The Civil War was caused by slavery.
The Civil War was fought over slavery.
These two historical contentions represent the essence of our difficulty in seeing America’s bloodiest war in its proper context. One of these statements is a historical fact. The other is a historical fiction, or at least an incomplete fact. And the primary problem today is that many do not recognize the difference between the two statements at all and thus legitimize a fiction by equating it with a fact.
How we got here has been a topic of interest on this blog before. But, more recently, three incidents in particular have come to my attention that require me as a thinking person to respond, clarify and attempt to correct the subtle, fundamental error made by many today.
First, there is the initiative by the mayor of New Orleans to rid the city of its public Confederate statues and memorials. According to the mayor’s office, this is an attempt to redress the statues placed in the late nineteenth century by “The Cult of the Lost Cause” and that these statues should be placed “in a museum or other facility where they can be put in context…” I personally have no problem with the memorabilia of the Southern Confederacy put on display in a museum and I agree there was a “cultural force” in post-war America known as the Lost Cause. But I question the use of the word “context” and the mistaken mentality that implies.
Next, Trevor Noah is a very funny guy. I watch his monologs on The Daily Show fairly regularly. Last week he did a very humorous piece lampooning Confederate Memorial Day. During that segment he said: “If it’s all part of your history, then maybe you should include all of the history. If you want to have the monument, then you should have to have a slave next to it ― for context!” There’s that word again.
Apparently the context of Confederate Memorial Day cannot include anything if not the fact that Southern secession was a bid to maintain white supremacy in a slave-holding nation.
Then there is a piece in The New Republic. I like this publication and read it regularly each week. It featured some of the best reporting on the 2016 election that I read anywhere. But in a piece critiquing Corey Stewart for tweeting about how Confederate General Robert E. Lee deserves to be honored as a “hero” the magazine wrote: “’Hero’ is doing a lot of work here. Mainly, it is obscuring the fact that Robert E. Lee was a traitor who fought for the right to own human beings.”
Apparently, the fact the Robert E. Lee freed all his slaves in 1862 right after his great victory at Fredericksburg and yet continued to demonstrate great military prowess for Southern cause doesn’t suggest, as it should to any rational mind, that he fought the war for different reasons and that his ownership of slaves had little to do with his decision to fight. Whether or not he was a “traitor” can be debated as well, though obviously he opposed the use and threat of Federal power at the time - which makes him a “traitor” in the legal sense. But I’ll get into that more below.
“Context” is precisely what these three incidents fail to deliver. Or, rather, the context is intended for contemporary purposes to over-ride the historical fact, without regard to historical fact. It is almost impossible these days to discuss the issue of slavery and the Southern rebellion in an historical perspective. Everyone already "knows" all the "facts" necessary to "inform" their opinion - so no genuine discourse on the issue is necessary anymore - apparently.
Context is something that has been lost in recent years. In 2015, Salon Magazine, another constant source of information for me, featured Col. Ty Seidule, head of the department of history at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Salon’s headline reads: “Was the Civil War fought over slavery?: Here’s the video to show idiots who think the answer is ‘no.’”
Yet, Col. Seidule commits the subtle but egregious error of starting off by asking: “Was the American Civil War fought because of slavery?” Then proceeds for remainder of the video explaining: “Slavery was, by a wide margin, the single most important cause of the Civil War for both sides.” Almost every aspect of the video deals with politicians and events leading up to the war; very little is devoted to the war as it was fought. So Col. Seidule’s initial question is, by definition, not answered by his own analysis.
The word "idiot" gets thrown around a lot by people who are probably pretty smart. They just don't know as much about history as they think they do. Unfortunately, those who might be contrarian toward this issue are generally a bunch of toothless, obese, biker, trailer dwellers. That doesn't really aid the cause of history either, nor does it do much to discount the idiot thing. Anyway...
In this case the colonel is, nevertheless, correct about the “cause” aspect of the war. There is really no denying that the wealthy Planter Class of white southerners brought this nation to war over the political, economic, and cultural issue of slavery. I certainly don’t wish to suggest that white supremacy was not a factor in the war. It most certainly was the primary political reason for the war. But what the colonel does, and what Salon allows him to get away with unquestioningly because they are so anxious for him to prove "idiots" wrong, is cleverly (perhaps unwittingly) conflate what “caused” the war with the reason the war was “fought”. These are two very different things. So while slavery "caused" the war, the war was almost certainly not "fought" primarily over slavery. This is an important distinction, especially with respect to military flags and commemorations.
