Well, I have taken that great advice to heart and you can see that most of my posts have a 19th century lean, the reason for that is quite simple really; I am obsessed with 19th century American History and it is my area of greatest knowledge. This past summer Civil War lands and monuments were under fire from a misguided attempt to erase history; I promised myself that I would not make a blog post about my feelings on that topic, but there is something that really bugs me about the current perception of the war; there are a countless number of Americans today that believe every southerner was fighting for slavery and to keep “their” slaves. This is such a hard topic to discuss that my focus for this post will be to focus on just one aspect of the war and the motivations for the common southerner vs. the motivations for people in power in the south.
For sake of brevity and to be concise this will be the label of the rich people in the antebellum and Civil War era in the south. I will also refer to them colloquially as the “slaveocracy”. What you need to know is that the south in antebellum America was run by an aristocracy that depended on land ownership and the slaves that worked their lands to thrive. This DOES NOT mean that every southerner had slaves, actually quite to the contrary. According to PBS, only 25% of southerners owned slaves in the year before hostilities broke out. (1) So, why has the common theme always been that Johnny Reb was fighting for slavery? Well, that is the crux of the issue, while these men did not own slaves and probably thought very little about slavery and the Constitution, these men did react quite quickly to public furor for the war. They reacted to the fact that the north was now invading and that every newspaper is the south was having a call to arms for soldiers. Shelby Foote tells a great story about why a southern soldier was fighting, he was asked by his union captors why he was fighting and his response was, “because you’re down here”. (2)
Now, all of this public sentiment for war directly benefitted the southern slavocracy because they wanted this war but would not have had proper support if it were only about slavery. It would have been difficult for the south to even recruit states like Virginia to their cause if Lincoln would not have invaded the south after Sumter. Lincoln had no choice in the matter really, but all this played right into the hands of the southern slave owners. The slave owners would of course get the war that they wanted and it would prove to be their ruin. There are entire books written on the question of slavery’s survival if the war would have been avoided, there are many who say it was on life support before the war, but it was this constant worry about slavery’s death knell that actually sped up its death. Lincoln said many times that he just wanted to reunite the Union, but fire breathers in South Carolina and other states made the preemptive strike. It would cost over 660,000 men and 4 years of heartache, but Lincoln original view of just keeping the Union together would eventually morph into a war to destroy slavery and it would be successful.
- Civil War. Ken Burns episode 2