The Heart of the Matter

Slavery and the American West: The Eclipse of Manifest Destiny and the Coming of the Civil War

by Michael A. Morrison
University of North Carolina Press, 396 pp., $49.95

Days of Defiance: Sumter, Secession, and the Coming of the Civil War

by Maury Klein
Knopf, 496 pp., $30.00

Behind the Lines in the Southern Confederacy

by Charles W. Ramsdell
Louisiana State University Press, 156 pp., $11.95 (paper)

The Confederate War

by Gary W. Gallagher
Harvard University Press, 218 pp., $24.95

Two issues that have generated the most animated debates among historians of the American Civil War are the causes of the war and the causes of Confederate defeat. Indeed, these are among the most important questions in all of American history. If the war had never happened, or if it had occurred but the Confederacy had won its independence, the United States would be an incalculably different country today. As Mark Twain put it a few years after Appomattox, the war “uprooted institutions that were centuries old, changed the politics of a people, transformed the social life of half the country, and wrought so profoundly upon the entire national character that the influence cannot be measured short of two or three generations.”1 Five generations later, historians are still trying to measure its influence and explain its origins and outcome.

In his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865, Abraham Lincoln looked back over four years of war that had cost 620,000 lives. Everyone recognized, he said, that the institution of slavery “was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war.”2 Most historians have agreed with Lincoln. Fifty years after the war the leading Civil War historian of his day, James Ford Rhodes, expressed this consensus: “Of the American Civil War it may safely be asserted that there was a single cause, slavery.”3 Three quarters of a century later, Ken and Ric Burns’s enormously popular PBS television documentary The Civil War and the accompanying book made the same point. Slavery was the “one issue that more than any other divided North from South,” they wrote. Slavery “is the heart of the matter in any explanation” of the decision by Southern leaders for secession and war.4

Yet from the first some of Lincoln’s contemporaries and some historians have resisted this thesis. Most of them have been white Southerners. The president and vice-president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis and Alexander H. Stephens, set the tone for these dissenters. In books written soon after the war, both made the same point: Southern states did not secede and go to war to protect slavery, but to vindicate state rights. The Confederacy, Davis insisted, fought solely for “the defense of an inherent, unalienable right…to withdraw from a Union into which they had, as sovereign communities, voluntarily entered…. The existence of African servitude was in no wise the cause of the conflict, but only an incident.”5 Stephens likewise insisted that “Slavery, so called, was but the question on which these antagonistic principles… of Federation, on the one side, and Centralism, or Consolidation, on the other…were finally brought into… collision with each other on the field of battle.”6

When Davis and Stephens wrote these apologias, slavery was a dead and discredited institution. To concede that the Confederacy had broken up the United States and launched a war that killed 620,000 Americans in…

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