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Yes, The Civil War Was About Slavery (The Confederates Said So)

Wednesday, October 26th, 2016 | Posted by Sean McLachlan

John Singleton Mosby

John Singleton Mosby

In June of 1902, former Confederate cavalry raider John Singleton Mosby wrote to his friend Judge Reuben Page about the war that had given him his fame, bemoaning the fact that the causes of that war were already being lost in the public’s consciousness.

In retrospect, slavery seems such a monstrous thing that some are now trying to prove that slavery was not the Cause of the War. Then what was the cause? I always thought that the South fought about the thing that it quarreled with the North about.

Mosby, whose family had owned slaves, was talking about an increasing trend among Confederate veterans and former Confederate politicians to whitewash the reasons for the war. In a letter five years later to another friend, Sam Chapman, he wrote,

I wrote you about my disgust at reading the Reunion speeches: It has since been increased by reading Christian’s report. I am certainly glad I wasn’t there. According to Christian the Virginia people were the abolitionists & the Northern people were pro-slavery. He says slavery was ‘a patriarchal’ institution – So were polygamy & circumcision. Ask Hugh if he has been circumcised.

Christian quotes what the Old Virginians said against slavery. True; but why didn’t he quote what the modern Virginians said in favor of it – Mason, Hunter, Wise &c. Why didn’t he state that a Virginia Senator (Mason) was the author of the Fugitive Slave law – & why didn’t he quote The Virginia Code (1860) that made it a crime to speak against slavery, or to teach a negro to read the Lord’s prayer.

I have written two military history books on the Civil War, as well as two novels and numerous shorter works, and I constantly come up against the notion that the war was fought for “states rights.” As a political science professor friend of mine rebuts, “The right to do what?” The answer, of course, was the right to own other people. Confederate documents at the time make this abundantly clear, but after the war many rebels were embarrassed that they ripped the nation apart over slavery and sought to bury that idea.

usct4th

The 4th Regiment U.S. Colored Troops. These men knew exactly what they were fighting for

It’s still being buried today, both in fiction and poorly researched nonfiction.

To dig it up, one has to look no further than the Confederate documents.

When the states seceded, many sought fit to write a “Declaration of Causes” as to why they chose this action. Five can be found here. All list the primary reason for secession as slavery. They cite the fact that many northern states were not returning escaped slaves in defiance of the Fugitive Slave Law and that slavery was being limited in westward expansion. Mississippi’s Declaration of Causes gives this statement as an opener:

In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.

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. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin. That we do not overstate the dangers to our institution, a reference to a few facts will sufficiently prove.

The new nation of the Confederate States of America was quick to draw up a constitution, which was passed on March 11, 1861. In addition to outlining the organization and powers of the government and the relationship between the individual states and the central government, it banned the “importation of negroes of the African race from any foreign country other than the slaveholding States or Territories of the United States of America.” It also ruled that fugitive slaves must be returned and that in any new lands the Confederacy acquired, slavery would be legal. It also made quite clear that “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.”

Ten days after the passage of the new constitution, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens gave what has become known as the Cornerstone Speech in Savannah, Georgia. A newspaper transcript of the speech showed he was unequivocal about the causes of the war.

The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the ‘storm came and the wind blew.

Marlboro, a "body servant" (i.e. slave) to a Confederate soldier, wore a uniform when he accompanied his master to war. This does not make him a soldier, nor does it make his participation consensual.

Marlboro, a “body servant” (i.e. slave) to a Confederate soldier, wore a uniform when he accompanied his master to war. This does not make him a soldier, nor does it make his participation consensual

“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone 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. [Applause.] This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

A look at the primary sources will find endless examples of sentiments like this–in political speeches, newspaper editorials, and private correspondence.

Modern apologists for the Confederacy try to reframe the debate by saying that most Confederate soldiers fought to protect their state from Northern invasion, and that most Union soldiers fought to preserve the Union. That’s neither here nor there, because it avoids mentioning the actual cause of the war–Southern fear that Lincoln would not only limit the spread of slavery as he said in his presidential platform, but might go further and abolish slavery altogether.

Other Confederate apologists have tried to muddy the issue by claiming that thousands of black men fought in the Southern armies. This is a myth that has generated heated debate, spurious claims, unsourced quotes, and even faked photographs.

