What Do White Southerners Really Think about the Civil War?

Winthrop University released a poll this week to gauge where Southerners stand on the removal of Confederate monuments and the cause of the Civil War. The results point to a significant shift in regional identification with and memory of the Civil War. Well, sort of.

The poll offers the following assessment of attitudes toward monuments and the Confederate battle flag:

Forty-two percent of Southerners said to leave those memorials alone, while 28% said to add a plaque for context and historical interpretation. Nearly one-fourth want to move the statutes to a museum. Huffmon notes, “All told, 56% want to do something other than simply leave the monuments and statues as they are, but these folks are very divided on what should be done. A strong plurality advocate leaving them as they are.”

 As far as statues honoring leaders and politicians who supported racial segregation, 30% said to leave the statues in public spaces. One-fourth said to add a marker, another fourth said to put them in a museum, while 13% said to remove them. Thirty-seven percent of black respondents said to put them in a museum, while a fourth said to remove them.

On the cause of the Civil War:

Even though the American Civil War ended in 1865, the causes of the war continue to be debated. A fourth of all respondents said it was caused by slavery; 21% said states’ rights; and half said both were equal causes. Thirty percent of black respondents said slavery was the cause, while 58% said both slavery and states’ rights were the cause.

The results fall in line with other recent surveys, but this and other polls obscures what is likely a much more interesting and revealing set of attitudes in the South today.

One of the things I would very much like to see is a poll that tracks generational shifts in Civil War memory. As it stands the Winthrop poll frames this issue along racial lines. We learn what whites and blacks think about Confederate monuments and the flag, but there is every reason to believe that there are significant fault lines specifically among white Southerners.

In addition to salient differences between different generations of white Southerners, we also need to better understand other factors, including:

  • regions within the South
  • urban v. rural
  • education
  • gender
  • recent arrivals v. established families

The larger concern is that the very titles of many of the news articles reporting the Winthrop poll today obscure a much more complicated story. I venture to guess that when most people read a headline that references ‘Southerners’ they immediately think ‘white Southerners.’ Yes, the poll surveys black Southerners, but what about communities, including recent immigrants, that now make this region their home?

Guess what, they are Southerners too.

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48 comments… add one
  • Jon just Jon Aug 2, 2019 @ 9:40

    If we’re going to be technical, the Civil War started because forces of the CSA in South Carolina attacked the United States Army at their outpost at Fort Sumter. Granted, Fort Sumter is clearly in South Carolina territory in Charleston Harbor… but the attack on the fort started the war. The CSA states seceded ONLY to protect their culture of slavery from a growing national and federal desire for emancipation (they could see the writing on the wall.) We could get into the weeds about what is a “cause” and what “led to a cause”, but the facts aren’t disputable. Thank you for the unwavering defense of your assertions Phillip C. Jordan and Kevin.

  • Matt McKeon Dec 28, 2018 @ 20:26

    I moderate one of these discussions(slavery vs. something else as the cause of the Civil War) just about everyday. Currently its either the transcontinental railroad or the industrial revolution. And the Constitution!

    • Kevin Levin Dec 29, 2018 @ 2:33

      It’s nauseating.

  • Phillip C. Jordan Dec 28, 2018 @ 13:56


  • Gerry Dec 27, 2018 @ 7:37

    I think most White Southerners recognize that the war was fought over the right of self-government and political independence, just as White Southerners recognize that these were the same thing the colonists fought for in 1776. I wonder what White Northerners think.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 27, 2018 @ 8:29

      The right of self-government to do what exactly? The population of the South in 1860 was roughly 9 million, half of which was enslaved. Please, explain again this right of self-government.

      • Gerry Dec 27, 2018 @ 11:33

        To do all acts and things that nations may of right do. As for slavery, before you point an accusing finger at someone else, clean up your own mess. Slavery was perfectly legal in the United States, and the war was fought between two slave republics.

        • Kevin Levin Dec 27, 2018 @ 11:50

          What year is this? LOL

        • Phillip C. Jordan Dec 27, 2018 @ 16:13

          Dude, you are waaaay in over your head. Before you presume to debate someone such as Kevin Levin, you might want to at least read a history book. I would suggest starting with anything by James McPerson.

    • Phil Jordsn Dec 27, 2018 @ 8:33

      Did you read the declarations of secession I posted? They ALL reference slavery.

      • Gerry Dec 27, 2018 @ 11:35

        And they all referenced secession too. The difference was that slavery was perfectly legal, but the unionist claimed secession wasn’t. So a war was waged to prevent the confederates was achieving political independence.

