The Civil War is over. However, there exists a group of people who want to not only celebrate our state’s role in this enormously tragic war, they want to promote their own version of the causes for the conflict. This is my beef.
The Civil War was the deadliest war in our nation’s history, and the war began with the signing of the Ordinance of Secession in Charleston on Dec. 20, 1860. Southerners wanted to preserve slavery because the institution was an integral part of its agrarian economy. By contrast, the Republican Party in 1860 declared slavery “the great moral, social, and political evil of the day.” The Republican Party even noted in its 1860 election-year platform that it was opposed to the spread of slavery. The party’s presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln won. Lincoln’s election in 1860 was the direct catalyst that prompted the Ordinance of Secession in Charleston.
Confederate sympathizers today have mostly abandoned the argument that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery, although 50 years ago, slavery was hardly mentioned in the 100th celebration of secession. Instead, they try to argue that Lincoln and other Northerners were not really opposed to slavery and that while slavery might have been a cause for the conflict, it was not the primary cause. These arguments are off base for two primary reasons.
First, had the Confederacy won the Civil War, slavery would have undoubtedly continued in the South. As a result of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Union victory, slavery was abolished. For that reason, it does not matter what some Northerners thought or what Lincoln may have said in one quote. A victory by the North did equate to the end of slavery. A victory by the South would have meant the opposite.
Secondly, it was well known prior to 1860 that slavery was the central issue dividing the country, not taxes or states’ rights. Said S.C. Rep. Laurence Keitt in an 1860 speech: “African slavery is the cornerstone of the industrial, social, and political fabric of the South, and whatever wars against it, wars against her very existence. We of the South contend that slavery is a right, and that this is a confederate republic of sovereign states.” The New York Tribune echoed this sentiment when it wrote: “We are not one people. We are two peoples. We are a people for freedom and a people for slavery. Between the two conflict is inevitable.”
American citizens of the day knew that slavery was the driving force between North-South tensions and that it was the direct, primary cause for the Civil War. The reason for the revisionist history is that slavery is now widely understood to have been immoral, even in the South. For any member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans to concede that the Civil War was fought for slavery, they must admit that their ancestors died in furtherance of an immoral cause. Who wants to do that? There must be some noble purpose, even if it’s concocted after the fact, to justify the immense loss of human life. Hence the celebration of Southern valor and bravery in the face of so-called Northern aggression. When one understands the alternative to commemorating secession as something positive, one understands why denials about the true cause for the Civil War persist to this day.
Knowing this does not prevent me from recoiling whenever I read an op-ed or see a television interview promoting this “celebration of history.” You do not see the Japanese celebrating the bombing of Pearl Harbor or England commemorating the start of the Revolutionary War. There is no rational reason for them to do so. It seems that celebrating the commencement of a lost war that would have preserved an immoral institution would be secondary to promoting unity between the descendants of slaves and slave-owners. Maybe that will happen at the secession bicentennial.