I was trying to get back to lighter fare after my last article, but the craziness of the Twitterverse got the best of me. Once upon a time, you had to visit a dairy farm to gather as much nonsense. I think Lenin had Twitter in mind when he said, “A lie repeated enough becomes the truth.”
Recently the debate over what Southerners think and believe started anew with the Charleston hate crime. Apparently, some clever software developer has created a mobile app for revealing the innermost thoughts of strangers hundreds of miles away and centuries ago. The Twitterverse has also decided that Southerners are racists, and that anyone who disagrees is racist, and that the Civil War was fought to free the slaves. I plan to counter the cow-plop with quotes from the leaders of the time. Unfortunately, Abe Lincoln’s Twitter account was blocked, so I’m filling in for him.
Determining causality of any war is tricky business – feel free to tell me in an email what caused WWI or WWII. As it turns out, the Civil War is easy by comparison: it was slavery. Lincoln in his second address to congress said, “Without slavery the rebellion could never have existed; without slavery it could not continue.” However, this country would not go to war to free slaves or preserve slavery – the later was unnecessary. For the South, slavery was all about political power.
In the mid 19th century the Southern states dominated the U.S. Senate and Supreme Court as it had since the birth of the nation. In 1860 when Lincoln was elected on a platform of stopping the expansion of slavery to new states, the South recognized that this was the beginning of the end of its political domination. Lincoln attempted to calm the South by saying, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” Since maintaining political power was the South’s concern, Lincoln promises to leave slavery intact was inconsequential. Most of the Southern states had seceded by the time Lincoln took office.
Don’t forget that slavery was not abolished in the North until 1804. Today the North is mythologized as going to war to free the slaves, but the abolitionist Frederick Douglass said differently in 1861. After war was declared he wrote that: “North and South were fighting in the interests of slavery…The South was fighting to take slavery out of the Union, and the North was fighting to keep it in the Union.”
In August 1862, a year and a half into the war, newspaperman Horace Greeley used his paper to question the president’s resolve to free the slaves. Lincoln responded by writing, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save this Union.” Lincoln words were not simply aimed at the loyal southerners. Most white northerners were not interested in fighting to free slaves or in giving rights to blacks. Lincoln upheld laws barring blacks from the army, proving to northern whites that their race privilege would not be threatened.
Lincoln’s response to Greely foreshadows the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, which did free some slaves, but left some slave and saved the Union. The Proclamation freed only the slaves within Confederate held territory. This left one million slaves in Union territory still in bondage. On the surface the Proclamation freed no slaves at all, but politically it was a master stroke. The document sealed the South’s fate in two ways: First, it was a morale boost for Union soldiers because African Americans were finally allowed to enlist and because it encouraged the slaves building Confederate defensive works to flee. Secondly, the proclamation made intervention from France or England impossible because it freed slaves. It is important to note that the British were keen to weaken the U.S. in the 19th century.
In the months after the Proclamation, Democrats in New York City organized public rallies that denounced the war, emancipation and blacks. The War Department’s premise that Union soldiers would not fight solely to abolish slavery was verified by the New York City draft riots of July, 1863. These riots remain the largest civil and racial insurrection in American history. Initially kindled by the newly imposed draft, the protests turned into a race riot. An early target of the mob was the abolitionist press, particularly the New York Tribune, run by our friend Horace Greeley. By the time the military intervened, mobs of white citizens had destroyed black and abolitionist churches, homes, and an orphanage. The mob also committed various atrocities you may read elsewhere. In the aftermath, the city’s black population plummeted by more than 20 percent,
The point I hope I’ve made with Misters Douglass, Greeley, and Lincoln is that both sides share culpability. As wrong as the South was for fighting for slavery, the North’s motives were hardly humanitarian in nature. To the willful ignorance of the glass tower media, throwing stones southward is unnecessary when you ready targets right abound Rockefeller Center.
I can understand why some Americans don’t understand what all the Civil War fuss is about. If your descendants had yet to immigrate, then you never had a dog in the fight – so to speak. But you should still be interested in learning about it. When I lived in London, I don’t recall lecturing the Brits on the Indian Mutiny (1857) or the Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1856-60). If you read up on that you’ll be shredding the Globe in the checkout line instead of reading about the Royals. Believe me there is no country on earth that is innocent of brutality for economic gain.
The question remains, why do white Southerners romanticize about the period? We are not trying to go back to the Antebellum South. The fact is that many Southerners can trace their ancestry to the Civil War and before. As I think about it now, I don’t know a single person here in New Jersey who had a relative in the war, but I can name dozens of people I know in the South who did. As for me (Northern by birth, Southern by upbringing) my great-great -grandfather was a guest at Andersonville; and according to a dubious family legend I am also kin to Julia Ward Howe. So you see, the Civil War is personal to me. When I hear “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” I get goose bumps – as I do with “Dixie.” By the way, “Dixie” was Abe Lincoln’s favorite song.
Although I am an avid student of history, I used these resources for this article:
Tim Heaton is a HottyToddy.com contributor and can be reached at email@example.com. His new book, “Bless Your Heart, You Freakin’ Idiot: Southern Sayings Translated” is available on Amazon as well as “Momma n’ Em Said: The Treasury of Southern Sayings.”