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Southern Comfort

Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War

Charles B. Dew
University Press of Virginia, 124 pp., $22.95

The Slave Power: The Free North and Southern Domination, 1780–1860

Leonard L. Richards
Louisiana State University Press,228 pp., $39.95; $19.95 (paper)

When Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865, at the end of four years of civil war, few people in either the North or the South would have dissented from his statement that slavery “was, somehow, the cause of the war.”1 At the war’s outset in 1861 Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, had justified secession as an act of self-defense against the incoming Lincoln administration, whose policy of excluding slavery from the territories would make “property in slaves so insecure as to be comparatively worthless,…thereby annihilating in effect property worth thousands of millions of dollars.”2

The Confederate vice-president, Alexander H. Stephens, had said in a speech at Savannah on March 21, 1861, that slavery was “the immediate cause of the late rupture and the present revolution” of Southern independence. The United States, said Stephens, had been founded in 1776 on the false idea that all men are created equal. The Confederacy, by contrast,

is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone 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 moral condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based on this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.3

Unlike Lincoln, Davis and Stephens survived the war to write their memoirs. By then, slavery was gone with the wind. To salvage as much honor and respectability as they could from their lost cause, they set to work to purge it of any association with the now dead and discredited institution of human bondage. In their postwar views, both Davis and Stephens hewed to the same line: Southern states had seceded not to protect slavery, but to vindicate state sovereignty. This theme became the virgin birth theory of secession: the Confederacy was conceived not by any worldly cause, but by divine principle.

The South, Davis insisted, fought solely for “the inalienable right of a people to change their government…to withdraw from a Union into which they had, as sovereign communities, voluntarily entered.” The “existence of African servitude,” he maintained, “was in no wise the cause of the conflict, but only an incident.”4 Stephens likewise declared in his convoluted style that “the War had its origin in opposing principles” not concerning slavery but rather concerning “the organic Structure of the Government…. It was a strife between the principles of Federation, on the one side, and Centralism, or Consolidation, on the other…. Slavery, so called, was but the question on which these antagonistic principles…were finally brought into…collision with each other on the field of battle.”5

Davis and Stephens set the tone for the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War during the next century and more: slavery was merely an incident; the real origin of the war that killed more than 620,000 people was a difference of opinion about the Constitution. Thus the Civil War was not a war to preserve the nation and, ultimately, to abolish slavery, but instead a war of Northern aggression against Southern constitutional rights. The superb anthology of essays, The Myth of the Lost Cause, edited by Gary Gallagher and Alan Nolan, explores all aspects of this myth. The editors intend the word “myth” to be understood not as “falsehood” but in its anthropological meaning: the collective memory of a people about their past, which sustains a belief system shaping their view of the world in which they live.

The Lost Cause myth helped Southern whites deal with the shattering reality of catastrophic defeat and impoverishment in a war they had been sure they would win. Southerners emerged from the war subdued but unrepentant; they had lost all save honor, and their unsullied honor became the foundation of the myth. Having outfought the enemy, they were eventually ground down by “overwhelming numbers and resources,” as Robert E. Lee told his grieving soldiers at Appomattox. This theme was echoed down the years in Southern memoirs, at reunions of Confederate veterans, and by heritage groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “Genius and valor went down before brute force,” declared a Georgia veteran in 1890. The Confederacy “had surrendered but was never whipped.” Robert E. Lee was the war’s foremost general, indeed the greatest commander in American history, while Ulysses S. Grant was a mere bludgeoner whose army overcame his more skilled and courageous enemy only because of those overwhelming numbers and resources.

Not only did Confederate soldiers fight better; they also fought for a noble cause, the cause of state rights, constitutional liberty, and consent of the governed. Slavery had nothing to do with it. “Think of it, soldiers of Lee!” declared a speaker at a reunion of the United Confederate Veterans in 1904:

You were fighting, they say, for the privilege of holding your fellow man in bondage! Will you for one moment acknowledge the truth of that indictment? Oh, no! That banner of the Southern Cross was studded with the stars of God’s heaven…. You could not have followed a banner that was not a banner of liberty!

The theme of liberty, not slavery, as the cause for which the South fought became a mantra in the writings of old Confederates and has been taken up by neo-Confederates in our own time. The Confederacy contended for “Freedom’s cause,” a veteran told his comrades at an 1887 reunion, “a struggle for constitutional rights against aggression, oppression and wrong.” Other speakers at the same convention said they had “fought for the right of local self government,” for “the idea that liberty in a government like ours is best preserved by restraining central power and giving to the states…all the rights which are not distinctly and absolutely conferred upon the central power.”

