The Civil War’s Untold Story

It’s the name of a 5-part documentary that will air on PBS in February 2014.  The preview looks pretty good, though it’s not clear to me exactly what is new or “untold”.  The commentary by historians is certainly within the mainstream of current interpretation, but perhaps parts of it will be new to the general public.  One thing that I really like is Allen Guelzo’s constant reinforcement of the importance of democracy and republican government as what was at stake.  The scene of impressed slaves working on Confederate earthworks looks very promising for the obvious reasons. No hint of Lost Cause rhetoric, which is very nice to see.

19 comments… add one
  • Daniel Dec 29, 2014 @ 3:51

    The importance of slavery as a motivating factor in bringing about the civil war is unquestionable. One only needs to see the profit that slavery brought the south and the reliance on slave produced cotton the entire manufactured world was dependent on. It is highly doubtful, and proven, that the south would have established an industrial mentality without slavery driving its profit margin. The south feared slavery was going to be a geographic thing and was prepared to obstruct western expansion to get what they wanted. If only 1/3 of the south ownes slaves then they certainly led the other 2\3rd’s into war to protect their investment or more horribly their “property” as many in the south used the 5th amendment to justify the ownership of a human being.
    All legislation from the Northwest Ordinance to the Missouri Compromise had slavery’s shadow hanging over it. Stepohan Douglas spoke of its importance and the southern way of life on the eve of the war. Slavery can not be sugar coated as it was the driving force behind the secessionist policies of the south.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 29, 2014 @ 4:21

      Hi Daniel,

      To reinforce some of these points I highly recommend Edward Baptist’s new book, The Half Has Never Been Told. Thanks for the comment.

  • Sam Vanderburg May 23, 2013 @ 18:43

    Thanks for sharing! I need an “LIKE” option for your blog! Some of what you write irratates me, and some challenges my thinking. Whatever, I still enjoy it!

    • Kevin Levin May 24, 2013 @ 1:21

      Some of what I write irritates me as well.

      • Sam Vanderburg May 24, 2013 @ 21:48


  • Lee White May 23, 2013 @ 10:05

    This company recently made the new films for the NPS at Shiloh, Chickamauga, and Kennesaw Mountain. A lot of footage on this will come from those shoots and I can say having worked with them on two of the projects that it will be worth watching, of note will be the story of a group of contraband who attached that were brought in to work as stretcher bearers during the Atlanta Campaign for the Union army. We also shot a lot of scenes of camp servants in the CS army.


    • SF Walker May 26, 2013 @ 13:50

      Lee–I’m very glad to hear that you fellows helped produce the new films for those NPS battlefields. About 15 years ago, I saw the film at Shiloh—which was quite old and long overdue for a good update. I haven’t seen most of the others, but I’m pretty sure Shiloh’s film was made during the Centennial!

  • Nathan Towne May 23, 2013 @ 9:47


    I am fine with you disagreeing with me here by the way if you do.

    Nathan Towne

    • Kevin Levin May 23, 2013 @ 10:43

      Good to know. 🙂

  • Nathan Towne May 23, 2013 @ 9:40


    I agree that there isn’t a tremendous amount in the trailer that could be classified as “untold.” I did recognize two somewhat controversial statements that were made. Allen Guelzo weighed in on McClellan’s role in the 1864 Presidential election, how able McClellan would have been in uniting his party and what ramifications his election would have produced that would have impeded his ability to bring the war to its conclusion which remains one of the more vocal historiographical debates with regards to the war and I would like to see that issue specifically explored in the documentary.

