Race Still Central to American’s Lack of Understanding of Our Civil War


As the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War continues through its second year, commemorating the events of 1861 a century-and-a half ago, too many Americans still do not know nor understand that slavery and racial supremacy were the root cause of it.

A CNN Poll taken in April of 2011 showed that forty-two percent of Americans still see the battle over state’s rights as having been the cause. That it was slavery and white supremacy is a distinctly minority viewpoint both statistically and demographically. Of course the war was fought to preserve the Union and end a rebellion against the government of the United States of America. But that alone would not have been sufficient to bring on that war.

That there was a rebellion against the government was clear at the time as General Oliver O. Howard would write at its end:

“In the early part of 1861 the true citizen heard that traitors at Washington had formed a conspiracy to overthrow the Government, and soon after that the Stars and Stripes had been fired upon and had been hauled down at the bidding of an armed enemy in South Carolina: that the capital of the nation was threatened, and that our new President had called for help.”

So the immediate question was treason and defense of the government of the United States of America. But why had that been necessary?

Abraham Lincoln had stated the question clearly in both his Cooper Union speech prior to his election in 1860 and in his First Innaugural:

“One section of our country believes slavery is RIGHT, and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is WRONG, and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute.”

Stephen F. Hale a Commissioner of the secessionists in his own state of Alabama wrote a letter of introduction to the Governor of Kentucky Beriah Magoffin in December of 1860 urging that State to leave the Union. He made it clear what was at stake:

“Will the South give up the institution of slavery , and consent that her citizens be stripped of their property, her civilization destroyed, the whole land laid waste by fire and sword? it is impossible. She cannot: she will not.”

Hale also told the Governor of Kentucky that the mere election of Lincoln would also include “all the horrors of a San Domingo servile insurrection, consigning her citizens to assassinations and her wives and daughters to pollution and violation to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans.”

In leaving the Union the State of Mississippi did not even couch its language in euphemism but stated openly that its “position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery–the greatest material interest of the world.”

The following main events in the years leading up to the war and what they were about is as follows:

Missouri Compromise of 1820: Missouri a slave state and Maine a free state and the drawing of the line to westward along the Southern Boundary of Missouri where above that line slavery was not permitted and below it slavery was permitted.

Great Comprise of 1850: Six laws that helped compromise over the slavery issue, including a Fugitive Slave Act.

Harriet Beecher Stowe: Uncle Tom’s Cabin This book is all about the evils of slavery not the evils or legality of secession or states’ rights.

Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 repealed the Missouri Compromise and permitted Federal territories like Kansas and Nebraska and others that might emerge to decide for themselves via popular sovereignty if they were to have slavery or not. It did lend support to states’ rights but the question was where slavery would be lawful and exist out West and where it would not.

Kansas Violence: The issue was slavery and violence erupted between pro-slavery men and anti-slavery people in Lawrence Kansas which was attacked and burned.

Charles Sumner’s Beating on the Floor of the Senate: Sumner had just made two fiery speeches against slavery and named people associated with perpetuating it. He did NOT focus his attack on state’s rights or secession.

Dred Scott vs. Sanford March 6, 1857: The landmark Supreme Court ruling did not definitively rule on secession or state’s rights at all but denied the Federal Government the ability to limit slavery in the territories, and state that blacks were not citizens of the United States whether slave or free, and declared “the right of property in a slave is expressly affirmed by the Constitution.” Note the emphasis on slavery and race.

John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry: October 1859: Brown hoped to free thousands upon thousands of slaves and destroy slavery. He did not seek to attack state’s rights or secession.

It begins to become apparent that slavery and its ties to making slaves out of people of color were the primary concerns that fueled so much sectional tension prior to the war. State’s rights was a means to protect slavery and secession a means to avoid having to address the issue when a political party won a constitutional majority in a fair and free election. The reaction was to attempt to destroy that government and institute a new one.

Now, in the Twenty-first century we ought to be able to see that state’s rights and secession were not the causes of the war but the means to cover up the centrality of slavery and race to that war. But a significant number of Americans, almost entirely white, and heavily concentrated in the South and in a most cruel irony, other Red States dominated by the Republican party and more conservative have more trouble seeing this.

Our view of an event a century-and-a-half ago tells us a great deal about why we fail to see vital connections between race and who is poor or oppressed in the nation today, who we are more likely to jail, who we view as foreigners or dangerous “illegals”, who we are more likely to grant the plums of power and opportunity to. Yes, we do have a black president and we have made extensive progress on race relations. But we all know that something still is has not yet been put right.

As for the Civil War, Historian and President of Harvard University Drew Gilpin Faust summarized this insight in speaking of a daring book by Historian and Civil Rights Activist Alan T. Nolan. In her review of that book, Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History she wrote of Alan T. Nolan’s vital idea:

“so long as we as a nation insist on explaining away the Civil War by reassuring ourselves that both sides were right, we cannot overcome the legacy of slavery, we fail, Mr. Nolan contends, to embrace the cause of freedom that can serve as the only legitimate justification for the death of more than 600,00 Americans.”

It is argued here that both sides were not morally right. While the Union only imperfectly embraced emancipation and equality for African-Americans, the unalterable fact of history is that they did so. Victory for the United States of America over the Confederacy, a nation committed to maintaining human slavery and the racial supremacy of the white race, would mean freedom for the slaves and moving the question of what that freedom should mean right to center stage in the national debate.

Without human slavery and the bedrock contradiction of a nation that declares “all men are created equal” there would have been no American Civil War. State’s rights and secession would not have been sufficient to motivate states to secede and try to break up the United States government in an armed rebellion.

While all Americans share the heritage of the American Civil War and there are heroes and heroines from both the Northern and Southern sections of the country black as well as white, until all Americans fully embrace the idea that slavery and white supremacy were at the crux of the matter in our Civil War we will continue to have difficulty in dealing with racial issues in present day America. And the full meaning and realization of freedom and liberty for all our people will continue to elude us.

In a book from Moving Train Books LLC due out this fall, Thomas Martin Sobottke explores this question in-depth. Struggles For Justice will further publicize publication when it occurs later this year. To learn more you may go to:

tomsobottke.com or movingtrainbooks.com

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One thought on “Race Still Central to American’s Lack of Understanding of Our Civil War

  1. IT WAS ABOUT HUMAN BONDAGE AND WHITE SUPREMACY PERIOD! Although to their credit many of the Confederate generals were fighting for their home states rather than the “peculair institution” it was about slavery and control plain and simple!! And the insurrection that followed the seccesion was a direct result of that ideology and that plagued and corrupted system

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