Jamie Malanowski reflects on his Civil War Centennial. This is the money section of the essay:
But 50 years later, as we enter the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, we must realize that for those of us who care about history and this particular event, work still remains to be done. There remains a basic ignorance about the Civil War, an ignorance that fosters myths and fabrications, and deforms our understanding of ourselves.
For example, when asked about the cause of the war, far too many people will say that there were many reasons. Slavery was one; states rights, tariffs and northern aggression were others. This is sad, because when you read the words spoken by the leaders of the rebellion, when you read their secession ordinances, there is only one reason: slavery — the preservation of slavery, the extension of slavery, the expansion of slavery.
Six hundred thousand Americans did not die for anything as nebulous as states rights or tariffs. They died because slaveholders wanted to preserve their human property and expand their slaveholding empire, and they were willing to demolish the union and bring tragedy to nearly every family in this land in order to protect their right to own human beings.
To this I want to add that my reading of Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative both supports Malanowski’s conclusion but does so in a fascinating and less straightforward way. The correspondence between Southern officers, soldiers and politicians reveal the extent to which states rights and sovereignty motivated the South. They were fighting for their nation — their way of life that was inextricably linked to a vision of society that legitimated slavery. Yes, slavery was the main cause of the war. Without it there would have been no war. But once the war started, states rights and sovereignty stoked it. This vision of national struggle helps us to understand the tenacity of the Southern effort, their willingness to pay the ultimate sacrifice in treasure and lives. The war became something far bigger than slavery, which remained at its very core.
In the North, the impetus for war was to preserve the Union. It then expanded to end slavery and, later, to preserve the model for republican rule for the entire world. This scope needed to expand to keep fueling the effort and Lincoln new it. He recast the war accordingly, though preserving the Union remained its core objective. The meaning of the war had to expand for the South if it was going to rise to Lincoln’s challenge. Southern leaders came to understand that Lincoln had maneuvered them at every turn into fighting to the bitter end. They could not hope to extract the sacrifices from the Southern population simply by peddling White supremacy, as embodied in arguments about property rights. The only way to preserve its social and economic system was to establish independence.
What is interesting about the communiques and letters cited in Foote is that it was not a sell job by the part of generals and politicians. They were not simply shills for the plantation aristocracy, as some would have it. It is clear, at least it is to me, that these men believed that they were fighting tyranny. They believed that they were fighting a revolution for independence, for their peculiar form of liberty and, yes, for republicanism albeit one that would lock in White supremacy at its core.