Ted Grimsrud—March 20, 2019
As I continue to read and think about the American Civil War, I find many questions to struggle with. A significant one is on the surface fairly simple: Was slavery the main issue over which the war was fought? Of course, this question turns out to be anything but simple. A lot depends on where one stands in relation to the Civil War itself.
Two different viewpoints
Clearly slavery was a contentious issue during the first half of the 18thcentury. However, a related issue was also central: How much freedom to pursue pro-slavery policies would individual states and regions have? This question led many, especially in the South, to pose the issues as centering on what came to be called “states rights,” or the relation between the self-determination of specific states and the authority exercised over states by the federal government.
So, in the years after the war ended in 1865, the general take in the South (and by many in the North) was that slavery was kind of a peripheral issue and that the war actually had most of all to do with the need the Confederate states felt to defend states rights and the Southern “way of life” in general—even to the point of defending them against invading forces from the North. This came to be known as the “lost cause of the Confederacy”—the “lost cause” being the just cause of defending those rights and that way of life that, though defeated, was honorable and worthy. This view intentionally marginalizes slavery itself as a reason for the war.
On the other hand, the view I absorbed growing up in my “Yankee” environment was that indeed the Civil War was fought to free the slaves. After all, the key moment came when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863 to order slaves freed. That statement made it clear what the stakes were in the war, and it energized the North to make sure to win the war so freedom for slaves would be attained. Perhaps that hard won freedom was compromised a bit in the decades following the end of the war, but the ending of slavery was a sure achievement, one that in fits and starts the country has tried to sustain and expand.
Doubts about the main views
As I have learned more about the Civil War era and what followed, I have come to have serious problems with both approaches. Or, rather, I think there may be some truth in each one and even more truth in considering some other key factors. I certainly reject the “lost cause” argument insofar as it minimizes the roll of clinging to slavery (and white supremacy) in the South’s willingness to fight this war. I also reject the idea that the main dynamic in the war was the South defending its territory from the northern invaders. It seems to me that the South initiated the war from the beginning.
However, the glimmer of truth in the southern perspective is its implied critique of the centralized, top-down power in the Union position. Ironically, this notion of power actually seems to have not been present in a strong way at the beginning of the war. However, warfare as a rule tends to have the effect of strengthening the forces of centralized power. Thus, by the end of the Civil War the stage was set for a much stronger federal presence in the US, especially in relation to the use of military power (note, in particular, the Indian wars that followed on the heals of the Civil War as the Union completed the conquest of Native American populations under the leadership of Civil War generals such as William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan).
At the same time, I question the narrative that places the liberation of slaves at the center of the concern for the North. While the evidence seems irrefutable that the Southern leaders were indeed deeply committed to holding on to (and expanding) the institution of slavery and that that lay at the very heart of their motivations, I don’t think the North went into the war with the intent of liberating slaves. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was mostly a tactical move to prevent England and France recognizing the Confederacy as an independent nation and to in other ways bolster Northern morale in a difficult period during the war. It is telling that the Proclamation only “freed” slaves in territories notunder Union control.
It is the case, though, that Lincoln’s edict did take on a life of its own in energizing black Americans to devote their energies to a Union victory—a result that played a major role in fueling what became a juggernaut of northern power that ended up obliterating the South’s war machine. It is also the case that the North was now committed to the ending of slavery should they win the war. And that indeed happened.
Nonetheless, had Union General George McClellan acted decisively in his approach to Richmond early in the war, the North might have actually defeated the South only months after the war began—with the likely consequence that slavery would have remained in place. And it seems clear, more importantly, that the underlying issue with relation to slavery—white supremacy—remained very much in place even with the formal ending of slavery. The tragic career of Reconstruction between 1865 and 1877 and the condition of those who had been enslaved a generation after the Civil War ended show clearly that actual social transformation and genuine justice for the victims of slavery were far from the intentions of the North.
So, my sense now is that the Civil War was and was not about slavery. It should not be seen as a victory for the forces of justice and liberation. It was mainly a victory for the forces of warism—and part of the lesson to be learned from it is that war is not an effective tool to bring about racial healing and the righting of wrongs.
The Civil War was indeed about slavery for the South, in that it was criticism of slavery by (a minority) of northerners and restrictions on the expansion of slavery in the western territories that triggered profound paranoia about threats to “the Southern way of life”—which essentially meant threats to systemic white supremacy. My sense is that this threat was not nearly as dire as the Southern elite perceived it to be. In any case, many in the South explicitly justified their militaristic response to their sense of besiegement in the name of slavery.
