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. 

But New England, which had resented the South since the initial flurry of Virginia presidents—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Tyler—abolished slavery soon after the Revolution and expected everyone else to do so as well. It was in New England—which itself had attempted to secede from the Union in 1814 over dissatisfactions with Madison’s War of 1812—that the abolition movement began. By 1820, it had been well established on the premise that slavery was a social evil, and abolitionists agitated on that basis until the early 1840s, when leaders decided that slavery was a “moral wrong.”  

This, for the next two decades, precipitated a frenzy of accusations and name-calling between the two sections of the country, even prompting religious schisms. The Baptists and Methodists separated into Northern and Southern branches, and churchgoing Southerners found themselves shocked and distressed at being called “evil barbarians,” among other scandalous names, by Northerners they did not even know. In 1828, against the furious opposition of its Southern members, Congress (led by a New England president, John Quincy Adams) passed what came to be called the “Tariff of Abominations,” a protectionist measure that not only cost the South cotton sales, but caused the price of most of the goods it bought to rise as much as 50 percent.

Hatred infected every walk of life, even the sedate United States Senate. In 1856, a South Carolina congressman named Preston Brooks became so incensed at an antislavery speech made by the Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner—which included a reference to Brooks’s relative, Senator Andrew Butler, as choosing “the harlot, Slavery” to be his “mistress”—that he accosted Sumner at his desk in the Senate chamber and caned him nearly to death with a gold-handled gutta-percha walking stick. Northern condemnation of this outburst was universal while delighted Southerners showered Brooks with replacement canes. 

Then there was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s bestselling (in the North) novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which outraged Southerners charged was overblown, exaggerated nonsense, and a slur on their way of life. Newspapers on both sides contributed immensely to the furor, with Northern papers making up stories depicting slaves’ lives as relentless nightmares of cruelty and sorrow, and Southern journals manufacturing tales of abolitionists fomenting slave insurrections.

For their part, a good many Southerners had subscribed to the theory, advanced by such luminaries as Jefferson Davis and Raphael Semmes, that Yankees constituted an entirely different race of people, and a lower one at that, thus ratcheting up the un-pleasantness to a new level. This novel theory held that the North was populated by descendants of the Puritan Roundheads of Oliver Cromwell, who, in 1649, had overthrown and executed Charles I before being themselves forced to flee to Holland, and finally settling in New England. Once there, they had become a dour, money-grubbing tribe who persecuted Roman Catholics and instigated the Salem witch trials, stirring up trouble wherever they went.

Southerners, on the other hand (or so this notion held), were the cohort of Cromwell’s enemies, the “gay cavaliers” of Charles II and his glorious Restoration, who settled at Jamestown and spread across the South with their easygoing, chivalrous, and honest ways—omitting, perhaps on purpose, that settlers of other Southern states, such as Georgia, had been convicts.

In any case, by the eve of the Civil War, antipathy between the two regions was such that it prompted one elderly Tennessean to declare: 

I wish there was a river of fire a mile wide between the North and South that would burn with unquenchable fury forevermore, and that it could never be passable to the endless ages of eternity by any living creature.

With talk like that, it’s a wonder the war didn’t start earlier. A Southern woman was heard to lament around that time that “because of incompatibility of temper .  .  . we have hated each other so. If we could only separate, a ‘séparation à l’agréable,’ as the French say it, and not have a horrid fight for divorce.” But that was not to be, and the divorce was hotly contested. 

Fleming never claims that slavery wasn’t the underlying cause of the Civil War, nor that slavery was anything but wrong. But he lays out a number of the ancillary issues as well, which, over the years, combined to cause the South to want to leave the Union. This well-researched and well-documented treatise also does not suggest that the typical Rebel soldier was fighting to keep slaves, or that Union soldiers were fighting to make them free. (He points out that it was said of Union general William Tecumseh Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee that its soldiers would “rather shoot an abolitionist than a Rebel.”) 

Fleming’s splendid story is one of connecting dots reaching back to Revolutionary days, when the two sections of the country began to drift apart. For 80 years, the antagonisms built up insult by insult, outrage by outrage, bone by bone, and the anger swelled, until, at last, it exploded into war. 

In the process of putting these matters in perspective, Fleming also puts the lie to adherents of the “new normal” school, who insist that the South of that era was an illegitimate hog-wallow of evil and cruelty whose institutions​​—​​its government, its armies​​—were illegal and had no right to exist. They would be correct on that last point: The Confederacy’s right to exist was settled on the battlefield, once and for all, in 1865. But while it existed, its institutions were part of the fabric of America—and the Americans who manned them and ran them, and died for them, North and South, deserve a respectable place in its history.

Winston Groom is the author of Forrest Gump and, most recently, Shiloh, 1862. His forthcoming book, The Aviators: Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh, and the Epic Age of Flight, will be published in November.