Slavery is not why most men fought in the Civil War.
Lest I be pilloried and accused of hate crimes over that unorthodox statement, let me hasten to clarify: Slavery was one of the great horrors of history, a crime against all of humanity perpetrated by Americans both before and after the Revolution, through the Civil War, and on occasion afterward. I liken it to our treatment of the native tribes that allied with us during the Creek War; not long after, they were forced west out of their ancestral homes, in some cases slaughtered wholesale without regard to treaty, justice, or common human decency. The institution of American slavery was (mostly) ended – and none too soon – because of a nasty bloody war during which far too many people died.
I’m going to explain my words about slavery in a moment, but stop a moment and observe: The first reaction of most people to my initial statement is one of instant and violent rejection. Half will refuse to read; many more will peruse the words but fail to understand their meaning. Some will doubtless accuse me of lying or being hateful. And, had I not paused to justify myself in the light of modern styles of thought, nobody would be reading right now.
My intention is simple and inoffensive: I wish to educate. In particular, I wish to convey to modern readers a rather difficult concept, that in order for history to be understood, it must be viewed in the context of its own time and people. Any other way of viewing it will end with hopelessly biased conclusions, chains of reasoning that leave you either hopelessly confused or furious about the wrong things.
Let me provide an example: During the time of the Civil War, duels were still regularly fought over slights both real and imagined. Hasty words and valid criticism alike could get a man shot or, if the duel was declined, branded a coward and thus beneath contempt. Life for a coward was cruel enough than many walked willingly to certain death in an uneven duel rather than endure the alternative.
Today, we rightly view this as insane. But in the context of that time and long ages before, it was vital, an essential part of life in civilization.
Similarly, today we view the institution of slavery as a great evil, a horror almost beyond comprehension. And yet, during the time of its practice, the African slave trade was not thought of that way except by a few. The first anti-slavery laws both in England and the United States were passed not to protect slaves but rather to protect the rights of the worker, the farmer, the craftsman. To be sure, slavery was no less evil than it is now, but strange though it may now seem to us, it usually wasn’t seen that way.
In fact, by modern standards, the average citizen of America at the time of the War was a pretty awful person. Extreme racism was the rule even in the ‘enlightened’ North; abolitionists wished to free slaves, but often only if they could be returned to Africa. (Look up the A.C.S. and the history of Liberia sometime.) Even after the War there was no general idea of true equality; it wasn’t until Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 that the phrase “Equal protection under the law” had anything even close to its modern interpretation.
And that’s just race relations. If I were to tell you all about when it was considered justifiable to beat your wife to death or shoot someone dead for being an Indian… But my point’s been made: People were different back in the day, if only in that they didn’t think much like we do now.
Now that I’ve thoroughly horrified you and me both, let’s go back to that first statement of mine, that “Slavery is not why most men fought in the Civil War.”
Alongside that goes another statement, one that’s equally true: Without the issue of slavery, the Civil War would never have been fought. These two ideas seem contradictory, but that’s from our perspective far in the future. At the time, things were seen quite differently, and not just from a moral standpoint; the success of secession seemed possible and open war was considered unlikely. There was no thought that any prolonged conflict could occur. The war that eventually happened was almost an accident — even though, with hindsight, it was inevitable. I’ll explain.
Secession wasn’t at all a new idea in 1861. It had in fact been discussed during the Revolution and was explicitly considered a right of states during the time of the first convention. Secessionist movements were common in times of dispute, from the Whiskey Rebellion with its six-stripe flag to that of Daniel Shays. During the enormously unpopular War of 1812, there was a movement for the entirety of New England to secede and join Canada. The point of contention in each of these was taxation, and the common theme was of state’s rights versus a strong central government.
This began to change as the abolition of slavery became a popular cause in Canada, then the United Kingdom, and eventually throughout the North. Slavery was abolished throughout the U.K. in 1833, and state by state the North was doing the same thing. Pressure mounted to impose abolition on the South, and in 1819-20 and again after the Mexican War, that pressure was nearly enough to prompt secession. Cooler heads prevailed through crisis after crisis, but tension and resentment continued to build along geographical lines. Eventually, things came to a head with Bloody Kansas and the Dred Scott case (after which New York and Illinois threatened to secede!) The Republican Party formed as an abolitionist coalition at the same time as the Democratic Party suffered a geographical split and the Whigs dissolved in disgrace.
