“I think it wiser not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.” Robert E. Lee (1869)
I bought my first car when I was sixteen years old. It was a used 1964 Chevrolet Impala, red, two-door, four speed (stick shift), dream car. I paid $600 for it. I blew it up drag racing on a Mississippi country road after only a few months (I still won the race).
On the front of that car when I bought it was a Confederate battle flag plate with “The South’s Gonna Rise Again” emblazoned in gold letters. I wasn’t very studious at that point in my life (remember I said I was 16 and drag racing on a country road?) and the significance of that license plate never really crossed my mind back then. I now know the meaning and significance of that flag and that phrase.
Most (but not all) informed Americans understand that The Civil War and its causes have been thoroughly researched and debated by scholars and others since the war ended. Some writers argue that the War was fought over states’ rights, economic differences, or because of the election of Abraham Lincoln. These arguments are generally offered by those wanting to justify the secession of the Southern states or by those wanting to hold on to the Southern “culture” and heritage represented by heroes and symbols from the war. I believe they are misguided.
Yes, I know the Southern states were fighting over their states’ sovereignty. Yes, I know that most Confederate soldiers didn’t own slaves (because they were too poor to own that much property). Yes, I know there were stark differences between the industrial North and the agrarian South. I’ve heard all the arguments.
But the war was about slavery. It was about those Southern states wanting to continue enslaving and often mistreating men, women, and children because of the color of their skin. That is the states’ rights issue for which they fought. So the bottom line is that the Southern military heroes who were great tacticians, great leaders, great men in other areas of their lives, were fighting to retain an immoral and inhumane institution. And the symbols such as the Confederate flag that still find their way in to our public discourse were a part of that horrific chapter of American history. It was all about slavery.
The events, economic factors, and anti-slavery literature leading to Southern secession would fill countless pages. Essentially, the Southern states that declared themselves independent of the United States Constitution were angry that the national government was limiting the expansion of slavery to the new territories. Abraham Lincoln, the Republican presidential candidate in 1860, ran on a promise to oppose the expansion of slavery, so within a few months of his inauguration the Southern states claimed secession and the Confederacy was formed. So at its heart that secession was about slavery.
Here are a few facts about American slavery:
- Virginia laws as far back as 1669 stated that if a slave disobeyed his or her master and the punishment resulted in the death of the slave, the master could not be charged with a felony.
- The infant mortality rate for slave children was twice that of white children.
- The slave ships bringing captured Africans to the New World via the Middle Passage were cramped, to say the least. Slaves were forced to lie on wooden beds, male slaves were shackled, they were exposed to disease, and female slaves were subject to rape, and both male and female were subject to brutal treatment and beatings while aboard ship.
- During the plantation era about 1/3 of Southerners were slaves.
- Only about 25% of all Southerners owned slaves. However, slave owners controlled a very large number of the governmental positions and a whopping share of Southern wealth. In Texas, for example, only 27% owned slaves in 1860 but the slave owners controlled 68% of governmental positions and 73% of the state’s wealth.
- At least some slaves were subject to daily torture and beatings because their masters were cruel.
- In most cases female slaves had no legal protection from rape and sexual assault from their masters.
- When they were placed on the auction block black women were often forced to strip off their clothing so potential buyers could prod and poke on their bodies.
- By 1850 there were more than 3.2 million slaves in the United States.
So yes, The Civil War was about states’ rights; it was over the rights of states to continue treating other human beings as less than human. And yes, the war was over economic differences but the South’s plantation society was built on slavery.
And of course I know that slavery was not something unique to our country, but that does not excuse it. And I know slavery was introduced thousands of years ago, but again that is no excuse. The first declared truth in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence was that “all men are created equal”, yet slavery violated that very first precept. That violation meant that the majority (white folks) had to somehow morally justify the notion that slaves were not real “men” since they were not considered equal.
I also know that we often say that such things must be considered in historical context, and that is certainly true. The times were different. Human sensibilities were at least somewhat different. But even if we do accept the argument that slavery must be considered in historical context that does not excuse glorifying those men and symbols that represented slavery.
As I said earlier, the Confederate war heroes were often good men in other respects, but they and the other symbols of the Confederacy should be allowed to die because they represented slavery. The fact that those heroes and symbols have now been adopted by the KKK and other racist groups should be sufficient evidence. These symbols do represent our heritage, but it is the part of our heritage represented by bigotry and malevolence rather than the kindness and generosity found in most Southerners these days. I’m more than happy to release forever the bigoted part of my Southern heritage.
And the quotation by Robert E. Lee above was his objection to establishing a proposed monument in Gettysburg following the war. Lee thought building monuments commemorating Confederates should be avoided.