Was the American Civil War About Slavery?

Ted Grimsrud—March 20, 2019

As I continue to read and think about the American Civil War, I find many questions to struggle with. A significant one is on the surface fairly simple: Was slavery the main issue over which the war was fought? Of course, this question turns out to be anything but simple. A lot depends on where one stands in relation to the Civil War itself.

Two different viewpoints

Clearly slavery was a contentious issue during the first half of the 18thcentury. However, a related issue was also central: How much freedom to pursue pro-slavery policies would individual states and regions have? This question led many, especially in the South, to pose the issues as centering on what came to be called “states rights,” or the relation between the self-determination of specific states and the authority exercised over states by the federal government.

So, in the years after the war ended in 1865, the general take in the South (and by many in the North) was that slavery was kind of a peripheral issue and that the war actually had most of all to do with the need the Confederate states felt to defend states rights and the Southern “way of life” in general—even to the point of defending them against invading forces from the North. This came to be known as the “lost cause of the Confederacy”the “lost cause” being the just cause of defending those rights and that way of life that, though defeated, was honorable and worthy. This view intentionally marginalizes slavery itself as a reason for the war.

On the other hand, the view I absorbed growing up in my “Yankee” environment was that indeed the Civil War was fought to free the slaves. After all, the key moment came when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863 to order slaves freed. That statement made it clear what the stakes were in the war, and it energized the North to make sure to win the war so freedom for slaves would be attained. Perhaps that hard won freedom was compromised a bit in the decades following the end of the war, but the ending of slavery was a sure achievement, one that in fits and starts the country has tried to sustain and expand.

Doubts about the main views

As I have learned more about the Civil War era and what followed, I have come to have serious problems with both approaches. Or, rather, I think there may be some truth in each one and even more truth in considering some other key factors. I certainly reject the “lost cause” argument insofar as it minimizes the roll of clinging to slavery (and white supremacy) in the South’s willingness to fight this war. I also reject the idea that the main dynamic in the war was the South defending its territory from the northern invaders. It seems to me that the South initiated the war from the beginning.

However, the glimmer of truth in the southern perspective is its implied critique of the centralized, top-down power in the Union position. Ironically, this notion of power actually seems to have not been present in a strong way at the beginning of the war. However, warfare as a rule tends to have the effect of strengthening the forces of centralized power. Thus, by the end of the Civil War the stage was set for a much stronger federal presence in the US, especially in relation to the use of military power (note, in particular, the Indian wars that followed on the heals of the Civil War as the Union completed the conquest of Native American populations under the leadership of Civil War generals such as William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan).

At the same time, I question the narrative that places the liberation of slaves at the center of the concern for the North. While the evidence seems irrefutable that the Southern leaders were indeed deeply committed to holding on to (and expanding) the institution of slavery and that that lay at the very heart of their motivations, I don’t think the North went into the war with the intent of liberating slaves. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was mostly a tactical move to prevent England and France recognizing the Confederacy as an independent nation and to in other ways bolster Northern morale in a difficult period during the war. It is telling that the Proclamation only “freed” slaves in territories notunder Union control.

It is the case, though, that Lincoln’s edict did take on a life of its own in energizing black Americans to devote their energies to a Union victory—a result that played a major role in fueling what became a juggernaut of northern power that ended up obliterating the South’s war machine. It is also the case that the North was now committed to the ending of slavery should they win the war. And that indeed happened.

Nonetheless, had Union General George McClellan acted decisively in his approach to Richmond early in the war, the North might have actually defeated the South only months after the war began—with the likely consequence that slavery would have remained in place. And it seems clear, more importantly, that the underlying issue with relation to slavery—white supremacy—remained very much in place even with the formal ending of slavery. The tragic career of Reconstruction between 1865 and 1877 and the condition of those who had been enslaved a generation after the Civil War ended show clearly that actual social transformation and genuine justice for the victims of slavery were far from the intentions of the North.

Mixed motives

So, my sense now is that the Civil War was and was not about slavery. It should not be seen as a victory for the forces of justice and liberation. It was mainly a victory for the forces of warism—and part of the lesson to be learned from it is that war is not an effective tool to bring about racial healing and the righting of wrongs.

