Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Fought Over Slavery?

The dominant view of the Civil War, at least among historians, is that the Civil War was fought over slavery. After all, if there had been no slavery, there would have been no war.  True, but that doesn't mean the war was fought over slavery. Similarly, if there had been no Kuwaiti oil fields, there would have been no Persian Gulf War in 1991, but of course that doesn't prove that that war was fought over oil fields--it was fought over Iraq's invasion and occupation of Kuwait.

Most historians also claim that Southern secession was all about slavery and that therefore the Civil War was fought over slavery. But, for one thing, leaving aside the fact that secession and the war were two different events, the claim that Southern secession was all about slavery is demonstrably incorrect. The four Upper South states rejected secession when it was based largely on slavery and the tariff. They felt that the Deep South states had valid complaints relating to slavery and the tariff, but they did not feel that those complaints justified secession. The Upper South states decided to leave the Union only after Lincoln made it clear that he was going to invade the South. Until then, pro-Union sentiment was strong and arguably gaining ground in the Upper South.

As for why the Deep South states seceded, the record is clear that there were two major reasons: slavery and the tariff, in that order. Slavery was the main reason the Deep South seceded, but the tariff was also a major reason, which is why four of the seven Deep South states mentioned or alluded to the tariff in some of their official secession documents. Southern newspapers printed numerous editorials on the tariff and cited the Republican-backed Morrill Tariff as a major reason to leave the Union.

And it should be pointed out that the debate over slavery was not over whether slavery should continue but over whether it should be allowed to expand into the western territories. Lincoln made it very clear that he had no interest in disturbing slavery where it already existed; he just didn't want it to spread beyond its current boundaries. Most Republicans held this view.

In fact, Lincoln supported the Corwin Amendment, which would have permanently prevented the federal government from abolishing slavery. Lincoln not only pushed for the amendment behind the scenes, but he mentioned his support for it in his first inaugural address.

It is interesting to consider that when Lincoln sent the armed federal naval convoy to Fort Sumter--the convoy that provoked the Confederacy to launch an attack on the fort--there were more slave states in the Union than there were in the Confederacy.

Moreover, when the war began, the U.S. Congress, by a huge majority, passed a resolution that avowed that the war was not being fought to end slavery but only to restore the Union. It was over a year later, and only after Union casualties began to greatly exceed expectations, that Lincoln decided to include abolition as a war objective.

Furthermore, by late 1864, most Confederate leaders, and apparently a substantial majority of Southern citizens, were prepared to end slavery in order to preserve Southern independence. In early 1865 the Confederacy began to move toward gradual emancipation. This shows that, when push came to shove, independence was more important to the South than the continuation of slavery.

So what was the Civil War fought over? Answer: Independence--Southern independence, to be exact. The South wanted to leave the Union and form an independent nation. The North invaded (over the opposition of many Northern citizens) in order to force the South to rejoin the Union. Independence was the central issue, the main point of contention. Everything else was secondary. If the South had not claimed independence, there would have been no war, and slavery would have continued for a few more decades and then died a natural death.

If the Confederacy had announced at its founding convention that in one month it would begin a program of gradual emancipation patterned after previous Northern emancipation programs, would Lincoln have abandoned Fort Sumter? Would the Republicans have agreed to accept the Confederate peace proposal? Would they have recognized the Confederacy?  Would they have at least been willing to peacefully coexist with the Confederacy? Any serious student of the war knows that the answer to these questions is no.That's because the central issue of the war was Southern independence, not slavery.


  1. The South Still Lies About the Civil War.

    Reminding Confederate apologist about the facts of the Civil War, part 1.

    Stop Whitewashing History the Civil War was about Slavery.

    Was the Civil War actually about slavery? by James Oakes.

    1. I had already included the Salon article, "The South Still Lies About the Civil War," as one of the links on my Causes of the Civil War links page.

