Slavery & The Civil War – Part 1

Posted By Levi

April 19th, 2011 5:25pm

Last Tuesday, April 12, was the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. It was on that day in 1861 that Confederate forces in South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter, a federal military fort. That act led to a brutal war that pitted the North against the South which took the lives of over 600,000 Americans on both sides.

The War is long over but in some respects, we are still fighting it. There are still disagreements over the Civil War. Why was it fought? What were the reasons for the war? Was it about slavery? States Rights? Tariffs?

In December last year, the Republican governor of Virginia,Bob McDonnell, declared April to be ‘Confederate History Month’ in that state. It immediately angered Civil Rights leaders across the nation. Why? Because, incredibly, the declaration made no mention of slavery as a cause of the Civil War. When asked about the omission of slavery, the Governor said, “there were any number of aspects” to the Civil War, which “obviously” included slavery and he “focused on the ones I thought were most significant to Virginia.”

In a recent CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll, roughly one in four Americans said they sympathize more with the Confederacy than the Union, a figure that rises to nearly four in ten among white Southerners. When asked the reason behind the Civil War, whether it was fought over slavery or states’ rights, 52 percent of all Americas said the leaders of the Confederacy seceded to keep slavery legal in their state, but a sizeable 42 percent minority said slavery was not the main reason why those states seceded. [...] When broken down by political party, most Democrats said southern states seceded over slavery, independents were split and most Republicans said slavery was not the main reason that Confederate states left the Union.

Yes, there were several causes of the Civil War but the  primary cause was slavery. The South went to war to preserve and to protect the system that was the economic foundation of its prosperity, the system of slavery. Today, sympathizers of the old Confederacy would like to rewrite history and to downplay slavery as a cause of the War.

Many in the South refer to the War as the “War between the States” or the “War of Northern Aggression.” They often portray the War as a noble and heroic effort on part of the South to throw off the tyranny of an oppressive North. To sell this story, they have to downplay slavery as the major cause of the Civil War. After all, there was nothing noble or heroic about fighting to preserve a system that held millons of men, women and children in bondage. There was nothing noble or heroic about Southern states that waged war on the United States.

Was the War about slavery? All we have to do is simply look at what some of the leaders in the South were saying as to why they were fighting the war. Southern leaders said they were fighting to preserve slavery.

James W. Loewen author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, writes that South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union, clearly stated the reason why they were breaking away:

“On Dec. 24, 1860, when South Carolina’s seceded from the Union, it gave the reason as “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery” and protested that Northern states had failed to “fulfill their constitutional obligations” by interfering with the return of fugitive slaves to bondage. Slavery, not states’ rights, birthed the Civil War.

South Carolina was further upset that New York no longer allowed “slavery transit.” In the past, if Charleston gentry wanted to spend August in the Hamptons, they could bring their cook along. No longer – and South Carolina’s delegates were outraged. In addition, they objected that New England states let black men vote and tolerated abolitionist societies.

Other seceding states echoed South Carolina. “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world,” proclaimed Mississippi in its own secession declaration, passed Jan. 9, 1861. “Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of the commerce of the earth. A blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.”

The Vice President of the Confederacy  was Alexander H. Stephens. In 1861, in Savannah, Georgia, Stephens bluntly declared that slavery was “the immediate cause of the late rupture and the present revolution.”

He said the United States had been founded on the false belief that all men are created equal. The Confederacy, in contrast, had been “founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural moral condition.”

Finally, here is the famous filmmaker, Ken Burns, writing recently in the New York Times:

“Yet in the years immediately after the South’s surrender at Appomattox we conspired to cloak the Civil War in bloodless, gallant myth, obscuring its causes and its great ennobling outcome – the survival of the union and the freeing of four million Americans and their descendants from bondage. We struggled, in our addiction to the idea of American exceptionalism, to rewrite our history to emphasize the gallantry of the war’s top-down heroes, while ignoring the equally important bottom-up stories of privates and slaves. We changed the irredeemable, as the historian David Blight argues, into positive, inspiring stories. The result has been to blur the reality that slavery was at the heart of the matter, ignore the baser realities of the brutal fighting, romanticize our own home-grown terrorist organization, the Ku Klux Klan, and distort the consequences of the Civil War that still intrude on our national life.”

 

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