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Heritage Not Hate


About the Causes of the Civil War, the Nature of Southern Heritage, the Confederate Flag, and Other Issues

There have been a lot of myth conceptions spread around about issues of Southern history recently.  This page helps to explore some of these myth conceptions using facts -- not hearsay -- and actual quotes -- not interpretations --from those actually involved. Browse through and learn a little bit more about our "Southern Heritage," but don't be surprised if you decide that maybe some aspects of our heritage ought to be left in the history books.

Bgv00114.wmf (1156 bytes) Myth Conception 1. The Civil War wasn't fought over slavery -- most Southerners didn't even own slaves.

slave sale 1859.gif (13581 bytes)This one is almost (but not really) true. In South Carolina, for example, only about 47% of the families owned African American slaves on the eve of the Civil War. So in that sense "most" didn't -- but that tells only part of the story. What did Southerners themselves say about the cause of the Civil War? The South Carolina Secession Convention adopted the Declaration of Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina, written by Christopher G. Memminger of Charleston. In this document the secession of South Carolina from the Union was rested squarely on two factors:

  • the North's hostility toward slavery, and
  • the North's refusal to enforce the fugitive slave laws.

In fact, in a 4-1 vote, the convention refused to even consider adding other issues, such as the tariff!

One of delegates, Thomas Jefferson Withers, had earlier written: "The true question for us is, how shall we sustain African slavery in South Carolina from a series of annoying attacks, attended by incidental consequences that I shrink from depicting, and finally from utter abolition? That is the problem before us - the naked and true point."  

So the members of Convention pretty clearly realized that they weren't concerned about any issue other than their right to maintain, buy, and sell human property -- African American slaves.

Virginia Senator Robert M.T. Hunter asked, in the Confederate Congress, "If we didn't go to war to save our slaves, what did we go to war for"

In his inaugural address, James L. Orr, who became governor of South Carolina in 1865, remarked, "All parties know that slavery was the real foundation of the collision. The South engaged in it to preserve and perpetuate it; the North to destroy it."

Bgv00114.wmf (1156 bytes) Myth Conception 2: But South Carolina democratically voted to secede from the Union -- so everyone supported the idea.

Actually, the Convention that voted to abolish the Union in South Carolina was carefully picked by the legislature. Of the 169 delegates almost all were slave holders -- and nearly half owned 50 or more slaves. This group represented the elite of South Carolina's political and slave-holding class: five former governors, 40 former state senators, 100 former state representatives, 12 clerics, and many lawyers. This was no cross-section of South Carolina (remember that only 47% owned slaves, only 9% of the slave owners held 50 or more slaves, and only about 4% of all of South Carolina's families held 50 or more slaves). This group had a vested interest in making sure that slavery continued unmolested.

In fact, when you look at all of the state conventions you see a similar scenario. The Union was dissolved not by any popular vote, but rather by 854 men (no women), all selected by their various state legislatures. And 157 (nearly a fifth) of these actually voted AGAINST secession. So the fate of the Union -- and the fate of 9 million people -- was decided by fewer than 700 mostly middle or upper class white males. And in Tennessee, where a popular vote did defeat secession, the governor orchestrated the dissolution of the Union single handedly!

Bgv00114.wmf (1156 bytes) Myth Conception 3: The Civil War was really about the Constitution -- about legal issues.

Perhaps more than anything else, this was a smokescreen created by Southerners to make secession more palatable -- it was a device they used to such an extent that even they probably began to believe it. But it is just a myth.

If you read the congressional debates, or Southern editorials, or the speeches of the leading fire brands you get no list of rights that were endangered by the Union, except for one "right" -- that of owning other human beings.  No one was complaining that the federal government was interfering with state taxation, or the building of roads, or internal commerce, or the development of state militias, or external trade, or anything else. In fact, one historian, William C. Davis, observes that, "states rights" wasn't really even used as a defense until 1865 -- when it was used by the builders of the "Lost Cause" to distance themselves from what the Civil War was really all about -- slavery.