So, there would have been no Civil War apart from the South initiating it—and the South would not have initiated it apart from slavery. By couching their uncompromising commitment to retaining the slave system in an appeal to “the Southern way of life” with its resolute affirmation of white supremacy, the Southern elite managed to gain the support and participation of the masses of non-slaveholding whites. These were the ones who died by the tens of thousands for the sake of protecting a “way of life” that not only viciously enslaved blacks but also thoroughly exploited whites such as themselves.
For the North, though, the Civil War was mainly about retaining and expanding the hegemony of the centralized nation-state. This motive was couched in terms of the sacredness of the Union—but really, it was the Union for the elite, not for the majority of its people. The southern rebellion was seen as a threat to this Union—a Union that included the southern states, slavery and all. Appeals often were made to the 18thcentury vision of a single Union of separate colonies that had energized the Revolutionary War and the other great works of the national Fathers.
It does not seem that the North fought with nearly the passion of the South. Northerners were not defending a “way of life” so much as an idea (the Union). The massive anti-conscription riots and the fact that by the end of the war over 50% of northern troops were either foreign mercenaries or southern blacks would seem to reflect that lack of passion. The northern victory does seem inevitable given the extraordinary advantages the North had related to shear resources—population, manufacturing, infrastructure, financial. In fact, the North grew stronger as the war continued while the South grew progressively weaker.
In the lead up to and in the early period of the war, northern leaders continually insisted that they were not fighting to free slaves but to preserve the Union. Lincoln famously stated numerous times (even after issuing the Emancipation Proclamation) that if he could preserve the Union without freeing a single slave he would happily do so.
Now, it did turn out that Lincoln decided that he would have to free slaves in order to preserve the Union. But his decision to do so created a strongly negative backlash among many northerners who did notsee themselves risking their blood and treasure for the purpose of ending slavery. Lincoln, in fact, feared that the Emancipation Proclamation could cost him his re-election. As it turned out, important military victories in the months just prior to November 1864 assured his victory. But there was not a strong anti-slavery consensus in the North. Abolitionists, in general, were quite unpopular.
At the same time, the Emancipation Proclamation unleashed tremendous energy among black populations, both in the North and in the South. The passion to end slavery on the part of those who suffered under its yoke was immense. Historians do not agree on the impact of this passion, but clearly the northern victory was made much easier by the military contribution of the formerly enslaved as well as what historian W.E. B. DuBois has called a massive “general strike” among the enslaved that profoundly undermined the Southern economy.
The energy for ending slavery grew mightily as the war neared its end, due in part to the rise in political power among “Radical Republicans” who did genuinely hate slavery and desire a broader transformation offering genuine justice for the enslaved. So, the Thirteenth Amendment formally ending slavery was passed just before the war ended (helped, of course, by the fact that the Southern states had no voice in that decision).
Lincoln’s death and failed opportunities
It’s hard for me at this point to discern how to assess the impact the death of Lincoln had on what followed after the war. Certainly, the ascent of white supremacist and former slaveholder Andrew Johnson of Tennessee to the presidency was a disaster (I still don’t know much about how Johnson was chosen for the position—he was not vice-president in Lincoln’s first term—and what role Lincoln had in that selection). Johnson completely wasted any chance that genuine change could have been implemented quickly while the North was setting the terms of how Southern society would be shaped following the crushing of the Confederacy. At the same time, Johnson’s egregious behavior and his incompetence surely created a backlash that unified all the Republican leaders to take the steps that the Radicals favored—more so than had a more moderate Republican been in the presidency. It could be that neither the Fourteenth or Fifteenth Amendments (neither as strong and effective as would have been ideal, but both nonetheless taking strong steps toward bringing the formerly enslaved into the civic community) would have passed had Johnson not unified his opponents to strongly.
In any case, the decade after the end of the Civil War provided an opportunity for some quite positive steps toward alleviating the injustices of American white supremacy. And many creative and sincere people, white and black, worked very hard to utilize this opportunity—even, as it turned out for many, at the cost of their lives. It has finally become clear to historians as a group that Reconstruction, contrary to the picture painted by adherents of the Lost Cause mythology who dominated almost allof American historiography until only about forty years ago, was a creative effort to create a just society. But it failed—or, rather, it was defeated by terror on the part of many southerners and passivity on the part of many northerners.
With the defeat of Reconstruction, the legacy of the Civil War dramatically changed. It was not a war that addressed the injustices of slavery. It was not a war of liberation. It was a war that deepened the centrality of warism to the American psyche. It was a war that ultimately vindicated those who believed that white supremacy was worth ruthlessly fighting for. It was a war that also vindicated the American nation-state and deepened its centralized power. As a consequence of this war, the American nation-state managed in time to reintegrate the white supremacists as its strongest supporters while continuing to disfranchise people of color and the economically vulnerable. And continued racial injustice at home and a lot of carnage around the world was the result….
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