        • Kevin Levin Dec 27, 2018 @ 11:50

          Secession to do what?
          Political independence to do what?

          • Gerry Dec 27, 2018 @ 12:02

            Secession and political independence to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, and secure the blessings of liberty to themselves and their posterity (just like the Americans wanted self-government and political independence
            when they seceded from the British Empire in 1776).

        • Phillip C. Jordan Dec 27, 2018 @ 16:17

          Correct. They all basically say that they are seceding in order to preserve slavery (and white supremacy). While it is unquestionably true that the Union’s goal (which is to day the United States’ goal) at the beginning of the war was not to abolish slavery in southern states, it is equally unquestionable that the southern states believed secession was necessary to preserve slavery. Had southern states not seceded to preserve slavery, there would not have been a Civil War. Therefore, the desire of southern states to preserve slavery is THE (not even just “a”) underlying cause of the Civil War.

          • Phillip C. Jordan Dec 27, 2018 @ 16:19

            By “correct” I only mean that you are correct in saying the declarations of secession reference secession — not that you are correct in your other points.

          • Gerry Dec 27, 2018 @ 18:22

            Remarkably, you seem to be deeply offended at the idea of slavery and white supremacy in the CSA, but at the same time, you seem to be utterly unconcerned with slavery and white supremacy in the USA. And had Lincoln simply permitted the CSA to pursue a course of political independence and self-government, there would not have been a war. The war was fought over the right of secession, and nothing else.

            • Kevin Levin Dec 28, 2018 @ 2:54

              …but at the same time, you seem to be utterly unconcerned with slavery and white supremacy in the USA.

              My recommendation is to spend a little more time reading this blog.

              The war was fought over the right of secession, and nothing else.

              Your ignorance of what people actually stated were the reasons for secession is astounding, but not surprising.

              • Richard Dec 29, 2018 @ 21:56

                Why do you keep saying Gerry is wrong? Of course the states seceded due to concerns over slavery, but secession is not war. The war occurred because the North did not want to allow secession, but the North was perfectly willing to allow slavery.

                • Kevin Levin Dec 30, 2018 @ 3:00

                  Gerry isn’t making this decision.

            • Phillip C. Jordan Dec 28, 2018 @ 8:15

              Here, nice and simple: “There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin…”

              Mississippi, Declaration of Secession

              Hard to read this anyway other than as stating that they are seceding to avoid “abolition.”

              And you do know that northern states had already abolished slavery – and that Lincoln ran on a free soil platform… right?

              Now, I am retiring from the field as it is impossible to argue with imaginary, “alternative facts.”

            • Phillip C. Jordan Dec 28, 2018 @ 8:18

              If you don’t want to read a book, you might want to at least check out Wikipedia: ” By 1804 all of the northern states had abolished slavery or had plans in place to gradually reduce it”

              • JJ Dec 28, 2018 @ 12:14

                It seems that you are making his case for him. You reference the Mississippi Declaration of SECESSION, not the Mississippi Declaration of slavery. Slavery was perfectly legal in the United States, and there was absolutely no lawful basis to wage war against a state because of it. I’m afraid he’s right; the war was fought over the right of secession. It had nothing to do with slavery.

                • Kevin Levin Dec 28, 2018 @ 12:28

                  What exactly do the individuals who contributed to the state’s decision to secede have to do for you to believe them? They couldn’t have been any clearer.

  • Jimmy Dick Dec 20, 2018 @ 12:53

    I would like to see age brackets included in the survey. I have a very strong suspicion about what the responses were based on age.

  • Rob Baker Dec 19, 2018 @ 8:11

    I know you’ve written about this before but I cannot find the post – I’m curious how this poll matches up with polls of the past. That might give a little insight into changing mindsets over time.

  • Brenda Louise Withington Stroud Dec 19, 2018 @ 4:21

    Number one problem with these polls on the “southerner” is that so many fail to recognize the complexity of what is a Southerner.

  • Reggie Bartlett Dec 18, 2018 @ 20:32

    Simple. It was a failed war of independence that killed off most of the male population, and the loss stung the Southern psyche for a century afterward.

    But seeing how this blog and Mr. Levin’s twitter loves to paint white southerners as cardboard villains (yes, some of us saw your guffaw at Forrest’s family having the gall to think they have a right to sue over an ancestor’s grave being desecrated) I think this is just another bait post.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 19, 2018 @ 2:38

      I think this is just another bait post.

