A Civil War Historian’s Talking Points

Yesterday historian Aaron Astor posted a list of talking points on his Facebook page that he utilizes when discussing the Civil War with the general public. It is well worth reading in its entirety and I thank Aaron for permission to publish it on my blog.

I want to push back a little bit on #11. Certainly we need to understand the spectrum of motivations that propelled men into the Confederate army, but this is often brought up by people who want to disconnect the army from the broader goals of the Confederacy entirely. I remind audiences that Confederate soldiers functioned as the military arm of a government committed to protecting slavery. In that sense they all fought to protect slavery. Every victory brought them one step closer to achieving that goal. I find it helpful to reference the rounding up of fugitive slaves during the Gettysburg campaign or how the Emancipation Proclamation and the presence of black Union soldiers on the clarified what was at stake for the men in the army.

I speak and write regularly about the causes of the American Civil War, to both academic and popular audiences. Engaging with different people who hold different assumptions about the Civil War and its legacies today has forced me to develop a set of priming points that I use to begin the conversation. Here are some of the key ones. If you find them useful, feel free to share them.

1. People in the 19th century thought about the world differently than we do today. This is especially true for matters of race, slavery, labor, freedom, economic class, gender and citizenship. We need to understand what people back then thought and avoid the temptation to impose our 21st century values upon 19th century people.

2. People in the past did not know how their stories would end. They made choices they did based on what they valued, what they knew at the time, what they were able to do, and what they hoped or feared would happen. We should respect the drama of their uncertainty as we evaluate their actions.

3. Just as we cannot impose 21st century values back into the 19th century, we cannot and should not teleport our ancestors of the 19th century into our own time. Our ancestors certainly passed down cultural baggage to the following generations and thenceforward through the decades on to us. But that does not mean we should be defined today by plucking people out of the past and using them to make us good or bad people today.

4. If we wish to honor our ancestors, the best way to do so is to learn about them and their lives, their worlds, their hopes and fears, and in their own historical contexts. If we wish to draw inspiration from them, we should look at how they confronted or transcended their own times.

5. Getting to the causes of the Civil War now, we need to think about HOW 19th century white Americans argued about slavery and how those arguments came to dominate politics. That means looking beyond the purely moral arguments advanced by abolitionists, white and black, most of which were bitterly rejected across the North. Those arguments were certainly critical to advancing the anti-slavery cause, but we must be careful not to assume that those who opposed slavery in 1860 agreed with Frederick Douglass or William Lloyd Garrison that slavery should be immediately abolished.

6. There is what I like to call the “Northern myth” of the Civil War: that ordinary white Northerners opposed slavery because they believed in racial equality. (And as evidence, every Northern town has a station stop on the Underground Railroad supposedly run by some important white family). The reality is that this view was held by a tiny, though vocal and active minority. Far more important to antislavery as a political position was the view held by men like David Wilmot of Pennsylvania, who said, “I have no squeamish sensitiveness upon the subject of slavery, nor morbid sympathy for the slave. I plead the cause of the rights of white freemen.” He, and the majority of white Northerners who came to oppose slavery and consequently voted for the Republican Party in 1860 did so because they thought slavery was bad for whites. Yes, they thought slavery was bad in the abstract too – Lincoln spoke of the right of a man to the “bread he has earned with the sweat of his brow.” But what animated white antislavery thought was the damage slavery did to white Northerners, not what it did to black Southerners (or black Northerners).

7. White Northerners developed an ideological opposition to slavery as a social and economic system that they felt encouraged laziness, inefficiency, aristocracy, haughty arrogance and entitlement. The presence of slavery meant that labor was to be viewed as a curse. Two direct consequences came from this: slaveholders would occupy the best lands in Kansas and crowd out good white Northern farmers who wanted free soil to labor upon freely. Thus the slavery extension question was critical. Another problem white Northerners identified was the tendency of slaveholders to violate the rights of free speech, freedom of conscience and religion, and freedom to petition in the North. No matter how much ordinary white Northerners disliked abolitionists in their midst, they bitterly resented Southerners’ insistence that Northerners become slave catchers under the 1850 Federal Fugitive Slave Act, or abstain from peacefully agitating on matters of conscience. They felt that the “Slave Power Conspiracy” was violating the rights of free white Northerners.

8. Turning to what I call the great “Southern myth,” we need to think about what the majority of white Southerners who did not own slaves thought about slavery. While there were free soil-style objections (and occasional outright abolitionist) sentiments among white Southerners in the early 19th century, by the 1840s and 1850s very few white Southerners expressed anything like opposition to slavery as a whole. They might bitterly resent the planter class. But if they publicly rejected the slave system, on either moral (like John Fee of Kentucky) or economic (like Hinton Rowan Helper of North Carolina) grounds, they were hounded out as dangerous traitors. Non-slaveholding whites supported slavery because it shielded them from falling into the true bottom of the social order (Herrenvolk Democracy), buttressed the entire economic order (slaves as labor and as valuable chattel property), provided employment as overseers, and prevented the prospect of a Haiti-style violent insurrection. Slaveholders absolutely dominated the political system, both regionally and nationally in the 1850s, and non-slaveholders looked to them for assistance in bad harvests, or aspired to join them and become slaveholders. While not every white person objectively benefited from or defended slavery equally, the vast, vast majority of non-slaveholding white Southerners viewed the prospect of abolition with horror. Note here that even in East Tennessee, future Unionists like Andrew Johnson and William Parson Brownlow vigorously defended slavery right up through 1860.

