What Was So Wrong with Slavery?

“What was so wrong with slavery and why did it cause the Civil War?” This question was asked of a seasonal park ranger at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center a few years ago. This question was asked by a white mother from New York, with her husband and teenage children beside her. As she finished asking the question, she must have seen the expression on my face – an expression of disbelief! I could not believe that someone would ask that question in the 21st Century.

Slaves provided the economic wealth of the South. Without slavery, the planters could not work the fields of the large plantations. Plantations would not have been profitable if not for free labor. Paid labor would have been much more expensive. Plus, you cannot borrow money on people you do not own; however, you could borrow money using slaves as collateral. After the international slave trade ended, slaves became more valuable, and the planters began breeding slaves. There was a market to sell slaves to the Deep South and Midwest. Another reason for the breeding: if you cannot buy slaves, then you can rely on the already enslaved to produce more children, increasing the number of slaves you own, thereby increasing your wealth.

Slavery was very cruel to most black slaves, especially the field hands. Slaves were beaten, whipped, castrated, branded, pierced, had limbs amputated, and killed in various ways. Slave women were often sexually abused by white masters, their sons, and overseers. More importantly, many slave families were separated when members were sold. In a lot of situations, the most fertile enslaved women and men were often chosen to be together in order to produce more children. Most slaves were forbidden to marry unless their owners permitted it, and many marriages were not formalized until slavery ended.

Slaves were forbidden to learn to read and write, kept ignorant so that they would not be aware of their plight. It would be a contradiction for them to find out that they were living enslaved “in the land of the free.” Slaves were told that it was in their best interests to remain slaves. They were forbidden to congregate, especially for religious services, unless approved by their masters and overseen by whites. Many of these laws were enacted in 1831 after the Nat Turner Rebellion in Virginia killed more than 60 whites.

After that rebellion, freed slaves were supposed to move out of the Southern states, and free blacks were no longer supposed to own slaves. Most of the free blacks who did own slaves owned their own relatives, so that their families could remain together. Of course. there are exceptions to every rule and law: there were some blacks who owned slaves and treated them the same way white slave holders treated their own slaves. Also, there were some free blacks who stayed in the South, mainly those with skills, for example blacksmiths.

A most glaring truth was that free blacks were hated by most slave owners because they were a contradiction to slavery in slave territory. They were a bad influence on the enslaved. It made slaves want the freedom that these blacks had. However, it was a very tense freedom that could be taken away easily. The death of a slave, based on the circumstances, could be reimbursed by the state or local jurisdiction; meanwhile, the life of a free or freed black was worth nothing in a slave society.

Most blacks hated slavery. However, a class system developed on many plantations between field hands and house “servants.” Many house servants thought that they were better than the field hands. They were generally treated better, and many of them were the offspring of their owners or someone else in the family. For example, Sally Hemmings was the half-sister of Thomas Jefferson’s wife.

While the overwhelming majority of slaves wished they were free. some slaves became spies for their masters and received special favors. Children were used to tell the mistress what the other slaves were saying back in the slave quarters. Some of the children were given candy and other little treats when they revealed information against other enslaved. However, when the other slaves found out who betrayed them, those slaves were ostracized. In many cases, the adult enslaved would not say very much around their children because they knew how the children were used by their oppressors.

Slave women cultivating tobacco [Photo from Official NPS Website: Bernard Slave Cabins]

I have read many books about slavery and the cruelty of slavery. Slaves who ran off toward freedom, if caught, suffered very drastic punishment, including severe whipping, branding, jailing, and even amputation. However, death was usually the most severe punishment, although to some slaves, the selling off of their children was more severe than even that. If you did not work hard enough in the fields or you did not pay the proper respect to a white man or woman, you could be whipped or punished in another way.

There are stories where some white owners or overseers would go to slave cabins to have relations with the slave women, and their “husbands” would have to leave. If the men or women complained, they could be punished or killed.

For all these reasons, the life expectancy of a slave was far lower than the average American.