James McPherson and Gary Gallagher are two heavyweight historians of the period. They have written excellent books based upon extensive research of period newspapers, letters, and diaries. Both scholars acknowledge that slavery and emancipation was a minor issue among the actual soldiers and commanders on both sides in the war. McPherson's book For Cause and Comrades (1998) states that among Union soldiers only 3 in 10 at best were motivated (in some way, perhaps large, perhaps small) by slavery. Most of the rest fought for "Union" and for their State as represented in the Union army. (States were viewed then the way we might view college football teams today. An important disconnect with contemporary thought.) Among Confederate soldiers slavery is rarely mentioned at all unless the soldier owned slaves. The vast majority fought for the honor of their State and under the impression that the South was being invaded, among many other, lesser issues (fear of northern industrialism, southern honor, and - yes - even states' rights). You cannot coalesce the war into a single issue. Sorry Salon.
Gallagher's more recent book, The Union War (2012), indicates that many Union soldiers did not support the emancipation proclamation. The majority gradually came to accept it "sometimes grudgingly so, as useful or even necessary too to achieve victory over the Rebels." (page 103) But emancipation itself was clearly not why the majority of Northerners fought. Reading the two primary northern newspapers covering the war, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper and Harper's Weekly, reveals that these "nowhere mentioned emancipation or the destruction of slavery, though some readers could have interpreted the language regarding freedom and the dictates of humanity to include African-Americans. Most white northerners, within a mid-nineteenth century context, probably would not have done so." (pp. 18 - 19)
Lee saw the State of Virginia as where his ultimate citizenship lay. Virginia was a more sovereign power, in Lee’s mind, than was the Union of States. That is why Lee turned down the Union's offer to lead its armies at the beginning of the war and, instead, chose to defend Virginia as a cultural idea. The mass of Americans fought the war for their States, not for the Federal or Confederate governments or their respective policies. It was the “meta-honor” of the State that was at stake, not any “country.” In this regard, while legally a “traitor”, I submit that Robert E. Lee was loyal to his citizenry as he saw it. He was, first and foremost, a citizen of Virginia. From his perspective it would be traitorous to be otherwise.
It is difficult for us today to relate to a State as a cultural force. But that is the way most Americans viewed their respective states in the 1860’s. Again, it is the same with college football fans or hockey fans or whatever sport you choose. The way people feel about “their” team today is roughly the way people felt about “their” State at the time, and for most Americans the State was “theirs” while the nation was “ours”. Federal power was a collective thing whereas State power was a personal thing.
Now do you see how easy it is to get off course when you divorce yourself from the received wisdom of the time in which you wish to study in history?
I fail to see, even though the war was predominantly caused by slavery, how it is "idiotic" to conclude that it was fought for reasons besides and other than slavery by the vast majority of participants on both sides. Indeed, the historical evidence is pretty clear on this. The key, of course, is to understand "the context of the mid-nineteenth century," not to impose contemporary values (and frustrations) upon historical fact. That is not history at all. That is social criticism.
Of the slavery motivation for fighting the war McPherson writes: “The kind of liberty that most Americans associate with the Civil War was the liberation of four million slaves. But that was not the liberty for which most Civil War soldiers fought.” Liberty did not mean “freedom of the slaves.” Instead it was about “the republican liberty and constitutional government of 1776 and 1789 – which left slavery intact.” (page 116)
“Few Union soldiers professed to fight for racial equality. For that matter, not many claimed even to fight primarily for the abolition of slavery.” (page 117) However, it must be admitted that as the war progressed: “While restoration of the Union was the main goal for which they fought, they became convinced that this goal was unattainable without striking against slavery.” (page 118)
Still, it is important to note that emancipation was not what the average Yankee soldier had in mind. “But plenty of soldiers believed that the Proclamation had changed the purpose of the war. They professed to feel betrayed. They were willing to risk their lives for Union, they said, but not for black freedom. ‘I don’t want to fire another shot for the negroes and I wish that all the abolitionists were in hell,' wrote a German-born bricklayer in a New York artillery battery.” (page 122)
It is arrogant to put the received wisdom of your enlightened perspective in a righteous place overlooking the received wisdom of past perspectives. The people of the South fought the Civil War for a wide variety of reasons. Slavery was among them, but it was not the grand gust of wind from a patriotic crusade that we seem to want to believe it was. Rather, it was a breeze, something inevitable while the war itself was the mighty thunderstorm that purified the air. The thunderstorm itself was fought by brave men on both sides, brilliant men, stupid men, heroes and cowards – on both sides. Most of those on both sides fought for their respective States and the honor of their regiments.
