From street names to local politics to tourist attractions around the Lowcountry, the institution of slavery is arguably the single-most-significant historical theme still affecting Charleston, now a city which attracts millions of visitors each year and thousands of new residents each month. A just-released book by College of Charleston history professor Adam H. Domby examines the fallacies of the Confederate narrative which still define how many people see our diverse, growing state. This week, we asked him to break down four of the lies and misconceptions woven into the mythology of the Lost Cause at the heart of those who seek to rewrite Confederate history — as Domby calls it in his new book, The False Cause. —Sam Spence
The Civil War had nothing to do with slavery
Many Americans grow up learning that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. Let us begin with the simple truth: Slavery had everything to do with the Civil War. Don’t take my word for it, take theirs. As the vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Hamilton Stephens famously told a crowd in Savannah in March 1861, Confederates rejected Thomas Jefferson’s declaration that “All men are created equal” and the founder’s belief that slavery “was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically.” Instead, Stephens told the crowd slavery was a good thing, that “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” While uncomfortable to read now, in 1861 this was widely understood to be the cause of the war by anyone paying attention.
Mississippi’s secession declaration began its list of “the prominent reasons which have induced our course” with the statement, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.”
“That we do not [seem to] overstate the dangers to our institution” it continued, “a reference to a few facts will sufficiently prove” that slavery was threatened enough to justify secession. This was followed by a list of the various ways slavery was threatened, including Republicans refusing to let slavery expand into new territories, the Northern press condemning slavery and advocating abolition, and the fact that Northern states “nullified” the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 by refusing to enforce it. That is right, one of the key complaints was Northern states asserting that they had a right to ignore federal law. The only state right that concerned seceding states was the right to slavery.
It was ex-Confederates and their children who rewrote the cause of the war after the fact. This served a variety of purposes from hiding how definitive their defeat had really been, to justifying cries of “states’ rights” when defending segregation.
Not everyone agreed with this rewriting of the war’s cause. As ex-Confederate guerrilla John Singleton Mosby complained in a 1907 letter to a friend. “The South went to war on account of Slavery,” he wrote. “South Carolina went to war — as she said in her Secession proclamation — because slavery [would] not be secure under Lincoln. South Carolina ought to know what was the cause for her seceding.”
Indeed, South Carolina did know the cause of their secession, and their convention, like Mississippi’s, made a list of complaints in 1860. Every one of them was tied to slavery.
All Southerners supported the Confederacy
First off, not all Southerners were white. Indeed, Clemson professor Vernon Burton likes to point out that the majority of South Carolinians supported the Union because the majority of South Carolinians in 1860 were enslaved, so one might even argue that South Carolinians won the Civil War. More than 185,000 African Americans — the vast majority of them Southerners — served in the United States military during the war. More than 5,400 South Carolinians joined United States Army regiments raised in the sea islands. When Charleston fell to United States forces in 1865, it was a South Carolina unit, the 21st United States Colored Troops (USCT) that led the way into the city.
Additionally, not all white Southerners supported the Confederacy. Around 100,000 Southern white men served in the United States military instead of the Confederate Army. That is more men than Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia included at its largest. Imagine, for a moment, how the Confederacy having an entire additional army could have changed the war’s progress.
Indeed, back-of-the-envelope math indicates that white and black Southerners combined provided more than 10 percent of the United States military’s manpower during the Civil War. And this is just those Southerners who joined the Army as a form of dissent. There were other ways to resist, from draft dodging to providing the Union with intelligence to even joining the U.S. Navy.
Enslavers were benevolent and enslaved people were happy
Slavery was a system of oppression based on violence and the threat of violence to extract labor. Economic interest did not protect enslaved people from abuse. Enslaved people were routinely branded, mutilated, whipped, and killed by their enslavers. Advertisements seeking runaway slaves sometimes offered larger rewards for a fugitive’s decapitated head than their return alive. Charleston had an entire city institution, the workhouse, devoted to punishing enslaved people. Parents saw their children ripped from their arms and sold out of state, never to be seen again. Spoleto Festival USA’s 2020 headliner Rhiannon Giddens wrote a song based on an actual advertisement from 1797 that offered a woman for sale, with her 9 month old available at the “purchaser’s option.”
