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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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.