Echoes of Reconstruction: Confederate Jubal Early Explains the Cause of the Civil War (part two)

Jubal Early later in life.

Emerging Civil War is pleased to welcome back Patrick Young, author of The Reconstruction Era blog. This is the second in a two-part series looking at the ways Jubal Early’s book The Heritage of the South tried to “explain” the causes of the Civil War. The book was written during Early’s postwar self-exile but not published until after his death.


As with many Confederate partisans, Early said that the effort by Northerners to exclude slavery from the territories made it more difficult to end slavery. He never says how it would have ended slavery if its reach had been expanded. He also argued that efforts to confine slavery to the South were  “as injurious to the slaves themselves as to the white population of the states.” As with many other Confederates, Early equated anti-slavery activists with those who a century and a half earlier had resorted to the “hanging, burning and scourging of ‘heretics and witches.’” [p. 78]

The growth of the Underground Railroad was another Northern crime against the South leading to the Civil War. Early writes that:

“for many years slaves had been enticed by agents from the North to make their escape and aid had been furnished them while doing so, under a system which obtained the designation of “The underground railroad.” This was not confined to citizens merely but was participated in by state officers who were sworn to support the Constitution of the United States, and instead of compelling their citizens and officers to comply with the Constitution and law, many of the free states passed laws to make it a felony for the owner to arrest his slave or for any one to assist him.” [p. 81-82]

Rhetorical violence soon became deadly violence in Kansas, incited, Jubal Early declares, by Abolitionists on the pulpits of New England churches:

“The Puritan ministers of New England, successors of the Cotton-Mathers of religious persecution and witches-killing notoriety, abandoned the gospel of peace for dissertations upon the merits of Sharp’s rifles, and under their auspices a considerable number of armed emigrants were sent to Kansas. In consequence of this movement some hot heads from the South imprudently went to Kansas for the purpose of disputing the settlement of that territory with the emissaries of the New England parsons.” [p. 83]

Out of the agitation against slavery in Kansas, a new party was born. The Republicans ran their first candidate in 1856, John C. Fremont. “He was beaten,” Early writes,  “but his vote showed the existence of a formidable sectional party, in all of the free states, based on a solitary idea.” [p. 84] The next step was the plot to capture Harpers Ferry by John Brown. Brown’s mission was “raising a rebellion among the slaves and freeing them,” writes Early. [p. 85]  Brown’s “plan of operations contemplated a servile insurrection in all of the Southern states with all of the horrors of blood and rapine, and his acts amounted to treason, not only against the state of Virginia, but against the United States; yet there was reason to suspect that some of the leaders of the Republican or free-soil party, were cognizant of his designs if they did not secretly favor them.” [p. 86]

Early offers a Bill of Particulars against the North as it was in the years immediately as the causes of the war:

“the failure of the Northern states to comply with their plighted faith in regard to the restoration of fugitive slaves—to their interference with the institutions of those states, the persistent libels upon the Southern people, the encouragement given to the slaves to revolt by incendiary publications, the attitude of hostility assumed by a great number of the Northern representatives to the South on every occasion in which anything had been proposed or done in regard to slavery, and to the rapid growth of the party now coming into the ascendency on the ground of enmity to the South and her institutions…” [pp. 86-87]

The North, according to Early, moved after Brown’s raid to support “The Republican free-soil or abolition party.” [p. 89] Lincoln’s victory in the 1860 election meant that; “if the party electing him continued in possession of the government for any length of time, there would inevitably follow a subversion of the rights of the states and a consolidation of all power in the Federal government under the control of a sectional majority, not a majority of the whole.” [p. 92] Accordingly, South Carolina seceded and soon other “Cotton States,” as Early called them, did as well and they met to set up the Confederacy.

The next chapter of the book looks at events in what Early calls “The Border Slave States.” [p. 94] These states, including Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Tennessee, had not joined the first call for secession. In fact, Early was a delegate to Virginia’s secession convention and he voted against leaving the Union. Virginia was resistant to secession until Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 troops after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter.

