Follow the FreeStater Blog by Email

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Civil War Was About Slavery, Claiming Otherwise is Revisionist Nonsense

I've heard some familiar comments of late, such as "the Civil War wasn't about slavery" or the Confederate Flag isn't a symbol of racism.  So I want to address both claims in this post - sorry for the length.

As to the Civil War, slavery was the central cause of secession, which of course led to war. Look at the secession declarations of SC, GA, TX, MS, and VA. Why were they seceding? Because of northern states interfering with the institution of slavery. The redefinition of the cause(s) of the war came many years later. In the disputed election of 1876, the GOP agreed to abandon Reconstruction in exchange for a Hayes victory. With Republican reconstructionists gone, white southern Democrats began the systematic purging of blacks from public office and voter rolls. That's also when the efforts to romanticize the war really began - it was about tariffs... it was about state's rights...

That slavery was the cause of secession was openly admitted by southern politicians at the time.  Lawrence Keitt, a congressman from South Carolina, in a speech to the House on January 25, 1860 said "African slavery is the corner-stone of the industrial, social, and political fabric of the South; and whatever wars against it, wars against her very existence. Strike down the institution of African slavery and you reduce the South to depopulation and barbarism... The anti-slavery party contend that slavery is wrong in itself, and the Government is a consolidated national democracy. We of the South contend that slavery is right, and that this is a confederate Republic of sovereign States." Later, as a delegate to the South Carolina secession convention, during the debates on the state's declaration of causes: "Our people have come to this (secession) on the question of slavery. I am willing, in that address to rest it upon that question. I think it is the great central point from which we are now proceeding, and I am not willing to divert the public attention from it." Charleston, South Carolina, Courier, Dec. 22, 1860.

Henry Rector, Governor of Arkansas,  on March 2, 1861, said at the Arkansas Secession Convention, "The area of slavery must be extended correlative with its antagonism, or it will be put speedily in the 'course of ultimate extinction.'....The extension of slavery is the vital point of the whole controversy between the North and the South...They believe slavery a sin, we do not, and there lies the trouble."

Thomas Goode a delegate to Virginia Secession Convention, in March 1861 said, "Sir, the great question which is now uprooting this Government to its foundation---the great question which underlies all our deliberations here, is the question of African slavery..."

G. T. Yelverton, delegate to the Alabama Secession Convention in January 1861 declared, "The question of Slavery is the rock upon which the Old Government split: it is the cause of secession."

John Baldwin, as a delegate to the Virginia Secession Convention, In March 1861said "There is but one single subject of complaint which Virginia has to make against the government under which we live; a complaint made by the whole South, and that is on the subject of African slavery.... the great cause of complaint now is the slavery question, and the questions growing out of it. If there is any other cause of complaint which has been influential in any quarter, to bring about the crisis which is now upon us; if any State or any people have made the troubles growing out of this question, a pretext for agitation instead of a cause of honest complaint, Virginia can have no sympathy whatever, in any such feeling, in any such policy, in any such attempt. It is the slavery question. Is it not so?..."

It was openly, proudly, and repeatedly proclaimed by those pursuing secession that slavery was the central issue. Shouldn't we give serious weight to the opinions of the men who actually led the secession fight? They clearly thought it was about slavery.

So how can it be that so many folks are convinced that slavery was a side issue? Most likely because they were taught that it was. Consider a recent story in the Washington Post, "A lot of white southerners have grown up believing that the Confederacy’s struggle was somehow a noble cause rather than a war in the defense of a horrific institution that enslaved millions of human beings.” Sadly, plenty of northerners have fallen prey to the same myth. Many southern states adopt textbooks at the State level and they will not accept books that tell the true history of the south. As such, textbooks gloss over and often omit meaningful discussions of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, white primaries, etc... and students north, south, east, and west grow up with precious little understanding of our history. Indeed there is plenty to be proud of, but we must acknowledge as well that of which we should be ashamed.