    The piece that I do take exception to however, is Peter Carmichael’s on the impact of Lincoln’s election in the slaveholding states. I really dislike this newly emerging theme of describing secessionist sentiment through the narrow lens of a disgruntled “slaveholding class.” Like income, slave ownership was extremely fluid from one generation to another, there was no structured class that owned slaves. Furthermore slave ownership was broadly disseminated across the extent of the population with the numbers of slaveholding families decreasing dramatically as the size of the holding increases. Lets use Mississippi for example, a state with a huge enslaved population, several huge plantation counties, especially on the Mississippi River and a very high white-enslaved ratio (354,674 free citizens as compared to 436,631 enslaved citizens, slaves making up 55% of the population at large.) Of a population of 354,674 free citizens, 30,943 were slaveholders (about 1%). Being that the slaveholder was the property owner however, typically the head of household, this number only represents a minute fraction of the families who owned slaves. In fact according to the 1860 census of all households surveyed, 49% were slaveholding households which equates to about 177,000 citizens living directly in slave-owning households. Of the 30,943 slaveholding individuals the breakdown is as follows. 4,856 owned one slave (15.6%), 3,201 owned two slaves (10.3%), 2,503 owned three slaves (8.0%), 2,129 owned four slaves (6.8%), 1,809 owned five slaves (5.8%), 1,585 owned six slaves (5.1%), 1,303 owned seven slaves (4.2%), 1,149 owned eight slaves (3.7%) and 1,024 owned nine slaves (3.3%). From there the census classifies slave-ownership by brackets but continuously decreasing as the number of slaves within the bracket increases. By the time you reach 40-49 slaves there are 755 owners in the state at those levels, between 100-199 slaves there are 279 owners, over 200 slaves there are only 37 individual owners. Two major points can be brought from this, first, slave ownership hardly constitutes one class, rather the disparity between slave-owners is enormous and secondly the vast majority of slave-owning families have relatively small holdings. In combination with the fluidity of slave-ownership and how broadly it was disseminated across the population I think the term “slaveholding class” can be discredited.

    He then states “ultimately the slaveholding class recognized that an anti-slavery Republican Party was a threat to their long-term political and economic interests.” This is very misleading because although there is a strong positive correlation between the enslaved population in an area and secessionist sentiment within that area, there is a strong negative correlation between the size of slaveholding and secessionist sentiment. Historian David Potter was the first to really propound this position in his “The Impending Crisis,” and it has become accepted and used in modern studies. Although the population in the Confederate states would fracture (to a degree still debated) during the war, the war cannot be explained as a Slaveholder’s War, but rather as a Slaveholding societies war.

    Nathan Towne

    • Kevin Levin May 23, 2013 @ 10:54

      I really dislike this newly emerging theme of describing secessionist sentiment through the narrow lens of a disgruntled “slaveholding class.”

      This is hardly a “newly emerging theme.” I took Carmichael as simply pointing out that the push toward secession in the South was led by the slaveholding class. That doesn’t mean that non-slaveholders did not contribute to this push or that they did not support secession once it was reality. Finally, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they did not support the Confederacy and the war. In fact, Carmichael would be the first to tell you that they did. Perhaps I am missing something. It has been a long day.

      • Nathan Towne May 23, 2013 @ 11:14


        I had a strange feeling we were going to disagree on this. I respect Carmichael and understand that he is a good historian, I think he misspoke with regards to this issue however.

        The push toward Secession was not driven by any “slaveholding class,” per se, the evidence clearly shows that it was driven by those individuals within a slaveholding society, with a direct correlation to enslaved population within the areas being lived in, with several of the Whig Strongholds on the Mississippi River in Mississippi and Louisiania being exceptions. There is a difference.

        Nathan Towne

        • Kevin Levin May 23, 2013 @ 11:18

          I have no problem if you disagree with Carmichael. We don’t agree on everything either. Part of the problem is that we are dealing with one statement that may have been part of a larger point that was edited. I just don’t think that you should make too much of it. The other problem is that I don’t really understand the point you are trying to make. Opposition to Lincoln and the main players pushing secession were from the slaveholding class. Perhaps you can do more to flesh out this distinction for me.

          • Nathan Towne May 24, 2013 @ 18:20


            Sorry, I just saw your response. I entirely agree that I shouldn’t assess Carmichael predicated upon one statement. That isn’t fair to him at all and I would never do that. I respect and admire Carmichael quite a bit.

            Now, I made two main points above, so please bear with me. The first is the problematic usage of the term “slaveholding class,” and how the usage can impart a misunderstanding of class division, stagnancy and homogeneity with regards to slave ownership and the impact of the institution on slaveholding society. I detailed above some of the problems with the label. Firstly, slave ownership was both highly fluid, in other words the lack of ownership of slaves gradually transitioned into the lower levels of ownership and so on, rather than being distinctly separated and secondly the discrepancy between slaveholding families was immense. Furthermore, slaveholders and their families cannot be neatly grouped into a class divided from non-slaveholders because within slave society, all free citizens were indissolubly linked with the institution and the protections that it granted society. If these truths are understood then I have no problem with the label.