In fact, South Carolina's champion of state's rights,  John C. Calhoun, was quick to support a program of internal improvements that used federal money to build roads and canals in the 1820s -- a scheme that was a far bigger challenge to state's rights than anything previously seen. Earlier, in 1812, his fiery nationalism pushed a declaration of war against Britain. It wasn't until late in life -- after several failed attempts to become president of the United States -- that he turned away from his nationalistic stands and toward what many regard as a "fanatical regionalism."

If the South was so concerned about Constitutional rights, let's look at how the Confederacy dealt with constitutional issues on her own soil. Freedom of the press was always tenuous -- beginning with the Secession convention in Charleston. At that time Robert Barnacle Rhea advised the editor of the New York Evening Post not to send a reporter: "No agent or representative of the Evening Post would be safe in coming here . . . He would come with his life in his hand, and would probably be hung."  On April 14, 1861, even before President Lincoln called out troops to suppress the rebellion, the Confederate States arrested a journalist, Lawrence Matthews, for his reporting in Pensacola, Florida. And throughout the Civil War, journalists were required to obtain travel passes. And the Confederacy's President, Jefferson Davis, had no philosophical turmoil suspending the writ of habeas corpus and jailing Southerners without specified cause. In fact, it was only 15 years after the Civil War, when Jefferson began writing The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, that he began to construct the myth of constitutionalism.

Bgv00114.wmf (1156 bytes) Myth Conception 4: But the Constitution was just a contract and Southerners had the right to break that contract.

There are actually few ways to unilaterally break a contract. In December 1860 when South Carolina broke "the contract," the Union had done nothing to interfere with slavery -- or any other right.  Nor would anything be done that interfered with "state's rights" for another two years. In actuality, South Carolina left the Union out of a fear of future actions -- which any lawyer will tell you is not an acceptable reason to break an agreement or contract!

Bgv00114.wmf (1156 bytes) Myth Conception 5: It still couldn't have been about slavery -- look at all the yeoman farmers that fought for the South.

That's true, yeoman farmers did fight for the South. In fact, like most wars, the poor do the bulk of the fighting, and dying. But look at the propaganda that urged them on -- that encouraged them to look at this fight for slavery as their fight. The South Carolina elite had been organizing yeoman farmers into local vigilant associations and minute man organizations during all of 1860 -- all in an effort to win the hearts and minds of poor whites.

As early as 1858 the Charleston Mercury proclaimed: "the free white man here stands above and superior belonging to the master ruling class . . . . He has every reason to make property secure and to perpetuate justice and freedom amongst those of his class." By 1860 the Charleston Mercury was urging its readers to "inform every man (the nonslaveholder as well as the slaveholder) of the deep and vital interests that are involved in our slavery institutions" and readers were warned that they must protect the "rights of freemen" against the "tampering thieves of abolition."

Yeoman farmers were reminded that in property rights -- such as the right to own African slaves -- lay their claim to masterhood and all of its prerogatives. One fire-eater went to great lengths to explain what emancipation of slaves would mean to "the non-slaveholding portion of our citizens," observing that yeoman would then have no rights that weren't also conferred on slaves. "In no country in the world does the poor white man whether slaveholder of non-slaveholder occupy so enviable a position as in the slaveholding states of the South."

Poor whites were told, "The poor man has as much at stake [in slavery] as he who is possessed of hundreds of negroes. . . . He has his all at stake" including his person, his wife, his children. "These two races [white and "negro"] cannot live together on terms of equality."

Yeoman farmers were told that if they didn't fight to support slavery their worlds who tumble down around them and they would be no better than slaves. After a while, when the issue of slavery became more divisive, Southern leaders turned to the idea of "sacred civil liberties" in order to justify the dissolution of the Union.

