The estimable Will Moredock, whose good taste is reflected in the kind words he had to say about me in a recent column, is, I’m afraid, wholly wrong in a typical liberal way in attacking me for my stand on the causes and tenor of the war mistakenly called the Civil War.
He cleaves to the good liberal line that the war was all about slavery. It was not, nor did anyone think so until a recent generation of Marxist-influenced historians, ardent champions of the centralized industrial state, began to argue that it was. Slavery certainly played a part in the Deep South’s decision to secede after the 1860 election left it with almost no power on a national level, and a defense of the slavery society helped push the rest of the South into the Confederacy after the Northern invasion. But slavery and its abolition had nothing to do with the Union’s decision to fight the war, whose over-arching purpose was a Northern determination to keep the Union intact as an economic engine and the Southern tariff-collecting ports in Union hands.
The North started the war, with an armed armada of at least 26 guns and 1,400 men sent to reprovision Fort Sumter and keep Charleston Harbor producing imposts for the Union treasury. This is what Lincoln had threatened in his inaugural speech, saying he would consider “invasion of any state” only if it interfered with his right to “hold the property and places” the government owned and not if it continued slavery, for he declared he had “no purpose to interfere” with that institution. Lincoln even went farther, defending slavery as firmly as any Southerner and supporting the just-passed Corwin Amendment that guaranteed its perpetuation.
There was no threat to slavery in the Republican platform nor in any act of the Lincoln administration during its first two years. When Lincoln was pressured to issue the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, it was designedly only a “war measure” to try to promote plantation rebellions in the South, not to bring freedom to black people as a whole, since it applied only to the Confederacy and not to the Union states with slavery. As Secretary of State William Seward said at the time, “We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.”
And Moredock’s idea that thousands of slaves joined the Union army in the first years of the war is false, since, when Union generals Fremont and Hunter tried emancipation and recruitment in the places where they had control in 1861 and 1862, Lincoln was firm and swift in rescinding their policies and disciplining them. He chose to encourage slaves to join the Union army only after the Emancipation Proclamation because the army was having serious recruitment problems. He was interested in soldiers, not free men.
I should also challenge Moredock’s suggestion that the founders of the Confederacy were special because they believed that “the Negro is not equal to the white man” and whites were superior. There was probably not more than a handful of people anywhere in the United States who did not believe that. Indeed, Lincoln himself at various times said the same thing.
Now all this is plain, proven history. I am not a historical “revisionist,” as Moredock charges. I’m just a simple historian trying to get us all to understand the truth. The reason I think it matters is that if the world is led to believe that the war was started by the South or that the North was fighting to end slavery, then the people will falsely equate secession with slavery and regard secession, as a general political act, as wrong.
Not until we understand the truth of that time can we understand secession — the act by which the United States was originally created — as a legitimate political act, quite apart from slavery, and with no necessary provocation to war except when the other side wants to create one.
Kirkpatrick Sale is the author of 12 books, including Human Scale, Power Shift, and Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War On the Industrial Revolution. He is the director of the Middlebury Institute and lives in Mt. Pleasant.
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