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Interesting US History
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Myth: The American Civil War was all about slavery.

Fact: Although slavery was one of the major disagreements between the North and the South, those in the South were primarily fighting for their independence (most of them were too poor to own slaves anyway) and those in the North were fighting primarily to preserve the Union (most of them would never have risked their lives over the issue of slavery). Lincoln was very clear about this when he said "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that."

Webmaster Note:  This has been an ongoing debate since the Civil War.  At least one of the readers of this page believes I have understated the importance of slavery as a cause of the Civil War but that was never my intention.  The purpose of this page is to point out that it was a complicated issue which was looked at in varying ways by different individuals.  It was true back then and is still true today.

The reader who objected to me calling this a myth used my comment page to let me know his thoughts.  I was happy to have someone take the time to give his view on the topic and with his permission, I have posted our email exchange below so you can see two of the many points of view.

If you find this page interesting, you might want to purchase the book on the left for more more insight and interpretive essays by today's most influential historians.  It also draws on original sources from Jefferson Davis to Frederick Douglass to give you a better understanding of how those that lived during that time formed their opinions.

 

The Reader:

This is not a myth. Individual soldiers doubtless did not fight for slavery but I would direct you to read the SC (the first state to secede) and VA (The state with the largest army and the best generals) article for secession. Both states made it very clear they were seceding over slavery. I would also direct you to read the Constitution of the Confederacy. It is essentially a mirror copy of the US Constitution except for 2 things. It permanently made slavery impossible for any state to rescind, and it INCREASED the power of the central Confederate government over the state Governments. Thus the notion they fought for individual states rights, or for individual freedom is simply wrong.

Again, common people may have been duped to fight using the language of freedom and such, but that was not the reason the powered had to create the Confederacy. It was all about keeping labor cheap, both slave and freemen labor both because slavery helped keep all common people wages low.

Me:

Thank you for your response.

The civil war was not ALL about slavery. It may have been primarily about slavery to some but the war was fought for a lot of different reasons depending on who you were. The article for secession may prove that those individuals that drafted and adopted those articles considered it to be the most important reason for the war but that still doesn't make the war ALL about slavery. There are numerus books and numerous writings from historians giving many different reasons for the war.

By the way, Lincoln made if very clear that the North was NOT going to war to free the slaves. He even said if he could save the Union without freeing any of the slaves, he would. Although Lincoln did not agree with the institution of slavery, he was not prepared to go to war over it. Freeing the slaves became a secondary reason both politically but also because he thought it was the right thing to do.

This topic has been debated for over a hundred years and few would claim that slavery wasn't the major factor contributing the the war but by the same token, few would claim it was the only reason.

The Reader:

Hi Mark,

Thank you for this response but I must point out that your blog says something different from what you are now suggesting. In my note to you I admitted that individual soldiers probably did not fight over slavery but that the powers that be in the south absolutely did. Those that write the laws, those that make the decisions and those that have the power to start a war did so in order to assure the continuance of slavery. This is a fact, yet your blog suggests that it wasn't even a primary reason when in it fact was. The preeminent reason.

In your blog you state: "...those in the South were primarily fighting for their independence." Again, this is revisionism because all one has to do to disprove it is to read the Confederate Constitution. That Constitution actually left the southern man LESS free than the US Constitution did. Yet again, the individual fighting man was snookered into fighting a war that left them as individuals LESS free in order for the ruling classes to keep their cheap labor.

As for Lincoln's motives there is absolutely NO DOUBT that he did not wage war to free the slaves, this I agree. And there is a major reason for that and Lincoln knew full well he had zero power to free the slaves because slavery was enshrined in the Constitution and Lincoln knew that in no way was the US ready for a Constitutional amendment. Lincoln knew that presidents could not overrule the constitution. In fact the Emancipation Proclamation didn't free the slaves in the north and in fact that proclamation didn't even free the slaves in the south in those areas of the south that were occupied by northern troops. Why? BECAUSE PRESIDENTIAL PROCLAMATIONS CANNOT OVERRIDE THE US CONSTITUTION! Lincoln knew this and that is why he didn't free them. He freed them in the non occupied Confederate states as part of his war powers as president. The south was using the slaves as a tool of war, slaves were building defenses and working in munitions plants thus they were a tool of war and the president was free as Commander in Chief to damage that use in any way he could. Thus the EP. And Lincoln knew full well that the EP would not stand up once the war was over and that the south when they reentered the Union would be free to go back to slavery. ( In Europe, the ruling powers wanted to enter the war on the side of the Confederates but once Lincoln released the EP, public opinion in Europe skyrocketed for Lincoln and thus no way could any European leader now enter the war on their side. This was probably one of the biggest reasons the north won that war.)

You stated that historians have argued for century about the causes for that war and that many books were written to expound on the NON slavery reasons for that war. I'll address that in a second post.

Thank you for your time

Webmaster Note: Before I responded to the previous email, the reader sent another email with more good points to reinforce his arguement.

Hi Mark,

Sorry to bore you with more but I'd like to address the notion about the debate over the reasons for that war. Yes there has been a debate but that debate is as much about politics as it is about facts. It is as much about reputation and vindication as it is about truth.