Even the kindest slave owner who promised not to whip or sell their slaves as long as they worked used the threat of sale, subsequent violence, and family separation to extract labor. Enslaved people dreaded their master’s death not because of love for their enslavers, but because settling an estate often meant breaking up slave communities and families. As works like Ed Baptist’s The Half that Has Never Been Told and Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers They Were Her Property, have shown us, there was no “good slave owner.” There were worse slave owners.
Rape was commonplace on plantations. Before anyone gets dreams of consensual sex, there was no way to say no without enduring a beating and, ultimately, rape. Southern newspapers openly advertised young lighter-skinned women — usually with straight hair — for sale as sex slaves. “Fancy girls,” as they were called, often fetched the highest prices in the New Orleans slave mart. Young women were viewed as luxury goods. The fact that slave owners routinely sold away their own children was an open secret. Even Mary Chesnut, wife of a South Carolina senator and Confederate general, acknowledged the fact in her diary, writing, “The mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children.” That was the brutal reality of American slavery. (For more on this, read Rachel A. Feinstein, When Rape was Legal: The Untold History of Sexual Violence During Slavery.)
Enslaved people were not content either; they resisted their own enslavement personally and on principle. The 1739 Stono Rebellion just outside of Charleston and Denmark Vesey’s failed 1822 plot were both examples of enslaved people seeking their freedom by any means necessary. Everyday forms of resistance included running away, working slowly, and stealing.
Enslaved people were not fans of the Confederacy. Documents produced by Confederates show that in one group of 102 enslaved people on Sullivan’s Island, 32 ran away in just three months over July-September 1864 — nearly a third of the group. Those that escaped toward Union lines may have enlisted in the USCT. Similarly large numbers of people self-emancipated from the island in the months before and after. During the Civil War, enslaved people not only ran away in massive numbers (over 400,000 escaped to Union lines by 1864 alone) but they also provided valuable intelligence and labor to United States forces.
The fabrication of “Black Confederates”
While people often forget the importance of black troops in the United States Army, a new lie has grown in popularity in the last 50 years. Claims that tens or even hundreds of thousands of black soldiers fighting for the Confederacy have popped up all over the internet and even made it into a fourth-grade textbook used in Virginia. These fabrications grew out of earlier myths claiming that enslaved people were loyal and happy, lies which evolved so that impressed laborers building trenches are now remembered as black Confederate volunteers. In fact, until March 1865 it was illegal under Confederate law to enlist African Americans, and one plan to save slavery by getting enslaved people to fight for the Confederacy never got off the ground.
Claims of black Confederates are often based on pensions given out to a handful of formerly enslaved people who claimed they had been “loyal slaves” during the war, and remained obedient (read: subservient). By kowtowing and playing along, these elderly and indigent men might get a tiny pension. Those that issued the pensions, however, clearly did not view them as Confederate veterans. While impoverished Confederate veterans in South Carolina became eligible for pensions in the 1890s, formerly enslaved African Americans were ineligible until 1923. Even then, the measly 328 pensions issued to African Americans paid less than one-fifteenth the amount as those given to white veterans. Among these pensions, a Jim Crow hierarchy determined who supposedly deserved more.
Today these pensions are often cited as evidence that the Confederacy wasn’t racist and the war couldn’t have been about slavery. But a handful of meager payouts to people who presented themselves as “loyal slaves” while living under the oppressive Jim Crow regime does not change the war’s cause. Instead, it tells us that some South Carolinians found ways to manipulate an oppressive system to gain financially. Indeed, perhaps we should celebrate these men, not as black Confederate soldiers, but as survivors of both slavery and Jim Crow.
For more on these and other myths, as well as how each of them was created and continues to support white supremacy today, read Domby’s new book The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory (University of Virginia Press, 2020) available from your favorite bookseller. On March 5, Domby will hold a book talk at Blue Bicycle Books (420 King St.).