Sheldon Brown on the Slavery War

civil war hat
One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it....

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

--Abraham Lincoln

What was the so-called "Civil War" about?

When I was in school, I was taught that it was primarily about economics, and that it was naive to think it was about slavery.

Confederate apologists often claim that it was about "states' rights" or "preserving the Southern Way of Life" or resistance to "Northern Aggression."

I maintain that these latter theories are too clever by half, and that, in fact, the Rebellion was about a single root issue: slavery!

It is understandable that conciliators would want to try to establish a moral equivalency between the two sides, in the interest of reconciliation. The broad assertion that the Rebellion was caused by "economics" makes it seem as if the causes were even-handed and symmetrical, perhaps due to a misunderstanding.

It is also understandable that Confederate descendants would prefer to think that their ancestors were engaged, and possibly died, in a struggle that was in some way honorable. Speaking of "states' rights" and "preserving a way of life" cover the ugly truth with a veneer of spin.

The fact remains that the sole reason for the war was to perpetuate slavery. The economical issue is that key parts of the Southern economy were based on slavery.

The talk about "states' rights" comes down to one specific "state's right": The "right" of the ruling racial group to steal the labor and lives of their neighbors who belonged to a different racial group. This "way of life" was fundamentally evil and indefensible, due to its immoral core of kidnapping, slavery and the forced breakup of families.

This can be clearly seen in the secession documents issued by the rebel legislatures, for example the first of them, the South Carolina Declaration of Causes of Secession. This document appeals first to the Declaration of Independence, reviews history a bit, and then comes around to listing the grievances that cause the South Carolina legislature to believe that they should secede. These greivances consist of:

The failure of Northern state authorities to enforce the Fugitive Slave laws:

"Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution;
The failure of Northern state authorities to muzzle Abolitionist spech and writing:
"...they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection."
The victory of Lincoln and the Republican party in the election of 1860:

"For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the *forms* [emphasis in the original] of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that 'Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,' and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction. "

The granting of citizenship in some Northern states to members of the racial group that the oligarchs would prefer to keep in bondage.

"This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety."

Finally, the decision of the congress to not permit the extension of the slave system into new states that would be formed from Western territories. (The slavemasters rightly deduced that this would cause the slave states to become a gradually smaller majority in the Congress, and ultimately lead to the end of slavery.

"On the 4th day of March next, this party will take possession of the Government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.

"The guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.

"Sectional interest and animosity will deepen the irritation, and all hope of remedy is rendered vain, by the fact that public opinion at the North has invested a great political error with the sanction of more erroneous religious belief."

While the document speaks of "liberty" the writers are not complaining of any attack on religious liberty, or liberty of the press, or of speech, or of concience. The one and only "liberty" that they seem to find encroached is the liberty of the slaveholding oligarchs to continue to steal the labor of their neighbors.

Treason and Guilt

The war was, in fact, started by the rice-growing oligarchs who ruled South Carolina in the ant-bellum era. While we tend to hear more about cotton, the really big money in the early 19th century was in rice. This was grown and harvested under inbelivably nasty conditions from the fetid, malarial tidal swamps of coastal South Carolina. As horrible as the conditions were for the slave laborers who spent their lives wading in snake-infested brakish swamps, the crop was fabulously profitable, and the rice planters of South Carolina were among the very wealthiest families in the nation. Their control of the state government was near-total. It was their fear of losing their slave labor force that led them to begin the rebellion that cost so many lives. It is true that the great majority of Southern whites did not own slaves. Unfortunately, the ruling slaveocratic oligarchy managed to dupe the majority of whites into believing that the maintenance of the slave system was somehow to their benefit.

Most of the soldiers of the Confederacy, like those of Nazi Germany 80 years later, were just poor schlubs drafted or beguiled by lying propoganda into enlisting in the service of an evil cause. They probably really believed that they were fighting to maintain their "way of life."

One can't blame them too much for getting caught up in the hysteria of the war, but to maintain that there's any "honor" to this is a bit much, in my opinion.

Treason is the only crime specifically defined in the U.S. Constitution, Article III: "Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort." Thus, all of the leaders of the Confederacy were, ipso facto, traitors

Those of them who were members of the U.S. military before the start of the Rebellion were also guilty of breaking the oath they swore when entering the military.

In addition, some were guilty of particularly heinous war crimes. For example, Nathan Bedford Forrest had hundreds of unarmed, helpless, surrendered prisoners murdered in cold blood after capturing Fort Pillow, Tennessee. Jefferson Davis himself was said to have authorized the murder of surrendered prisoners. The atrocities to U.S. P.O.W.s at Andersonville are also notorious.

This is not to say that the U.S. side was guiltless of atrocity and war crime, including conscription, which I personally consider to be a war crime--but the U.S. didn't start the war.

What to Call It?

What should we call the 1861-1865 war?

Some call it "The Civil War", but I don't belive this qualifies as a civil war, because only one of the sides was civilian. Here's a definition from the

Merriam Webster online dictionary:
Main Entry: civil war

Function: noun
Date: 15th century
: a war between opposing groups of citizens of the same country

Some Confederate aplolgists call it "The War Between the States" but, again, this is not accurate, because there were only individual states on one side, fighting against the national government.

More extremist Confederate sympathizers sometimes call it "The War of Northern Aggression" which is, of course ludicrous, since it was the Confederate South that started the hostilities.

I tend to prefer the term common to G.A.R. veterans "The War of the Rebellion" though that's a bit of a mouthful.

For short, I'd consider it appropriate to call it "The Slavery War." Slavery was, as demonstrated above, the root cause of the conflict. Slavery was the law of the land before the war, and was extinct at the end of the war.


Recently, while reading the Autobiography of U. S. Grant, I found the following intriguing quotation. While this is not exactly on topic for this page, I'd like to share it with readers:
There was no time during the rebellion when I did not think, and often say, that the South was more to be benefited by its defeat than the North.

The latter had the people, the institutions, and the territory to make a great and prosperous nation.

The former was burdened with an institution abhorrent to all civilized people not brought up under it, and one which degraded labor, kept it in ignorance, and enervated the governing class. With the outside world at war with this institution, they could not have extended their territory.

The labor of the country was not skilled, nor allowed to become so. The whites could not toil without becoming degraded, and those who did were denominated "poor white trash." The system of labor would have soon exhausted the soil and left the people poor.

The non-slaveholders would have left the country, and the small slaveholder must have sold out to his more fortunate neighbor. Soon the slaves would have outnumbered the masters, and, not being in sympathy with them, would have risen in their might and exterminated them.

The war was expensive to the South as well as to the North, both in blood and treasure, but it was worth all it cost.

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