The Civil War was indeed about slavery for the South, in that it was criticism of slavery by (a minority) of northerners and restrictions on the expansion of slavery in the western territories that triggered profound paranoia about threats to “the Southern way of life”—which essentially meant threats to systemic white supremacy. My sense is that this threat was not nearly as dire as the Southern elite perceived it to be. In any case, many in the South explicitly justified their militaristic response to their sense of besiegement in the name of slavery.

So, there would have been no Civil War apart from the South initiating it—and the South would not have initiated it apart from slavery. By couching their uncompromising commitment to retaining the slave system in an appeal to “the Southern way of life” with its resolute affirmation of white supremacy, the Southern elite managed to gain the support and participation of the masses of non-slaveholding whites. These were the ones who died by the tens of thousands for the sake of protecting a “way of life” that not only viciously enslaved blacks but also thoroughly exploited whites such as themselves.

For the North, though, the Civil War was mainly about retaining and expanding the hegemony of the centralized nation-state. This motive was couched in terms of the sacredness of the Union—but really, it was the Union for the elite, not for the majority of its people. The southern rebellion was seen as a threat to this Union—a Union that included the southern states, slavery and all. Appeals often were made to the 18thcentury vision of a single Union of separate colonies that had energized the Revolutionary War and the other great works of the national Fathers.

It does not seem that the North fought with nearly the passion of the South. Northerners were not defending a “way of life” so much as an idea (the Union). The massive anti-conscription riots and the fact that by the end of the war over 50% of northern troops were either foreign mercenaries or southern blacks would seem to reflect that lack of passion. The northern victory does seem inevitable given the extraordinary advantages the North had related to shear resources—population, manufacturing, infrastructure, financial. In fact, the North grew stronger as the war continued while the South grew progressively weaker.

Lincoln’s priorities

In the lead up to and in the early period of the war, northern leaders continually insisted that they were not fighting to free slaves but to preserve the Union. Lincoln famously stated numerous times (even after issuing the Emancipation Proclamation) that if he could preserve the Union without freeing a single slave he would happily do so.

Now, it did turn out that Lincoln decided that he would have to free slaves in order to preserve the Union. But his decision to do so created a strongly negative backlash among many northerners who did notsee themselves risking their blood and treasure for the purpose of ending slavery. Lincoln, in fact, feared that the Emancipation Proclamation could cost him his re-election. As it turned out, important military victories in the months just prior to November 1864 assured his victory. But there was not a strong anti-slavery consensus in the North. Abolitionists, in general, were quite unpopular.

At the same time, the Emancipation Proclamation unleashed tremendous energy among black populations, both in the North and in the South. The passion to end slavery on the part of those who suffered under its yoke was immense. Historians do not agree on the impact of this passion, but clearly the northern victory was made much easier by the military contribution of the formerly enslaved as well as what historian W.E. B. DuBois has called a massive “general strike” among the enslaved that profoundly undermined the Southern economy.

The energy for ending slavery grew mightily as the war neared its end, due in part to the rise in political power among “Radical Republicans” who did genuinely hate slavery and desire a broader transformation offering genuine justice for the enslaved. So, the Thirteenth Amendment formally ending slavery was passed just before the war ended (helped, of course, by the fact that the Southern states had no voice in that decision).

Lincoln’s death and failed opportunities

It’s hard for me at this point to discern how to assess the impact the death of Lincoln had on what followed after the war. Certainly, the ascent of white supremacist and former slaveholder Andrew Johnson of Tennessee to the presidency was a disaster (I still don’t know much about how Johnson was chosen for the position—he was not vice-president in Lincoln’s first term—and what role Lincoln had in that selection). Johnson completely wasted any chance that genuine change could have been implemented quickly while the North was setting the terms of how Southern society would be shaped following the crushing of the Confederacy. At the same time, Johnson’s egregious behavior and his incompetence surely created a backlash that unified all the Republican leaders to take the steps that the Radicals favored—more so than had a more moderate Republican been in the presidency. It could be that neither the Fourteenth or Fifteenth Amendments (neither as strong and effective as would have been ideal, but both nonetheless taking strong steps toward bringing the formerly enslaved into the civic community) would have passed had Johnson not unified his opponents to strongly.

In any case, the decade after the end of the Civil War provided an opportunity for some quite positive steps toward alleviating the injustices of American white supremacy. And many creative and sincere people, white and black, worked very hard to utilize this opportunity—even, as it turned out for many, at the cost of their lives. It has finally become clear to historians as a group that Reconstruction, contrary to the picture painted by adherents of the Lost Cause mythology who dominated almost allof American historiography until only about forty years ago, was a creative effort to create a just society. But it failed—or, rather, it was defeated by terror on the part of many southerners and passivity on the part of many northerners.