      Assuming this is true for a second and yet you continue to come back for more. Pretty pathetic if you ask me. 🙂

  • Scott Ledridge Dec 18, 2018 @ 20:05

    I don’t understand including state’s rights as an option. Is it because that’s one of the tired tripes? I’m glad tariffs wasn’t an option. But, “state’s rights” doesn’t explain anything.

    • R. Henry Dec 19, 2018 @ 8:21

      State’s rights is a very vague term. However, the question of whether a state has the right to secede is certainly a state’s right issue. Secession is a central issue causing the war in that it is the issue that both sides were willing to go to war over. I don’t think the North was willing to go to war over slavery itself.

    • Msb Dec 19, 2018 @ 12:11

      I suppose it was included because it’s a primary (white) Southern evasion. The only right that Confederate states wanted to protect was the right to own people. It helps to remember that (white) Southern politicians had demanded and gotten a draconian Federal fugitive slave law in 1850 and then split the Democratic Party (thereby helping to elect Abraham Lincoln) in 1860 over northern Democrats’ rejection of their demands for a federal slave code. Future Confederates were just fine with federal legislation and government when they benefitted from the former and controlled the latter.

    • Andy Hall Dec 20, 2018 @ 15:59

      Scott, I think you meant “tired tropes.” But “tripe” fits, too.

  • Robert Colton Dec 18, 2018 @ 16:59

    The ordinances of secession made it very clear that secession was about slavery. Tariffs and so-called states rights are just excuses to distract from slavery. Also states do not have rights. They have certain powers as designated in the Constituion. All powers federal and state derive from the people.

  • Pat Young Dec 18, 2018 @ 14:40

    The generational info should be available since the poll asked for the age of the respondent. You should ask the pollster for crosstabs or for a breakout by age. Explain your academic interest and Winthrop might do it.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 18, 2018 @ 18:34

      That’s a good idea.

  • Mike Furlan Dec 18, 2018 @ 13:06

    I’m sure most White Southerners would agree if asked that the War was caused by Tariffs. The Lincoln Administration refused to increase tariffs to save American Jobs, and the South had to seceded in order to raise them.

    Did they ask that question?

    • Kevin Levin Dec 18, 2018 @ 13:13

      Yes, I am sure you believe this. 🙂

    • Rob Baker Dec 19, 2018 @ 8:09

      Hi, White Southerner here…

      I wouldn’t agree with that – because it isn’t based in reality. That’s a modern political view and you are projecting it on the past.

    • Phillip C. Jordan Dec 20, 2018 @ 16:16

      Umm… you do know that southern states opposed hgher tariffs… right? Ever hear of the “Tariff of Abominations,” the Nullification Crisis or John C. Calhoun? Might want to google them…

    • Phillip C. Jordan Dec 20, 2018 @ 16:19

      “We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.

      That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights [emphasis in the original]; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations”
      A Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union.

    • Phillip C. Jordan Dec 20, 2018 @ 16:20

      A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union.

      In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.

      Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world…These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin…

    • Phillip C. Jordan Dec 20, 2018 @ 16:31

      Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
      Cornerstone” Speech, Alexander H. Stephens (VP of the Confederacy) March 21, 1861

      • Msb Dec 21, 2018 @ 8:01

        You about finished proving Rob Baker’s point?

        • Phillip C. Jordan Dec 22, 2018 @ 15:58

          Not sure — ask Mike Furlan and other lost causers whether or not they are ready to rejoin historical reality…

          • Msb Dec 26, 2018 @ 8:44

            Secession ordinances clearly cite slavery as central cause. People here already knew that. Nobody here will take your word over the contemporaneous statements of the traitors themselves.

            • Phillip C. Jordan Dec 26, 2018 @ 14:48

              My word about what? I cited the “contemporaneous statements” of the traitors (their declarations of secession) to prove exactly the point you make — that slavery was the central cause of the war.

              I was NOT disagreeing with the article, I was taking issue with the response of “Mike Furlan” who (incorrectly) seems to think the war was caused by “Tariifs” and who even gets that issue wrong by suggesting that the South supported high tariffs…

              Not sure what your point is, as we seem to be in agreement… I would suggest that Mike Furlan and other lost cause believers are the ones with whom you should be arguing… I think you need to read his post to see what I was objecting to. Here is what he wrote: “I’m sure most White Southerners would agree if asked that the War was caused by Tariffs. The Lincoln Administration refused to increase tariffs to save American Jobs, and the South had to seceded in order to raise them.”

              • Msb Jan 3, 2019 @ 9:14

                Oops, aimed my remarks at the wrong person. Sorry!
                “Never mind.”

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