Did the Civil War cause itself?

A recent guest post by Douglas Harper at Old Virginia Blog challenges the notions “that the Southern Confederacy was a nation based on, and fighting for, slavery,” and that “the Civil War was ‘about’ slavery.”  The Upper South, as he notes, “was willing to stay, till it saw the course of the Lincoln Administration with regard to force, not to slavery.”  In other words, Union coercion of the Deep South is what drove the Upper South out of the Union, so slavery wasn’t the only factor.  The Upper South left after Ft. Sumter and Lincoln’s call for troops.

It seems to me that this argument is missing something.  Harper quite rightly draws our attention to the role of Lincoln’s call for troops in convincing the Upper South to secede.  He reminds us that there were different periods of secession—before the outbreak of war, and then again after.  And therein lies the problem.  When Lincoln called up volunteers to defeat the rebellion, it marked the outbreak of war.  If the war had already started, then we’re no longer talking about causes of the war.  We’re talking about the Upper South’s decision to secede, which came after the war was already a going concern.  This line of thought adds another layer to the issue of secession, but not to the causes of the war, which came about as a result of previous secession movements that had already taken place.

It’s sort of like the case of a woman who spends too much time in the tanning bed and develops skin cancer as a result.  The cancer spreads to her internal organs, and the doctor tells her, “Well, Mrs. Jones, your tanning habit has finally caused you to develop cancer inside your body.” 

She replies, “Don’t give me that nonsense.  It was the skin cancer spreading that did that.”  In the same way, explaining secession and the war by looking at the Upper South’s withdrawal seems to be an argument that secession and the war caused themselves.

The original Confederate states in the Deep South didn’t need Ft. Sumter or Lincoln’s call for volunteers to convince them to leave the Union.  They seceded on the election of Abraham Lincoln—the first president from a party made up of a coalition to stop the spread of slavery.  The issue of the Upper South’s secession still leaves this matter of the Deep South open, and therefore it doesn’t really address the causes of the actual shooting war.  We’re still left with the original Confederacy and the role of slavery in their decision to secede.

Mr. Harper offers what looks like a persuasive challenge to the role of slavery in decision-making: “And if you insist that every slave-holder, or slave-holding state, must make choices solely on the basis of interest in slavery, then I will argue that the Border State [sic] that remained in the Union did so to protect their slaves. Why else would slaveholders fight for the Union?”

But who’s arguing that every slave-holder, or slave-holding state, made every decision solely on the basis of an interest in slavery?  We’re talking about a single (but momentous) decision on the part of the original Confederate States to withdraw from the U.S., and the contention of most historians is that a desire to safeguard the institution of slavery was the primary cause. 

Mr. Harper also argues that, from a rational point of view, the Upper South’s slaves should have led these states to remain in the Union, not secede from it:

Virginia, Tennessee, even North Carolina, with a hostile anti-slavery United States on their frontier, could never hope to maintain slavery as a viable economic and social institution. Their pre-war complaints about fugitives prove they knew it. The mere presence of ‘free’ states nearby in the 1850s exerted an economic pressure that was rapidly draining slavery out of the Border States.

All excellent points, all reasonably argued.  But, as historians like Bernard Bailyn and Richard Hofstadter have demonstrated, political decisions aren’t made solely on the basis of reason.  Mr. Harper draws an analogy to the American colonies: “What moved the colonists to break the ties with the ‘mother country?’ Taxes? Tea?”  In a sense, yes.  These were the issues at hand.  And on the face of it, they seem minor.  But they’re not as minor when your prevailing political rhetoric leads you to see them as conspiracies by government officials who are bent on expanding their own power and enslaving you.  This was, in fact, what American colonists thought was happening.  The problem wasn’t the nature of the immediate issue at hand, but the colonists’ interpretation of the issue, and England’s response.