            This has application with regards to the main issue. There have been several studies that deal with the status, wealth and professional occupation of members of legislatures and Congressman in Antebellum Southern politics and up until the initiation of the conflict. Grady McWhiney’s study aside in which he found no significant difference between members of the parties (Democrat vs. Whig or Constitutional Unionist) amongst officeholders in the state of Alabama the studies almost unanimously show that the wealthier the family and the larger their slaveholding was, the more Whigish in sentiment those individuals (and their families) were. Arthur Charles Cole’s book The Whig party in the South published in 1913 clearly shows a distinct correlation between the wealthy, planter class and the Whig party across virtually all of slaveholding society. The larger the individual and familial holdings the more Whigish those individuals and families tended to be. Charles Sellers study “Who were the Southern Whigs,” published in 1954 shows a similar theme while extrapolating that the correlation expands beyond wealth and size of the slaveholding into positive correlations with finance and commerce. Ulrich Phillips study in 1910 shows the same thing even when considering the immense diversity between different slave states. This bears itself out in voting records. For example, as historian David Potter points out (Pg.503- 504) in his Magnum Opus, The Impending Crisis, in the six Presidential elections leading up to the election of 1860 in the state of Alabama, counties with less than a 30 percent enslaved population went only a total of 23 times of 117 for the Whig candidate while counties with over 50 percent enslaved population went over half of time for the Whig candidate. The same shows itself to be true in 1860. Potter divides counties in three groups labeled as having “low,” “medium,” and “high” enslaved populations amongst all of the counties in Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. In them John C. Breckenridge carried 64 percent of the counties with a “low” enslaved population, 56 percent within the “medium” category and just over half (52 percent) in the “high” category. This is today accepted interpretation.

            We also know that as a whole those of Democratic political allegiance were significantly more secessionist in 1860, obviously than those of former Whigs or current (or former from the party’s brief but meteoric existence in the lower South in the early 1850’s) Constitutional Unionists. I don’t need to explain to you the correlations. Most “Immediatists” were Democrats and the “Cooperationists” were predominantly comprised of a number of defects from the Democratic Party, Constitutional Unionists and former Whigs. This bears itself to be irrefutably the case with any understanding of Southern politics or readings of the debates that erupted across the lower South in 1860/1861 following Lincoln’s election. Hence the number of slaves owned by a family and that families involvement in plantation society is positively correlated with Whig politics and moderation in the Secession crisis. In the same areas, the number of slaves owned and the families involvement in plantation agriculture is negatively correlated with Whig politics and moderation in the Secession crisis.

            Yet, in the convention elections across the entire Deep South (and later in the Middle and Upper South) after Lincoln’s election, the results are flipped. The counties with “High” enslaved populations which had shown themselves to be only moderately supportive of Breckenridge in the National election showed strong support for secessionist candidates. The moderation came more from the less heavily enslaved areas, which as counties had been slightly more supportive than the more densely enslaved counties of Breckenridge.

            This means that the correlation exists not with the size of an individuals or a families personal slave holdings, in fact that correlation is the negative, but rather with the density of the enslaved population within the area in which the voter lives. The most virulently secessionist demographic actually was the individual (and by extension their family) who owned relatively few or no slaves and lived within highly enslaved areas. There are also positive correlations with education levels within that group (higher education within that group being more supportive of secession) and youth. There are also positive correlations with academics and the legal profession but that is all beside the point.

            I hope that that makes sense.

            Nathan Towne

      • Nathan Towne May 25, 2013 @ 14:59


        If the position I outlined above is still unclear or you disagree with it I am more than willing to lay out more evidence to support it. I will state though that Potter, Freehling and Sheehan-Dean who have all dealt with the demographics of Secession, essentially state what I have.

        Nathan Towne

        • Kevin Levin May 25, 2013 @ 15:01

          Your last comment helped to clarify your position, which I happen to agree with. I guess I just don’t see Carmichael’s point as contradicting it. Often times commentary gets watered down during these interviews.

          • Nathan Towne May 27, 2013 @ 8:12

            Ok, I am glad. This being the case obviously in no way detracts from the centrality of slavery to the Crisis and the war.

            As for Carmichael, I am going to wait until I see the documentary and assess it then.

            Nathan Towne

  • Kevin McCann May 23, 2013 @ 7:30

    I believe the “untold” part of this documentary may be its emphasis of the importance of the Western Theater, as opposed to the the war in the East which often receives the most credit in such presentations.

    • Kevin Levin May 23, 2013 @ 7:42

      That would certainly be beneficial given the emphasis on the East. It looks like a pretty thoughtful series. We shall see.

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