Now, let’s look how slavery caused the Civil War. Most blacks were not considered Americans, and in 1857, the Supreme Court stated in the Dred Scott Decision that blacks were not American citizens. Officially blacks became full American citizens after the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution.

Congress had reacted to slavery by passing a series of compromises, but also had a gag order during the 1830’s and 1840’s not to discuss slavery and upset the Southern congressmen.

Although abolitionists and the Underground Railroad helped turn some in the North away from slavery, these other events helped bring the nation to war:

  • The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was an effort to preserve the balance between slave and free states. Missouri was admitted as a slave state and Maine was admitted as a free state. The compromise included a law that stated that slavery was not permitted in the Louisiana Territory above the 36′ 30″ latitude line.
  • The Compromise of 1850 upset the balance of slave and free states because California was admitted as a free state and the slave trade in Washington, DC, was abolished. In return, the Fugitive Slave Act was amended and strengthened. This was very costly to people in the North. If they harbored escaped slaves, they were committing a Federal crime.  The federal government became responsible for capturing and returning fugitive slaves. Citizens harboring slaves were subject to a $1,000 fine and up to a six-month jail sentence.
  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)

    The book Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe showed the cruelty of slavery to this country and the world. It became a best seller but was banned in the Southern states. The book made more Northern people aware of the cruelty of slavery, and many of them looked negatively upon the South as a result. The South now thought that most of the people in the North were abolitionist, but this was not true.  Only about 10% of the North was truly abolitionist.

  • The Anthony Burns Case in 1854 centered on a slave who had been hired out but escaped to Boston. He wrote a letter to his brother, still owned by their slaveowner, who received the letter. The slaveowner went to Boston to claim his “property.” Burns was arrested and taken to jail.  Two groups of abolitionists, one small black group and a larger white one, charged the jail in an attempt to free him. One deputy was killed, and two men who got inside the jail were beaten back. President Franklin Pierce ordered the Marines and some artillery to go to Boston and escort Burns back into slavery. A large crowd watched as the Federal force took Burns back to the South. However, an African American church raised $1,300 to buy Burns, and a year later he was back in Boston.  The most important issue here was the president of the United States used the United States Marines to bring back a fugitive slave. Think of the cost for bringing back one slave. How did that look to the North, when a slaveowner, backed by the U.S. president and military, went to Boston to bring back one escaped slave.
  • The Kansas–Nebraska Act overturned the Missouri Compromise. Through the notion of “popular sovereignty,” the people who settled the territories were given the right to decide if slavery would be legal in the territories. Both pro- and anti-slavery groups flocked to the territories and actually fought each other from 1854 through the Civil War. This act definitely moved the United States toward Civil War, but Kansas became a free state in 1861.
  • In 1856 in “Bleeding Kansas,” John Brown became a household name as he led attacks against pro-slavery settlers.
  • John Brown’s Raid in Harper’s Ferry occurred in 1859, right before the Civil War. He wanted to lead a slave rebellion to capture the armory at Harper’s Ferry in order to arm the slaves he would free in the Southern States. Colonel Robert E. Lee would lead Marines to capture Brown, who was then tried and convicted by the State of Virginia. He was executed, but he became a martyr for the abolitionist cause and rightly predicted that the slavery question would be settled by bloodshed. The South was horrified: a slave rebellion was led by a Northern white man, using escaped slaves. Every Southern state begin opening military schools, if they did not already have them. (Virginia already had the Virginia Military Institute [VMI]). War was now imminent.

Slavery is the overwhelming cause of the Civil War. Let’s examine the Confederacy’s cause of states’ rights: the only “states right” that was an issue that could not be negotiated was slavery. In the Confederate Constitution they state it, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens states it, and so did Confederate President Jefferson Davis. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Here are other primary sources that discuss slavery as a cause of the war.]