In the same way, there was more than cold, rational, political calculation at work when the Deep South seceded.  And so even while Lincoln was repeatedly assuring the Deep South that he had no intention to take away their human property, many southerners argued that Lincoln was out to do exactly that, and to implement racial equality in the bargain.  Reams of secession-era speeches, letters, essays, editorials, articles, and other material invoke these convictions.  Mr. Harper isn’t very fond of this sort of evidence, arguing that it denotes laziness in research.  It allows the historian to assemble “a hatful of quotes and you’re done. The Confederate leaders and documents supply them in abundance.”  This strikes me as a little odd.  If you can’t use contemporary sentiments to get a sense of what people were thinking, what in the world can you use?  Harper, in fact, employs a number of quotes in the post, and also cites Republicans’ “private correspondence.”

Drawing attention to the role of the war’s outbreak in convincing the Upper South to secede is a worthwhile endeavor.  But it still leaves an important question unanswered.  Why was there a Confederacy in place for the Upper South to join?

(Broadside from Armed Forces History, Division of History of Technology, National Museum of American History)



Filed under Civil War

12 responses to “Did the Civil War cause itself?

  1. Thanks for a thoughtful read and a serious response. Actually, it wasn’t a guest post as much as an old Web page that the blogger asked permission to reprint. My intent in writing it was to chip away at a simplistic and monolithic modern view of the South in the war that seems to prevail in many quarters.

    You’re definitely on the mark in proposing irrational factors as motives for political choices. The South in 1860 could be a textbook case of that. In fact, the whole Civil War is probably incomprehensible without a central place for “honor.”

    The North, rabidly anti-black and contemptuous of the runaway slaves that seeped into its cities and raised the crime rate, nonetheless irrationally resisted the Fugitive Slave Laws from the 1830s through the 1850s, and risked open conflict with the South to protect its legal institutions from being forced to participate in slave recaptures. What but honor motivated that? And the South felt its honor taunted and reviled constantly by the Northern abolitionist politicians. What was the whole Civil War but the Brooks-Sumner caning incident writ large?

    Nonetheless, the Southern leaders did have constructed, rational explanations for what they were trying to do. The challenge is, they had more than one. The one they used to whip up crowds, unify the public, or shake out volunteers or support for the cause is not necessarily the place to look for their more reasoned and coherent arguments. Yet that’s what people often do. It’s also one reason I think private correspondence may be more enlightening than stump speeches or public letters.

    As for the connection between secession and war, I don’t think that’s been explored enough in recent history. Secession did not have to lead to war. Really, in the context of this post, there are three questions: Why Deep South secession? Why war? Why Upper South secession? They all tend to get rolled into one answer, which I think is unjust.

  2. mlynchhistory

    Thank you both for your stimulating original piece and your comment. I think you’ve raised some excellent points. I would, however, tend to think that if proponents of secession could use slavery as a tool to whip up crowds and get people behind the Confederacy, then that would indicate that a lot of people in the South must have had some kind of stake in the institution.

    But I would also agree with you that it’s important to distinguish between the motives for secession and the motives for going to war, especially when it comes to soldiers’ motives for enlisting. I’d attribute the Deep South’s secession to a desire to protect slavery, the war to each side’s refusal to either acknowledge or renounce Confederate independence, and the Upper South’s secession to (as you’ve argued) the outbreak of a sectional war.


  3. The problem with Harper’s piece is that it sets up a straw man argument. It may be the case the general public has a tendency to oversimplify the factors that led to secession in the Deep South and Upper South, but there is an incredibly rich historiography that the author seems completely unaware of.

    I highly recommend that the author take some time to read some of this literature, including Daniel Crofts _Reluctant Confederates_ and William Freehling’s _The South v. The South_. Perhaps the author has already done so; unfortunately, the complexity of this issue is not reflected in the essay.

  4. mlynchhistory

    Thanks for the comment, Kevin. I’d agree with you that many ACW historians aren’t as eager to paint the South with a broad brush as their critics sometimes argue.


  5. This “essay” was part of a book-length series of writings on the topic. Many of them dealt specifically with historiography. This one did not.