The myth has been debunked in a great article by the Civil War Trust. There is some slight evidence that a few individual African-Americans may have fought. As the article states, “in the ‘Official Records of the War of the Rebellion,’ a collection of military records from both sides which spans more than 50 volumes and more than 50,000 pages, there are a total of seven Union eyewitness reports of black Confederates. Three of these reports mention black men shooting at Union soldiers, one report mentions capturing a handful of armed black men along with some soldiers, and the other three reports mention seeing unarmed black laborers. There is no record of Union soldiers encountering an all-black line of battle or anything close to it. In those same Official Records, no Confederate ever references having black soldiers under his command or in his unit, although references to black laborers are common.”

So did a few black soldiers fight for the South? Probably. Does that change what the war was about? Nope.

Mosby’s letters come from an excellent website called This Cruel War, that goes into much more detail about this issue and is highly recommended.

Photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


Sean McLachlan is the author of the historical fantasy novel A Fine Likeness, set in Civil War Missouri, and several other titles, including his post-apocalyptic series Toxic World that starts with the novel Radio Hope. His historical fantasy novella The Quintessence of Absence, was published by Black Gate. Find out more about him on his blog and Amazon author’s page.

18 Comments »

  1. Nice article. I’m from Tennessee and I remember getting into an argument about this with a co-worker. His half-cocked explanation was that it had to do with money and trade, and he was taught this in school! Granted he learned this 30 years ago, but I wouldn’t be surprised with was still being taught.

    In defense of that co-worker, he at least knows better than to go around waving the flag for the confederate state of Virginia and calling it heritage.

    Comment by CMR - October 26, 2016 11:28 pm

  2. “Virginia was the mother of slavery,” wrote Louis Hughes, born enslaved in VA in 1832, in his memoir, written by himself, when he was 64 in 1897.

    Friday night, Oct. 28th, 2016, at Symphony Space, in NYC, his words, among many others included in The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry, will be read by a cast that includes the co-authors, Nona Hendryx, Jonathan Demme, and others.

    I have never forgotten when I was writing my Silver Bell Plantation fantasy cycle short stories how many sf/f pro writers — all male — patted me on the head and said, “O that’s all very nice little girl, but you don’t know any history. The Civil War wasn’t about slavery at all.”

    That was the very first time in my life that I’d heard such a thing. Which is what put me directly on the track to write The American Slave Coast.

    Comment by C - Foxessa - October 27, 2016 12:58 am

  3. Thank you for this post. Because my family moved from Massachusetts to South Carolina when I was 16, this has become an issue I am passionate about. I feel genuine anger every time I see a Confederate flag (or as I call it Treason Flag) flying in front of a home or as a bumper sticker on a beat-up old pickup truck. I have been in many arguments with people claiming it was all about “state’s rights”, but never once heard anyone give an actual answer to the question “What right besides slavery were the states fighting for?”

    Comment by Amy Bisson - October 27, 2016 9:10 am

  4. On the first page of Jefferson Davis’s autobiography he stated that the war was not about slavery, then the next 500 plus pages was nothing but him going on about slavery.

    The states rights argument doesn’t hold water either, because before the war, it was the southern controlled congress that was infringing on northern states rights with things such as the Posse Comitatus act, where if a northerner in the north doesn’t help a southern slave owner retrieve an escaped slave, the northerner could face punishment.

    It was that the southern leaders couldn’t get what they wanted when Lincoln was elected that they threw a temper tantrum and seceded.

    Comment by Hradek - October 27, 2016 9:53 am

  5. Not posse comitatus, sorry. Can’t remember the specific act, but I don’t think it was specifically under the fugitive slave law, but more an adjunct to it.

    Comment by Hradek - October 27, 2016 10:02 am

  6. Darn, I wish I could edit my comments.

    But I now see where I was confused, it is the Fugitive Slave Law combined with the genereal Posse Comitatus statute that made it so a southern sherriff could go into a bar in New York and say “you there, common New Yorker, help me capture this fugitive slave or you will be arrested.”

    Comment by Hradek - October 27, 2016 10:23 am

  7. One question that I’ve always had about this issue, since the average Confederate soldier did not own slaves, why were so many Confederates willing to go and die in this war? I’m sure that there were many reasons why such Americans went to fight. But, in general, was the average Confederate willing to go and possibly die because of slavery? Maybe so. Any thoughts anyone?