In 1860 or so, many northern Americans didn't like slavery but were not actually abolitionists. In other words, they didn't like it but really didn't see the need to do much about it except keep it out of their states. So I would argue that the north was weakly anti slavery. Indeed the Democratic party of that day was very much in favor of cheap labor so liked the notion of slavery because they felt it helped keep the white northerners earnings down. But that's another story.

But one thing that was absolutely true in the north and in the south, and even Lincoln believed it in 1860 or so was that the negro was clearly and unequivocally inferior to the white man and that NO WAY could the black man be made a voting citizen.  This notion of inferiority was VERY PERVASIVE even in the north. And its important to realize that this notion meant that once made free, there would be a "negro" problem to be dealt with.  Lincoln himself wondered if the negro could be given some territory out west to settle, but in no way could they be made full citizens.  (That was Lincoln's thoughts in 1860. Lincoln's thoughts in 1865 were profoundly different as were much of America's.)

Yet, in 1870, just 10 years later, we passed the 15th amendment that gave the black man the right to full citizenship!  What happened in those 10 years to so profoundly change things like this? 

I'll point out what happened...  The movie Glory actually touches on what happened but that movie actually under-represents what actually happened in the years 1860 to 1865 and even after. You see, a lot of modern Americans learned a lot about the efforts of the black man during those years from that movie but the Americans back then lived thru it.  They read about the exploits of those soldiers day to day in the newspapers.  All across America the notion that the black man was inherently inferior dissipated. ** In fact, all across America, including in the south especially then during reconstruction, even millions of southerners began to think differently about the capabilities of that race. This set the stage for the 15th amendment, but it also set the stage for the revisionism on why the war was fought to begin with.

(** I've read in more than one source that the black man in America was well on his way to some true integration into American society but the middle of the 1880s when at that time, probably in no small part to the revisionist history being written, segregation and bigotry and racism rose back up its ugly head and the black man went back to being thought of as profoundly inferior.  And he would not again start true integration into American society until the 1960s.)

Can you imagine being a southern gentlemen in 1870 knowing that you had fought a war to enslave a race of people for the now odious notion of their inferiority when now standing before you in your face was all this evidence that they were not inferior? 500,000 Americans dead because of a lie? a Mistake?

Frankly, I don't think there was a conscious effort by the numerous mostly southern authors who poured out book after book in the 1870s and 1880s that argued quite persuasively that the civil war was not about slavery.  But that's what happened. Most of the books published in those years about that war were written by old aristocrats and old soldiers from the Confederacy. And it made sense that they would want to downplay the slavery issue and upplay the "freedom" and the "States rights" reasons for that war. Again, I don't think they consciously meant to deceive, but a deception occurred nonetheless. (Again, just read the documents of the time, like I said before.  Old newspapers of that time concur with my conclusions, when those papers survived to this day.)

And since northern historians never had a "dog in that fight" over the motives for that war, there were many less books written by northerners during that time, and the "northern" motives were actually not all that clean either, so that myth spread and continues to this day.

Since some modern southerners have tended to continue the myth that that war was much more noble on their behalf than it actually was, and more objective authors are appearing both in the north and in the south on this very issue, the REAL reasons for that war are being more objectively talked about.  And this is why more and more southern states are cutting down on their celebrations of that war, and the Confederate battle flag is finding its rightful shameful place in American culture, tho too slow as far as I'm concerned.

And this is why I responded to your blog.  Again, you blog suggests that slavery was not that big a deal for the fighting of that war and this is just not true.  And thus your blog tends to downplay just how shameful it was for the USA to continue with slavery so far into the 19th century when all the other civilized nations of the world had already forgone it.  NOT JUST SHAMEFUL for the south, but for the north as well because no way was America ready to free the slaves via a constitutional amendment in 1860 and certainly not give them citizenship. This was shameful then, and shameful as part of our history to this day.

And to repeat one last time, your letter to me accepts the notion that slavery was indeed a significant feature of that war, but your original blog post does not. Thus your blog post, rather than correcting a myth, perpetuates one. A myth that dates to all the revisionist history that came out of that war. Revisionism that for many southern authors was probably born out of shame.

Again thank you for your time.

Me:

Actually, you are not boring me with more, it's an interesting topic worth debate and I appreciate your input.

You brought up a lot of good points here and I don't dispute your facts, however I still disagree with your conclusion. It's absolutely true that the Civil War meant a lot of different things to different people. Yes, I said "those in the South were primarily fighting for their independence". You don't agree with that? I'm referring to those that were fighting, not the politicians. If those in the North had had believed they were fighting and dieing to free the slaves and those in the South had believed they were fighting and dieing to preserve slavery, do you think there would have been a war? Remember at the beginning, these were volunteer armies. So why were both sides willing to fight? Because in their minds anyway, they were fighting for something else. Why do you think Lee took the side of the South when he had every opportunity to command the Union troops? It wasn't to protect the institution of slavery. Lee made it clear that he supported the abolition of slavery and called slavery "a moral and political evil".  Lee made it very clear that the reason he fought for the South was because his loyalty to his state was greater than his loyalty to the Union. Slavery was not the issue for him.