We should be ashamed of slavery and we should be ashamed of any effort to present those who fought for the preservation of slavery as men with noble intentions. The South seceded to protect slavery, victory would've meant the continuation of slavery. So whether or not slavery existed in some northern states, whether or not most Southerners didn't own slaves, and whether or not individual Confederate soldiers supported slavery are all irrelevant arguments. The soldiers fought on behalf a treasonous government dedicated to perpetuating slavery. As such, they are as guilty of that sin as are Nazi soldiers and guards at concentration camps who claimed after the war that they were only following orders. Under no circumstances should any government entity, from a local park service to the national park service, do anything to honor the Civil War South, those who fought for it, or symbols created solely to represent the struggle (The state song of Maryland is a prime example. It was written during the secessionist furvor and is a plea to the State to secede).

Which brings us to the current flap over the "confederate flag"  (actually it was a battle flag). Many will tell you that the flag is simply a symbol of Southern Pride, or that it represents the ideals of limited governments and "state's rights." But such claims are derived from the same revisionist nonsense that sought to rewrite the true cause of the Civil War. In reality, the confederate battle flag pretty much disappearing from view and memory after the war. The KKK liked to use it, but that was about it.  The flag truly became a symbol of the south during the late 1940s and the 1950s - and racial prejudice played the key role in its reemergence. In 1948 Southern Democrats split from the Democratic party over the issue of civil rights.  Strom Thurmond ran under the banner of the States Rights Democratic Party, or the Dixiecrats. They adopted the battle flag as their symbol and their party platform declared "We stand for the segregation of the races..." Thurmond won in South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. In fact, he topped 70% in AL, MS, and SC.

In 1956, Georgia incorporated the battle flag into its state flag. Why did GA make the change? To protest the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling which outlawed school segregation. Then, in 1962, George Wallace, governor of Alabama, and proud segregationist, raised the battle flag over the State house. Why? To link the south's battle against integration to the glorious Civil War. Wallace ran for president as a third party candidate in 1968, and segregation was a central theme of his campaign. He carried 5 southern states and came in a close 2nd in 4 more. So the reemergence of the confederate battle flag was driven by opposition to integration and civil rights and those who adopted as their symbol linked that opposition to the cause of the Civil War.

So the war was over slavery and the flag was a symbol of segregation and oppression.  Now, I don't think that every person who displays the flag is a racist who endorses the flag's history. Rather I think they are unaware of its true history and have accepted the popular myth that the flag simply symbolizes southern culture or heritage. It may be that many of the folks who display the Confederate flag today do so with no racial motivation. They may believe that it represents limited government or state's rights.  But their intentions and motivations cannot undo the flag's true history and purpose. The Swastika long predates Nazi Germany. The word and the symbol mean "good fortune." The symbol was widely used across Europe in the early 20th Century. I doubt anyone would be OK with any person, organization, or country displaying the Swastika today and saying it only represents their wish for "good fortune." Nothing can separate the symbol from its horrific past. It has been forever tainted. This applies to the Confederate flag as well. So people are absolutely justified in being offend by its display and no state or governmental entity should be honoring or displaying it as a contemporary symbol.

Does that mean that Civil War gift shops shouldn't sell replicas or that TV Land should pull the Dukes of Hazzard from it's lineup? I don't think so, the flag has a history and was a symbol of the South. It's appropriate to display it in that context. Purging it from Civil War sites would undermine the telling of our history. As to the Dukes of Hazzard, folks offended by the car can change the channel. Concerned advertisers can direct their money elsewhere. These are quite distinct from a government displaying and honoring the flag. Should people be able to display their Confederate flags? Of course, free speech protects the right to be offensive and ignorant of history.  But freedom of speech does not mean freedom from judgement. And those who proclaim that the flag is about "heritage and not hate" should know that those of us who actually know the history of the flag also know that the flag represents heritage AND hate.