      Where do any of these articles address all the points raised in the blog post? They do nothing more than repeat the standard lines that have dominated Civil War scholarship for decades. They do not address many of the counter-arguments that have been made. Nor do they adequately deal with the various facts that contradict the claim that the war was fought over slavery.

    2. And to follow-up, let me ask you this, Anonymous:

      If the Confederacy had announced at its founding convention that in one week it would begin emancipating Southern slaves and that all Southern slaves would be free within two months, do you think the Republicans would have accepted the Confederate peace off and recognized the CSA?

      Do you think Lincoln would have said, "Well, in that case, I'll withdraw federal troops from Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens and will formally recognize the Confederacy?"

      We both know that the answer to these questions is NO.

      Why is that? Because slavery was not the main point of contention. With or without slavery, the Republicans had no intention of allowing the Southern states to be independent and to form their own country. The Republicans adopted the same attitude toward Southern independence that the British adopted toward American independence.

      Both the Republicans and the British rejected the core principle of the Declaration of Independence that a people organized into political entities, such as colonies or states, had the natural, God-given right to peacefully separate their colony/state from the national government if they found it unacceptable--you know: government by consent of the governed--and to form their own government and take their place among the nations of the Earth.

      And let's remember one other fact: Slavery continued in the North for nearly 100 years after America declared her independence in 1776. What's more, because of the very gradual nature of the various Northern emancipation programs, slaves continued to be held--legally--in Northern "free" states until the 1830s and 1840s.

      Imagine if the British had said in 1805, "We're going in invade New England because slaves are still being held there and because the New England states are reaping huge profits from the slave trade. In fact, the two largest slave-trade ports are in New England [which was true]. And we suspect that the slave trade will partially continue after it will be made illegal in 1808 [which it did]. So, in the interest of humanity, and to reclaim colonies that had no right to leave in the first place, we are going to invade the New England states, and this time we will use an army twice as large as the one we used a few years ago."

      What do you think the abolitionists would have said? Some would have said, "Come on in, and we'll even help you!" But most of them would have resisted the British--obviously, not because they were pro-slavery but to keep the New England states independent.

      Similarly, most Confederate soldiers did not fight to preserve slavery but to preserve Southern independence. A Confederate soldier who was captured early in the war expressed, in simple but eloquent terms, the reason that most Southerners resisted the federal invasion. He wore a ragged homemade uniform, and like most other Southerners he didn’t own any slaves. When Union soldiers asked him why he was fighting for the Confederacy, he replied, “I’m fighting because you’re down here” (McPherson, The Battle Cry of Freedom, p. 311).

      The Confederate debate on emancipation indicated that a sizable majority of Southern citizens were entirely willing to ditch slavery to keep the South independent. And it is an indisputable fact of history that in March 1865 the Confederate Congress, after bitter debate, passed a bill that everyone knew would begin the process of gradual emancipation. It just so happened that that process was not given enough time to play out because Lee surrendered a few weeks later. But if the CSA had been able to survive for another year or two, thousands of Southern slaves would have been freed and the momentum for ending slavery would have been unstoppable.

    3. I've added the "Stop Whitewashing History" article to my Causes page.

  2. Also, not all Southern Generals were slave holders. Lee became one after the death of his father-in-law, but freed his slaves. Cleburne also opposed slavery, but never betrayed the South.

  3. I am a different "Anonymous." I can see how you could say that the war was not really about slavery - but shouldn't we be glad the north won so slavery was able to be abolished?

    1. That's a good question. Probably 99.9% of Americans agree that the abolition of slavery was a good thing and long overdue. And certainly the slaves were thrilled and happy about finally having their freedom.

      But was a Northern victory the only way that slavery could have been abolished? No, I do not think it was.

      The Confederacy, as noted earlier, began the process of gradual emancipation in March 1865, after a fierce debate.

      One might also ask, If the abolition of slavery is the main criterion for judging the war's outcome, shouldn't we wish that the British had won the Revolutionary War, since slavery would have ended decades earlier if the colonies had remained under British governance?