With the defeat of Reconstruction, the legacy of the Civil War dramatically changed. It was not a war that addressed the injustices of slavery. It was not a war of liberation. It was a war that deepened the centrality of warism to the American psyche. It was a war that ultimately vindicated those who believed that white supremacy was worth ruthlessly fighting for. It was a war that also vindicated the American nation-state and deepened its centralized power. As a consequence of this war, the American nation-state managed in time to reintegrate the white supremacists as its strongest supporters while continuing to disfranchise people of color and the economically vulnerable. And continued racial injustice at home and a lot of carnage around the world was the result….

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18 thoughts on “Was the American Civil War About Slavery?

  1. Some would argue, and Chris Hedges would be among them, that slavery is tragically alive and well in the institutions of America today (to include the Office of the President and the Houses of Congress). It is manifest most generally in the diffuse forms of poverty and inequality but too it makes its appearance in the most intense and damaging forms of rape and pedophilia in our churches. We observe it in the racist and sexist law enforcement of the beat cops on the street and in the preferential sentencing of our judges on the bench. Slavery shows itself in human trafficking, absurdly low wages, prostitution, war, pedophilia, poverty, and in the gross inequality of access to health care in our hospitals and educational opportunities in our colleges. America lives in the illusion that sexism, racism, slavery and genocide have been abolished in America while our prisons, our Natives and our immigrants tell US a very different story.

    1. I agree, Steve. One of the problematic effects, I tend to think, of the mythology of a libertine Civil War is that people in the US have thought that slavery genuinely ended, thinking that has blinded us to the ways it continued in less formal ways (and, as you note, also in a more formal way with convicts—a good book on the latter is Slavery By Another Name by Douglas Blackmon along with a documentary with the same name as well as the more recent documentary Thirteen.

  2. What you generally seem to be saying is that slavery was a major reason for the war for the South, and was not for the North. This is most definitely true.

    The “state’s rights” thing is pretty complex. We need to look beyond the South’s rhetoric on that. If you look at the situation, the rulers of the South were afraid because slavery was not longer the dominant economic model for the nation as a whole which made them feel vulnerable to being made at some point to give up slavery, which ironically they hastened by seceding and waging war. It was actually the North which took more of a state’s rights view on slavery. The majority of the North was content with there being slave states and free states. It was the South’s ruling elite which feared this dichotomy and wasn’t comfortable with Northern states banning slavery.To them, the existence of free states posed a threat to their way of life. Of course, the North did insist that states did not have the right to secede, but aside from that was not really against state’s rights.

    Another point. The 13th Amendment did not abolish slavery. It had a very important exception cause which was widely used to preserve slavery, and definitely contributed to the USA’s extraordinarily high rate of incarceration. It is well documented that in a number of places African-Americans were routinely arrested for no valid reason to meet the demand for slaves. The “justice system” supplied slaves on demand.

    1. Thanks for the insights, Bill. It is ironic that the South would claim the mantle of “states rights” when they were being allowed to exercise them with little restrictions in relation to slavery W.E.B. DuBois suggests that only 10% of the people in the North wanted to do away with slavery in the South). Seems like there are echoes today—e.g., the Supreme Court’s “conservatives” intervening to short-circuit Florida’s processing the 2000 presidential vote).

      I am curious to learn why the 13th Amendment included that fateful exception. I doubt those who included it expected it to be used as a basis for enslaving thousands upon thousands of non-criminal blacks to work as slaves in the decades to come.

  3. “Nonetheless, had Union General George McClellan acted decisively in his approach to Richmond early in the war, the North might have actually defeated the South only months after the war began—with the likely consequence that slavery would have remained in place.”

    Sort of a pointlessly speculative question in regards to the civil war but may be applicable elsewhere, do you think it would have been better for the North to have won at this point? Does it seem that, though we more or less rid ourselves if institutional slavery because of the longer war, that the negatives of lengthening the war outpace the positive(s)? Not speaking of the evil during the war but the “deepening of the warism in American psyche” etc. Was that made progressively worse by the lengthening of the war?

    1. I’ve been asking the same question, Craig. I do think (perhaps out of ignorance) it would have been better for the war to end that much earlier, even if it would have meant slavery wasn’t formally ended as quickly. One key is the failure of Reconstruction. If it had been sustained, a more persuasive case could be made for the war’s moral validity.

