Civil War 101 — Day 2

Just one more comment regarding the silliness that is masquerading as serious Civil War debate over in the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star. One of the most common arguments (if one can call it a formal argument) is to assert that because my great grandfather fought in the Civil War and he was not a slave owner, slavery was not central to the establishment of the Confederate government. Yes, it is true that 75% of white southerners did not own slaves. Of course, that does not tell us anything about whether those white southerners had an interest in maintaining a slave-based society. More to the point, Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens are crystal clear on why they believed secession and the establishment of the Confederates States of America was necessary – as long as you stick to contemporary and not postwar sources. Their speeches and other writings make it clear that the protection of slavery and a racial hierarchy was central to the new government. I have no reason not to take them at their word. The fact that soldiers enlisted for any number of reasons does not in any way conflict with the conditions that led to the meetings in Montgomery, Alabama in February 1861. I have no doubt that thousands of Americans who voluntarily enlisted in the 1960’s to fight in Vietnam did so for reasons unrelated to official U.S. foreign policy. In other words, that soldiers enlisted for multiple reasons does not change for one moment the reasonable assertion that a belief in the “Domino Theory” brought about U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. I am willing to bet that plenty of soldiers never even heard of the Domino Theory during their tours of duty.

My guess is that this argument is really a function of the tension between honoring an ancestor’s service in a government that sought to perpetuate slavery. One way to deal with it is to deny that that government had anything to do with slavery. Of course, one can do this, but only at the cost of losing what many at the time acknowledged as central to the war. The question of what motivated men (and now we know this also includes women) to join the ranks occupies the attention of a large number of talented Civil War historians. Since the publication of Bell I. Wiley’s classic texts on Johnny Reb and Billy Yank we’ve learned a great deal about their ideological convictions, commitment to comrades, camp life, and their strong desire to stay connected with loved ones back home. At the same time we’ve learned a great deal about the important role that slavery played in secession and the establishment of the Confederate government. This distinction is acknowledged by just about every serious Civil War historian that I’v’e read. Until someone argues convincingly against it, I will stick with it.

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