A Brief History
On May 9, 1865, the American Civil War ended, or did it? Historians acknowledge that exact starting and ending dates of wars are open to debate, and likewise, so are the causes and reasons those wars were fought. In the case of the American Civil War, April 1861 to May 1865, the “cause” of Southern independence is a controversial and contentious subject even to this day. The main debate centers on whether or not slavery, that “peculiar institution,” was the main cause of the war and the reason for fighting such a costly conflict. Revisionist “historians” have tried mightily over the years to justify the Confederacy and their “Lost Cause,” which serious historians have repeatedly debunked.
The so called “Lost Cause” is a construct of revisionist history that makes the case that slavery as practiced in the American South was a benevolent institution that was mutually beneficial to the master and the slave, and furthermore, contributed to the general wealth of the United States. A mythology about the chivalrous nature of the Southern gentleman farmer and general social superiority of the Southern White population was promulgated and reinforced by a vigorous campaign over several decades to erect Confederate monuments and name many places after Confederate heroes. Statistics about how few Southern White people actually owned slaves was used to undermine the notion that the Civil War was fought over the issue of slavery, although such numbers grossly misrepresent the reality of the situation in the South. Since only the head of the household was likely to be listed as the slave owner, the several others in his family that benefited from the slave holding were technically not slave owners, but in reality were indeed people that were benefiting from the institution of slavery and living the lifestyle afforded by such human bondage.
While American African slaves may not have been treated as consistently harshly as sometimes depicted in television and movie productions, neither were they “happy” as the revisionist Southern mythology would have you believe. Otherwise, escape attempts via the Underground Railroad would not have existed, nor would freed slaves readily accept their freedom. Other major countries had already abolished slavery by the time of the American Civil War, which greatly undermines the argument that this hateful practice was somehow the norm in the world at the time. Examples of when various countries abolished slavery include Japan-1590, Russia-1679 (field slaves converted to serfs), Russia-1723 (house slaves converted to serfs), Norway-Denmark-1848 (in the colonies), France-1794 (reinstituted in colonies in 1802, ended for good in 1848), Spain-1811, Netherlands-1814, British Empire-1833-1834, and the Catholic Church-1839. All major European countries had already abolished slavery by 1861, and the world view that slavery was “wrong” was a common belief accepted by civilized people all over the world.
Another fact that belies the storyline that slavery was not the main or even a main issue leading to the secession of the Confederate States from the United States is found in the documents announcing the secession of those various states. In fact EVERY Southern state that seceded to join the Confederate States of America prominently cited slavery as an issue of contention leading to secession. A few examples of such blatant references to slavery include the following statement by George Smoote of Arkansas, “Resolved, that the platform on the party known as the Black Republican Party contains unconstitutional dogmas, dangerous in their tendency and highly derogatory to the rights of slave states, and among them the insulting, injurious and untruthful enunciation of the right of the African race of their country to social and political equality with the whites.” Virginia noted in its declaration of secession, “Lincoln’s opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.” The Alabama legislature drafted a letter that included, “it is the desire and purpose of the people of Alabama to meet the Slaveholding States of the South, who may approve such purpose, in order to frame a provisional as well as permanent government upon the principles of the Constitution of the United States.” South Carolina complained that President Lincoln held “opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.” Texas invoked the will of God in their rationalization for secession, “based upon the unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color—a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of the Divine Law.” Any attempt to pretend that slavery was not the “States’ Rights” when the cause of State’s Rights is cited as leading to the Civil War is just plain wrong. Slavery may not have been the only issue, but it was indeed by far the biggest and most contentious issue of them all.
Cognizant of the emotional response that slavery evoked in Southern White Americans, President Lincoln, though morally opposed to slavery, was not in any hurry to justify the fears of the seceding states by promoting the abolition of slavery. Not until it became politically expedient based on the military situation, did Lincoln issue his Emancipation Proclamation in September of 1862. The issuance of his executive order that freed the slaves in Confederate states only, leaving slavery intact in Missouri, Kentucky, Delaware and Maryland, slave states that did not secede, was engineered to place the United States in the role of the moral upper hand making other European countries that had already abolished slavery unwilling to openly support the Confederate States of America, and giving Americans a moral basis for fighting for the Union. Had the Confederate states not placed such a high value on slavery, they could have ended the Civil War at any time prior to their actual surrender in 1865, thus potentially saving many thousands of lives and hundreds of ruined cities.
Thus, not only was slavery the precipitating reason for secession by the Southern/slave states, but the abolition of slavery also later became the driving force behind the Northern war effort as well. Despite continued modern attempts to keep alive the myth of the “Lost Cause,” and fierce opposition to the removal of Confederate names and likenesses from schools, places, installations and monuments, the overwhelming trend is to debunk this persistent myth and to relegate the “Lost Cause” to a place of indifference or even shame instead of being a treasured part of American heritage.
An Afterword: While we do not disagree with removing Confederate monuments and names from public places, we also believe that like it or not, the Confederate period and Antebellum South is part of the American heritage and should be preserved, perhaps in museums or on private property, so as not to be destroyed as part of a mindless attempt to erase the past. History is history, whether one agrees with what happened or not, and only by preserving historical accounts and relics can society understand its past and perhaps shed light on its future.
Question for students (and subscribers): Do you believe states have a right to secede? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Adams, Charles. When in the Course of Human Events: Arguing the Case for Southern Secession. Rowman & Littlefield, 2004.
Gigantino II, James J., ed. Slavery and Secession in Arkansas: A Documentary History (The Civil War in the West). University of Arkansas Press, 2015.
Marshall, Anne E. Creating a Confederate Kentucky: The Lost Cause and Civil War Memory in a Border State. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
Mitcham Jr., Samuel W. It Wasn’t About Slavery: Exposing the Great Lie of the Civil War. Regnery History, 2021.
Pollard, Edward. The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates. CreateSpace, 2014.
Seidule, Ty. Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause. St. Martin’s Press, 2021.
Wood, Gordon S. Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early American Republic, 1789-1815. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Edyth Carter Beveridge of George Washington Custis Lee, 1832-1913, on horseback, with staff reviewing Confederate Reunion Parade in Richmond, Va., June 3, 1907, in front of monument to Jefferson Davis, is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1926, and if not then due to lack of notice or renewal. See this page for further explanation.
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