    Certainly there is a tendency among historians to promote the complexity and divisions in the white South. (The complex and divided North seems somewhat less interesting to them.) The idea of the diverse and conflicted South tended to be used to delegitimatize Southern nationalism and explain Southern defeat.

    “Reluctant Confederates” and “The South v. The South” are not the only books on the topic, nor are they the most recent statements on it.

    If something is a general view among the majority of the public, how can it also be a straw man?

  6. Callimachus,

    You said: “(The complex and divided North seems somewhat less interesting to them.) The idea of the diverse and conflicted South tended to be used to delegitimatize Southern nationalism and explain Southern defeat.”

    Who is this “them” that you refer to? Provide names and specific titles. No one that I’ve read who concludes that the South was divided does so to “delegitimize” anything. Again, who are these historians that you have in mind?

    Of course the books that I cited are not the only two. I could go on for hours. Freehling’s book was published a few years ago so I would very much consider it a very relevant study since historians are currently engaged in responding to his argument.

    The argument is a straw man in the sense that it paints historians as subscribing to a view that cannot be substantiated. You set the terms of the analysis and then you go ahead and knock it down, while those of us who are familiar with the relevant literature sit back and chuckle.

  7. callimachus

    You presume I am arguing with historians. Please show me where I said I am doing that.

    The notion that the Southern Confederacy had no legitimacy other than as a defense of slavery arose, it seems to me, in the political arena, not the academic one. Its rise as a meme tracks with the controversy over Confederate emblems on state flags, in the mid-1990s. It is a political argument, not a historical one, but the argument has roots in the works of academic historians and those works often are cited to justify it.

    And in fact the period of the 1980s especially is full of writings by academic historians on the South that place heavy emphasis on slavery, racism, and Southern lack of will.

    The reader merely searching for a political weapon will grasp that and wield it. Not realizing, probably, that historians are having a dialogue with their elders. And that the emphasis on slavery and Southern rascality in these works is very much a deliberate response to the historians’ perceptions that their forebears in the profession had paid too scant attention to the lives and realities of blacks and marginal white populations and had paid too much credit to notions such as Southern honor and the Lost Cause.

    That is not my sentiment, by the way. It’s explicit in the essays of MacPherson, the Genoveses, etc., and various addresses of presidents of the major U.S. professional historical associations.

    So the historical works have to be brought up and discussed in the context of addressing the entirety of the argument. But they are not the object of the argument.

    Since you’re so fond of throwing the library at someone and insist they read all that before they’re worthy to talk to you, here’s one back at you: “That Noble Dream” by Peter Novick.

  8. Thanks for the Novick reference, which is a fine study of the history of how historians have grappled with the concept of objectivity. Back to your response:

    You said: “However, the modern prevailing view is that the Southern Confederacy was a nation based on, and fighting for, slavery. This view allows no other reason for secession, and thus equates Confederate heritage with racism and slavery.”

    Of course, you do not single out historians in this reference, though Williams does with his usual style: “Mr. Harper’s piece, very succinctly, destroys some common notions which are widely popular and promoted in some academic circles about the war. His approach is objective and refreshing.” I have no idea what “objective” or “refreshing” are supposed to mean here, but it would be nice if you could clarify just who you are referring to when you re: to a “modern prevailing view.” Have historians emphasized the importance and role of slavery within the different regions of the South throughout the antebellum years and before? Yes. Have they analyzed its role in the secession crisis? Yes. Have they analyzed it in terms of a motivating factor for the men in the ranks? Yes.

    Will someone please tell me what is wrong with doing history? Both McPherson and Genovese have contributed quite a bit on these and other issues. They have offered a much needed corrective to aspects of the Lost Cause. Historical interpretation is always evolving. There is nothing nefarious in what they have done.

  9. You’re still not getting it and this is a waste of time. I have been unable to lead you to see the difference between a popular perception and an academic discourse.