      Although our textbooks tend to gloss over this fact, it was the British who were fighting on the side of emancipation. More American slaves fought for the British than for the Americans, and the British freed more of their slave soldiers than did the Americans after the war.

      In fact, after the war, George Washington tried to get the British to return the American slaves who had fled to British lines for freedom. The British, to their credit, refused.

      I believe that if the Republicans had allowed the South to leave in peace, slavery would have died a natural death in a matter of two, three, or four decades. Would this have been a better option than starting a war that killed over 600,000 soldiers, that wounded over 1 million soldiers, that killed over 50,000 civilians, that led to the theft and destruction of billions of dollars' worth of private property, that set the precedent of the federal government greatly exceeding its constitutional limits and functions, and that led to poisoned race relations and bitterness that endured for decades? In my view, the answer is Yes.

  4. Something else that should be pointed out is that as of November 1864, Confederate soldiers were fighting for a government whose president and other leaders were openly advocating emancipation for slaves who would serve in the Confederate army. And, as of March 13, 1865, Confederate soldiers were fighting for a government that had officially begun the process of emancipation.

    There is an amazing amount of myth and disinformation about the Confederate emancipation bill. You will often see pro-Northern people claim that the bill did not authorize emancipation, and they cite Section 5 as their evidence. But Section 5 says that a slave's relationship to his owner **can** be changed as long as the owner and the state agree--this clearly opened the door to emancipation and everyone knew it. Let's read it:

    "SEC 5. That nothing in this act shall be construed to authorize a change in the relation which the said slaves shall bear toward their owners, except by consent of the owners and of the States in which they may reside, and in pursuance of the laws thereof."

    Furthermore, at the direction of Jefferson Davis, when the Adjutant General issued the order to implement the bill, he included in the order a provision that no slave could enlist unless he was doing so voluntarily and unless his master certified, in writing, that the slave would be granted his freedom to the extent that he was able to do so (i.e., in accordance with the laws of his home state):

    "No slave will be accepted as a recruit unless with his own consent and with the approbation of his master by a written instrument conferring, as far as he may, the rights of a freedman, and which will be filed with the superintendent." (General Orders 14:IV)

    EVERYBODY knew that this bill would free slaves who served as soldiers and would eventually lead to general emancipation, the end of slavery. That's why debate over it was so fierce and bitter.

  5. Article 1, section 9, clause 4 of the Confederate Constitution: "No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed."

    How could the Confederate government be moving towards an emancipation plan when their own constitution said they couldn't?

    1. "How could" they move toward emancipation? They DID IT. They passed a bill that did exactly that, and obviously did not accept your very narrow interpretation of the Confederate Constitution. They passed the bill. The recruitment of slaves began, and one unit began its training.

      And, again, if that process had had time to play out, it would have spelled the end of Southern slavery, and everyone on both sides knew it.

      By the way, why post anonymously? Just curious.

    2. They did it, in part, because they knew that they could ignore their constitution at will. Because there was no Confederate supreme court to tell them otherwise. I mean really, what part of "No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed" was unclear or open to interpretation?

    3. The clause that you quote only applied to the national government, not to the states. BOTH sides in the Confederate emancipation debate acknowledged that under the Confederate Constitution the states had the right to end slavery if they so desired. NOBODY disputed this fact, not even the most ardent fire-eaters. The Confederate slave-soldier bill required the agreement of the states from which the slaves came before slaves could be freed.

      The point that you keep avoiding is that the Confederate slave-soldier bill would have led to the end of Southern slavery if it had had time to play out, and everyone knew it. That is why the bill was so bitterly debated. The bill's opponents warned that the bill would spell the end of slavery in the South. That was one of their main arguments.

