Congressman Wheeler Speaks in the House on Causes of the War

Major General Joseph Wheeler

Jack Melton, publisher of Civil War News, often talks with me about little-known sources and items in Civil War history. Recently he pointed me to one such: a speech by Joseph Wheeler, later Confederate major general, then U. S. Representative from the 8th Congressional District of Alabama. Wheeler spoke on the House floor, July 13, 1894.

The House was considering a bill concerning a Union veteran. Wheeler, a member of the Committee on Military Affairs, addressed the body in a speech that touched on a number of matters, including the causes of the late civil war. 

Wheeler recalled that at a “Peace Conference” held in February 1861, former Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase–then a soon-to-be member of Lincoln’s incoming cabinet–had told the assembled delegates (not including representatives of the seven seceded states, which boycotted the convention) that the recent presidential election “must be regarded as a triumph of principles cherished in the hearts of the people of the free States.” Wheeler took this to mean that “the Northern States would not, and ought not, to comply with the obligations of the Federal Constitution,” which since 1789 had sanctioned slavery in the Southern states.

Thus Wheeler and other Southerners were justified in believing that Abraham Lincoln and the Black Republicans were out to get them, and would trample the Constitution in order to do so.

In the course of his remarks, the congressman from Alabama reviewed causes of the war. Besides slavery, “the doctrine of State rights, protective tariff [and] internal improvements” all figured as sources of sectional disagreement between North and South. As for slavery, “the New England ship owners amassed fortunes by plying the business of buying negroes in Africa, transporting them to the United States, and selling them for the most part to southern people.” In the Constitutional convention of 1787, it was the South that called for an end of the slave trade in twenty years; Northerners only turned against slavery when they found it unprofitable in their region. Then, in defiance of the Constitution, Northern states enacted laws protecting fugitive slaves. The famed Daniel Webster, speaking in Buffalo in May 1851, had predicted that if the North persisted in violating the Constitution, “the South would no longer be bound to observe the compact” (hinting at secession).

Yet, Wheeler continued, early instances of resistance to federal authority had occurred in the North: Shays’ Rebellion in New York, the whiskey rebellion in Pennsylvania. “The Southern people loved the Union,” he contended, and only with the rise of the Republican Party “they reluctantly succumbed to the conviction that the party about to take control would have no respect for their rights.”

Then, when Lincoln’s election in November 1860 spurred talk of secession, Wheeler pointed to sensible conservative Northerners who understood why. “If the cotton States shall become satisfied that they can do better out of the Union than in it, we insist on letting them go in peace” (Horace Greeley, New York Tribune, November 9–the day after Lincoln’s election). Two weeks later the New York Herald agreed that the South should not be coerced: “A union held together by the bayonet would be nothing better than a military despotism.” In late December, while South Carolinians were in convention, Greeley held forth that “if it (the Declaration of Independence) justifies the secession from the British Empire of three million colonists in 1776, we do not see why it would not justify the secession of five millions of southrons from the Federal Union in 1861.” As late as March 1861, following Lincoln’s inauguration and after seven Southern states had indeed left the Union, the Cincinnati Commercial declared, “We are not in favor of blockading the southern coast. We are not in favor of retaking by force the property of the United States now in possession of the seceders. We would recognize the existence of a government formed of all the slave-holding States, and attempt to cultivate amicable relations with it.” Gen. Gen. Winfield Scott was often quoted as saying, “Wayward sisters, part in peace.”

Obviously, Wheeler concluded, the “wayward sisters” were not allowed to go in peace. As a consequence, “the most stupendous war recorded in modern history” ensued. To illustrate its frightful casualties, Wheeler posited that Grant’s casualties from May 5 to May 12, 1864 in Virginia totaled 9,774 killed, 41,150 wounded and 13,254 missing—a number “greater than the loss in killed and wounded in all the battles of all the wars in this country prior to 1861.”

Thus Wheeler ended his address. He spoke unabashedly “from the standpoint of one whose feelings were and are in entire sympathy with the southern people.” From his remarks we can distinctly see that Southerners viewed the coming of the war from a perspective we don’t often think of today. To understand why three million Americans went to war against each other—and why a fifth of them died—we would do well to turn from time to time to such documentary sources as the Southern Historical Society Papers.


Reference: Joseph Wheeler, “Causes of the War. Great Speech of Hon. Joseph Wheeler, of Alabama,” Southern Historical Society Papers, vol. 22, (1894), 24-41.


7 Responses to Congressman Wheeler Speaks in the House on Causes of the War

  1. Not to quibble, but Salmon P. Chase was not the Chief Justice in Feb.,1861. He was not named Chief Justice of the Supreme Court until he left Lincoln’s cabinet in 1864.

  2. I also am rather unimpressed with any explanations of secession that are made 30+ years after the fact. It was at this point in time that the UCV and UDC were embarking upon a rather deliberate and organized campaign to make sure that a particular view of the Civil War was the one that became nationally accepted. I am much more inclined to take at their word the gentlemen who made up the Mississippi Secession Convention, who said, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery”.

    This, and many other documents from the time of secession and the war, may be found at

    1. Wheeler names slavery as the main cause doesn’t he? The problem is not those explained the causes 30 years after the war, but those who attempt it 153 years later.

      1. 30 and 153 both suffer from the defect of hindsight. For any event involving human intent, nothing beats contemporaneity.

    2. I would honestly prefer hindsight from a Confederate veteran who is at least honest about a war’s cause 30+ years later rather than articles where both sides 150+ years later are so blind with anger towards one another and trying to discredit each other or hide their own dark sides. In fact, the point in saying that the North was partially at fault in the events leading up to the war isn’t entirely wrong, if wrong at all. Frederick Douglas himself would actually give a speech at the 1876 unveiling of the controversial Freedmen Memorial where he would actually make similar claims against the North, particularly how Lincoln had pretty much only used abolition of slaves as a military and political tool when needed, which can definitely be seen in how the border states in the Union were still allowed to own slaves (even West Virginia, founded on the purpose of staying with the Union, was still a slave state) just so the Emancipation Proclamation wouldn’t tempt them to join the CSA:

      (Pages 12-13, though he does rightfully give Lincoln a lot of credit for actually issuing the Emancipation to begin with. He still was the Great Emancipator)

      The Lost Cause never would make that claim about slavery being the core like Wheeler had. In fact, given evidence found in journals, I’d say that there are many Confederate officers and soldiers- like Joseph Wheeler, James Longstreet, and Robert E. Lee- who were more honest about the war than the Lost Cause’s founder Jubal Early and the UDC and USC (In fact, Longstreet was even verbally attacked by Early- a former comrade- about his pro-Republican views after the war). On top of that, Wheeler had even actively taken part in the cause for reconciliation (which he succeeded with doing in the military to a degree), so overall I find more credibility in his words and actions than the UDC and the USC both then and today.

      That’s just my opinion, though.

  3. While many grouse about “political correctness,” we should remember that the UCV and UDC campaign established the “Lost Cause” as the politically correct view of the ACW, north and south, for over one-hundred and thirty or so years. The reconstruction of the popular narrative of the causes and issues of the war may be only beginning, against furious opposition, but it must be carried on with.

  4. Wow, a great perspective, not often seen in this modern, politically correct world. Thank you. Well done.

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