Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Origins of the American Civil War

Charles F. Bryan Jr.--the president and CEO emeritus of the Virginia Historical Society--took on the question of what caused the American Civil War in the Sunday edition of the Richmond Times Dispatch.
Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States 150 years ago. Within six months of the election, 11 Southern states seceded from the Union to form the Confederate States of America. Soon North and South were plunged into a ghastly civil war that resulted in losses proportionally comparable to the European nations during the world wars.

What caused such a national calamity? Why did Southerners react so radically to a presidential election? Those questions have been raised from the moment the guns went silent the spring of 1865. With the Civil War sesquicentennial commemoration fast approaching us, the debate has begun anew.
You can read Bryan's entire column at the Richmond Times Dispatch.

There are still many who are in deep, deep denial about the underlying cause of the American Civil War. Many Southerners experience cognitive dissonance when they approach this subject. On the one hand, we are surrounded by monuments tot he courage and sacrifice of Southern fighting men. Southern generals, particularly in the eastern theater, demonstrated a mastery of defensive tactics--Robert E. Lee won more than one battle against overwhelming odds of two and nearly three to one. Is it really possible that so much courage, so much skill, and so much sacrifice could be poured out for the ignoble cause of preserving slavery?

Many Southerners cannot resolve the courage of Southern fighting men with the base motives of the Southern political elite, and so they construct elaborate justifications for the actions of the South in late 1860 and early 1861. It is wasted effort on their part. The inescapable reality is that slavery was the primary--very nearly the solitary--motivating factor behind the actions of the Southern ruling elite.

While the average Southerner may not have owned slaves, the average member of the Southern ruling elite owned several. Then as now, the very wealthy exercised disproportionate influence over society. Much as large corporations and oil companies use their influence to benefit their interests today, the large slave owning planters of the Deep South manipulated Southern politics to protect their "right" to own negro slaves.

Mr. Bryan rightly points to the documentary evidence from the period to support his argument. Slavery was woven into the very fabric of the new republic Southern leaders were trying to construct.

As the war progressed and the reality that for Southerners it was a "rich man's war and a poor man's fight" sank in, the South suffered from a crippling rate of desertion as poor whites "voted with their feet." In the end, while slavery certainly caused the American CIvil War, it also undermined the Southern war effort, as ordinary Southerners became increasingly unwilling to die in order to uphold slavery for the very wealthiest among them.

You can follow the Civil War and the Civil War Sesquicentennial day by day at "The American Civil War" blog.

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