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.
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.
“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.