These arguments remain alive. On a visit to a Confederate cemetery before she became President Bush’s secretary of the interior, Gale Norton expressed regret that with the Confederate defeat “we lost too much. We lost the idea that the states were to stand against the federal government gaining too much power over our lives.” Senator John Ashcroft, now attorney general, told the neo-Confederate magazine Southern Partisan that “traditionalists must do more” to defend the Southern heritage. “I’ve got to do more,” he said.6

The Lost Cause view of the origins of the Civil War entered the mainstream of historical writing in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1930 Frank Owsley, one of the foremost Southern historians of his generation, wrote that the Confederacy fought not only for the principles of states’ rights and self-government but also for the preservation of a stable, pastoral, agrarian civilization against the overbearing, acquisitive, aggressive ambitions of the urban-industrial Leviathan growing up in the North. The real issue that provoked secession was not slavery—this institution, wrote Owsley, “was part of the agrarian system, but only one element and not an essential one”—but rather such matters as the tariff, banks, subsidies to railroads, and similar matters in which the grasping industrialists of the North sought to advance their interests at the expense of Southern farmers and planters.7

From the 1930s to the 1950s the most influential interpretation of the causes of the Civil War was that put forth by the “revisionist” school of historians, whose leading figure was Avery Craven. The revisionists denied that sectional conflicts between North and South were genuinely divisive. The differences between these regions, wrote Craven, were no greater than those existing at different times between East and West. Such minor disparities did not have to lead to war; they could have, and should have, been accommodated peacefully within the political system.8 The Civil War was thus not an irrepressible conflict, as earlier generations had called it, but a “repressible conflict,” as Craven titled one of his books. The war was brought on not by genuine issues but by extremists on both sides, especially abolitionists and radical Republicans, who whipped up emotions and hatreds for their own self-serving partisan purposes. The passions they stirred up got out of hand in 1861 and erupted into a tragic, unnecessary war which accomplished nothing that could not have been achieved by negotiations and compromise.

Any such compromise in 1861, of course, would have left slavery in place and would have reinforced the right of slave owners to take their property into the territories. But revisionists considered slavery unimportant; as Craven once stated, the institution of bondage “played a rather minor part in the life of the South and the Negro.”9 Slavery would have died peacefully of natural causes in another generation or two had not fanatics forced the issue to armed conflict. Republicans who harped on the evils of slavery and expressed a determination to rein in what they called “the Slave Power” goaded the South into a defensive response that finally caused Southern states to secede to get free of the incessant pressure of these self-righteous Yankee zealots. Revisionism thus tended to portray Southern whites as victims reacting to Northern attacks; it was truly a war of Northern aggression.

Since the 1950s most professional historians have come to agree with Lincoln’s assertion that slavery “was, somehow, the cause of the war.” Outside the universities, however, Lost Cause denial is still popular, especially among Southern heritage groups that insist the Confederate flag stands not for slavery but for a legacy of courage and honor in defense of principle. When Ken Burns’s PBS documentary on the Civil War portrayed slavery as the root cause of the conflict, the reaction among many Southern whites was hostile. “The cause of the war was secession,” declared a spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, “and the cause of secession could have been any number of things. This overemphasis on the slavery issue really rankles us.”10 Another Southerner, whose ancestor served in the 27th South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, insists that slavery was “only one issue among many that lead [sic] to secession,” and a minor one at that. Of equal or greater importance was the commitment of Confederate Southerners to “states rights, agrarianism,…aristocracy, and habits of mind including individualism, personalism toward God and man, provincialism, and romanticism.”11

The states’-rights thesis has found its way into some odd corners of American culture. One of the questions in an exam administered to prospective citizens by the US Immigration and Naturalization service is: “The Civil War was fought over what important issue?” The right answer is either slavery or states’ rights. For Charles Dew growing up in the South of the 1940s and 1950s, there was no either/or. His ancestors on both sides fought for the Confederacy. His much-loved grandmother was a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. In his dorm room at prep school in Virginia he proudly hung a Confederate flag. And he knew “that the South had seceded for one reason and one reason only: states’ rights…. Anyone who thought differently was either deranged or a Yankee.”

  1. 1

    The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy B. Basler, nine volumes (Rutgers University Press, 1953–1955), Vol. 8, p. 332.

  2. 2

    Jefferson Davis, Constitutionalist: His Letters, Papers and Speeches, edited by Dunbar Rowland, ten volumes (Mississippi Department of Archives and History, 1923), Vol. 5, p. 72.

  3. 3

    Augusta Daily Constitutionalist, March 30, 1861.

  4. 4

    Jefferson Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, two volumes (Da Capo, 1990), Vol. 1, pp. vii, 67, 156.

  5. 5

    Alexander H. Stephens, A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States, two volumes (National Publishing Co., 1868–1870), Vol. 1, p. 10.

  6. 6

    The Washington Post, January 16, 2001, p. A21.

  7. 7

    Frank Lawrence Owsley, “The Irrepressible Conflict,” in I’ll Take My Stand, by Twelve Southerners (Harper and Brothers, 1930), pp. 61–91, quotation from p. 73.

  8. 8

    Avery Craven, “Coming of the War Between the States: An Interpretation,” in An Historian and the Civil War (University of Chicago Press, 1964; essay first published in 1936), pp. 28–29.

  9. 9

    Avery Craven, The Coming of the Civil War (University of Chicago Press, 1942), p. 93.

  10. 10

    Newsweek, October 8, 1990, pp. 62–63.

  11. 11

    W. Keith Beason, letter in North & South, Vol. 4 (March 2001), p. 6.

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