Slavery was the economic system of the South. If you took it away, you took away the wealth of many of the planters. The only way plantations could survive was for slaves to work the property. I have seen wills of large plantation owners where the majority of their wealth was in the value of their slaves. In 1860, the 4 million slaves in the South were estimated to be worth $3 billion. After the war, many of these owners could no longer afford their homes without their slaves.

The North was not innocent, either. Some Northern states did not want any blacks, whether free or slave, to live within their borders. The North was just as racist as the South in this regard. Many white men and white immigrants did not want to compete with slave labor or free blacks, as that would bring down wages and take away some of their jobs.

Inside enslaved quarters at Ben Lomond Historic Site.

I want to tell this story from Andrew Ward’s book The Slaves War: The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves. A former slave woman told her granddaughter the story of a former slave, who got married after the war. One day she and husband talked about their old days in slavery. She told him about her baby boy sold away from her and about a distinctive scar on his arm. Her husband had that same scar on his arm and when he discussed his story, they found out that they were mother and son. He soon left her because he could not stay married to his mother. That is a tragedy and they may not have been the only couple that had that problem. There were other stories in that book of families meeting and siblings not recognizing or knowing their kin. After the war, many slaves searched the South to try to connect with their families—some were successful, but most were not!

A couple of years ago, we had some interpretive training at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park , whereby, when explaining sensitive history, such as slavery, we ask people to put themselves in the other person’s position. In this case, I would have the mother put herself in the position of the slave woman. Suppose her children were sold away from her, suppose her husband was put out of their cabin while a slaveowner stayed with her and, when her husband complained, he was severely whipped. How would she then answer her own question, “What was so wrong with slavery and why did it cause the Civil War?” What do you think her answer would be?

About Steward T. Henderson

Civil War historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and living historian with the 23rd Regiment USCT and 54th Massachusetts Infantry Co. B. I am also a member of the Trail to Freedom Committee in the Fredericksburg, VA area and a member of the John J. Wright Museum in Spotsylvania, VA.
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20 Responses to What Was So Wrong with Slavery?

  1. Mark Harnitchek says:

    I just had the same look on my face reading that lady’s question — hard to believe…but i guess am not surprised…one of the pillars of the Lost Cause, where slaves were really OK with that “peculiar institution”, apparently lives on…or maybe her only knowledge of the Civil War is from Gone With the Wind…hopefully your response changed this family’s thinking…thanks for this post.

  2. John Pryor says:

    An excellent post, but from the standpoint of 160 years after the Civil War. A better question by the woman would have been to express surprise why a system so economically profitable and with powerful Northern allies felt so threatened? Perhaps the South’s consistent political success in forcing compromises from 1820 onward led it to fatally underestimate the political, if not moral, indignation of the North. It is easy to see slavery as the “cause” of the war, particularly as a means of directly refuting the absurd “states rights” overreach of the post war Lost Cause partisans. But the Unionists were fueled much more by anti-Southern animus than anti slavery indignation, at least during most of the war. The slave as a human really was an abstraction to most Northerners, but seen as part of a system a tool of Southern power as a means of extending Southern political and economic influence “slavery” was anathema. It was, as Lincoln recognized it, a refutation of free labor and personal growth, the very ideals, in an admittedly imperfect way, the North was seeking to achieve. Tragically, this dichotomy between the north’s hatred of the system but apathy about the individuals caught in the system partially explains the ease by which the Lost Cause myth took purchase during the Jim Crow era. That, and the enormous physical, human and emotional toll the war itself took.

  3. John Foskett says:

    Incidents such as this always remind me that you and your colleagues are required to have a unique skill set which I, for one, lack – the ability to deal professionally with astonishingly ignorant questions. I’ve seen other situations where NPS personnel – at NMP but also at other parks – get asked questions which your average second-grader might laugh at. They were handled with a straight face and without a hint of sarcasm or exasperation. The incident you describe also supports my firm belief that we do an abysmal job of teaching US history in our educational system.