      It could be, though, as I tend to think given the state of my knowledge right now, that the longer the war lasted and the more the South was devastated, the more likely it became that Reconstruction would fail—partly due to northern weariness and partly due to deepened alienation among the war’s losers.

      1. I’m missing the potential reaction of the enslaved here. What do you think their reaction would be upon learning that they were being asked to remain enslaved a while longer while their white masters were “figuring things out”? On what grounds would we grant a higher moral priority to the concerns of the white enslavers and the nation-statists than to the condition of the black enslaved?

        Agreed, an earlier end to the war might have prevented the deaths of many white folks, but it seems that such relief would have come at the expense of the lives of the many black folks who will have remained enslaved. By design, the “peculiar institution” was not innocuous: by design, it was life-threatening.

        Asking the enslaved to remain so for an unspecified–and probably unspecifiable–length of time seems to me to offer other moral hazards as well, e.g., the risk of greater numbers of rebellions by the enslaved. Bear in mind that the possibility of revolts by the enslaved was one of the deepest fears of the culture of enslavement–witness the Southern reaction to, Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, and John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. The Southern reactions to these rebellions was both swift and terrible.

        And why would the enslaved subsequently be enthusiastic about rejoining causes with the Northern forces that will have perceived to have abandoned them?

        I don’t see any easy answers here–but above all, I think we need to keep the voices of the enslaved central to the conversation. To conduct this conversation without them seems…remiss.

      2. Hi Gene—good to hear from you and to continue our conversation.

        I’m certainly not “grant[ing] a higher moral priority to the concerns of the white enslavers and nation-statists than to the condition of the black enslaved.” The central moral priority for me in this entire project is what would have been and would now be the most just and liberative outcome in relationship to the evils of slavery and its legacies.

        My agenda is to scrutinize the moral legacy of the Civil War and its long shadow in light of that moral priority. One of my main hypotheses (to be tested) is that the war was bad for everyone (except those few who grew wealthier and more powerful by it). Certainly the only people to die as a consequence of the war’s continuation after McClellan’s failure to utilize his advantages early on were not “white folks.” A large number of slaves and other blacks died as well. The mortality rate of black soldiers in the Union army was much higher than that of white soldiers, for one thing.

        Probably more important is that winning the war did not empower the North to reward the blacks who were so crucial in that victory with anything more than a modicum of freedom. The war appears actually to have failed to liberate the enslaved beyond only a formal ending of slavery. Note W.E.B. DuBois’s penultimate chapter in his magisterial book of Reconstruction—””Back Toward Slavery”—and Brian Stevenson’s comment that got me going on this, “Slavery didn’t end, it only evolved.”

        Part of the question is how much the lives of black people in the US actually had improved by, say 1910, compared to 50 years earlier. I have yet to encounter much writing about this. Surely they were better, but how much? Was that worth all the death and the empowering of warism and the sustaining of white supremacy?

        I don’t think this is question mainly about reimagining history so much as about whether we shouldn’t be much more critical of the use of warfare as a tool for making justice in every case. Another hypothesis I am testing is whether it may be that we tend to see the formal ending of slavery as too positive an achievement in a way that may push us to be too positive about the Civil War—and not as aware as we should be about the terrible elements of the Jim Crow era.

  4. Ted, you wrote in reply to Craig:

    “I’ve been asking the same question, Craig. I do think (perhaps out of ignorance) it would have been better for the war to end that much earlier, even if it would have meant slavery wasn’t formally ended as quickly.”

    This seems to me to be explicitly valuing white lives over black lives. Perhaps my concern becomes clearer if we identify the agents involved, i.e., for whom would it have been better had the war ended “that much earlier”? It’s hard to argue that it would have been better for the enslaved had the war ended with them still in chains, while the white folks went home to their families.

    I’m still a bit confused about the larger working conclusions for your piece, at least as they are laid out above. Saying that the Civil War failed to “address the injustices of slavery” seems too vaguely framed to be useful, as surrender of the South did definitively address one of the most singular injustices of slavery–the absence of equal protection under the law.

    By virtue of being citizens, the formerly-enslaved could *in principle* now enjoy the rights, privileges, and protections of law available to white citizens. Frederick Douglass was so emphatic about this–even while recognizing that the actual delivery of same was likely to be imperfect.

