Civil War 101

I decided to follow up Thursday’s post on the debate in the Fredericksburg paper regarding the cause of the war. This is a great example of the sloppiness that passes for serious debate among Civil War enthusiasts. I mentioned in that previous post the utter failure even to distinguish between the cause of secession and the cause of the war. These are two distinct questions that tend to get convoluted. As I understand it, the relevant question to ask is: Why did the Deep Southern states – starting with South Carolina in Dec. 1860 – decide to secede from the Union following the election of Abraham Lincoln? Notice the emphasis on region. Not all of the southern states that would eventually join the Confederacy seceded at the same time. The distinction is also important because it implicitly acknowledges the fact that following the secession of the last Deep Southern state and the establishment of the new Confederate government, war was not inevitable. Lincoln could have allowed the states to go their separate ways. Of course, he did not, but it is important to acknowledge this contingency. Don’t read back into history from a point where the outcome is known! The distinction also forces us to acknowledge that what drove the Deep Southern states to secession was not necessarily what caused the Upper South to secede in April 1861. As historian William Freehling has noted, while the Deep South interpreted Lincoln’s election as an immediate threat (the exact nature of that threat will be explained below) the Upper South took a “wait and see” attitude towards Lincoln’s election.

So, why did these Deep Southern states secede and how did they try to convince their southern brethren in the Upper South to follow along? Well, luckily they told us why. In the months following the initial round of secession, each state sent representatives or commissioners to the Upper South to make the case as to why Lincoln’s election constituted a sufficient reason to secede. Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2001) by Charles Dew explores this very issue. The book falls well under 100 pages and can be read in one sitting. Dew, who is a history teacher at Williams College in Massachusetts, carefully analyzes the speeches of these commissioners. These men had a few things in common. First, the commissioners were all one-time residents of the states to which they were sent; they were not radical “fire-eaters,” but fairly moderate in their politics; and most of them were lawyers. More importantly, their arguments are clear and to the point. Their speeches are arguably the most reliable sources as to why many Southerners viewed Lincoln’s election as a threat. And no, they did not talk about the tariff or even states rights. The speeches focused on the danger that Lincoln and the Republicans posed to the institution of slavery. More to the point, these speeches reflect a paranoia that the end of slavery would usher in race wars and amalgamation. Dew includes a few of the speeches in an appendix at the end; for those teachers out there, these are wonderful classroom sources.

A careful examination of Dew’s study drives home the point that the most important sources to be examined in reference to this question should be the speeches and other documents written at the time and not after the war. Postwar sources are unreliable as they are written in light of Confederate defeat. Stick with contemporary sources.

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