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Belated Thoughts on the Civil War Sesquicentennial

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Within the Veil was he born, said I; and there within shall he live, — a Negro and a Negro’s son. Holding in that little head — ah, bitterly! — the unbowed pride of a hunted race, clinging with that tiny dimpled hand — ah, wearily! — to a hope not hopeless but unhopeful, and seeing with those bright wondering eyes that peer into my soul a land whose freedom is to us a mockery and whose liberty is a lie. — W.E.B. Dubois, “The Souls of Black Folk”

I realize I’m a couple days late posting anything on this, but Tuesday was a 12-hour war of attrition at work, and I didn’t get around to writing anything until today.

Nevertheless, for anyone who may have been living under a rock for the past couple of weeks, Tuesday marked the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War. On April 12, 1861, confederate forces bombarded Fort Sumter off the coast of Charleston, S.C., prompting the official start of the war. Nearly four years to the day and more than 500,000 dead troops later, Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865. Four years and two days after the start of the war, Lincoln was shot by the firebrand, John Wilkes Booth, at [[Ford’s Theatre]] in Washington.

As an original resident of South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union, I am interested in examining both the causes of the Civil War and the effects from the fallout. My Civil War professor at Clemson University, Paul Anderson, supplied me and my fellow history students with this pithy summation of the root causes behind the War Between the States:

Both slavery and anti-slavery caused the Civil War.

This was literally one of the first sentences he uttered to us after roll call.

We know the story well. Southern aristocrats and politicians, of course, were fighting for the extension of slavery into the territories and for the continuation of slavery in the South, the South’s economy being almost exclusively dependent on the peculiar institution. That’s not to say that the North didn’t have a stake in the preservation of slavery. It was both a purchaser of Southern goods and an implicit participant in the slave trade, as slaves would often be brought to America on Northern ships. I’m sure Northern ship owners profited mightily from this enterprise.

But the South seceded for another reason: to protect the aristocratic way of life, as Anderson notes in this op-ed piece for The State. They were also interested in preserving

“the unique aristocratic tone of the state’s politics and culture.

Against that backdrop, the loss of Charleston signaled the immediate end of the slaveholding Confederacy, but it also ushered in a second kind of civil war, an internal struggle between the antique ethic and a newer, empowered force of democracy.”

Many Southerners today talk a lot about the issue of states’ rights and how the start of the Civil War was, in part, fueled by the federal government encroaching on state sovereignty. While states’ rights was on the minds of Southern leaders, they were thinking of states’ rights to preserve slavery and fight for its extension into the colonies. There was simply no other main cause of the war. All other purported “causes” dreamed up by Southerners today attempting, perhaps, to soften the legacy of their ancestors are sub-causes of the one main cause. Lincoln’s first inaugural address, which was devoted almost entirely to the issue of slavery, makes this abundantly clear:

“One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute.”

Southern leaders prior to the war and afterward, shook in their trousers at the thought of four million free black people who were previously subjugated by rich whites. Thus, in the aftermath of the Civil War, a “new kind of civil war” commenced, as Anderson puts it, between the struggle mentioned above.

South Carolina’s 1895 constitution signaled the

“shotgun wedding of democracy and white supremacy.”

Hence, a new kind of subjugation persisted for another 100 years following the end of the war in the form of the Black Codes and Jim Crow. It’s a sad commentary that we, as a nation, took so long to recognize the true liberty of four million other human beings who played no small part — mostly against their will — in helping build the economic foundation of our-still young country in the 19th century. The 150th anniversary should be as much about honoring their legacy as remembering the half million people who died fighting for their respective causes.

[Photo Credit: Library of Congress photo collection – Morris Island, South Carolina. Battery Weed. Five 10-inch siege mortars.]
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About Jeremy Styron

  • Heritage, Not Hate:

    Sesquicentennial. 150 years after the U.S. Civil War began at Fort Sumter. That memory came and went on April 12 as though it had never happened. No memorials. No programs. No celebrations. Even the president’s schedule was rather ordinary: daily briefing at 9:30, plaque dedication for Bob Dole at 10, lunch with veterans, meeting with Secretary Gates at 4:30, and a meeting with Secretary Clinton at 5. Remembering the Civil War was not on Obama’s itinerary. But let’s be honest… it wasn’t on any of ours either…

  • STM

    Jeremy: “They were thinking of states’ rights to preserve slavery and fight for its extension into the colonies,” “colonies” should obviously be replaced with “territories.”

    That’s right … territories, not colonies. The US had not yet annexed The Philippines or Hawaii, among other places, so of course at that time, and until that had happened, it had no colonies.

    That came a little bit later.

  • STM

    No, rubbish, not about slavery at all … it was all about states’ rights. How many times have you heard that one????

    But it’s all true: Some states’ rights to keep slavery as an institution.

  • Liz

    Yes, I agree slavery was the main issue then. But, what percentage of southerners actually owned slaves? What was the issue that fueled the common folk to fight for the Confederacy?

  • Thanks for reading, Boeke,
    No one said they were noble, just aristocratic. I’m sure Southern leaders thought they themselves were noble, however, not that it matters. Glad you have fought against racism and the reverse kind. I’m as against getting privileged treatment because of my whiteness. I don’t know if it’s still around, but there was a movement at one time to stamp out references to race at all. We are all humans, of course, and one day, perhaps hundreds of thousands of years from now, human races will probably be less discernible, or so some theorize.

  • Glenn,
    Thanks for reading. Yes, I know. Some people are insufferable that way. Shamefully enough, that word has been tossed about from older members of my own family. Not in an angry, but in jokes, which is just as worse I suppose.

  • Boeke

    I grew up in the supposedly civilized northern midwest and had a similar experience, although probably attenuated compared to the MS South.

    The “N word” was common and colored people (blacks, chinese, mexicans, italians(!), Irish and even some norwegians(!)) were excoriated as inferior, except for the occasional “uppity N word”!

    My mother had a finely tuned sense of racism and could place anyone instantly on her scale.

    I hated it! I fought against racism at every turn. And that goes for reverse racism. I was scrupulously fair.

    The civil war was NOT a struggle to save a ‘noble’ way of life. It was to preserve the slavery and oppression of people. There was nothing noble about the antebellum life.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Jeremy –

    Where I grew up in the MS Delta, I was told again and again (and believed it for a long time) that the Civil War had little to do with slavery and everything to do with “state’s rights”.

    Of course, the people who were telling me this were also the ones who – though they staunchly denied (even until now) being racist at all – would use the n-word without a second thought and didn’t think anything at all of telling n-word jokes at the drop of a hat.

    The point is, they actually believe they’re not racist…but they do not see the results of their own words and actions. I believe the same can be said today of “get that bone out of your nose” Rush Limbaugh and “I get along fine with the blacks” Donald Trump.

  • In this sentence: “… they were thinking of states’ rights to preserve slavery and fight for its extension into the colonies,” “colonies” should obviously be replaced with “territories.” Apologies for the typo.