Incredibly, many Americans in the 21st century remain confused about the causes and meaning of the Civil War, the worst and most important armed conflict in US history.
Many assume the Rebels fought primarily to preserve slavery, while others believe the South seceded to secure its freedom from a tyrannical government.
Historical documents conclusively settle the matter. It is not difficult to ascertain the motives of the secessionists; their leaders were literate men who had the good sense to record their intentions for posterity with absolute clarity. We pay proper respect to the dead by heeding how they explained their decision to quit and make war upon the United States.
In January 1861, the Mississippi Legislature issued its secession manifesto. Echoing the structure of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, the elected representatives of the state’s white population listed the grievances that motivated them to explained their decision to secede:
“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.…
“[A] blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.…
“[The North] denies the right of property in slaves.…
“It refuses the admission of new slave states into the Union.…
“It has nullified the Fugitive Slave Law.…
“It advocates negro equality, socially and politically.…
“It has given indubitable evidence of its design to… destroy our social system.
“It has… formed associations to carry out its schemes of emancipation.…
“Utter subjugation awaits us in the Union, if we should consent longer to remain in it.… We must either submit to degradation, and to the loss of property [slaves] worth four billions of money, or we must secede… to secure this as well as every other species of property.”
Other contemporary sources articulated the secessionists’ motives with similar frankness and clarity.
In his March 1861 “Cornerstone Speech,” Rebel Vice President Alexander Stephens of Georgia touted the freshly-minted Confederate constitution and reminded his audience why the South seceded:
“The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution, African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.”
Stephens conceded that Jefferson and others Founders saw slavery as a “violation of the laws of nature;… wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically,” and that the Founders fervently hoped the “evil” institution would prove “evanescent and pass away.”
However, Stephens rejected the Founders’ “ideas” on slavery as “fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error.” Prematurely assuming the South would achieve permanent independence, Stephens gloated that the United States “fell” precisely because the Founders foolishly built it on “a sandy foundation” of racial equality.
“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science….
“Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind, from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics. Their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just, but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails….
“With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system…. by experience we know that it is best, not only for the superior, but for the inferior race, that it should be so. It is, indeed, in conformity with the ordinance of the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of His ordinances, or to question them. For His own purposes, He has made one race to differ from another, as He has made ‘one star to differ from another star in glory.’ The great objects of humanity are best attained when there is conformity to His laws and decrees, in the formation of governments as well as in all things else. Our confederacy is founded upon principles in strict conformity with these laws. This stone which was rejected by the first builders ‘is become the chief of the corner’ — the real ‘corner-stone’ in our new edifice.”
In Stephens’ formulation, the “first builders” — Jefferson and other Founders — rejected the stone of slavery and white supremacy, but he and other Confederate leaders made that block (racist human bondage) the cornerstone of their new nation. His audience would have recognized the reference to Psalm 118, a song of victory wherein a “steadfast” God helps the outnumbered “righteous” defeat hateful foes.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis reaffirmed the centrality of slavery to the Rebel cause before and throughout the Civil War.
In 1858, as Mississippi’s US Senator, Davis urged his state to secede “if an Abolitionist be chosen President of the United States.”
Describing black people in an 1860 Senate speech, Davis asserted, “We recognize the fact of the inferiority stamped upon that race of men by the Creator, and from the cradle to the grave.”
Later that year — ignoring the fact that white southerners routinely raped and impregnated enslaved women — Senator Davis asserted that gay marriage would be preferable to interracial unions (“It would grant me much relief to learn your sons were engaged matrimonially to other white men if I was previously faced with the spectre of those same sons wedding negro women, slave or free, and siring negro sons that could presume to claim inheritance of your namesakes and property, or worse, equality with your purer grandchildren.”).
After Lincoln’s election in 1860, Davis offered a “compromise proposal” to prevent southern secession. Lincoln opposed the admission of new slave states, but had promised to leave slavery alone in the South. Senator Davis responded by demanding that Congress terminate states’ rights in the North by legalizing slavery everywhere in the US:
“property in slaves… shall stand on the same footing in all constitutional and federal relations as any other species of property…; and, like other property, shall not be subject to be divested or impaired by the local law of any other State, either in escape thereto or of transit or sojourn of the owner therein; and in no case whatever shall such property be subject to be divested or impaired by any legislative act of the United States, or of any of the Territories thereof.”
So much for the myth that the Rebels fought for states’ rights.
In March 1861, as president of the Confederacy, Davis echoed Stephens (and most of the South’s “Christian” clergy) by invoking divine authority for slavery and racism:
“We recognize the negro as God and God’s Book and God’s Laws, in nature, tell us to recognize him: Our inferior, fitted expressly for servitude.”
In the midst of the Civil War, Davis declared that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation represented “the fullest vindication” of the “sagacity” of secession.
The foregoing clearly shows the South withdrew from the Union and fought the Civil War primarily to preserve slavery and maintain white supremacy.
Those who refuse to accept these overwhelming and irrefutable facts place themselves in the sad, discredited company of flat earthers, Holocaust deniers, anti-vaxxers, climate change skeptics, and all others who stubbornly cling to preposterous superstitions despite mountains of contrary evidence.
Some southern heritage proponents claim they merely wish to honor those who fought for the Confederacy. Certainly, we can honor the memory of those veterans. We can honor their courage, in some cases. But we cannot honor their political, moral, or religious principles — drenched as they were in oceans of innocent black blood, sweat, and tears — indelibly sullied by the savage brutality of slavery, and ultimately inseparable from the unconscionable and still-unconquered evil of white supremacy.
Nor can we allow Rebel soldiers the excuse that they were merely fighting to defend their homes. They were not. Southern aggression started the Civil War: The Confederacy initiated hostilities by attacking Fort Sumter. Southerners who did not wish to fight for slavery could have opposed the Rebel government, and many heroic southerners in fact did so. Unfortunately, most southerners chose to follow the secessionist herd and support an immoral, treasonous war.
After the war, many embarrassed ex-Confederates and their sympathizers cynically rewrote history. Their books concealed the centrality of slavery and white supremacy to the Lost Cause, and romanticized slavery as a benevolent institution enabling kind, enlightened white Christians to promote the welfare of happy, grateful slaves.
To popularize this propaganda in the South, apologists published and widely disseminated A Confederate Catechism, used to drill and brainwash generations of southern schoolchildren.
Incredibly, this preposterous pro-Rebel revisionism dominated mainstream historical scholarship on the Civil War from the late 1800s through the 1950s. Many public school teachers continued to peddle this nonsense well into the 1980s. Of course, many private schools — especially southern segregation academies — continue to do so. Neo-Confederates still parrot those Lost Cause claims today.
In the 1890s, the South revived Confederate imagery — including Robert E. Lee’s Rebel flag — to celebrate the triumph of Jim Crow laws and the restoration of white supremacy after Reconstruction, and to intimidate black Americans. This is why Confederate imagery is unfit for public display, except in a museum.
Perhaps some southern heritage proponents were genuinely unaware that the Confederacy formed solely to perpetuate slavery and racism. Now that they have seen the evidence, the truth can set them free, once and for all.