“A Government With Slavery As Its Great Distinctive Feature”

Reading through the letters of Lt. William Cowper Nelson, who served in the 17th Mississippi and came across this little gem:

I don’t know that I much regret the loss of Stephen [runaway slave]. I have thought that this war was ordered by Providence, as a means of settling definitely and conclusively the question of slavery: if slavery is a divine institute, I believe we will be successful, that our independence will be recognized and the Southern Confederacy will be established as a Government with slavery as its great distinctive feature. if on the contrary, slavery is a curse and obnoxious to an All Wise and Good Creator I believe that he will make this war, the means of abolishing it from the face of the earth. I have the greatest confidence in the wisdom of God, and believe that all things work together for good to them that we love. (p. 102)

Winchester, Virginia, October 29th 1862

20 comments… add one
  • Eric A. Jacobson Apr 20, 2017 @ 17:02


    If I might share this excerpt, it might a good comparison to this wonderful piece by Nelson. The following was written at the end of a letter composed by Lt. Col. Walter Rorer n Nov. 7, 1864. He would die at Franklin three weeks later. Rorer was fervently committed to the bitter end:

    “When the war is over, there will be but few of us to return home. The list of our dead is terrible to contemplate, noble martyrs in a holy cause, for there is no cause more holy than the cause of our country.”

    Rorer was a lumber dealer who owned six slaves in1860.

  • James Simcoe Apr 20, 2017 @ 4:45

    This is a bit off topic from the specific source and comments here, but I thought I’d throw it in to a current blog stream. I’m reading, ‘The Battle of Petersburg,’ by Chick – 2015. Pages 98 to 134 give pertinent social/military back drop and description of the successful USCT attack at Baylor Farm; attitudes towards the entire idea of Black soldiers, North and South. Background on commanders, etc. Finally, much rejoicing at the news that Gordon Rhea’s final book in the Overland series is due out in August!

  • Bryce Hartranft Apr 19, 2017 @ 10:55

    This quote reminds me of something I had my students read recently. Both address the involvement of God in slavery, but Nelson is unique in that he admits the possibility that God may, in fact, be against slavery.

    From the Staunton Spectator, Nov 29, 1859:

    “But in addition to their confidence in their own servants, the people of the South place their trust in a higher power, whose protecting care they expect in time of peril. They believe that an institution of slavery is ordained in Heaven, and that the slaveholder who trusts in the Almighty arm will find that arm a refuge and a fortress. They expect to be delivered from the snare of the Abolition fowler and the noisome pestilence of fanaticism. Truth is their shield and buckler, and they are not afraid of the terror by night nor the arrow that flieth by day.–And in any contest that may arise in so righteous a cause will have an abiding confidence that a thousand shall fall at their side and ten thousand at their right hand, until they come off conquerors.”

  • Ted McKnight Apr 19, 2017 @ 7:46

    Anyone with a moral compass knows that slavery is wrong. Anyone with a lick of business sense knows that owning a slave compared to paying a wage to a willing employee in not a productive business model.
    As for ‘abolishing it from the face of the earth’, Lt Nelson lacked vision. Decades of slavery in America were
    of insignificant consequence in the overall picture.
    Too bad so many had to die and a promising nation be destroyed for little or no positive gain.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 19, 2017 @ 7:57

      As for ‘abolishing it from the face of the earth’, Lt Nelson lacked vision. Decades of slavery in America were
      of insignificant consequence in the overall picture.

      I don’t know what to make of this. Nelson did have a vision and it is one he shared with many white Southerners before and during the war. For many slavery was located at the center of their understanding of American Exceptionalism. Read Matthew Karp’s new book, This Vast Southern Empire for a wonderful analysis of how Southerners attempted to direct American foreign policy in a way that strengthened and extended slavery.

      • Bryan Cheeseboro Apr 19, 2017 @ 9:39

        Seems like so many of your posts get a response from someone who believes the war was such a waste and not worth all of the lives that it took. Of course it’s easy for us to say 155 years later and not having been involved but I wonder how many USCT soldiers or how many slaves freed from bondage felt the war had “little or no positive gain.”

        • Kevin Levin Apr 19, 2017 @ 9:43

          I am not too much interested in how people today evaluate the outcome of the war independent from any sense of how people at the time understood it.

      • Ted McKnight Apr 21, 2017 @ 18:31

        It matters not what Nelson shared, slavery exists on the earth today.

      • Ted McKnight Apr 21, 2017 @ 18:45

        I look forward to reading This Vast Southern Empire.

    • Vince (Lancaster at War) Apr 19, 2017 @ 9:59

      “Anyone with a lick of business sense knows that owning a slave compared to paying a wage to a willing employee in not a productive business model.”

      I don’t know about this. I’m currently reading Edward Baptist’s book, and he argues that slavery was quite profitable and productive with annual productivity gains rivaling those of industrial economies. Torture is very effective motivation. I don’t know how deep this idea goes historiographically and haven’t examined the data, though, but it seems to be a pretty compelling argument to me.

      • Kevin Levin Apr 19, 2017 @ 10:03

        Excellent book. Baptist, along with a relatively small group of historians, have challenged the assumption that slavery existed outside of or represented a pre-capitalistic economy. It at least challenges the notion that slavery was dying by the eve of the Civil War.

      • Ted McKnight Apr 21, 2017 @ 18:43

        I agree with your statement, ‘I don’t know about this”. Did you read the words “willing employee”?
        I’ve had dozens of employees and I can tell you that a disgruntled employee is not productive. An employee with incentive to do a job well is beneficial to all around them.
        You may want to rethink the statement that torture is an effective motivator. Fear may motivate, but not for long.

        • Scott Ledridge Apr 23, 2017 @ 6:15

          “I’ve had dozens of employees and I can tell you that a disgruntled employee is not productive.” – So, I’m trying to understand your obtuseness… have you owned slaves that you could whip just enough, with the threat of more, if they didn’t meet their quota? While the others watched, so they could see what awaits their failure?

          The South didn’t think themselves “King Cotton” for nothing. They didn’t want to expand slavery into the territories just so they wouldn’t have to fix their own supper. They didn’t make slavery perpetual in their constitution for nothing.

        • Msb Apr 24, 2017 @ 2:59

          Yes, but your employees are free to leave and society is not constructed in ways that would harm or kill them for trying to get another job.
          And rudeness is not an argument.

      • woodrowfan Apr 28, 2017 @ 9:01

        I recently finished ‘The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America” which pointed out that southern railroads used slave labor, and found it effective.

        • Kevin Levin Apr 28, 2017 @ 9:03

          Yes. Excellent book.

  • James F. Epperson Apr 19, 2017 @ 7:22

    Oh, I love that one! I’m putting that on my website. Where is this gem located?

    • Kevin Levin Apr 19, 2017 @ 7:32

      Hi Jim,

      Not sure what you are asking. The link to the book is included.

      • James F. Epperson Apr 19, 2017 @ 7:38

        Yeah, I was slow on the uptake—my brain finally engaged after hitting the “Post Comment” button 🙁

        • Kevin Levin Apr 19, 2017 @ 7:41

          Glad to hear it. It really is a powerful passage that challenges our tendency to distinguish between the goals of the Confederate government and those in the ranks.

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