Bgv00114.wmf (1156 bytes)  Myth Conception 6: But slaves were more than property, they were part of the owner's family.

am i not a man.jpg (35364 bytes)This is just another smoke screen, trying to make it seem inconceivable that the Civil War was fought over slavery. But listen to what a few Southerners had to say: Alexander H. Stephens, the vice-president of the Confederacy, in 1861, wrote that the cornerstone of the Confederacy "rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man." The Confederacy's president, Jefferson Davis, was even more blunt: "We recognize the negro as God and God's Book and God's Laws, in nature, tell us to recognize him -- our inferior, fitted expressly for servitude . . .  You cannot transform the negro into anything one-tenth as useful or as good as what slavery enables them to be."

Bgv00114.wmf (1156 bytes)  Myth Conception 7: African slaves in South supported the Confederacy.

A few did. But it's pretty clear that the South never trusted African Americans.  Confederate States Attorney P.H. Aylett remarked, "It is a matter of notoriety in the section of the Confederacy where raids are frequent that the guides of the enemy are nearly always free negroes and slaves."  And Confederate Secretary of War James A. Seddon rejected a request to allow free blacks in Culpeper County, Va. to cut and haul wood, saying, "The free negroes are not such faithful friends I fear as to make them reliable in a County so likely to be visited by the enemy." 

Even more telling is that in all of the identified records, never was an African American prisoner in the Confederacy identified as a "Union man," as so many whites were.  It seems that they were all assumed to be Union supporters and there was no point in making this notation. As one modern historian, Mark E. Neely, Jr. has noted, "Confederate authorities surely knew that almost no African American, free or slave, was genuinely loyal to the Confederacy."

Bgv00114.wmf (1156 bytes) Myth Conception 8: It wasn't a "civil war," it was a "war between the states."

This is one of the most frivolous myth conceptions. A few try to claim that this is a misnomer on two accounts. First, they tell us that  a "civil war" is a war between two opposing groups fighting for control of the same nation -- and that the South fought only for control of itself (and its nearly 4 million slaves).  Second, they tell us that the war wasn't between citizens of the same country, but between two opposing countries.

This only demonstrates a basic misunderstanding of definitions. Dictionaries tell us that a "civil war" is "a war between opposing groups of citizens of the same country" or something similar. They say nothing about them fighting for control of the same country. One historian cuts to the heart of the matter, explaining that a civil war is simply a conflict "in which citizens fight among themselves." And that is certainly what happened in America between 1861 and 1865.

But what about this claim that Southerners weren't part of the same country -- that the Confederacy was a separate nation? Virtually everyone defines nationhood as consisting of three things: (1) setting up and maintaining a civil government, (2) protecting territorial integrity, and (3) being recognized as a nation by other countries. Of these three elements, the Confederacy achieved -- at best -- only the first and even the civil government barely functioned. The Confederacy lost territory almost from the outset. And as for international recognition -- not a single nation granted formal diplomatic relations or exchanged ambassadors.

At best, then, the Confederacy was an organized insurrection or separatist movement -- and the rebellion was a civil war.

Bgv00114.wmf (1156 bytes) Myth Conception 9: Slaves were valuable and had to be well treated.

This myth conception is singularly insulting, since it implies that slavery is acceptable, as long as slaves are treated well. And it implies that as long as slave owners weren't "Simon Legares" then bondage might even have been good for the slaves! Just as importantly, however, it demonstrates extraordinary ignorance concerning the conditions of slavery that prevailed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

For example, Carolina rice fields have been described as charnel houses for African-American slaves. Malaria and enteric diseases killed off the low country slaves at rates which are today almost unbelievable. Based on the best plantation accounts it is clear that while about one out of every three slave children on Carolina cotton plantations died before reaching the age of 16, nearly two of every three African-American children on rice plantations failed to reach their sixteenth birthday and over a third of all slave children died before their first birthday.

However valuable slaves might have been, they were commodities and were used as such. They were valuable -- but only for what they could produce and for the wealth that they would generate for their owners.

Confederacies "exist wherever the future is feared, the present is based on false premises, and the past is viewed with nostalgia."                                                  --Henry Hobhouse

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