  4. John Pryor says:

    Actually, if we only teach United States history without putting our social system in the world context we might create a false negative paradigm, and come to false conclusions. Slavery, particularly in the earlier years of the Republic, was hardly an exclusively American phenomenon. But there is something inherently repellent about it in a Republic whose foundational document boldly claims “all men are created equal.” It was a tragedy that the southern climate in the newly acquired states in the lower Mississippi basin and the technological achievement of the cotton gin, along with the ability of mechanized mills to process as much cotton as could be grown gave renewed life to a dying system. England could eliminate its own system of slavery due to the growth of their own cotton mills as a source of wealth to replace sugar, as well as the relatively few freedmen residing in the home countries. The slaveholders were no fools; they knew that without expansion their wealth, tied up in mortgaging against next year’s crop, was fragile. And for a century, they had been aware that cotton rapidly depleted the existing soil.

  5. Douglas Pauly says:

    I personally find it hard to believe that such a question would be asked by any white person of a black one in this day and age in the USA. The author seems to condemn the woman. I wasn’t there. ,But might some aspects of her question be sensationalized for the sake of ‘outrage’ as opposed to considering that perhaps she could have just asked the question in a better way? Was this woman an American? Personally, I think it a fair question if one bothers to avoid the understandable inclination to ask it from the perspective of ‘presentism’ and to try to get answers via the perspectives of the times. I thought historians were supposed to take those things into consideration?

    We ALL KNOW that slavery IS wrong. But we also know that it was perfectly legal THEN. Southern farms and plantations had let themselves get into a cycle where human labor via the human ‘property’ that were slaves was the only way to make those places profitable. The term “land rich but money poor”, or words to that effect, often accurately described what those plantations could be about. Thomas Jefferson could expound on that.

    If I asked “What was so wrong with Judaism that compelled Hitler to go to war in Europe”, would I get outrage or an intelligent, informative answer? I think the real KEY to the woman’s question is “..and WHY DID IT CAUSE THE CIVIL WAR?” And along those lines the author here DOES deliver a cogent, informative response that provides real answers. If there is any reason to be disappointed with the question, perhaps any real outrage should be directed at our educational system?

    • Meg Groeling says:

      I think this goes beyond the educational system. How about the moral & ethical system the family is supposed to instill within its confines that ultimately creates the moral, ethical, and empathetic individual that comes from said family? That there was a teenaged child there and mom still asks such a harebrained question is simply appalling.

      • Douglas Pauly says:

        Well, again, it’s all a matter of perspective. None of us were there. If I am going to give the author the benefit of the doubt I am also inclined to offer that to the ‘offending’ woman. If the question had been phrased as “What was so wrong with slavery that it led to the Civil War?”, i.e., as ONE question instead of two, I see merit in that. To me, if what is said to have happened indeed did in the way it was reported, I have to ask the author this: did he really believe the woman didn’t see anything wrong with slavery, period? I’m just not inclined to buy that at this time.

    • John Foskett says:

      There’s absolutely nothing about the post which suggests that the author is in any way “sensationalizing” the question. He also stated that she was from New York, so it appears that she was an “American”.Talk to any NPS employee who deals with questions from the visiting public and you will hear things that are astonishingly stupid or callous. Since none of us were there, I see no reason not to accept his account as accurate. Nothing about his reflection on this suggests otherwise.

      • Douglas Pauly says:

        And if you actually bothered to read what I posted, you would see where I gave BOTH of them ‘the benefit of the doubt’. But I will still question aspects of it, such as is it his belief that the woman doesn’t believe slavery is a bad thing? I thought all who fancy themselves as ‘historians’ are SUPPOSED to ask questions, to NOT just take anything and everything at face value? Or if certain subjects are to be discussed, does that not apply? Oh, and of course, everybody from NY is a ‘citizen’. Just like everybody from California and Florida and elsewhere is, right? LOL.