    I think this nuance needs to be carefully preserved in any discussion about the war’s outcomes, as no other progress was even conceivable without first establishing that principle.

    But what the war did not even pretend to address were notions like the general principle of the legitimacy of the economic exploitation of the rich by the poor, which in the South meant chattel slavery. The South liked to make great hay with the awful working and living conditions of many laborers in the north, who were held to be as bad off as the enslaved in the South. And in many instances, they may have been correct. (For better or worse, “capitalist robber barons” is still in my vocabulary.)

    But what northern workers had that the enslaved of the South did not have was personhood under the law. And the establishment of personhood under the law is the foundation, the _sine qua non_, on which our subsequent steps toward justice/civil rights have been built.

    The “slavery that was continued by other means” means to me (among many things) the continued exploitation of black labor and black bodies in the South under the umbrella of laws enacted in defiance of the principle of equal protection.

    I applaud your take on the demise of Reconstruction: indeed it did not “fail”; it was defeated, yea, it was crushed. To say simply that it “failed” is to deny the human agency involved in its defeat.

    1. I don’t agree that thinking it might have been good for the war to end earlier is “explicitly valuing white lives over black lives” (nor do I agree with the implication that it would be fine to sacrifice white lives for the sake of black lives). My sense, with the limited knowledge I have now, is that countless black lives were lost over the final three years of the war, too (literally, many weren’t counted). As well, I suspect that the number of black lives violently taken in the South in the 70 years after the Civil War may have been significantly larger than the number from the 70 years prior to the war.

      My thought is that war is always worse than the alternative—and certainly was in this case. At the same time, I believe that the most important criterion in evaluating the moral legacy of the Civil War is the impact it had on the enslaved—thinking of the long term legacy. I am trying to figure that all out. In good scientific fashion, I have hypotheses to test and intend to adjust them according to the data. So, if it turns out that the moral legacy of the Civil War was positive for the enslaved, I will consider my hypotheses to have been disproven.

      It is precisely my sense that what happened in the generations after the Civil War was indeed “the continued exploitation of black labor and black bodies un the South under the umbrella of laws enacted in defiance of the principle of equal protection” that I am hypothesizing that the Civil War was a moral disaster—it had a horrendous cost without actual providing an enduring benefit.

  5. George McClean didn’t even rejoin the Army until May, 1861. And does not even get command of what will become the Army of the Potomac a few months later. The Union was not prepared for the war and had not been preparing as the South had been. Moreover, in War, the defenders always have the advantage.

  6. Where do you get this statistic? 50% of northern troops were either foreign mercenaries or southern blacks. I think first, instead of using the term foreign mercenaries I think you mean foreign-born citizens or new citizens. Because mercenaries is a very specific context. Many of these people you are talking about were just newly arrived citizens that joined. Like Germans, escaping conflict, and the Irish. They were given fair amounts of Poles, Italians etc…

  7. Ted, I should add that I think that what unites the two of us on these issues is far stronger than what might be seen as dividing us, and that this commonality will shine through in the end.

    I do appreciate your wrestling with these questions because it makes me wrestle with them, too. I have come to believe that understanding the causes and effects of the Civil War is the cornerstone to understanding much of American history, including much of the present. Celebrating an outcome–equal protection under the law–while decrying what appears to have been the only means of obtaining that outcome is an extraordinarily difficult moral question–at least from my vantage point. The only answer I have is not an answer at all, but is instead Mencken’s supposed quip: “Every complicated problem has a simple answer. And it’s wrong.”

    1. Hi Gene. I just now saw your added comments. Thanks for the challenging thoughts. I suppose, to boil it down and use your way of framing it, the question for me is: What did the Civil War actually accomplish in relation to “equal protection under the law” for those who had been enslaved? I don’t have an answer yet. It does seem clear, though, that the descendants of the enslaved did not ever receive such “equal protection” to the degree they should have.

      If the actual extent of “equal protection” ended up by, say 1900, to be quite minimal in most of the former Confederacy (and continued to be for the next half-century), then I think “celebrating” the outcome of the Civil War is unwarranted. And, as I am trying to insist, we must also factor in other “costs” of that war—e.g., the shear death and destruction, the valorizing of war and the preparation for war, the hardening of the resolve of the white supremacists, escalating the dynamics of Empire in the victorious Union, et al. This is what I am trying to discern….

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