The Freeware Hall Of Fame

The Civil War - you heard of it,
you may as well understand it

People who see the 1861 war being primarily over slavery tend to ignore other issues. That may be convenient today, and correct politically, but it's incorrect historically.

There were several reasons to rebel, slavery being but one. Common sense should tell us that. Only a sliver of the rebel army owned slaves or had a financial interest in them. On the contrary, slavery debased wages and reduced the job openings for skilled and unskilled white workers.

There had to be bigger reasons than slavery for yeomen to fight and die for the rebel cause.

One reason was state sovereignty, a concept of vital importance then. A compelling economic reason was frustration over anti-agrarian, pro-industrial banking and monetary policy born in New England, practiced in the NYC financial district, and made the law of the land in Washington, victimizing the South. That had gone on for decades.

Southern political and economic leaders saw in anti-agrarianism a parallel to the unfair practices that prompted the Revolutionary War against England.

Back in the 1770s when Bostonians were throwing English tea in the harbor, the South had every reason to continue its relationship with England, one of its best customers. It was the manufacturing North that was getting the short end from the mother country. Southerners joined northerners in the Revolutionary War out of patriotism, idealism, and enlightened political philosophy such as motivated Jefferson, not patriotism, philosophy, and economic betterment which inspired the North.

Now in 1860 the shoe was on the other foot. Southern agrarians were at heel to Yankee bankers and industrialists. That got worse with the election of the Republican Lincoln, bringing back into power the group favoring the wealthy supply side.

Then as now, central to that party's interest was keeping down the cost of manufacture. Today labor and government regulation are the big costs, so today they move manufacturing and jobs offshore and leave American workers to their fate.

In the 1900s the big cost was raw materials like southern cotton, and the industrialists in partnership with government acted just as selfishly toward Southern suppliers as it does today toward labor.

Thanks to modern graveyard science and surviving records, researchers know that in 1760, 100 years before the War Between the States, Charleston, South Carolina, had the largest population of slaves in the colonies. Who had the second largest? New York City.

A century later most of the tide in the North had turned against slavery. They could afford to when manufacturing replaced farming. Mechanized manufacturing meant workers could be productive enough to be paid.

Southern and western farms weren't mechanized. They weren't profitable enough to pay wages. Farm productivity came much later.

While the South was getting beaten up in the northern press and in literature over slavery, the region's moral view was supported by its own institutions, particularly the white and black Christian churches.

That made slavery the emotional issue around which the masses on both sides could rally, each certain they had God on their side.

One way they rallied in the South was remarking with bitterness that the spark of Northern moral indignation never caught fire when Yankee shipping ran the slave trade. That put fire in the Dixie belly, and cause to sneer at the fire in the abolitionist's eye.

Lincoln's election, a relative nonentity beholden to GOP power brokers, was seen as a final straw. Abe came to office from a back room power base dependent on going along with the party's northern power brokers. Southerners once again were screwed, with nowhere to turn.

Southerners didn't call it the Civil War. In the South it was known as the War For Southern Independence, or the War of Northern Aggression, names that still trigger emotions 150 years later.

"The War Between the States" is a sterile, usable title. That avoids the true name, what it really was, "The War Over Secession." More than a third - 12 of the 35 states - seceded from the union, and had a right to. Shelby Foote reminds us that in pre-war days they said "The United States are ...." Only after the war did it become "The United Sates is ..." The south lost a third of its manhood fighting that change.

But the winner gets naming rights and the union didn't want that one. It was politically incorrect around Washington to ask, "Don't we have the right to secede?"

For 100 years after the war, the South was dominated by badly schooled gentry and unschooled rednecks who shared a secret pride they were betrayed by God. It's understandable; on everything but slavery they were right.

When the 13 colonies agreed to form a republic, that was not a commitment in stone from which they could never withdraw.

In the 1770s the 13 colonies agreed - with two understandings - to unite some common interests. The understandings were that the federal union they joined would have only the power given it by the states; and two, a state could withdraw, secede, if it wanted to.

They were betrayed on both points.

The claim they could not secede came much later when the central government grew powerful enough to feel they could enforce it. The power came because the US Supreme Court gave the federal union powers way beyond what the states did.

The Founding Fathers who drew the 1770s agreements would have been apoplectic if told they could not secede, but they were all dead.

The states knew they had the right to secede. Any state could, the original 13 and the newer 22. In 1860 Wisconsin's Republican governor, Alexander Randall, was a staunch abolitionist and a strong advocate of states rights. He proposed that Wisconsin should secede from the Union if the federal government did not end slavery.

As Wisconsin's secession loomed, the State Adjutant General surveyed the state's 4 militia companies to determine which would support the state and which would support the federal government. He disarmed and disbanded the one loyal to Washington.

That was then. Today we've become so totally federalized that the historic papers limiting union power have zero legal force. Their value is only to document collectors.

The final emasculating stroke came in 1916 when Congress gave the President power to federalize any state military unit at a pen stroke, eliminating the ability of any state to muster resistance to the White House.

The law became useful a half century later to nationalize whatever force Southern governors could call up in an attempt to block integration.

In 1861, however, states rights and state sovereignty were real. In one-third of the states men fought to the death for them. In two-thirds they fought to the death to preserve the union. But the troops on both sides fought under the banners of their states.

The chief issue of the Civil War was secession. Lincoln could not have been more clear about that in his 1862 letter to Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune:

" ... My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union;..."

Slavery was important to Southern state power structures and the provider side of the region's economy, but the belief that ordinary young Southern men would volunteer to die merely so the landed gentry could have slaves is absurd.

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Page last updated Sept. 12, 2015
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