While Early clearly believed that the conjoined issues of slavery and abolition were the causes of the secession crisis after the election of Lincoln, he focuses his discussion of the start of actual armed conflict on the decision to fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor in April of 1861. Early makes a personal admission:

“I must confess that, at the time, I deeply deplored and condemned the attack on Fort Sumter, on the score of policy, because I regarded the threat of the Washington Government as designed to provoke a commencement of the conflict by the firing of the first shot, and not intended really to be carried into effect.” [p. 110]

After the war ended with 700,000 dead, Early’s mind was changed and he wrote that; “There can be no question of the right of the Confederate Government to force a surrender of the fort, which had been refused, and that it was fully warranted in pursuing the course it did.”  [p. 110] In fact, he wrote, the Confederacy had not even begun the shooting war, “war had already been resolved upon, and the firing of the first gun on Fort Sumter was not its commencement. The war was begun by the attempt to hold the forts in the Confederate harbors.” [p. 110]

In his final pages, Early says that “The people of the South had never asked the government to protect slavery; they had merely asked that it should be let alone, and left where the Constitution left it.” [p. 110] New slave states had been created from the claimed territory of the existing slave states, he says, and “the states ceding the territory had expressly stipulated that there should be no interference with slavery.” [p. 119]

This mild defense of slavery described by Early was met, according to his account, with Northern and British;

“libels upon the society of the Southern states and false views of slavery as established there. Such works in both countries were evidently written by persons with prejudiced minds or who knew little practically of slavery as it existed in the South. Such was the intolerance of the public sentiment which had been fostered in both countries upon the subject, that no candid and impartial account of the workings of domestic slavery as it existed in the Southern states would be received with the slightest favor, whilst the exaggerated accounts of cruelty practiced by the slave-owners, and consequent sufferings of the slaves were eagerly accepted as the truth.” [p. 121]

Blacks are not entitled to honor for their accomplishments after emancipation, the Confederate general writes, saying that “Whatever of eminence any individual of the race has attained, is due directly or indirectly to the civilizing influence of the institution of slavery. It was the master of slaves who accomplished the greatest missionary success and the progress of his ward since is due to the training and influence of the past. “[p. 128]

After the war ended, Early writes, Southern whites saw “their country was overrun by a superior military force, their state governments overthrown; military despotisms established over them; and in the effort to reconstruct the Union, the great mass of the people disfranchised, and the right of suffrage given to the freed slaves, because it was alleged that the Southern people were still rebellious, and so wedded to the idea of secession, notwithstanding the bitter experience of the war, that they could not be trusted with the right to vote…”[p. 107-108] Of course, “the Southern people,” as such were never disenfranchised. Some former Confederates who took up arms against the United States were disenfranchised, as were some political leaders of the rebellion. But most were soon able to vote. On the other hand, Black men who had never been able to vote in Southern history, were accorded the legal right to vote for the first time during Reconstruction.

1 Response to Echoes of Reconstruction: Confederate Jubal Early Explains the Cause of the Civil War (part two)

  1. This is in my opinion a good essay. It’s fascinating to see exactly how Early inveigled his own arguments and views of the war as the over-arching lens through which to view the Confederate history and historiography and which mounted such a formidable challenge to any other perspective of the conflict, (be it from Longstreet, Grant, etc, etc, etc).

    What grabs my attention herein is the claim by Early that any and all marks of distinction ‘won by any individual Black American’, can not be seen as similar to their race or even themselves as historical agents, etc. Rather, this, in his view, is due to the influence of slavery upon them.


    The racism is laid on thick, as if with a shovel…

    Wow, just wow…

    I notice in that, Early expressly avoids engaging with the reality of such Black American figures as Martin Delany, Thomas Morris Chester, MW and Jonathan Clarkson Gibbs, etc. I’d call that a pretty definitive and successful challenge to his argument in this regard!!

    While Early doesn’t elaborate on how allowing slavery to extend to the American territories in this work, Jefferson Davis did. See the article, “Jefferson Davis on Slavery in the Territories”, on the Abbeville Institute page. You can discern the exact copy of the ‘Congressional Globe’ to cite from that.

    (Shrug) were the ideas for ending slavery truly viable and practicable that Davis outlined? That’s a matter of argument. But it’s there.

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