The Civil War Was About Slavery


John J. Dunphy

The Civil War wasn’t about slavery, neo-Confederates claim, since slavery wasn’t at the heart of the Confederacy. The federal government didn’t respect states’ rights, so the freedom-loving South was forced to secede from the tyrannical Union.

Since so many Americans these days are historical illiterates, there’s a very real danger that they’ll buy into this lie. Let’s begin our attempt to set the record straight by allowing the leaders of the Confederacy to speak for themselves. Confederate President Jefferson Davis proclaimed, “Slavery was established by the decree of Almighty God” and was “sanctioned in the Bible, both Testaments.” Alexander Stephens, vice-president of the Confederacy, stated, “Our new government is founded upon…the great moral truth that the negro is not the equal of the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race is his natural and moral condition.” Stephens was a particularly outspoken supporter of slavery. On the eve of the Civil War, he and other Southern politicians even agitated for the resumption of the Atlantic slave trade, which had been banned since 1808.

Jefferson Davis had demonstrated his commitment to slavery while serving the pre-Civil War United States as Secretary of War. The bronze statue of Liberty atop the capitol dome “looked a little strange wearing a helmet rather than a cap, as the Greek goddess typically did,” according to Andrew Ward in “The Slaves’ War.” But Davis, who had overseen the design of the statue, “knew that in ancient Greece a cap on a woman was ‘a badge of the freed slave’ and so he suggested a helmet instead.”

The argument advanced by contemporary Confederate apologists that the South cherished “states’ rights” doesn’t hold up when the facts are examined. Pre-Civil War Southern politicians showed little regard for the rights of citizens in Northern states who wanted no part of slavery. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which was supported by the South, made the entire nation a slave state by allowing slave-catchers to pursue runaway slaves into states where slavery was illegal. Northerners who refused to cooperate with slave-catchers or even gave food and shelter to fugitive slaves were subject to fines and imprisonment. Northern law enforcement officials were now legally compelled to assist slave-catchers in the apprehension of fugitive men, women and even children.

Ironically, the lie that the Civil War wasn’t over slavery is succinctly refuted by the language used in the declarations of secession drawn up by the Southern states. “She [the state of Texas] was received [into the Confederate States of America] as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery — the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits — a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time. Her institutions and geographical position established the strongest ties between her and other slave-holding States of the confederacy.”

In this declaration of secession, the Confederate government of Texas condemns the work of the Underground Railroad, whose participants tirelessly worked to secure freedom for fugitive slaves. The Northern states “have for years past encouraged and sustained lawless organizations to steal our slaves and prevent their recapture, and have repeatedly murdered Southern citizens while lawfully seeking their rendition.” Just for the record, the “Southern citizens” referred to in this passage were armed slave-catchers, who were in hot pursuit of the men, women and children who had fled their captors.

The state of Mississippi’s declaration of secession includes this revealing sentence: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.” Georgia’s declaration of secession declares: “For twenty years past the abolitionists and their allies in the Northern States have been engaged in constant efforts to subvert our institutions and to excite insurrection and servile war among us.”

The behavior of various Rebel armies during the war underscored the racism that permeated the Confederacy. The Confederate army in Pennsylvania rounded up fugitive slaves and even free blacks for transport to the South. One rebel officer boasted that he had captured 218 cattle, 15 horses and 12 “Negroes.” One child was mutilated and covered with turpentine for refusing to accompany the retreating Confederates. Jefferson Davis decreed that black Union troops captured in combat were to be regarded as escaped slaves, while white Union officers leading black units were subject to execution for encouraging slave rebellions. Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest was a slave-trader before the war. His troops massacred black Union troops who had surrendered at Fort Pillow, Tennessee in 1864. After the Civil War, Forrest served as the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

When the war ended, many slave-holders deliberately withheld telling their slaves that they were now free. One ex-slave recalled seeing his mistress lying across her bed and weeping in despair. When she was finally capable of speech, she asked her husband what they were going to do without their slaves. This scene was repeated across the South: newly freed slaves weeping with joy, while their ex-owners wept because their “property” had been liberated by the Union victory. Yes — property! Slaves were not regarded as human beings by Confederates. According to Ward, slaveholders “prided themselves on the young their slaves produced, exhibiting them to visitors like prized calves.” Ex-slave Sylvia Watkins of Nashville testified that “if the woman didn’t have children, she was put on the block and sold and another woman bought.”

So don’t allow yourself to be fooled by the self-serving drivel disseminated by neo-Confederates. The South seceded from the Union because it perceived that the expansion of slavery into western states was threatened by the election of Abraham Lincoln. The Civil War wasn’t about states’ rights. It was about property rights, although the “property” in this case wasn’t land or buildings. It was 4 million human beings that the South claimed to own and fought to keep.

John J. Dunphy is the author of “Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois” (ISBN 978–1–60949–328–8).



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John J. Dunphy

John J. Dunphy

John J. Dunphy owns The Second Reading Book Shop in Alton, IL USA. Google him to learn more about this enigmatic person who is such a gifted writer and poet.