The American Civil War Was and Wasn’t “Over Slavery”

By Paul Thomas Zenki

North and South have each spun their protective mythologies …

At half past seven on a chilly spring evening in 1861, Confederate Vice President Alexander “Little Alec” Stevens pronounced from the stage of the Savannah Theatre, to the raucus enthusiasm of the crowd spilling out onto Chippewa Square, the central doctrine of the newly formed Confederate States of America:

The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution….

Our new government is founded…, its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

And indeed the constitution of the CSA, adopted less than two weeks earlier, forbade the passage of any “law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves” (Article I Section 9) and ensured that “the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress and by the Territorial government” in any new territories acquired by the Confederacy (Article IV Section 3).

More to the point, all four Confederate states issuing a declaration of causes in addition to articles of secession  — Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas — enumerated slavery together with states’ rights and Lincoln’s election as reasons for their actions. All but South Carolina devoted more space to the discussion of slavery than to all other causes combined.

Given all that, how can anyone possibly say the American Civil War wasn’t a “war over slavery”?

First of all, it wasn’t a “war over slavery” in the sense that many Northerners now believe it to be, which is to say a war to end slavery.

Slavery was doing just fine in the antebellum South at the time, and while the industrial Northern states had abandoned the practice by mid century, free-state politicans and jurists showed precious little stomach for national abolition. The Wilmot Proviso, which would ban slaveholding in territory acquired from the Mexican-American War, had been defeated at every pass. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act recognized slaves as property even in free states and brought federal powers to bear in returning escapees to their putative owners. The 1857 Dred Scott decision of the US Supreme Court not only categorically denied all rights of citizens to slaves, but to any free person as well “whose ancestors were negroes of the African race, and imported into this country, and sold and held as slaves.”

Yet despite all this, Southern politicians were continually whipping up fears of abolitionist Northerners, who were something like the “gun grabbers” of their day, nefarious outlander elites hellbent on destroying the traditional American “way of life” by threatening to deny legally protected rights and property to true-blooded patriots so as to victimize and subjugate them. Nevermind that no such actions were actually being taken. While it was certainly true that the battle over free and slaveholding territories on the western frontier had turned ugly and bloody, the border conflict posed no real threat to extant “slave states” and was itself an outgrowth of power struggles between the geographically-based agrarian and industrial political blocs in Washington DC, whose relative strengths were continually at play as westward expansion triggered the admission of new states, along with their populations of new voters.

When Abraham Lincoln of the pro-abolition Republican Party was elected president in 1860, the Southern political leadership found themselves losing control of the narrative they’d plied for so long to cement their popular support. Contrary to current “Lost Cause” mythology, which holds that the common Southerner was dragged into the conflict more or less in self-defense despite having no personal interest in the question of slavery, being of too meager means to actually own any other humans himself, it was in fact the popular furor over Lincoln’s election that finally tipped the wagon. Having been harangued at every opportunity about the inevitable and imminent demise of the Southern culture and economy should the abolitionist Lincoln gain the White House, much of the general populace accepted their doom as a given once the event came to pass, with secession from the Union as the only effective recourse.

And so, the war.

But the reality Lincoln had to deal with once Fort Sumter was attacked in April of 1861 was quite different. Abolition was not, in fact, the zeitgeist of the North, and from the get-go the conflict was framed as a battle to save the Union. The Emancipation Proclamation was not issued until 1863, against the general advice of Lincoln’s cabinet, and was justified as a war measure intended to cripple the Confederate military by enabling their enslaved laborers to flee. Even so, the proclamation triggered draft riots in New York and Boston, and the Union states of Delaware and Kentucky continued to allow slavery until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.

But there is perhaps an even more significant sense in which the American Civil War was not a “war over slavery.” The enslavement of black persons was, after all, merely the proximate cause, the triggering mechanism. The actual stakes were, and had long been, the balance of power between two groups of well-heeled white men. Power and money were the prizes in their political tug-of-war. Slavery was only the rope.

Engraving showing a man in a white suit attacking a man in a black suit with a cane, while a few men in the background look on, some with amusement, and others ignore the scene while arguing among themselves. The caption reads: Southern chivalry - argument versus clubs.
In May of 1856 Democratic Representative Preston Brooks beat Republican Senator Charles Sumner unconscious with his cane on the floor of the Senate chamber, in response to Sumner’s speech blaming the authors of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, including Brooks’ cousin Andrew Pickens Butler, for violence in Kansas. (Image public domain)

To say that the institution of race-based, inherited chattel slavery in the US was “what the war was about” is, sadly, to give nineteenth century America more credit than it is due. It’s like saying a gang war is over “turf,” which is only superficially true — it’s much more accurate to say the conflict is over control of prostitution, drug, and extortion rackets and the money obtained thereby.

If there is any truth to the notion that the American Civil War was a “war over slavery,” it’s that eventually it became one. As Union forces made inroads into Confederate territory and former slaves fled North under protection of the Emancipation Proclamation, attestation to the realities of slavery gained increasing circulation and its personal horrors came to exert a greater hold on the public mind. By the time the war was over, putting an end to the “peculiar institution” once and for all had become an inextricable goal of the Union effort.

Unfortunately, the spate of post-war support for race reform flagged as the difficulties of “reconstruction” became painfully clear and the emotional fervor of the causus belli faded into the past. Initial efforts to provide property to freed slaves did not survive Lincoln, and African-American legislative representation effectively collapsed in the chaos surrounding the election of 1876. America descended into Jim Crow, from which it still struggles to emerge.

Along the way, North and South have developed self-aggrandizing mythologies about the war. The South has its “Lost Cause,” a grab bag of revisionist histories in which paternalistic slaveholders, legalistic causes, and valiant common-man soldiers form a blind around the well documented history of Confederate and proto-Confederate appeals to a vicious and ubiquitous policy of white supremacy. The North has its “war to end slavery,” a loosely scripted docudrama in which the Union plays Knight of the Round Table, pure of heart in its selfless quest for the liberation of others.

Isn’t it pretty to think so?

While I suppose the latter mythology is the more benign of the two, and I would bet it will outlive its counterpart, buying into it has its own set of dangers. It lets us off the hook too easy, lets us pat ourselves on the back too quickly, whether we’re non-Southerners who get to play the good guy in our mental re-enactment of the battle, or Southerners who get to bask in the glow of allyship for rejecting our native Big Lie. It also allows us to imagine that the crusade was somehow won, that the music swelled and the credits rolled after the set was struck at Appomattox Court House, while turning away from the ugliness of the horror-show sequels that continue to be released.

Of course, I’m not about to climb onto any high horse over the phrases we use to describe the American Civil War. I’m not out to police anyone’s language. People will continue to say that the war was “over slavery,” and that will be true enough in a way. But it will not be entirely true, not essentially true. And we should not allow that superficial truth to blind us to the reality of our history, which continues to be less noble and less praiseworthy than the descendants of either warring side generally care to admit.

Header image: Union regimental fife and drum corps, including African-American enlistees (National Archives)

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Paul Thomas Zenki is an essayist, ghostwriter, copywriter, marketer, songwriter, and consultant living in Athens, GA.