    Comment by James McGlothlin - October 27, 2016 5:13 pm

  8. I know for a fact what my ancestors fought for because I read their diaries. I had two that fought for the north and three for the south. They wanted to be neutral but they had land and a lot of horses that both sides wanted. I am directly related to one of the southerners and my family did not own slaves. One of his brothers joined the north because his friends did and his closest brother went with him. Their father wanted to be neutral but northerners came and demanded they join up and when they misbehavior the father, the mother and raped his sister and took their horses. The surviving brothers and the baby sister were taken to relatives and the younger three brothers joined the south primarily for revenge. My family still has the receipt for the horses and were never paid. One of the older brothers was awarded the Medal of Honor and the other was killed. Only my ancestor of the three who fought for the south lived. He returned to a ruined farm with graves. He and his brother were glad to have each other and the sisters both died during war. I think that a lot of families were like mine, swept up by terrible currents that ripped our country apart and drenched our soil in blood. I’m sure that some fought for slavery but I bet many fought against northern aggression for their homes. To lump all southerners as slave loving racists is just virtue signalling at its worst when the issue is more complicated than that. My ancestor eventually had to leave because he was declared an outlaw and went west with nothing. He never saw his brother or home again.

    Comment by Wild Ape - October 27, 2016 11:06 pm

  9. “To lump all southerners as slave loving racists is just virtue signalling at its worst when the issue is more complicated than that. ”

    I said no such thing. To claim that I did is, well, victim signaling.
    What I did say is that the many reasons that individuals went to war are irrelevant to the fact that the perceived threat to the institution of slavery was the overriding reason decision makers in the South decided to secede.

    Comment by Sean McLachlan - October 28, 2016 8:48 am

  10. I’m not disputing that southern leaders wanted to preserve slavery Sean. am disputing that all southerners did. Many saw the invading armies as aggressors and called to their homelands defense. It is human nature. That s why the Confederate flag remains a symbol of southern pride. Saddly, t will forever be tied to slavery as well. Generations may morph it but the flag and history is what it is. What I am interested in is your pinion of King Cotton. The hubris hat southern leaders had was that Europe, especially England with its clothing manufacturing industry, would rally to help the states. Instead England turned to Egyptian cotton. Do you take stock in that theory?

    Comment by Wild Ape - October 28, 2016 6:49 pm

  11. Also,didnt you write a book about trench warfare? How much did the civil war impact that future war, or does your research not venture into that? And I’ve always asked civil war the which generals they liked and disliked. I suppose virtue signaling was a bit off. I hope you are not permanently sore about that. I appreciate your subject. There might have been slaves that fought willingly but I doubt there were many. Marlboro has that war veteran stare so it is hard to tell. I have a black friend who claims that her family owned slaves. It is a strange world then and now. I think that they had to sell or force the idea to fight somehow. I know for what was written in my ancestor’s diary and it makes sense to me.

    Comment by Wild Ape - October 28, 2016 9:19 pm

  12. For the answer to this query:

    [ ” One question that I’ve always had about this issue, since the average Confederate soldier did not own slaves, why were so many Confederates willing to go and die in this war? I’m sure that there were many reasons why such Americans went to fight. But, in general, was the average Confederate willing to go and possibly die because of slavery? Maybe so. Any thoughts anyone?
    Comment by James McGlothlin – October 27, 2016 5:13 pm ” ]

    work, by military historian, Joseph Glatthaar, Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse, provides a great deal of excellent information. The one caveat, is that it deals only with the Army of Northern Virginia, and thus doesn’t deal with the tremendous rate of desertion and so on in the western CSA armies, one of whose members, from Jones County, Mississippi, is often credited with “Rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.” The CSA Army of the Tennessee was composed of far more conscriptees than was Lee’s army, and thus they were poorer, as wealth in the south was so very much calculated in the ownership of slaves. Slaves were the collateral for the economy that ran almost entirely on credit, as slaves only depreciated in value when they got old, and for women, after they were no longer able to get pregnant.

    But Lee’s army, particularly the officer classes, was composed almost entirely of planters, their sons, and other male relatives. Whether or not these young men were old enough to own slaves and be independent, they were all 100 percent invested in the slave economy — if only because their brother’s wife’s slaves washed their clothes, cleaned their boots, etc. They ALL received the benefits of slavery in one way or another. And many, of course, didn’t own the slaves who worked for them — they rented slaves. Glatthaar took much time and effort to researching the individuals in Lee’s army and showing their connections to the benefits, for them, of slavery.

