The Real Reasons for the Civil War

Article by Kirkpatrick Sale.

It was not formally or informally, in the minds of either the Union armies or their civilian instigators, a war about slavery.

The great myth that the Union was fighting for a high moral cause, the elimination of chattel slavery and freedom for four million oppressed people torn from Africa, was ultimately a very convenient falsehood that served Northern ends later on in the war, particularly in distorting world opinion so that neither England nor France, though they might have had some allegiance to the cause of independence, were able to take the side of the Confederacy. But even then, the ultimate welfare of black Americans and their peaceful economic and social integration into white American society was never, but to a tiny few – and certainly not to Lincoln or his government – a moral (or even political) principle even thought much less expressed. The deep racism of the American North, though the victors would try to go on to forget it, was as dark a stigma against the Union as anything it would project on the South.

And the Emancipation Proclamation? Well, in the first place, it had nothing to do with slavery, per se. It did not abolish slavery. It decreed that slaves in the Confederacy only were to be free, but not those elsewhere in the Union or the territories (Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri all had slavery, as well as Washington, D.C., until 1862). It was at bottom a military ploy, hoping to create rebellion and civil unrest on the South’s plantations at a time when the war was not going all that well for the Union. (“It has no constitutional or legal justification, except as a military measure,” its creator acknowledged.) It had no particular moral implications, and it made no provision for how the liberation was to be effected, what would happen to the slaves after they were emancipated, what the slaves would in fact do for a living, or even where they were to go if they left the plantations that had been their home for generations. (They could not, incidentally, go north, because no state there would welcome them and a good many, including Lincoln’s own Illinois, had laws forbidding immigration and settlement of Negroes.) Unlike a number of serious schemes that had been proposed, North and South, before the war, the Proclamation did not deal with necessary issues of compensation for deprived slave-owners, integration of ex-slaves politically or economically into white societies, or even for their deportation to Africa, an idea that Lincoln in particular had favored. It was, in short, a military ploy without moral or humanitarian foundation.

Finally, we should understand that the issue of slavery, strictly, was not the cause of Southern secession or the reason for the war on the Confederate side. The South did not want to protect slavery from a Northern attempt to abolish it, because no such attempt was ever intended or expressed by any serious party, and indeed Congress in 1861 had explicitly defended the continuance of the institution in the South. Nor did the South want to extend slavery into the Western territories, because it was clear it was neither a useful nor a welcome practice there, and besides when it formed the Confederacy it no longer had any constitutional claim to influence in those sections.

What the South wanted was to continue an economic system that it had inherited for 200 years, that had been fostered and maintained by Northern interests (particularly New England shippers and textile barons) that entire time, that had been the foundation of the United States economy both North and South from the beginning of the nation, and that was a way of life now so entrenched no one knew how to alter or ameliorate it even if, like quite a few, they wished to do so. And the South wanted to be free of Northern interference: the continued attempts by abolitionists (as John Brown in 1859) to foster slave rebellions and terrorism in the South, the refusal of Northern states to return illegal runaway slaves (or to return Brown’s companions who had fled North), the threat of increased tariffs on Southern goods, the stated purpose of the new Republican party to expand federal power in the interest of Northern industrialists, and the clear perception that Lincoln had come into office with a hidden agenda of limiting if not eliminating Southern influence on the national scene (he was elected with not a single Southern electoral vote).

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