Joseph Cotto, 9/7/2015 [Archive]

Race and the Civil War

By Joseph Cotto

We have heard much about the Civil War in recent months.

The racially-motivated slaying of eight black churchgoers in South Carolina brought Confederate insignia to the forefront after the shooter was photographed holding a Rebel battle flag. What followed was the banner's removal from the war memorial on Palmetto Statehouse grounds, retailers purging their inventory of Confederate memorabilia, calls for public spaces to relieve themselves of longstanding Rebel monuments and renewed racial tensions.

In late August, those believing that Confederate monuments should fall got their wish — at least in the University of Texas. There, an outdoor statue of Jefferson Davis, the first and last Confederate president, was taken down.

Rancor over any and all things Rebel is rooted in the idea that Confederates seceded from the United States, proceeding to fight a war against it, because they wanted to preserve legalized slavery. That slave labor was allowed in four Union states, and remained permissible there even after the Civil War ended, puts a dent in this argument.

Still, the narrative reigns supreme.

Just what really caused the Civil War? Dr. Paul Gottfried, who has written several books about politics and history, is a retired professor of humanities. Considered one of America's leading paleo-conservative thinkers, he has strong views on what spurred the fight between North and South.

"Although slavery was not a direct cause of the war, it did contribute to political, economic and cultural differences between the sections that led to escalating tensions," Gottfried told me. "It seems unlikely however that if the Southern states had been allowed to secede, their peculiar institution would have continued down to the present. I'm also not sure that Lincoln by invading the South found the best way to deal with the secession.

"The number of lives that were lost and the devastation of entire regions of the country in order to end the secession were truly staggering. Were it not for the injection of the race issue, I doubt that Lincoln would still be remembered fondly as the president 'who saved the Union.'"

Gottfried later added that he "would not deny that slavery was an underlying factor in the drive toward secession, but it would be wrong to treat that institution as the only factor (given the fact that most Southerners and Confederate soldiers did not own slaves). Lincoln's invasion of the South and the subsequent depredation of the defeated region during Reconstruction were disasters, no matter what lies we are fed by retread Stalinists like Eric Foner."

Major-General Patrick Cleburne was one of the Confederacy's most gallant and insightful officers. The Anglo-Irish immigrant had a view of Southern society far more clear-minded than the norm.

"Satisfy the [black] that if he faithfully adheres to our standard during the war he shall receive his freedom and that of his race," Cleburne wrote not long before his death in battle. "Give him as an earnest of our intentions such immediate immunities as will impress him with our sincerity and be in keeping with his new condition, enroll a portion of his class as soldiers of the Confederacy, and we change the race from a dreaded weakness to a position of strength."

Also: "It is said that slavery is all we are fighting for, and if we give it up we give up all. Even if this were true, which we deny, slavery is not all our enemies are fighting for. It is merely the pretense to establish sectional superiority and a more centralized form of government, and to deprive us of our rights and liberties."

The bottom line is that slavery was the most obvious difference between Northern and Southern sociopolitical norms. However, other differences played a role in setting each region against the other.

Northern states had an economy centered around manufacturing and finance, with agriculture on the back burner. Southern states, meanwhile, were almost entirely agrarian. Yankee politicians often favored an evolving view of constitutional law, while Southern public servants were largely strict interpreters. The North needed throngs of new immigrants to remain afloat, but in the South, large-scale immigration would prove injurious.

Simply put, the country was divided against itself. How could it stand?


Copyright 2015 Joseph Cotto, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Joseph Cotto is a historical and social journalist, and writes about politics, economics and social issues. Email him at [email protected]

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