      Furthermore, the general order that Jefferson Davis ensured was issued to implement the bill included the provision that the slave had to volunteer and that the master had to agree in writing to confer freedom on the enlisting slave "as far as he may":

      "No slave will be accepted as a recruit unless with his own consent and with the approbation of his master by a written instrument conferring, as far as he may, the rights of a freedman, and which will be filed with the superintendent. "

      The "as far as he may" meant that as far as the respective state would allow. Several Southern governors had already publicly endorsed granting emancipation to slaves who served in the army (and also emancipation for their families), and there was strong support for emancipation in the states. So the Confederate slave-soldier bill, as its opponents pointed out, opened the door for the end of slavery.

      Thus, by March 1865, Confederate soldiers were fighting for a government that had begun the process of ending slavery.

      As for the absence of the Confederate Supreme Court, part of the reason the court was not set up was that the Confederacy was invaded by federal forces just a few months after the CSA was established. Also, the Confederate Constitute mandated that the CSA Supreme Court had to consist of all the district judges assembled at the capital, which made it impossible to convene the court when the capital was moved to Richmond. Congress suspended the operation of the law, but was never able to agree on another. The chief difficulty was not that there was much opposition to a Supreme Court, but that the old antagonism against judicial review of state court decisions arose again to block the organization of the court under the Confederate Judiciary Act that granted the right of judicial review. Furthermore, the state supreme courts upheld the vital war legislation of the Confederate government and made a national Supreme Court seem less necessary for the time being.

      Given our experience with the U.S. Supreme Court in recent years, and given the terrible decisions that the U.S. Supreme Court had already handed down up to that point in time, can anyone blame Southern citizens and leaders for being hesitant about establishing a Supreme Court? Besides, every CSA state had a functioning supreme court.

  6. The crux of the matter of who started the Civil War really comes down to the issue of secession. But one may argue that secession is constitutional, and many people that it essentially is a form of revolution, different from other forms of revolution and that it does not seek to overthrow the existing government but separate from it. This is exactly the same case with the American Revolution or the War of Independence. Now it’s interesting to note that we use both the term American Revolution and War of independence. For in the American Civil War it was officially from the US government standpoint a war of rebellion, from the Confederate states of America standpoint a war of independence.

    If you believe that the secession of the Deep South and formation of the Confederacy was legitimate than the blockade of Fort Sumter was an act of war. In modern terms of blockade of ports is an act of war. Of course if you do not believe that the Confederacy was a legitimate government of those states that you argue that they were rebellion and you are suppressing a rebellion it isn’t any more complicated than that.

    This being said the next question comes down to the actual land war which started at the first Battle of Manassas. That battle was unequivocally the result of the federal government initiating an action to force the states in secession to return to the union. Now let’s get past the legal arguments and get down to the moral considerations involved. Historically, almost all wars are fought over economics and land and sometimes ethnic or religious differences. However, it is rarely the case that the latter ones lead to full-scale wars without there being substantial economic interests involved. The Confederacy was warned by Robert E Lee that this would be a costly and bloody war that might last for five years. Nevertheless, Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Congress were determined to defend their territorial integrity, as they saw it. They knew that this would lead to the deaths of tens of thousands, but their interests first.The moral culpability of the War cannot be reassigned to some moral question about states’ rights when you wish to preserve slavery.

    Lincoln was warned also by Winfield Scott that this would be a long and bloody war, however he disregarded this and believed that a mere levy of 75,000 troops were needed to put down the rebellion. Both sides doubted the other’s sincerity, martial courage. And determination of neither side evidenced any great concern for the suffering of civilians or soldiers, (nor does this attitude prevail, even today where politicians and their children don’t fight wars.)

    Apologists for Lincoln’s war always emphasize the emancipation of the slaves as the moral weight behind their cause. It is certainly the case that the Deep South seceded because of two issues the first was a loss of their ability to control their own destiny within the United States government as evidenced by the fact that Lincoln was elected without carrying a single southern state. The second, of course, was that the wealth of the South though it was concentrated in relatively few individuals was due to the institution of slavery.