When Lincoln was elected, seven states voted to secede from the Union as a response, in fear that a Republican administration would disenfranchise them. Again, this was over the issue of slavery in particular, and generally with regard to the rights of states and those of the individual. By the time Lincoln took office, the crisis at Fort Sumter was already fully engaged, and he did his utmost to defuse it in his Inaugural Address in March of 1861:
“I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”
Lincoln was a very able man, and I’m convinced that if any man then alive could have preserved the Union without war, it would have been him. He was intimately familiar with conditions in the South and with the arguments both for and against secession, and he spoke in full knowledge of the will of the people in every section of the country. That the South believed they were right to secede was not something he doubted; that the question itself was open to doubt was likewise certain.
In January, when Mississippi voted to leave the Union, Senator Jefferson Davis (soon to be President of the Confederacy) regretfully left the Senate. He had delayed his departure in the hope that he might be arrested, drawing special attention to it by his actions before the Senate. Had he been arrested, the legality of secession might be tried in the Supreme Court — and he fully expected that he would win such a case. So too did many others throughout the South and quite a few in the North. Lincoln acknowledged this view in his Inaugural, seemingly inviting the trial:
“I do not forget the position assumed by some that constitutional questions are to be decided by the Supreme Court, nor do I deny that such decisions must be binding…”
Noted author Shelby Foote believed the Court would have supported the right of secession as implied. That the issue of such a trial would have been at the least in doubt is certain; the North carefully avoided any raising of the question all through the war. It wasn’t until 1869 that the Court had the opportunity to hear arguments on the legality of secession in Texas v. White. In the mean while, Davis’s post-war trial for treason was dismissed, in part out of fear of an unfavorable decision that would start the fighting up all over again.
These may seem mere quibbles to us, but it must be remembered that in the time of the Civil War, people were strongly motivated by pride and a sense of personal honor. In any doubtful situation, only rarely would wisdom or expedience win out if there was a question of duty. Thus, when Jefferson Davis was informed that he’d been named President of the Confederacy, he took the office and served to the best of his ability despite being personally opposed to secession.
Note here that Lincoln and Davis each felt he had no choice, no options, no actions he could take, and each awaited events in growing trepidation. (When notified he was elected President of the Confederacy, a position he never wanted, he spoke of it to his wife “as a man might speak of a sentence of death.”) Meanwhile, in Charleston, South Carolina, the war was about to begin.
During the final days of the previous administration, the official position of the administration was that, although President Buchanan didn’t believe secession was permitted under the Constitution, at the same time he also didn’t believe it gave him any authority to oppose it. As a result, when the seceding states began to take possession of Federal property (mainly forts and armories and customs houses) within their territory, there was no opposition. In Charleston harbor, however, troops at Fort Moultrie declined to withdraw and instead moved to the incomplete island defenses at Fort Sumter.
This was not the defensive act that it appears on modern reading, or at least not purely defensive. South Carolina claimed to own the land on which Fort Sumter had been built, and even though it was an artificial island constructed at Federal expense, Congress had agreed to pay — but had failed to deliver. Construction had lapsed during the controversy and the fort was still incomplete when Major Anderson and his men moved in.
Charleston newsmen, spoiling for a fight, pounced on this as an invasion by a hostile foreign power, and the siege was on — almost spontaneously, and certainly not with any official blessing. (For an interesting discussion, read this.) No Confederacy yet existed when a Federal supply ship was turned away by a shore bombardment from the local militia, and it wasn’t until some months later that General Beauregard arrived to take command of the situation. By then, there was no stopping it.