    If you don’t accept that a great many people WHO ARE NOT HISTORIANS will argue vigorously that “the Southern Confederacy was a nation based on, and fighting for, slavery,” I suggest you don’t get around enough. Especially online. You can turn almost any corner on Civil War topics and fall into that fight.

    It is principally a position of non-historians, as far as I can tell, but they keep their references close to hand, and they tend to be of the generation of historians writing about the Civil War in the later 20th century: Bell Wiley, Stephen Hahn, “Why the South Lost the Civil War,” sometimes they even reach back to badly misunderstoood readings of Ella Lonn and Albert Moore.

    Other historians, such as Gary Gallagher, Mark Weitz, Kevin Conley Ruffner, and the indispensible Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, have more recently rolled back some of the excesses. But the view of the illegitimate “it was all about slavery” confederacy has become wedded to popular political issues.

    And it seems to me the works of historians are being used well out of context and with little real understanding. And that historians have not objected to this. Probably because a great many of them are on the same side in most of the sorts of political conflict where the issue comes up.

    Is there any major modern U.S. Civil War historian, other than Clyde Wilson, who would argue in public that the secession was anything but a desperate bid to protect slavery?

    Whoever said there was anything “nefarious” about the craft of doing history? Probably the same person who said I was making straw man arguments without understanding the argument being made. There seems to be a reading for comprehension problem here. I hope you do better with your other sources. Good luck.

  10. Well, you are right that people who are unfamiliar with serious scholarship say all sorts of crazy things about the Civil War. I guess I do need to get around more.

    I wonder if you could give me an example of a historian’s work that is being taken out of context on this issue. Perhaps it will help me to understand your point. As for your question about Clyde Wilson being the only serious historian who understands the complexity of the Confederate experience I could provide you with a very long list of names. You actually cited a few in your last comment.

    Sorry about not getting your point. Unfortunately, I am a bit slow. I very much appreciate the four or five sources that you included in your essay to elucidate such a complex issue.

  11. Jim

    Callimachus makes excellent points in his argument that slavery is a naively overused explanation for motivating the white South and the Confederacy to go to war. Some influential politicians in power and able to maintain existing US policy and explicit Constitutional contracts on real property were a cross-section of parts of the South. The remaining governments chose to stand by their sister states in order to resist the aggression of invasion, and this latter reason became the battle cry of the common southern citizen soldier.

    Callimachus should give Kevin some specific examples as my experience with Kevin has seen him either balk or completely ignore a contradictory source. An example of this would be the time I recently gave Kevin Levin the following American University professor information:

    Black Confederates, contact Dr. Edward Smith, American University, 4400 Massachusetts Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20016

    Edward Smith has documented liberal revisionist historians taboo, the black Confederate. Contacting him at the above address should result in full documentation of black Confederates. Unsurprisingly, Kevin, an unrepentent anti-southern revisionist, chose to ignore the source. http://www.american.edu/cas/faculty/esmith.cfm

  12. mlynchhistory


    I don’t think it’s fair to say that Kevin ignores contradictory sources. In fact, I think he often goes to quite a bit of trouble in debating the subjects he brings up. Not too long ago, he devoted a couple of posts to a painstaking analysis of the records of one alleged black Confederate soldier. That’s not ignoring a source. It’s taking sources as seriously as possible. You might not agree with someone’s analysis of evidence, but that doesn’t mean that person is dismissing it.

    I also don’t think Kevin is “anti-southern.” Making a particular argument about the causes of secession or the racial composition of the Confederate army doesn’t mean one has an anti-southern bias. Personally, I was born and raised in a southern state, I love the South, I wouldn’t live anywhere else, and I have a great deal of admiration for many of the South’s historical figures, but I also happen to see a vital causal link between slavery and secession.

    I still maintain that a lot of secessionists were pretty explicit about the role of slavery in their decision to leave the Union, although I’d agree with you that the motivations of Confederate soldiers were often distinct from those of the political leadership.

    I appreciate your stopping by and taking the time to comment.


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