    Comment by C - Foxessa - October 30, 2016 2:18 pm

  13. Why then did the average northerners fight? Emancipation wasn’t done until three years into the war. The war didn’t start out by fighting over slavery.

    Comment by Wild Ape - October 30, 2016 6:49 pm

  14. “Why then did the average northerners fight? Emancipation wasn’t done until three years into the war. The war didn’t start out by fighting over slavery.”

    We’ve already covered this ground. Many Northerners fought to preserve the Union or out of a sense of adventure. But the actual cause of the secession that led to the war was, as the decision makers in the South explicitly stated, to defend the institution of slavery. If you want to rebut my arguments, you actually have to address them and not ignore them.

    Comment by Sean McLachlan - October 31, 2016 4:09 am

  15. “What I am interested in is your pinion of King Cotton. The hubris hat southern leaders had was that Europe, especially England with its clothing manufacturing industry, would rally to help the states. Instead England turned to Egyptian cotton. Do you take stock in that theory?”

    There’s quite a lot in the primary sources that show Southern politicians hoped to get England to at least help lift the blockade on Southern ports. England, however, had better things to do. Back in 1991 I got to visit the Cotton Museum in Cairo, a generally overlooked museum considering its competition! It told the story of how the cotton industry exploded thanks to the American Civil War. Cotton grew quite well in Egypt, and shipping costs were lower.

    “Also,didnt you write a book about trench warfare? How much did the civil war impact that future war, or does your research not venture into that?”

    European military leaders in the years leading up to WWI learned very little from the Civil War or any other war. The most pertinent war for them was actually the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), which saw extensive use of trenches, machine guns, and modern artillery. In other words, all the elements of the beginning of WWI. The main powers, however, still foresaw a war of movements. The Schlieffen Plan depended on it and there was no Plan B. None of the armies foresaw the stalemate of the trenches, hence the lack of metal helmets, barbed wire, and the shortage of high explosive shells in 1914.

    Comment by Sean McLachlan - October 31, 2016 4:18 am

  16. I did not know that about the Russo-Japanese war thank you. I appreciate your insight about WW 1. I think the powers expected a shorter war. The King Cotton argument I heard a few years back and was written by one of my favorite writers.

    One thing I forgot about some civil war subject matter experts is they can be fierce about their theories. I’m not attempting to rebut anything. I find the subject interesting. At the same time I will retain my right to believe or disbelieve in part or whole of the theories brought forth. I will drop it, not because I believe or disbelieve in part or whole what you say. My ancestors were screwed by the civil war. They had riches, happiness, and a good life before the evil pestilence of war came. It broke my heart to hear about my ancestors and the he’ll that they went through.

    Comment by Wild Ape - October 31, 2016 8:20 am

  17. What has gotten lost in the glorious lost cause revisionism of the War of the Rebellion is that the south fought the war to expand slavery — which meant expanding it all through the U.S. and its territories. The fantasy by the fire eaters was that once all of the U.S. was under their domination for selling the slaves they bred they would also expand the economic system into Central and South American and the Caribbean — particularly Cuba, which they wanted since even before the War of Independence. If, with the end of the African Slave Trade in 1808, it was illegal to import slaves from anywhere else — great protectionism then for Virginia’s slave breeding industry. With Cuba a state, and its sugar slaves dying between 8 and 10 years, the Cuban sugar plantations would have to import slaves from — Mississippi! Plus the south would get two more senators and more seats in the House.

    The north knew all this, and the Fugitive Slave Act showed them up close and personal what this would mean for them. They fought to stop the aggression of the slaveocracy into their world, forcing them into what they did not want. The South invaded the north, which is entirely erased in the glorious lost cause bs. The north was fighting for its own homes long before the Union armies hit the south in 1862-63.

    Comment by C - Foxessa - October 31, 2016 7:46 pm

  18. BTW, Lee was the entrenchment guy, even before he was named commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. He was rather a joke in the army after the Mexican War’s conclusion, when his career stalled, as did those of so many who stayed in the army after this war, that Grant, among many others, hated because it was a war fought for the benefit of the slaveocracy — though of course he distinguished himself well.

    Lee made his army entrench every night. His trench warfare was a very different strategy from Grant’s. But then, by the time Grant took over, after Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the south was fighting a 100 percent defensive war. That’s when the North invaded — after the south invaded, pillaged and burned their way through Maryland and Pennsylvania.

    Comment by C - Foxessa - October 31, 2016 8:07 pm


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