During the mean while, a peace delegation from the new Confederate government had arrived in Washington but had utterly failed at its mission, and tensions continued to increase — while Anderson’s men were running out of food. Only seven of the fifteen slave states had chosen to secede, and Lincoln was optimistic about a peaceful resolution. Presumably he was testing Southern resolve when he chose to make a resupply run to the fort, pledging to only send food and not troops or additional armament. By the time the ships came in sight of land, however, the bombardment of Fort Sumter had begun as a response to them having sailed.
Federal troops soon surrendered, knowing full well that defeat was inevitable. Lincoln used this as a justification to call for an army to end the rebellion, and that action instantly triggered four of the other eight slave states to secede in response to what they considered an illegal war by the government against Americans. Each blithely predicting a rapid victory, the armies of the Union and of the Confederacy met at the line of Bull Run in northern Virginia.
It was a shock to the North when the Union army was crushed and fled in disarray. In a state of near-panic, Lincoln called for emergency powers, and the South reciprocated. The Union began to raise an army of hundreds of thousands and so did the Confederacy. In the North, the official rallying cry was to preserve the Union; in the South, to defend against invasion.
Over the course of the war, the troops making up the armies of the Union can be said to have fought for many different reasons. Chief among these was money; in the absence of willing volunteers, large bounties were paid to any man willing to join. In Europe, word of this spread and tens of thousands rushed to the New World; entire corps were soon composed of men who spoke little or no English but were promised citizenship and free land once the war was over.
Many in the North did enlist out of patriotism; then too, quite a few volunteers joined up in order to fight to end slavery, particularly at the start of the war. Then, as the fighting began to heat up, men of fighting age began to face more and more pressure to fight rather than be labeled cowards. Eventually, conscription was authorized, after which men enlisted because they had to — not all of them, but definitely some.
Individual motivation for the southern troops was hard for Northerners to gauge. Certainly, among the hundreds of thousands of fighting men, very few of them owned massive slave-farmed plantations. However, the ranks of volunteers remained full and morale in the army was high. There was no question among the men but that they must fight.
And, judging from contemporary sources, there was no question why. The politicians wanted war in order to preserve their way of life; the elite demanded that slavery be protected. Even the lower orders of society profited indirectly; cotton and tobacco money paid almost everyone’s wages in the end.
But the citizen of the Confederacy would have scorned such motivations; they fought because they believed their cause to be just. John Billings, in his memoir “Hard Tack and Coffee”, is quite plain about the war being one of defense. Longstreet in his memoirs and Lee in his correspondence each mention this, in particular that the morale of the entire army suffered gravely the moment they stepped onto foreign soil during the invasion of Pennsylvania. The overwhelming majority of the forces in Georgia were never permitted to fight outside their home state for this very reason.
In the end, the South went to war over slavery, but they fought for reasons of pride, of honor, of nationalism, and to defend their homes. The Union could certainly be said to have gone to war over slavery, but they fought for duty and country, for money and citizenship, and for dozens of other reasons — not the least of which being that they’d just been trounced by a bunch of effete and corrupt slaveowning Southern rebels.
A few thousand committed abolitionists joined up with the Union army in order to free the slaves; their motivations must be acknowledged and remembered. In the South, three thousand cavalrymen and more were drawn from the aristocracy, and most could be said to have been fighting to preserve their way of life — against modern factories and industry, true, but it can’t be denied that the Southern aristocratic way of life included the institution of slavery as a major component.
But that’s thousands out of nearly a million under arms. According to all my reading, most of the soldiers on each side didn’t care much about slaves one way or the other, certainly not enough to march and fight and die over.
This will always be a touchy question, the more so as society continues to evolve. Right now there’s a ton of argument over historic monuments and the right to fly Confederate flags and battle flags. And this is as it should be; any living society needs to argue and debate.
But that’s not the job of the historian, not even the amateur. It is beholden on the student of history to learn from the past, and on the teacher to tell the story as it happened, not as we wish it had. We aren’t required to like or approve of the people who lived that history, mind; all that’s needed from us is to recognize them — who they were, how they felt, why they did what they did — and tell the truth about them.
(Note: The flag at the top is that of the Confederacy. It’s not my flag; my people fought for the Union, and many died.)