Yes, the Civil War was about slavery
In the wake of the Charleston shootings and debate over the meaning of the Confederate Flag, I have found myself in debates with others over whether or not the southern states were actually fighting over slavery. The idea that the American Civil War was not fought over slavery has been thoroughly debunked by historians and scholars, and hopefully I’ll make it evident why in this brief post.
Historians like to emphasize the importance of reading back into history without the perspective of knowing how things turn out; in other words, when you think about an event like the Civil War, it’s crucial to try to get into the mindset of a person from the time who would not have known how history would ultimately play out. To that end, it’s very useful to see what the important figures said and believed at the time. Reading speeches by prominent Confederate figures and official documents makes it abundantly clear that slavery was the issue around which the entire conflict revolved.
On March 21, 1861 Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, delivered what’s become known as the Cornerstone Speech in Savannah, Georgia. This speech was delivered during the awkward period after the first seven southern states had seceded from the Union and formed the Confederacy, but before war had broken out. It was, at the time, not clear that a war would even happen—many believed a negotiated settlement between North and South could have ended the crisis. In this tense environment, Stephens delivered a rallying speech, saying, “…its [the Confederate government] 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 and normal condition.”
One month later, the Confederacy’s president, Jefferson Davis, delivered a speech to the Confederate Congress, saying:
…the productions of the South in cotton, rice, sugar, and tobacco, for the full development and continuance of which the labor of African slaves was and is indispensable, had swollen to an amount which former nearly three-fourths of the exports of the whole United States and had become absolutely necessary to the wants of civilized man.
We might also look to articles of secession the states themselves wrote when they formally announced their separation from the United States (Think of these documents as like a Declaration of Independence for each outgoing state.).
Mississippi formally seceded on January 9, 1861, and wrote in its Declaration of Causes that,
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun.
Two weeks later, Louisiana left the Union, and tried to rally other southern states to do the same. In a letter from Louisiana Commissioner George Williamson to the Texas Secession Convention, Williamson wrote that,
Louisiana remembers too well the whisperings of European diplomacy for the abolition of slavery in the times of annexation not to be apprehensive of bolder demonstrations from the same quarter and the North in this country. The people of the slave holding States are bound together by the same necessity and determination to preserve African slavery.
It’s also evident from reading the Confederate Constitution that the South was chiefly concerned with protecting slavery. The Confederate Constitution is nearly identical, word-for-word, to the United States Constitution… except that whereas the US Constitution never mentions the word “slave” or “slavery,” the CSA Constitution mentions it constantly*. To emphasize the point, Alabama Confederate Congressman Robert Hardy Smith said in a speech praising the new constitution, “We have dissolved the late Union chiefly because of the negro quarrel.”
*Also notable: The US Constitution never mentions God and never endorses a religion; the Confederate preamble was altered to add that the CSA would be, “…invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God.” Then, as now, the southern United States was the most religious portion of the country.
These are but a few of the countless examples of contemporary documents and speeches explicitly declaring slavery to be the cause of the South’s secession. The whitewashing of slavery’s role in the war came later, during the spread of the Lost Cause narrative, as a way for southerners (especially descendants of Confederate soldiers) to take pride in the South’s loss. The Lost Cause argued that the Civil War was not about slavery but was instead about states’ rights and state sovereignty (Raising the all-important follow-up question: A state’s right to do what?). The Lost Cause created a source of pride for southerners that could replace slavery in a world in which slavery (mostly) no longer existed. It was an extremely powerful narrative and has held great resonance ever since. It is essentially the Gone With the Wind ethos—the South was a modern-day land of knights and their ladies fair, of honor, of an agrarian ideal… and it was all destroyed by meddling Northerners.
The Lost Cause was and is a way to honor figures like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson as great, heroic, honorable men who should be celebrated for their military genius, without examining the underlying causes of what they were fighting for. The Cause, they’d have you believe, was defense of honest toil and gentlemanly manners, of a time when the world moved more slowly and the center of wealth and power resided on the farms of the American South. Their ultimate delusion was to contend that they had the moral superiority, and lost merely because they had fewer soldiers and supplies.
That the Lost Cause mythology persists to this day prevents the country as a whole from reconciling with its great moral sin. It is a smokescreen that lets us bicker about how appropriate it is to fly the Army of Northern Virginia’s battle flag over a state capitol, rather than grappling with the real moral complicity that we had and continue to have in the bondage and torture of an entire race for 250 years.
To read the words of the men who fought for the preservation of southern society is to understand that they had no illusions about the source of their wealth and lifestyle. We should listen to them.