9. Turning now to the Civil War itself, the immediate turn to war in April 1861 had to do with preserving the Union. Remember that seven Deep South states (SC, MS, AL, LA, FL, GA and TX) seceded after Lincoln’s election. Eight other slave states rejected secession at that time. Only after Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s troop call-up did four Upper South states (VA, NC, AR and TN) join the Confederacy. Four remaining border slave states (MO, KY, MD and DE) remained in the Union. Preserving the Union militarily helped convinced the second tier states to secede. But as Lincoln pointed out in his First Inaugural, to fail to keep the Union intact at that point would have meant the death of the experiment of self-government (something European autocrats celebrated) and the likely disintegration of what remained of the Union. Lincoln termed secession a kind of breach of contract, wherein both sides never agreed together to allow for secession. National self-preservation is always the first task of any government. One can argue against these claims today and many did so back then. But the logic of the war-for-Union argument was compelling and obvious. Just as the American colonies did not expect to be allowed to break from Great Britain peacefully, neither did the secessionists believe the Union would really let the Southern states go peacefully. The secessionists figured a war would come. They just thought they would win that war.

10. Secessionists were clear about why they seceded upon Lincoln’s election. They felt the Republican Party would not defend slavery in the territories, would not crack down against future John Browns, would create an anti-slavery party within the less-enslaved parts of the South, and would turn foreign policy toward anti-slavery. Slavery was stronger than ever in 1860. Secession was an act of overconfidence. And secession, as the multiple ordinances and declarations of causes showed, was designed explicitly to protect slavery and white supremacy.

11. Finally, individuals who joined the Confederate (or Union) army had multiple reasons for doing so. But if we are talking about the causes of the Civil War, we must look to the causes of secession and the reason the antislavery Republican Party emerged victorious in the 1860 election.

6 comments… add one
  • Thanks for posting this; it’s very interesting and looks likely to prompt thoughtful discussion.

    Point 8 is very good in general, but I would add something I first saw Ta-Nehisi Coates write: that slavery and white supremacy so permeated the Southern politcal, economic and social systems that they would be hard to avoid, even if one personally objected to them.

    “Secession was an act of overconfidence” (point 10) seems like an overstatement when considering that Lincoln’s election was the first serious crack in the slave power’s hold on the federal government. I had always seen secession as an act of panic, and as the inevitable outcome of 30 years of white Southern threats to take their ball and go home. If you repeatedly threaten, one day you will have to do. I like Andy Hall’s summary – first they lost an election and then they lost their minds – but would like to see a deeper analysis.

    I agree with Kevin that point 11 lacks nuance, and would argue that point 1 does, too:
    “People in the 19th century thought about the world differently than we do today.”
    I would say that the differences consist more in the prevalence than the presence of different ideas about “race, slavery, labor, freedom, economic class, gender and citizenship”. The views of Douglass, Garrison, Lucretia Mott, the Grimké sisters and Susan B. Anthony are much more widely held today, while those of, say, Roger Taney, Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee still persist, more widely than I wish but less widely than in the 19th century.

  • In re:#11, we shouldn’t talk about “multiple reasons” and “a spectrum” as if the different reasons or different points on the spectrum represent “slavery” and “not slavery” that we might pick and choose from. As you mention above, making connections to the capture of runaways and reaction to the EP is the right way to connect military service specifically with a proslavery agenda, but we need to do better in other areas…. namely, how did pre-enlistment southern men make the connection between the perceived abolitionist threat and their senses of family, faith, and social order–connections not contingent on slaveowning status. Claiming that southerners (regardless of slaveowning status) enlisted to defend family from invaders is the same thing as saying southerners enlisted to defend a racial order that they perceived protected their families from a military they understood would destroy that order and the murderous chaos they predicted would result. In that way, I think, saying that they really did believe they were fighting for home and hearth is not distancing them from the cause of slavery at all.

  • I want to push back a little on #1. It is true, and important to remember, that moral attitudes towards race and slavery were very different in the 19th century – *among white people*. But to pay substantial deference to this point of view is to ignore the sentiments and morals and values of 40% of the population of the Confederate states.

    The white-centric moral relativity argument may be useful for understanding the political climate which produced the Civil War. It is much less useful as a vehicle to excuse or minimize the moral failings of those who so furiously defended white supremacy and the institution of slavery. I, for one, have no problem judging the moral character of my slave-owning or Confederate-fighting ancestors quite harshly.

  • I would push back a bit on #8: There may not have been large numbers of Southerners who opposed slavery openly, but there were many who opposed secession and fought on the side of the Union.
    And on #9, it’s true that Maryland was a slave state that remained in the Union, but it wasn’t exactly… voluntary, much less a consensus. See: the Maryland state song.

  • I am reminded of this exchange:

    Göring: Why, of course, the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.

    Gilbert: There is one difference. In a democracy, the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.

    Göring: Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.

  • Regarding #1. Lately, I have noticed some pushback from others – some academic, some not — who ask the question: Are we to assume that they were deaf, dumb, and blind — that they did not know better that they themselves abhor to be treated as an animal, such as slaves were treated? The see-saw of this dilemma of how we view “them” confuses me at times, as I read big, bold headlines that “Lee Was a Slaveholder!”, and the expected condemnation that follows, however, would that not violate #1? My conundrum is how far do we allow #1 to excuse what are viewed a moral transgressions, today?


Leave a Comment