I would also agree that many in the North (even many of the the abolitionists) were racist.  It was a common belief back then that whites were superior to blacks and even Lincoln believed that. But as a moral issue, they understood that slavery was wrong and they understood the hypocrisy of our constitution while slavery was allowed to exist I also understand that the Emancipation Proclamation did not free all the slaves, in fact I address that subject on another page on my web site and I believe that supports my argument. If you can agree that those doing the actual fighting, weren't fighting about slavery and that Lincoln wasn't going to war over slavery, how can you say the war was ALL about slavery?

Having said all of that, I didn't mean to suggest that slavery wasn't a primary factor for some and I don't want to mislead anyone or give a false impression. I could go back and clarify my statements on the web site OR if you don't mind, I could copy and paste our debate so they can get a better idea of both sides of the issue. I will be sure to omit your email address so as not to subject you to spammers. Is that ok with you?

Reader:

That would be fine to post the entire back and forth.

But in my defense I agree that individual soldiers fought for individual reasons. And I said so in all my arguments. And I agree that the vast majority of soldiers, including Lee, did not fight to preserve slavery.

But the common people rarely are the ones who choose to go to war. The leaders do that. And the leaders in 1860 and 1861 chose war almost exclusively because of the slavery issue.  Indeed, you cannot even argue that the leaders went to war due to states rights or for independence because at the time the USA supreme court ruled in nearly every single case that came before it for the rights of the states and or the rights of individuals over the federal government. The Supreme court in 1850s was mainly made up of southerners or Democrats, who were very pro state and anti federal at the time.

Plus, as I said before, the Confederate Constitution gave increased power to the central government at the expense of the locals.

Thus again, wars don't happen because the masses of people show up to engage in a battle. Wars happen because the leaders incite the people, and in the case of the civil war, the masses of southerners were snookered with phrases like freedom and states rights and all such nonsense when in fact the reason the LEADERS chose war was cheap labor.

Cheap labor, slavery, was the reason that war happened. Once it was decided it was to happen, the leaders used whatever language and argument that they could, including using state loyalty over federal loyalty. But those arguments weren't WHY the war happened, they were the justifications used to snooker and or manipulate the masses.

And unlike the south and the way they were snookered into fighting, Lincoln never suggested the war was about slavery. For him it was about preserving the Union. But make no mistake about it, there would not have been a war had SC not fired on Ft Sumter. Because regardless of whether Lincoln wanted to preserve that Union at all cost, it is very unlikely he could have amassed a big enough army, and enough northern support, to engage in a full fledged war. It was the attack on Ft Sumter that encouraged enlistments across the north and allowed Lincoln to get Congress to declare war.

Ft Sumter was not the only Union fort prior to the civil war, but every single one of those other forts became Confederate, usually by coercion, but without firing a single shot. Ft Sumter probably would have eventually fallen too and had it fallen without firing a shot, Lincoln would never have been able to mobilize the north.

But again I'd like to point out the events that led up to succession and then to war. In the 1856 presidential election, there was a new political party called the Republican party that had at its core that slavery needed to end. It got killed in that election that was between the 2 major parties of that day. The Whigs and the Democrats. But as the 1860 election approached, the Whig party and to a lessor extent the Democratic party were torn in 2 over the slavery issue with many of its anti slavery elements defecting to the Republican party. Again, the Republican party had at its core the notion that slavery had to end, but it was by 1860 no longer a single issue party and it stood for other things besides slavery.

Just before the election, SC announced that if the Republican won, due to the slavery issue in their plank, that Sc would leave the union.  At this time there was zero threat to sovereignty for SC, zero threat of war, zero threat that SC could lose anything whatsoever because for SC to lose the right to have slaves it would take a constitutional amendment which was nearly impossible in 1860. 

Well, Lincoln was elected in November of 1860 but didn't become president until March of 1861 -- a good 4+ months later.  But SC succeeded from the union back in November while Buchanan was still president.  And as those 4 months passed, federal fort after federal fort fell into Confederate hands as state after state succeeded. 

So when you look at history and see why SC left the union, it was slavery, that was why they left the union. And even tho the north posed little or no threat to the south in April of 1861, because while the south was mobilizing for war in those 4 months from November to the firing on Ft Sumter in April, President Buchanan was doing nothing to prepare for war and Lincoln had only been president a month when Ft Sumter was attacked. 

So what freedom had the south lost in that month of Lincolns presidency? Nothing.  But they saw that the writing was on the wall, not for any loss whatsoever except the loss of their right to own people and have super cheap labor.

Again, the civil war happened not because commoners were inconvenienced in any way for I defy anyone to point out what common people were losing or were about to lose in 1860. The civil war happened because the OWNERS were about to lose something.  And by owners I mean the owners of the major industry of that day, the plantation owners.  They were going to lose something big time and they were the ones who made sure that the politicians that were beholding to them did their bidding.

Once war was chosen as the course they were to take, then it became the governments role to entice the commoners to fight that war.  Then and only then is when "freedom" and "loyalty" and other such propaganda terms were thrown around.

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