delta area around New Orleans) but also the SLAVE-HOLDING states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware. The Proclamation was little more than propaganda designed to cut off the Confederacy from its two primary trading partners, Britain and France (both of which had abolished slavery within their empires more than a decade before Lincoln’s election). Union officers, in fact, were free to decide what happened to slaves they encountered with many openly refusing to help any of the slaves they “freed”–the newly-freed slaves were, in some cases, threatened with death if they attempted to tag along with their liberators.

    #4 would be a fact that goes along with #3: Northern racism. Many Northerners, upon hearing of plans to institute a draft, openly revolted at the idea of being forced to fight to help Blacks. Most of these men were little better than slaves themselves, being forced to work in dismal conditions, for paltry wages, and now they were expected to help “free” a bunch of slaves who would then provide more workforce competition. And since newly-freed slaves wouldn’t really know the value of money (after all, they’d never been paid for their wages before), who’s to say they wouldn’t be willing to work for lower wages than the current force? Granted, there was a bit of experience in this attitude as many of these Northern low-paid workers had immigrated within the previous decade or so and had pretty much done the same when they started working. Also, there were still many Northerners who felt the best thing to do with those newly-freed slaves would be to just round them all up and ship them back to Africa or send them to the mostly-black island British, French and Spanish colonies in the Caribbean.

    And Lincoln was no real saint, either. If we’re to correct this notion of the “Lost Cause,” it can’t be at the expense of the historic reality on the other side of the fence. Lincoln was NOT a truly enlightened man. He shared many of the same beliefs regarding racial inferiority but he didn’t believe that entitled white men (who were supposed to be intellectually and morally superior to blacks) to beat their slaves or mutilate them either; Lincoln’s theory was more along the lines that slaves should be treated much as any other “valuable” property (and, this was an era when one’s own children were considered one’s property) and that proper discipline was necessary but that abuse should not be tolerated (again, as one would do with one’s wife and children).

    Oh, and one last matter that needs to be included: The “three-fifths clause” in the Constitution. While a similar proposal had been introduced as an amendment to the Articles of Confederation for matters of taxation to be based on population rather than real estate holdings, the measure as introduced in the Constitution was done for Congressional apportionment. Northerners who’d supported the measure for the AoC amendment as it would ensure the more heavily populated Southern states would pay more taxes now opposed it for the Constitution because Southern states would get more representation (one could reverse the support/oppose stances for a Southern perspective on the matter). But the compromise was introduced to the Constitutional Convention by a pair of northerners. It’s just too bad many people read that clause and see it as an evil. Of course, had the clause NOT been there, and the South received FULL representation by counting all slaves as free men (and the “free men” term was what the North wanted, thereby putting a lie to the “We the people” line in the Preamble, especially as Northern abolitionists DID believe that slaves were people–it’s just too bad they didn’t hold a majority position at the time), a number of key points prior to the Civil War might have gone far differently–including Lincoln’s election in 1860. Lincoln’s margin of victory in the Electoral College was just 28 votes–he won in 18 states whose “Senate” component in the EC would only account for 36 votes. Had slaves been counted as “whole” people in the Census results, that 28 EV margin might have easily been wiped out, requiring the House of Representatives to decide the election (and with a House representation based on a “whole” population and the fact that many states would have a more-than-one-party delegation, just looking at the actual EC results map doesn’t really help figure out his chances in a House-decided election–after all, JQ Adams in the House decision won at least 2 states that had supported Jackson in the national election as well as the Electoral College).

    • D_C_Wilson


      The poor white southerners still had reason to support slavery, even if they had no hope of ever owning one. Even the most dirt poor, illiterate yahoo could hold his head up and say, “At least I ain’t a slave.” It gave them the consolation that they weren’t the very bottom rung of society, which in turn made them less resentful of and more likely to support the one percenters of their day. They saw abolition as elevating the slaves to their level or even higher and wanted no part of it.

  • Brucehenry

    My mom graduated high school in 1939. The name of her high school was Robert E. Lee High school. The junior high she went to before that was called Nathan Bedford Forrest Junior High. (Forrest was a Confederate general from Tennessee who later founded the Ku Klux Klan).

    This was in Jacksonville, Florida. Why were they naming schools after generals from Virginia and Tennessee? Because of the Lost Cause mythology that imbued that generation of white Southerners.

    You should write that book. It’s way overdue.

    • mrbrink

      Great point. It’s interesting, a quick google search shows that in November 2008, as a show of not being able to ever let go, ever– the Duvall county school board voted 5-2 to keep the name, “Nathan Bedford Forrest High School.”

      They’ve had plenty of time to reconsider it, and they’re going to climb back up that Hill and plant that flag if it takes them forever.

  • nicole

    “I’m contemplating a book that utterly turns over the notion of the
    Confederacy as this noble, gallant Lost Cause and re-casts all of the
    appropriate players, Lee, Davis, Jackson, and all of their apologists,
    as treasonous, sadistic, sociopathic villains who disguised the inherent
    cruelty of the South under the almost translucent banner of states’
    rights and liberty, and, in the name of preserving their terrible
    “institution” of slavery, were responsible for 650,000-plus dead
    Americans. Pull no punches.”

    Do it. I know I’d buy it.