The “Many Causes” of the Civil War: Slavery

“How many of you think the war was about slavery?” I asked.

Not a hand went up.

There were twenty-ish high school juniors in the class, a college-level survey course on American history offered by a local community college. They’d just wrapped up their unit on the Civil War, and their teacher had asked me to come speak to them. I wanted to pick their brains about why they thought it was important to still study the Civil War.

They sat in such neat rows they could have been in line of march had they stood up—which I had them do a little later. In the meantime, I was getting them warmed up. We were talking causes, and they offered several smart answers: preservation of the Union, states’ rights, the stress between agricultural vs industrial societies, westward expansion.

We also talked about the motivation of soldiers for signing up—which were, of course, quite different than the reasons that sent their governments to war. I’m frequently reminded by visitors to the battlefields that their great-great-grandfathers didn’t own slaves, but they enlisted to defend their homes. Indeed, that was true. Most Confederates didn’t own slaves, nor did they come from slave-owning families.

By fighting to preserve their way of life, though, they were fighting over slavery, explicitly or not. As I explained to the students, “There were many causes of the Civil War, and they’re all ‘slavery’”—a line I heard years ago attributed to James McPherson (whom I credit when I use it).

After all, what was the particular right the states were arguing over? The right to own slaves. What was the South’s agricultural society built on, which put them at odds with the North? Free labor provided by slaves. Why was westward expansion so threatening? The “3/5 clause” of the Constitution gave slave states disproportionate political power.

Without any of those issues—all slavery-based—there wouldn’t have been a need to preserve the Union.

I admit, there’s an over-emphasis these days on the role slavery in the war, particularly by the National Park Service. Their whole thrust “From Civil War to Civil Rights” makes for a nice marketing slogan, but it glosses over the catastrophic failure by the national government to help the newly freed slaves after the war. It conveniently overlooks the horrors of Jim Crow. And, frankly, it undervalues the motivations individual soldiers had for signing up. From an interpretation point of view, it poses lots of problems, too–but the government has never been one to let sound professional practice get in the way of politics. (I’ll try and address those issues in a future post, although I’ll point you to Ashley Whitehead’s excellent post on it in the meantime.)

The Emancipation Proclamation, one of the most important documents in American history, serves as a kind of red herring in all this. It was only when Lincoln issued the proclamation that he explicitly made the war about slavery. Up until that point, the battle cry was “Preserve the Union.”

That’s a good and noble cause, and hundreds of thousands of Northerners flocked to the enlistment offices under that banner. In fact, many soldiers were openly defiant against the Emancipation Proclamation when Lincoln issued it, claiming they had no interest in waging war on behalf of slaves. Whole regiments threatened to resign, and even army commander George B. McClellan took a wait-and-see attitude for a while.

But Lincoln needed the moral shift because, overall, public support for the war was lagging. Military victories seemed few and far between. “Preserving the Union,” as an idea, is great in the abstract but hard to embrace when your son comes home in a pine box…when your brother comes home in a pine box…when your father comes home in a pine box….

“Think about that,” I told the students. “How important is ‘preserving the Union’ when your father—your father—comes home in a pine box?”

Many of the soldiers were not much older than the students are. “They were just like you,” I reminded them. “They had the same hopes and dreams you do, the same plans and aspirations, the same wish for a better future.”

We are living that future right now—a future 620,000 of them never got to have because they went home in pine boxes. “That’s why it’s important for us to study the Civil War and understand what it means,” I told them, “so we can appreciate the sacrifices they made on our behalf—sacrifices they made so that we could have the future they didn’t get the chance to have.”

4 Responses to The “Many Causes” of the Civil War: Slavery

  1. Chris: Have you read J. David Hacker’s article in the recent “Civil War History”? Based on new research, he puts the war’s total death toll at 750,000-850,000.

  2. Hello Chris

    I really enjoy your blog. Have you read “Disunion” – Varon UNC Press? I found it very informative and entertaining on the effort to hold the union together/tear it apart.

    Don Hallstrom

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