Understanding the Civil War, Part 2

I would now like to examine the next part of the “Civil War Was Not Caused By Slavery” myth. But before beginning, I feel the need to examine one other reason Southern leaders might have claimed to be seceding for reasons other than slavery: denial. However much they might have claimed otherwise, Southern planters would have had a hard time feeling no guilt, at least subconsciously, over enslaving millions of people. Thus, stating in public or in private reasons for secession that felt less heinous, despite could serve as a form of guilt reduction. Now onto the main point of my article. One favorite argument of pro Confederate historians is that the North offered to expand the U.S. Constitution’s protection of slavery, and the South refused. Unfortunately, this argument does not take into account the way in which tensions over slavery issue had ratcheted up in the ten years before the South seceded. In 1850, Congress had attempted to forge a compromise between the two regions of the country. This compromise included adding teeth to the fugitive slave clause of the Constitution, with the goal of preventing Northerners from aiding the Underground Railroad. This goal was not achieved, as abolitionists in the North continued aiding runaway slaves. In 1859, radical abolitionist John Brown attempted to incite a slave rebellion, aided by a group of Northern abolitionists. These factors made the South convinced that, Constitutional protections or not, Northerners could be expected to continue to interfere with slavery if secession did not take place. As evidence of this, consider the fact that the Georgia Declaration of Secession explicitly complained that the fugitive slave law was a dead letter statute in the North. The second argument is based on very tricky wording. It states that, because most Northerners did not fight the Civil War to end slavery (though there is abundant evidence that a handful did), the Civil War was not fought over slavery. It is thus indeed more accurate to say that the South seceded over slavery, evidenced by the sources that I have provided. Indeed, despite the courageous decision of some men to fight in the Union Army for the purpose of ending slavery, it is correct that the majority of Northern politicians and soldiers were fighting because they believed the South had no right to secede and because they were connected with the region economically. But it is disingenuous or intellectually sloppy to use this as evidence that the South did not secede over slavery. No serious student of history can deny that tensions over the “peculiar institution” had reached a boiling point in the United States in 1860. It thus is not exactly rocket science to postulate that the South seceded over slavery, at which point the North for other reasons chose to try and force them to rejoin the Union. Unfortunately, every time people say that “we fought a war to end slavery,” they give Confederate apologists ammo to claim that slavery did not cause the war, giving the silly but remarkably convincing argument that if the North’s reason for fighting the war was not ending slavery it automatically means that the South did not secede over the issue. The third argument is that because the majority of white Southerners did not own slaves, the region could not possibly have seceded over that issue. I would first like to pose two questions: 1. How many people work in the oil business? Answer: Not a lot. 2. How important is oil to America’s economy? Answer: Very. Determining the total value of Southern slaves in 1860 is difficult, but let’s go with a middle estimate: $3 billion. Now account for inflation. Slave labor was the lifeblood of the South’s economy, making the people who controlled it extremely powerful. Thus, it is obvious that such people could have called the shots in Southern governments, and it makes sense that poor Southern whites might have feared the economic consequences of abolition. Also, note that working class Southern whites had several reasons to enlist in the Confederate Army. First, as mentioned in the last blog, plantation tycoons had other issues like taxes that they could use to inflame the passions of their salt of the Earth brethren. Second, working class Southern whites sometimes feared that racial equality could result from black freedom. Andrew Johnson, Abraham Lincoln’s second vice president, observed that when antislavery efforts took place in Tennessee, whites who did not own slaves reacted extremely negatively. The Texas, Georgia, and Mississippi declarations all raised the issue of racial equality as a result of abolition. Third, many Southerners probably enlisted in the Confederate Army because of feelings of loyalty to their state and fear that their homeland was under attack. It must be noted, unfortunate though it is, that large gaps can certainly exist between the real reason a war is caused and the reason why soldiers think that they are fighting. Finally, this argument underestimates the amount of working class white Southerners who opposed the Confederacy. If one goes into the mountains of North Georgia, one will see a slew of Confederate Flags. The modern day residents of places like Ellijay and Young Harris might be surprised to learn that there was a strong anti-Confederate sentiment in these mountain communities. The non-agricultural, working class section of Virginia generally opposed the Confederacy and seceded from their state in order to rejoin the union. We now call this section West Virginia. The working class whites of Eastern Tennessee also tended to support the North in the war. Some people point out that after the initial seven Southern states seceded over slavery, four more seceded when it became clear that Abraham Lincoln expected them to provide sources to reunite the country. Some people thus argue that “Yankee Aggression” caused the war. But the fact remains: the initial secession that resulted in the war took place not because of tariffs, vague concepts of states’ rights or any other strange theories but because of a desire by very powerful people to continue slavery. Some people, such as Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, have argued that the Civil War could have been avoided if the U.S. government had simply paid to buy the slaves and release them. This does not take into account the fact that buying out slaves would have extremely difficult given that the federal income tax was not instituted until the war was in progress. It also ignores the fact that blacks could have been shipped back to Africa, as was supported by many Americans, and would have probably not received the Constitutional guarantees of equal rights that were codified as a result of the Civil War and laid the groundwork for Supreme Court decisions like Brown v. Board of Education. Finally, it is sometimes stated that the South could not have seceded to preserve slavery because of the fact that the Confederacy offered to abolish slavery later in the war in exchange for recognition by Europe. The reason for this offer is fairly obvious: following a string of major defeats in 1863 and 1864 (an important one being Atlanta), the South realized that they were about to lose the war. Once this occurred, it was only a matter of time before slavery was abolished. Thus, the South had two choices: end slavery but remain independent and have the option of using methods such as deportation to Africa in order to prevent racial amalgamation or be forced back into the union and risk humiliating surrender terms, not least among them black equality. Indeed, within five years of the South’s defeat, blacks had constitutional guarantees of equal rights, something unlikely to have happened if the Confederacy had won the war, whether it chose to end slavery or not.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Understanding the Civil War, Part 2

  1. I wanted to thank you for this great read!! I certainly loved every little bit of it.

    I have you book-marked to check out new stuff you post…

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