Having just finished writing about the debate over slave enlistment that took place throughout the Confederacy by mid-1864 through March 1865, it is safe to say that I’ve read hundreds of letters, diary entries and op-eds that explored what white southerners took to be the dangers of arming their bondsmen. Even those who came out in favor of enlistment shared many of the fears expressed by the opposition.

Those accounts that stood against the policy tend to blend into one another, but than once in a while you come across an op-ed like the one below, which was published in the Charleston Courier on January 24, 1865, just weeks before its fall.

It is to maintain slavery, God’s institution of labor, and the primary political element of our Confederate form of Government, state sovereignty, that we have taken the sword of justice against the infidel and oppressor. The two must stand or fall together. To talk of maintaining our independence while we abolish slavery is simply to talk folly. Four millions of our fellow-men in the domestic relation of slaves have, in the providence of God, under His unalterable decree…been committed to our charge. We dare not abandon them to the tender mercies of the infidel. Like the marriage, parental and fraternal relations, slavery enters into the composition of our families, and like those God-ordained relations, it has the sanction of His law and His gospel. The family relations are incorporated into civil government, and with us slavery is one of those relations.

African slave labor is the only form of labor whereby our soil can be cultivated, and the great staples of our clime produced. The testimony of our ample experience proves that the white man is not physically adapted to that end, and that he sickens, degenerates and dies, if he undertakes it. By the removal of African slave labor from this land, our productive and fruitful fields much become barren waste[s] and impenetrable swamps. By yielding to abolition infidelity, and emancipating our slaves, we will destroy the household, disorganize the family, and annihilate our Government–act contrary to the will and instruction of God–bring down His just wrath upon our heads, and doom ourselves to utter humiliation, contempt and wretchedness as a people. The last hope of true Republican liberty on the American continent would be lost, the progress of the family, but the light of religion, science and true philosophy, toward peace and happiness, blackened for centuries, and the triumph of the rulers of the darkness of this world advanced.

…And shall we look to other sources than the Almighty arm and the sword. He has placed in our hands for protection? Is it for human aid and foreign help we sigh? Let us go forth to battle, Deo vindice, and see that we bear not the sword in vain. [Robert Durden, The Gray and the Black: The Confederate Debate on Emancipation, pp. 180-81]

The importance of slavery to the Confederacy and white southerners is all here. It reveals the many ways in which slavery pervaded southern society and how it structured all of the central institutions, including the family, government, and religion.

But what I find so revealing after all of this reading is the lengths that Americans went to during the Civil War to hold on to a system of white supremacy. The writer leaves us with a clear prescription that it is better to go down together as a nation of white people in a blaze of glory than to abandon a God-ordained institution or what some would have pointed to as Confederate Exceptionalism.

25 comments add yours

  1. To read that was petrifying. The ability of us humans to rationalize ‘With God on Our Side'(tahnk you Bob Dylan) seems to know no bounds.

  2. This passage seems to vindicate the Lost Cause, depending on how you read it. He lists slavery and state sovereignty as two separate (but related) things: “It is to maintain slavery […] AND the primary political element of our Confederate form of Government, state sovereignty.”

    He is arguing that without slavery, the entire system would collapse. In college, we called that fallacy an Appeal to Necessity, a form of deductive argument.

    a) Southern society is good.
    b) Southern society relies on slavery to function.
    c) Therefore, Slavery is good.

    This syllogism leaves a lot of leeway for interpretation. Is the war about preserving slavery, or about preserving a society that just happens to be built on slavery? The syllogism supports EITHER viewpoint, making it possible argue both ways in different contexts. Which is exactly what Davis and Stevenson did, when one compares their antebellum and postbellum writings.

    There is a sort of Neo-Lost Cause right now, which is very popular with people like DiLorenzo. This new Lost Cause agrees that slavery was immoral, but separates the Confederate cause into two causes, slavery AND state’s rights. This creates a way to praise and condemn the Confederacy at the same time.

    I’m not arguing, just observing: I could see this passage being used by EITHER side of the modern Lost Cause debate.

  3. Kevin, this is fantastic. I Was unaware of this source. Straight from the horse’s mouth, we’re fighting to preserve slavery.

  4. Forget just having one black friend. This guy has four million.

    And they are all family too!

    As the Church Lady used to say, “How Convenient!”

    • “Slavery has entered into the composition of our families”
      Well, he got that right. It’s a strange “family” where a father engenders his children by rape and then sells them.

      • The “family” idea sounds weird, but people genuinely believed it. The practice of calling blacks “Aunt” and “Uncle” persisted well into the 1940s (at least in my family). Because former slaves stayed in Wilkes after the war, it was believed that they saw themselves as their owners’ family.