        But I digress. I will give the benefit of the doubt that she IS a citizen. He did volunteer that she is white. He IS black, and an expert in his field. So I still question whether the author finds her ‘ignorant’, or worse? It appears that he doesn’t see anything good about her! He says her teenage children were with her. Meg above made mention about them. To that, I will ask if anyone thinks it’s possible that the woman was asking such a question FOR the benefit of those children, as in asking an expert a straight up question in simplified terms so that that expert can provide the kinds of answers that will benefit her children going forward?

      • John Foskett says:

        I did “bother” to read all of your comments – maybe you should do likewise. My point stands. Your perfunctory statement that you gave the author the benefit of the doubt ignores the fact that (1) you only did so in the hypothetical (“If…”); (2) you only did that in your second comment; and (3) here you then follow up with a string of questions undermining the author’s points. People ask stupid or ignorant questions every day in these settings. The author was right to address this stupid/ignorant question as he did.

      • Douglas Pauly says:

        Let’s also question your comprehension faculties while we’re at it. My questions stand. Is it the author’s belief that the woman has no problem with slavery? Or just that she’s stupid and/or ignorant? Or that maybe the woman was asking in a way so that ‘the expert’ could convey answers that her children could benefit from? He made it a point to speak about her skin color. But I still give him the benefit of the doubt, as I do HER, despite any heartburn that causes you! You are free to do or believe as you wish about him or what he claims. The authors ‘points’ are in no way ‘undermined’, so do try to come up with some other kind of hyperbole. His ‘points’ about slavery and the war are very well taken. They are NOT what I question.

  6. Mike Maxwell says:

    Having taught primary school for a time, it was my experience that children will ask “questions that should not be asked” on occasion. They are not being obtuse; they genuinely do not know. And it is not appropriate to “shout them down,” and make them feel less than human for having posed an inconvenient question. The question should be addressed (even if it means discussing the topic in presence of the child’s parents, in another setting.) Like it or not, some adults have the same awareness of History as children.
    In the case of slavery, and its inherent evil, the answer should be easy for everyone. And in the case of America, a War was fought that brought that evil practice to an end.
    My two bob.

  7. Robert Denney says:

    Whenever I read about slavery in America, I wonder what the discussion would be like if only 5 words had been omitted from the Declaration of Independence: “all men are created equal”.

    In 1776 I dare say there was even one white man in all of America that thought a black man was his equal. Certainly, there were very few in 1861, but the war came anyway.

  8. Lyle Smith says:

    Regardless of how history is taught, there will always be people who are generally ignorant of it. Many peoples’ minds are not attuned to learning it well. They could have the greatest teachers and learn nothing.

    Then there is the truth that we’re all ignorant, because it isn’t possible to know or understand everything even with the brightest of minds.

  9. stewardthenderson says:

    I would like to respond to the many comments that I have received of this post. The woman who made this comment made it to one of my white colleagues, but her voice and tone were loud because the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center was crowded. Her voice was heard by everyone standing close to her, in front of and behind the counter. I was waiting on another visitor when I heard the question. Her children may or may not have been paying attention to her and I do not know why she asked the question. She may have asked the question because one of her children may have been working on a Civil War project or maybe it was because she was aware that slavery was the major cause of the Civil War. Since she knew that information, I do not think her question was an ignorant one. I have heard and read far worse, since I have worked at this National Military Park.

    This family was going on the next guided tour of the Sunken Road and I was going to lead it. I chose to use her question as a teaching experience and spent an extra five to ten minutes to discuss slavery on the tour. I had recently conducted a History at Sunset program with our Chief Historian, John Hennessy, who is an expert on slavery. Therefore, I discussed slavery using Fredericksburg as my Civil War example. I explained that local, state, and Federal laws protected slavery in Fredericksburg and in the southern states. I briefly explained slavery in Fredericksburg and contrasted it with the surrounding counties. I discussed the first Union occupation of Fredericksburg from April to August 1862, when over 10,000 slaves escaped from the city and the surrounding counties – including a couple from the Richmond area. I also touched on my favorite subject, as I told the group that many of those escaped men returned as soldiers in the 23rd United States Colored Troops and became the first African Americans to fight in directed combat against the Army of Northern Virginia. In essence, I did not take her question as one of ignorance, but as one which need a legitimate response.

