Slavery is not why most men fought in the Civil War.
I’m going to explain this in a moment, but stop a moment and observe: The first reaction of many people to my initial statement is one of instant and violent rejection. In these emotionally charged times, fully half of my readers will refuse to go on from here; many more will fail to understand their meaning in the light of their preconceptions. Some will doubtless accuse me of lying or of deliberately being hateful.
And so 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, all the way through the Civil War. The institution of American slavery was only ended because of a nasty bloody war during which far too many young men died; it should never have begun, and it should never have lasted as long as it did.
My intention here is to inform, not offend. I wish to convey to modern readers a 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 perspective must certainly end with erroneous conclusions, chains of reasoning that leave you either hopelessly confused or furious about the wrong things.
(For those of you who treasure your righteous indignation, have no fear; there’s plenty to be furious about.)
Let me provide an example of historic context: 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. Often, a refusal would be published in local newspapers, and the man so named would be publicly ostracized. Life for a proclaimed coward was so cruel that many walked willingly to face death in a 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, it was ubiquitous in the New World, and the African slave trade was not thought of as at all wrong except by a few. The first anti-slavery laws both in England and the United States were passed not to protect slaves but rather the rights of the free 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 at the time save by those who were unfashionably religious.
When judged by modern standards, the average citizen of early America 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 the crime of being an Indian… But the point has 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 we can clearly see 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 popular 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 the superiority of state’s rights over those of the central government.
The abolition of slavery had long been a popular cause in Canada, then the United Kingdom, and eventually throughout the North. Slavery was abolished throughout the territories of 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 geographic 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 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, garrison 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 without any official blessing. (For an interesting discussion, read this.) No Confederacy yet existed when a Federal supply ship was turned away by 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 preemptive bombardment of Fort Sumter had begun in response.
Federal troops soon surrendered, knowing full well that defeat was inevitable. Lincoln used this as a justification to take on military powers, calling up an army to end the rebellion. 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. Provocation followed provocation and more seceded as armies formed. Each blithely predicting a rapid victory, the volunteer forces 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 greater 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 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, with additional subsidies paid to support their families at home. Word of this spread in Europe 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. (This similarity to the Hessian mercenaries of Revolutionary War fame was not ignored by the Southern newspapers.)
Many in the North did enlist out of patriotism, to preserve the Union from rebellion. Then too, quite a few volunteers joined up in order to fight to end slavery; abolitionists flocked to the banners, particularly at the beginning. Then, as the war began to heat up, men of fighting age began to face more and more pressure to enlist rather than be labeled cowards by their friends and family. Eventually, conscription was authorized, after which men joined up because they were forced to.
In the South it was the same, but from the opposite perspective: They initially joined by the thousands because Lincoln was raising an army of invasion, fought through the war as volunteers, and only required conscription when the supply of able-bodied men ran low — when hundreds of thousands had died. We know this from their own writings; the officers and even some of the private soldiers wrote letters by the bale, and after the war so very many of them penned their memoirs. And, judging from these contemporary sources, there was no question why each man fought; the rhetoric is flowery and overblown, but the meaning is clear.
The politicians wanted war in order to preserve their way of life; the elite demanded that slavery be protected. Newspapers and prominent blowhards bloviated about the preservation of their “peculiar institution”. Even the lower orders of society profited indirectly from slaves; cotton and tobacco money flowed around until it paid almost everyone’s wages. But the ordinary citizen of the Confederacy was too proud to consider that even if he understood it. They would have scorned such crass motivations; they fought because they believed their cause to be just.
John Billings, soldier and author of “Hard Tack and Coffee”, is quite plain about the South’s war being one of defense — he knew this, and him a good Union man. Longstreet in his memoirs and Lee in his correspondence each mention this more than once, and memorably 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 Georgia troops were never permitted to fight outside state lines for this very reason: They were fighting because another state — another country — was invading them.
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 precisely as it should be; any living society needs to disagree, discuss, 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 actually happened, not as we wish it had. We aren’t required to like or approve of the people who lived that history; all that’s needed from us is to recognize them — who they were, how they felt, why they did what they did — and to 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.)