        I know it’s hard to believe when you didn’t grow up here, but the dynamics were complicated. Slaves (and later, free blacks) pretend to be happy; it was a pragmatic move, in their own best interests. In other words, they lied. Because they had to, or be treated worse.

        I know people who were children in the Depression, and you can NOT convince them that blacks were miserable in VA and NC. They’ll tell you about happy black kids, funny black guys, banjo players, wise old people … all these stock characters, except they weren’t characters, they were real people with names and addresses.

        Like the “Uncle Tom” who drove my grandfather to the bus stop and told him stories. He really was named Tom and called “Uncle.” He told my grandfather folksy stories and oral history, all of it exonerating to the whites. This would have been between 1926 and 1940, over seventy years after the civil war.

        The whites really were THAT delusional.

    • “Please don’t confuse editorial opinion with facts.”

      Editorial opinion may reflect widespread belief (sometimes in defiance of facts) and also influences the beliefs of the readers (without regard to facts). Before there was Bill O’Reilly or Rachael Maddow there was William Randolph Hearst and Robert Rhett.

    • So you’re saying that it’s not really true that white people will die if they try to perform agricultural labor?

  5. I believe that this thought shows exactly how complicated the “slavery” component of the war was. It does not really prove much more than that as he is just one man with a perception. Frankly, he puts a good light on how he sees slavery being like a marriage…an extension of his family even. He speaks of the slave as men…who god has ordained him to look after and vice versa as they cultivate the land when he cannot! This is a great quotation if you truly want to deal with “slavery” in an intelligent way.

    It is unfortunate however that it shows how entrenched some were on the issue. They could not see that slavery ending did not mean these people would work the land for a wage. I often wonder if the Union had offerred to buy every slaves freedom what the answer would have been.

    There is no way to “judge” the past. Your best practice would be to understand it instead. This man felt strongly about what he wrote. There is truth in that and much to be learned from his testimony from historians without a modern political agenda.

    • It does not really prove much more than that as he is just one man with a perception.

      It is certainly one man’s perception, but it expresses views that were quite common among the slaveholding South going back decades.

      There is no way to “judge” the past.

      We do all the time. Isn’t this why we erect monuments?

      • Any historian that is looking to remove monuments that have been culturally acceptable for over 50 to 100 years is a dishonor to the profession.

        These monuments were put in place to honor the struggle of those who fought. These monuments also helped heal the division of North vs South as they allowed the locals to see their hero’s included as honored veterans of the Country they lived. This inclusion helped seal the country back together again. They are not “passing judgement.”

        I do not believe that the concept of slavery is understood by many. This is the true root of the problem some have with our history in the USA. It would be far better to search for ways to explain the institution than to vilify it and lynch statues by a mob.

        Please know that This excerpt shows that thought. That slavery was Gods mercy to many who would otherwise been killed. It was not “supremacy” but an alternative to genocide where as both parties could survive.

        I love the except you posted but your intentions are in the wrong place. This passage does nothing more than support the claim that this war was a complex problem….and was not a race war.

        • I do not believe that the concept of slavery is understood by many.

          Right. And I am sure if asked you would be happy to explain it to all of us. LOL

  6. I’m particularly fascinated by the repeated use of the term “infidel” which I don’t think I’ve ever seen used before in the Civil War era.

    • “Infidel” actually occurs a lot in right-wing responses to reform movements in the US in the 19th century. Antislavery and the women’s movement, to name only two, posed a threat to the patriarchy cubed that was the Southern social system, and infidelity was a common accusation. It seems to mean “not my kind of Christian”, rather than “atheist”, “Jew” or “Muslim”, an accusation easier to throw around when several Protestant denominations split over slavery in the 1840s and 1850s.

    • I have seen it used repeatedly, as well as terms like “martyr” and “holy.” I find the use of such words very telling, and quite inconvenient for some.

  7. I’m sure that’s the mainstream view in the Confederacy, but there are also quoted southern newspaper editorials to the effect that if slavery was in the way of achieving southern independence it should be abolished forthwith. Were these outlying opinions, or had 4 years of fighting produced a Confederate nationalism independent of the Confederacy’s founding principle? The line “is it for human aid and foreign help we sigh? ” in the editorial may be an answer to the delusional claim that Britain and France would come to the aid of the Confederacy if only it were not for slavery. So did this claim have many believers?

    • See Bruce Levine’s excellent book, Confederate Emancipation, which offers lots of evidence.

    • I have pondered this as well. I believe the answer is no, there wasn’t a Confederate nationalism independent of slavery. The CSA had its chance for 4 years. But they didn’t take it. Individuals ideas and commitment varied of course, but as an political entity, no.

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