    As far as my background in interacting with white people, in most of my professional life, I have had jobs and two careers, where most of my colleagues were white. I worked at the National Institutes of Health for one summer, while I was in high school and I worked briefly at the old Civil Service Commission, which is now the Office of Personnel Management. I spent 35 years in the financial services industry, working my way up from a part-time teller to an Area Manager and Senior Vice President in Retail Banking. I have spent the last 14 years in the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park as a volunteer, an Interpretive Park Ranger, and a sales associate, in the bookstores. So I have developed a lot of patience in interacting with people of all races and ethnic groups. So, when I am asked a question, I try to give an intelligent answer or as in this case, give the answer by giving the individual the information in an interpretive talk.

    I have seen visitors who ask questions to provoke arguments, make jokes about learning about the Civil War, and just because they were not taught or did not learn about the Civil War. I have had thousands of Civil War conversations in my life. Many of them occur because many of our schools do not teach American History or Civics (government), I was lucky because I was taught those subjects in elementary, junior high, and senior high schools. I learned a significant amount of information about the antebellum period and Civil War because it was my favorite time period in American history. I have learned a great deal more in my time with the National Park Service. Since I have been at this park, I have learned that all school systems are not the same in teaching Civil War history and so many Americans, young and old, do not know much about the Civil War. I feel that it is my job to try to educate them, when they go on my tours or ask me questions.

    I have heard and seen many comments from Americans that show there are a lot of Americans, who are still saying the same things that were said over 150 years ago. There are still people who do not believe slavery was a cause of the war.

    In fact, there was an Asian American woman, who was visiting Chancellorsville with a group of Germans. It was after closing, as I was leaving, I was in my park ranger uniform, they asked me some questions about the Civil War. I talked to them about the war for about 30 minutes and at the end, the Asian American woman said that she did not believe that slavery was a cause of the war. I referred her to several sources of Civil War history, plus I informed her that she could read the southern states secession documents. She just walked away and said she just did not believe it. I had just spent my own time, giving her group a short history of the Civil War and the Germans thanked me, but she walked away in disgust. I find that there are many foreigners who know more about our Civil War, than Americans know.

    Whether that Asian American woman even ventured to look at the documents or read any books about the war, I cannot say. However, I think that she was more ignorant about the war than the white woman who asked the question, what was so wrong with slavery and why did it cause the Civil War.

    • Jan Croon says:

      I can verify that in Virginia, students are required to pass a course in US/VA Government to graduate from high school. They also must take a course and pass an end-of-year test in American History. I have taught both.

  10. Mike Maxwell says:

    It is said that Atlanta, Georgia resident Margaret Mitchell, who wrote “Gone with the Wind,” was an avid listener to stories “about the war” …and did not realize the South lost that war until she was in High School. Some people fail to get the word; others choose not to believe it. In the end, the effort to dispense Truth must be continued, one person at a time.

  11. John says:

    Blacks went from being enslaved by other African Blacks in Brutish Tribal Warfare to having reliable food, shelter, medical treatment and constructive work. Guess what? Most Europeans at the time lived in some sort of Feudal, Indentured Servitude which wasn’t much better. Blacks today still live on the Democrat hand-out plantation as hapless, witless creatures needing someone to take care of them. So no, it really wasn’t that bad. In fact, compared to Africa, it was Paradise. The White Man’s Burden never ends…

    • patyoungcarecen2019 says:

      John, it is a shame that the “paradise” of slavery was not available to white men as well as blacks. Perhaps you might want to escape your “White Man’s Burden” by offering yourself as chattel to a local African American family.

      • Phil R. says:

        It is indeed available, Pat. People like John who enjoy displaying their ignorance, bigotry, and hatred are shackled to a unique form of latter-day slavery. They’re our postmodern mudsills.

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