McPherson sees Victorian America as a fundamental difference with our perspectives and values today; highlighting ideas and beliefs that seem irrelevant or quaint today. “Duty and honor were closely linked to concepts of masculinity in Victorian America. Boyhood was a time of preparation for the tests and responsibilities of manhood. And there could be no sterner test than war. It quite literally separated men from boys. The letters and diaries of Union and Confederate volunteers alike – those in their thirties as well as those in their teens – are full of references to the need to prove one’s self a man.” (page 29)
“The cultural values of Victorian America held each individual rather than society mainly responsible for that individual’s achievements or failures. What really counted were not social institutions, but one’s own virtue, will, convictions of duty and honor, religious faith – in a word, one’s character.” (page 61)
I submit that the Robert E. Lee statute referred to in The New Republic and that apparently Trevor Noah wants to have a slave statue next to for “context”, in fact, has another context. A disassociated and unique context, as do most of the other Confederate memorials across the South. They celebrate the Southern style of Victorian America. They celebrate great military battles, both victories and defeats. These events may or may not have had a political impact on slavery. But, most certainly, as they all took place virtually none of the participants was thinking “I’m doing this for the slaves.”
There was no mass outcry in the North about any Confederate statues or memorials placed in the re-united States during the 1880’s. That was because 1) the war was not seen as being fought over slavery, therefore memorializing it was not a "bad" thing and 2) those who fought it saw their adversaries as worthy and their compatriots as brave in the face of such worthy adversaries. That is the context of the day. You can redefine that context if you choose, but I submit you are arrogant to do so and it leads to conclusions without historical merit.
So, by and large, that is what is supposed to be honored on Confederate Memorial Day, though white supremacy still holds power in this country. With a handful of exceptions (the Fort Pillow massacre, among others), white supremacy had little to do with the war as it was fought. To chain all these memorials to slavery is to not put them in context. On the contrary, the historical evidence clearly shows it is to take almost all of them out of context. A historically factual summation of the war would be as follows.
The Civil War was caused by slavery. The Southern Confederacy was a revolt as a slave nation against modernity.
The Civil War was fought for a variety of reasons: among them - honor, duty, and State sovereignty more so than emancipation. The Southern armies fought almost always for military rather than political objectives.
Conclusion, forcing the application of slavery to the context of every Confederate memorial is a distortion of the factual evidence of the time in which the war was fought. Applying and afflicting this context is in itself a prejudice that makes it impossible for the gallant would-be emancipators of today to fully understand the original intent of the memorials and, indeed, the whole of Confederate symbolism.
More importantly, this not only applies to the revisionist conflation of the war's “cause” and the reasons it was "fought” but also to the various hate and racist groups that have stolen the Confederate Battle Flag and other Southern symbols in the name of white supremacy. Certainly, the South was a supremist racist society (as was most of the North), but in fighting the war itself racism was a minuscule motivation. Today’s fringe elements (KKK, Aryan Nation, etc.) elevate racism to a ridiculous level on par with how Hitler elevated (and misunderstood) Nietzsche’s idea of the overman. Hitler appropriated the overman as the perfect Nazi. That is not what Nietzsche meant at all. Likewise, the KKK define Confederate racism as a crusade for which it fought, which is historically untenable. Much of the revisionist self-righteousness is inspired by the use of Confederate symbolism by fringe groups - giving the false impression that the revisionist agenda is historically justified.
Race is fundamental to Southern society but, once more, there was more to the North fighting the South than slavery. Revisionists and racists alike fail to understand Confederate symbolism in the context it was accepted by both the North and the South at that time. And for that, the past becomes, ironically, a myth of emancipation when, in fact, there were several other cultural forces, more important to the average American, at war with each other. Remember that, too, before you decide to tear it all down.