The Magazine

Why They Fought

For more reasons than you might think.

Jul 22, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 42 • By WINSTON GROOM
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It is no news that the age of political correctness and revisionist history is upon us, and nowhere is it more apparent than in the subject of slavery and the American Civil War. In the past half-dozen years, literature has appeared condemning the Southern general Robert E. Lee as a traitor, slaver, and racist. In Memphis, the city council has voted to remove the names of Confederate leaders from its city parks, and similar efforts calling for the removal of statues and other symbols commemorating the old Confederacy are in progress across the South. 

Confederate reunion, Washington, D.C., 1917

Confederate reunion, Washington, D.C., 1917

Recently, an op-ed column appeared in the New York Times insisting that Southern Army posts such as Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Fort Benning in Georgia, Fort Lee in Virginia, Fort Hood in Texas, Fort Polk in Louisiana, and five others—all named for Confederate generals—should be renamed, since their provenance might be offensive to black soldiers. Having served, in 1965-66, at the Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg, and the Airborne School at Fort Benning, with both white and black soldiers, I believe I can say that there is a certain pride in having participated in those tough military programs. The very names of these bases inspires awe and reverence in Army circles. 

Clearly a move is afoot among a certain school of activists, including some historians, to expunge all vestiges of legitimacy, or pride, in the Southern Confederacy of the 1860s. In 2011, for example, when the city of Charleston organized a reenactment of the sesquicentennial of South Carolina’s secession from the Union, one activist told reporters that it was “almost like celebrating the Holocaust.” The movement has even developed a name for those who disagree with it: “Lost Causers,” whom they mock in the same manner as they do “birthers,” “truthers,” and the like. “Confederate apologists” is another frequent appellation for this race-baiting, for that’s ultimately what it is. By this movement’s lights, anyone who takes pride in his Southern ancestors is, by their definition, a condoner of slavery and de facto racist. 

It comes, therefore, as a welcome relief when a historian of the stature of Thomas Fleming takes it upon himself to set the record straight about the complex, irresistible causes of the Civil War—as opposed to the present mantra among those historians (and others) who lay the responsibility wholly at the feet of a rabid mob of lash-wielding, daughter-raping, family-separating Southern slavers who attacked the North because they feared Abraham Lincoln would end slavery. 

Early on, Fleming points out that only 6 percent of the Southern population owned slaves, and that fewer than that percentage of Confederate soldiers owned them, calling into question the assertion that Southern soldiers were fighting to preserve slavery. Instead, he postulates that over time the South had developed an almost paranoid fear (“disease in the public mind”) of slave insurrections—such as the savage uprising that had occurred in Haiti and in Nat Turner’s bloody revolt in Virginia—or a race war, if slaves were emancipated. 

There had also, more recently, been the murderous attempt by the fanatical John Brown—using the rallying cry, “without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin”—to arm and free slaves for a killing spree against whites. This stood out to Southerners as an example of the dangers of abolitionism: They were especially incensed when it was revealed that Brown had been backed by a number of wealthy New England abolitionists, and they were outraged when many in the North began to hail Brown as a hero and martyr. 

The most interesting aspect of Fleming’s approach is his development of the longstanding antagonisms between North and South that are not a part of schoolchildren’s education or the usual dialogue on the subject. By 1861, Fleming suggests, it had become Southerners’ worst dread that, in slavery, they had the tiger by the tail; and with both houses of Congress and the White House controlled by the anti-slavery Republican party, they were not disposed to let go of the tail and see what the tiger would do. 

A similar disease, Fleming asserts, had fixated itself in the public mind of the North, which became known as abolitionism. African slavery had existed in America for nearly 250 years before the Civil War, was enshrined in the Constitution, and was retained after the colonies became the United States. Indiana and Illinois, for example, abolished it in their constitutions when they became states in 1816 and 1818, respectively; but New York maintained some forms of slavery until 1841, New Jersey until 1846, the District of Columbia until 1862, and Delaware until the end of the Civil War.