  7. It is rarely admitted by Northern apologists that the Border States did not secede over slavery but over Lincoln’s decision to use military force against the southern slave states. Just as Confederate apologists argue states’ rights and minimize slavery, Northern apologists ignore the fact that Border States such as Virginia North Carolina Arkansas and Tennessee did not leave the union over the issue of emancipation.

    When one examines them closely one finds that slavery was an issue that both were willing to be flexible about if it served their purposes. Lincoln’s view on slavery is well-known he did not like it, but he was willing to live with it for the sake of the preservation of the Union and there were Northern politicians who are ready to live with slaveryt for decades if the Union was preserved. At the end of the war when it was obvious the Confederacy was going to lose Jefferson Davis had sent a l communication the British and French telling them they would emancipate the slaves if they would come to their rescue. Neither Britain nor France ever answered that communication.

    Then there is the issue of the conduct of the war. Since almost the entire war was fought in the South we cannot say for sure exactly what actions the Confederate Army would take against civilians and their property as a manner of war policy. From the very beginning there were issues with the conduct of federal troops as early as the Battle of Fredericksburg. Fredericksburg was clearly looted and civilian property stolen or destroyed and so forth. This however was not a policy of the federal government, it and General McClellan was so shocked by it, that he wrote a letter to Lincoln stating that the war should be” fought in accordance with the rules of a Christian nation”. Lincoln never answered that letter.

    As the war drew on the federal government in accordance with Operation Anaconda blockaded food and medicine to the Confederacy, including the civilian population. It deliberately destroyed entire towns such as Meridian Mississippi. Following Grant’s orders to destroy the Shenandoah Valley so that a “crow flying over would have to bring its own provender”, Sheridan killed all the livestock they couldn’t eat burned the fields and the barns of the Valley, Sheridan. wrote back that the Southerners have nothing left but their eyes to cry,and Lincoln answeredthe nation thanks you.

    Though Abraham Lincoln was willing to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of soldiers to preserve the Union he did not want his own son to be part of that sacrifice and asked Gen. Grant to keep him out of harms way.

    General Sherman’s chief engineer, Captain O.M. Poe, advised Sherman that the bombing of Atlanta was of no military significance since the Confederate army had evacuated. Sherman commenced destroying 90 percent of all the buildings in Atlanta, killing hundreds of civilians, and then evicted the remaining 2000 citizens from their homes just as winter was arriving. It was not a notion of Sherman “that this was modern war” that precipitated this; it was William Tecumseh Sherman with the endorsement and under the orders of the Lincoln administration. Sherman admitted in his memoirs that he was taught at West Point that he could have been prosecuted and possibly hanged as a war criminal for doing the things he did.

  8. prosecuted and possibly hanged as a war criminal for doing the things he did.

    Military historians consider that these actions morally dubious at best.., Total war is war against civilians and their property as well against the military. Northern apologists attempt to rehabilitate this as a necessary means to achieve emancipation, nevertheless is wanton inhumanity. This argument does not hold up to historical scrutiny given your aforementioned original proposed Cprwin(13th amendment that would’ve guaranteed slavery in perpetuity, and Lincoln’s own words on the subject.

    Whatever moral gravitas the federal government might have had prior to operation Anaconda is lost completely.. Worst yet it can be argued that itset a precedence of victory at any cost that ultimately led to, The Plains Indian genociode,the butchery of the Philippine insurrection, and lastly the massive carpet bombing of civilian targets in World War II. It also brought rise to the notion that the civilian population is culpable for any actions by their government.

    The problem with the moral culpability argument is that it assumes the population has greater control over the government that actually has we have seen in modern times the resistance to the Iraq war, to occupy Wall Street movement had little or no effect on the government’s actions nor Wall Street’s self interest. The Neon Confederate

    1. Yes, the federal government used the Civil War as its excuse to begin brazenly ignoring the Constitution, to create unconstitutional agencies, to tax personal income, to overrule the sovereignty of the states, and to violate basic civil liberties (including the civil liberties of tens of thousands of Northern citizens).