My credentials as a southerner are impeccable. My family, originally Scottish, migrated from Ireland to South Carolina and Virginia in the early 1700s. My fraternal grandmother’s family owned fifteen slaves and, as far as I can determine, every male in our family of fighting age voluntarily fought for the Confederacy. No one had to be drafted. But in spite of what unreconstructed rebels might say today about their ancestors fighting to defend that illusory abstraction, states’ rights, the South’s secession from the Union and the Civil War itself were about slavery. Don’t believe that? Just Google up Georgia’s 1861 Secession Declaration and see for yourselves. There was no mention of states’ rights. The secessionists charged that the northern states refused to recognize their constitutional right to own slaves, would not return runaway slaves and wouldn’t allow them to transport their slaves across free states into the territories. But states’ rights were never mentioned.
Former Georgia governor and Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens replied to Lincoln in regard to the coming conflict "Our new government’s foundations are laid upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery and subordination to the superior race is his normal and natural condition." And in an 1863 speech Stephens called slavery "the cornerstone of our Confederacy and the cause of the present insurrection."
Some out-of-touch historians claim that slavery was on its way out in 1860, therefore secession and war were really unnecessary. Horsefeathers! Slave prices had doubled and tripled by mid-nineteenth century. The dollar value of slaves in the South exceeded the total capital investment of all the North’s industry and cotton exports generated more income than the North’s industrial exports. Some southern entrepreneurs were even eyeing the possible conquest of Cuba and Mexico as opportunities to extend the slave economy. In 1861 slavery was alive, well and itching to expand.
Others point to the fact that only a small minority of southerners owned slaves in 1860 and that the rest wouldn’t have supported slavery for very long. But for some strange reason the southern working class and yeoman farmers willingly fought and died to defend the plantation elite’s "peculiar institution" until the end. A parallel might be drawn with today’s middle and working classes who supported George W. Bush’s lopsided tax cuts for the wealthy and their present support for Donald Trump. These paradoxes defy logical explanation. Others claim discriminatory tariffs had a lot to do with southern secession. The facts are that in 1857 South Carolina and Virginia helped push a new tariff schedule through Congress that was considered acceptable by most southern states.
True, Lincoln didn’t go to war to free the slaves, but to preserve the Union. But by 1863 he and most Unionists realized this nation could not continue half slave and half free. This belief was reinforced by letters home from Union Soldiers in the South that described the deplorable conditions of southern slavery and the fact that the south was a century behind the rest of the country economically, technically, educationally and culturally.
Was the Civil War about slavery? Indeed it was, and little else.
George B. Reed Jr., who lives in Rossville, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.