People enjoy getting worked up over the Civil War. It has long been a sport. Pick Team North or Team South. The Yankees or the Johnny Rebs.
Is there room for anybody who believes that both sides (more specifically, the motivations of those in charge) were in the wrong? The motivations behind the Civil War are largely unknown or misunderstood by the American public. It’s time to bust the myths.
In 1863, two years after the Civil War began, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. In it, he declared that all slaves living in the Confederacy were henceforth free. The order did not apply to the slaves living in the border states. The chief motivation for the Union from the beginning was self-preservation.
According to Lincoln:
“I would save the Union. … If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it. … What I do about Slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save this Union.”
And yet, most children are taught in school that the Union fought to free the slaves. While the slaves were freed in the process (as a very successful strategic move), their freedom was not even a minor motivation for the war.
On the other hand, many parents in the south teach their children that the prime motivation for the Confederacy was “states rights.” That is another misconception.
The primary motivation, as the official state declarations for secession show, was indeed slavery. The Confederate states did not secede for the sake of seceding. They seceded in order to maintain the culture and economy of slavery. Why? Because there was a widespread fear that eventually, whether Lincoln or someone down the line, would move to abolish slavery and succeed due to the electoral advantages of the non-slave holding states.
Now that those myths have been clarified, lets discuss secession, just war, and other issues.
Many will argue that the Union was justified in fighting the Confederacy to prevent them from seceding. The right of secession is a good principle. It’s how this country was founded. The Colonies seceded from Great Britain. On the other hand, the principle of coercion is a bad one. People have a right to be free to exercise self-determination.
Even looking exclusively at states in America, the right to secede was never in doubt. It was understood that the Constitution was a compact. States voluntarily joined, and they could voluntarily leave. Back then, we were known as “these United States,” not “the United States.” The Confederacy, like any other state or combination of states, had the right to secede.
But just because the Confederacy had the right to secede did not mean that secession was the right thing to do. People have the right to say bad things, but it does not mean they should. As mentioned, the reason the Confederate states seceded was to preserve slavery. There is no way to get around the fact that slavery is horrible. It cannot be justified, regardless of how slaves are treated. The right to freedom and self-determination applies to individuals as well, and the slaves were being denied that.
And so, the Confederacy was clearly in the wrong.
At the same time, the Union demonstrated no moral authority of their own, instead it took the stance of an authoritarian bully. Think of the great opportunity the northern states had. They could have, from the start, declared human slavery an abomination and pledged to eradicate it using any means necessary. That would have been totally justifiable and good.
Instead, the Union responded to their neighbor’s secession by attempting to prevent them leaving. That is not self-defense. That is not defending others. It is an unjust reason for waging war, and it betrayed the Founding principles of the nation. Dedicating to preserving the Union, the northern states decimated the south, slashing and burning wherever they went.
It is a shame that the Union did not fight to free the slaves, or for that matter attempt to free them using non-violent methods.
The Civil War was a mess all around. The worst part is that most of those who did the actual fighting were caught up in the ambitions of the elite on both sides. The common man just wanted to be patriotic, or wanted to defend their property, all at the mercy and manipulation of the politicians.
We should not attempt to whitewash or sugarcoat the Civil War. History repeats itself.