Yes, the Civil War was about Slavery. Get over it.


Yesterday I wrote a piece about how it’s time for the Georgia legislature to stop honoring slavery, and it seems people have taken it way out of context.

The first line of that post was “Is it time to put away the war between the states?  Yes, it is.  It’s way past time.”  But some people can’t put the Civil War away. I’m not sure if it just haunts their dreams, or if they’ve got a great-great-grandfather who fought at Antietam, but these people—typically Southerners—can’t rest until they prove that the South was the victim.

The Civil War was primarily, and at its root, about slavery.  This should be obvious to anyone looking objectively at history.

They call it “The War of Northern Aggression” or “The War for Southern Independence,” or even “The Freedom War.”  I find it quite revealing that the same people who strenuously object to any thought that the war was about slavery, and not states’ rights or the right of free people to secede from the union, shrink back from the view that slaveowners weren’t interested in granting that same right (or any rights) to their human chattel.

Nobody today can argue that slavery is good—people who attempt to make that argument are the kind who spend a few hours every season secretly wearing bedsheets for hats while they roast marshmallows by the light of burning crosses.  Yet, some normally rational people, who aren’t racist pigs, can’t accept that some part of Antebellum Southern heritage consists of slavery, and a long, protracted, highly political fight for the right to continue that practice.

The Mason-Dixon line, the Missouri Compromise, and Bleeding Kansas (thank God for Wikipedia for folks to brush up) were all related to slavery and the South’s political battle to preserve it.  The Civil War might have, in some way, been about sovereignty and the right to secede, but that experiment had already been tried at the most granular level when Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act—the singular achievement of Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, whose other achievement was to lose to Republican Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

The movement was called “Popular Sovereignty” and it meant that people had the absolute right to self-govern on issues such as slavery, at the state level.  And what happened in Kansas between 1854, when it was passed, and 1861?  A mini-war, as pro-slave Missouri residents clashed with abolitionist Free-Staters who moved from such liberal bastions as New England.  There is no question that the mini-war would become a maxi-war unless the South gave up its slaves, or the union fractured.

In this case, the (Republican) liberals were right, and the (Democrat) Southerners were wrong.  The events related to slavery from 1854 through 1860, more than anything else, presaged and framed the Civil War.  There was no remaining compromise between the pro-slave South and the abolitionist North.  Call it “complicated” as much as you want; inject all the shades of grey into the reasons why the Confederate States attempted to secede, but you can’t escape the fact that the basic conflict was about slavery.  Period.

The war was horrible, and many atrocities were committed—certainly among the worst were General William Tecumseh Sherman’s march from Atlanta to the sea (along with the siege of Vicksburg).  General Robert E. Lee was a brilliant strategist, and could have won the war had Gettysburg gone just a tad different than it did.

But that didn’t happen, and the fact remains that if the Confederates had won a negotiated peace (likely through the massive intervention of European powers), they would have been at some point pressured to abandon slavery by their new European masters, to whom they would owe an enormous debt—and they’d be fighting the same war all over again, against foreign powers.  If the Confederates had won, Georgia might be flying the Union Jack or the French tricolor instead of the Stars & Stripes.

The South was not a victim of northern aggression.  It was a victim of its own dependence on cheap labor provided by slaves, who had neither a voice nor a profit from their work, or control of any aspect of their lives.  The abolitionists who wanted slavery banned, as England had done in 1833, and France in 1848, were willing to fight a war to accomplish their goal.  The secession of the southern states was merely a formality in a war which was going to happen at some point.

The Confederates badly miscalculated that after declaring their independence and seizing some Federal forts, the European powers would come to their aid, averting the need for armed conflict with the United States.  England and France, as much as they’d love to smear mud in America’s face, weren’t about to side with slaveowners.  They knew what the war was about.

As for the Confederate armies, they fought well, considering their massive disadvantage.  I am not arguing that individuals who fought for the South in the Civil War are not deserving of honor.  They are, at least to a certain point, but that point ends where slavery is brought in.  The monument at Stone Mountain is a unique and fantastic work of art, and well honors Lee and General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, as well as Confederate President Jefferson Davis.  These men have a place in southern history and heritage.  But the history of Stone Mountain itself, and the building of the monument is not as honorable.

Sam Venable owned Venable Brothers Contractors, the largest granite contractor in the south; as such he was the sole owner of Stone Mountain.  On November 25, 1915, Venable was one of 40 men who participated in the “formal induction ceremony” of the revived Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, along with the speaker of the Georgia House, led by “Colonel” William J. Simmons.

Carved in Stone: The History of Stone Mountain
Carved in Stone: The History of Stone Mountain

Until the State of Georgia purchased Stone Mountain in 1958, Sam Venable granted the Atlanta Klavern of the KKK an easement to the summit of Stone Mountain to hold their rallies.  This is the soil that is now recognized by the Georgia legislature in O.C.G.A. § 12-3-191 as “a Confederate memorial and public recreational area.”  It’s also the soil where the Stone Mountain Memorial Association—a government-chartered organ to manage the park—wants to install a tower in honor of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I want to put my call to the Georgia Legislature to stop honoring slavery into this context.  O.C.G.A. § 12-3-191 should be repealed and replaced with a rededication of Stone Mountain Park as an educational and cultural memorial, honoring the Civil War dead on both sides, along with the fight for racial equality, which would be properly served by a monument to MLK.

Why anyone would be against this somewhat symbolic, though politically smart reboot of Stone Mountain by our lawmakers is beyond me.  The only reasons I can come up with are that they misread my first post and thought I wanted the bas relief monument to be destroyed (I don’t), or they simply can’t move the mirror enough to see that the heritage that the South fought for in the Civil War was racist and immoral.  Everyone else sees it.

(crossposted from sgberman.com)

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