The Sesquicentennial Is Upon Us

As an editor at large, I get to be considerably at large and so I am in fact living these days across the Cooper River from Charleston, South Carolina. That was the place, as you may remember, where the phenomenon erroneously called the “Civil War” began some 150 years ago, and where some folks now are determined to remember what went on and some others are determined to protest whatever went on then and is going on now.

It seems to have become something of a national issue, and being in a good position to take a look at the events this spring commemorating the sesquicentennial of what they like to call “the late unpleasantness,” I thought I’d try to shed a little light amid the considerable murkiness of ignorance all around. But first I think it’s important to remember that the secession that took place 150 years ago was in a grand old American tradition. The American “Revolution” was, in fact, a war of secession – 13 colonies breaking away from the British Empire – not a war of conquest, and most of the Founding Fathers understood that to be a given right when they created the Articles and then the Constitution. The creation of the Republic of Vermont in 1777 was another act of secession, from both New Hampshire and New York. And just 25 years after the new nation was born, representatives from all New England states (only one from Vermont) met at a convention in Hartford to consider secession from the United States if their grievances against President Madison’s conduct of the war of 1812 and limitations on Atlantic trade were not satisfied; in the event, they did not vote for secession, but its spirit was in the air.

So in that context, let’s make clear that what began 150 years ago this April was not a true civil war, except in the sense that there were two sides in one country, because there was no attempt by one side to take over the other, as in the more familiar English civil war between Parliament and Charles I. The South did not want to run the Union, it wanted out of the Union. That makes it a war of secession (similar to the war of 1775-1783) or, as various forms have it, the War of Southern Secession, the War Between the States, the War of Northern Aggression, or the War to Prevent Southern Independence – all more accurate than “Civil War.”

Next, let’s see who really began it. The first conflict had to do with Washington’s unwillingness to give up Federal forts and bases in states that had declared their independence, or even to negotiate some kind of settlement. After declaring independence in December 1860, South Carolina sent two delegations to Washington with the express purpose of working out terms, including monetary compensation, for the turning over of Federal outposts in Charleston Harbor, including Fort Sumter. Refusing to negotiate, President Buchanan in January sent ships with 200 troops intending to restock and reinforce Fort Sumter, an island only four miles from downtown Charleston. The first one was fired on and forced to turn back, and the South looked for some reconciliation. But when Lincoln took office two months later he still refused to negotiate and, a month after saying he had no intention of invading the South, accomplished that in effect by ordering a second flotilla of armed supply ships to force its way into the harbor. Upon learning of the second fleet, in what seemed a clear and deliberate act of war, the government of South Carolina repeatedly demanded that the Unionists in the fort surrender. When they refused, the Carolina battalions gave warning on April 12, and after an hour began firing. The fort, low on munitions as well as provisions, finally surrendered the next day, the soldiers were transported by Confederate steamers to Union ships outside the harbor, and the only casualties were two Union soldiers that blew themselves up by accident during a cannon salute during the lowering of the U.S. flag.

Exactly what Lincoln wanted. It mattered not who committed the first act of war, which was the North, but who fired the first shot; that would work in the Union propaganda machines sufficiently to have it understood not only in the North but in the Border States and territories that the South had started the war. A Union invasion of a revolutionary Confederacy that fired first seemed only a fit and proper response.

Which in turn brings up the next nettlesome issue that always surrounds this issue: slavery, and the motive for Northern invasion. In fact, after the fall of Fort Sumter the Union armies descended on the South in 1861, or tried to, in order to put down what Lincoln held to be a revolution by a federation of states that had illegally left the Federal compact. They did not, nor would their generals or soldiers have even so formulated it, invade the South to eliminate slavery, in the cause of abolition, or for the liberation of Negroes. It was not formally or informally, in the minds of either the Union armies or their civilian instigators, a war about slavery. The great myth that the Union was fighting for a high moral cause, the elimination of chattel slavery and freedom for four million oppressed people torn from Africa, was ultimately a very convenient falsehood that served Northern ends later on in the war, particularly in distorting world opinion so that neither England nor France, though they might have had some allegiance to the cause of independence, were able to take the side of the Confederacy. But even then, the ultimate welfare of black Americans and their peaceful economic and social integration into white American society was never, but to a tiny few – and certainly not to Lincoln or his government – a moral (or even political) principle even thought much less expressed. The deep racism of the American North, though the victors would try to go on to forget it, was as dark a stigma against the Union as anything it would project on the South.

And the Emancipation Proclamation? Well, in the first place, it had nothing to do with slavery, per se. It did not abolish slavery. It decreed that slaves in the Confederacy only were to be free, but not those elsewhere in the Union or the territories (Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri all had slavery, as well as Washington, D.C., until 1862). It was at bottom a military ploy, hoping to create rebellion and civil unrest on the South’s plantations at a time when the war was not going all that well for the Union. (“It has no constitutional or legal justification, except as a military measure,” its creator acknowledged.) It had no particular moral implications, and it made no provision for how the liberation was to be effected, what would happen to the slaves after they were emancipated, what the slaves would in fact do for a living, or even where they were to go if they left the plantations that had been their home for generations. (They could not, incidentally, go north, because no state there would welcome them and a good many, including Lincoln’s own Illinois, had laws forbidding immigration and settlement of Negroes.) Unlike a number of serious schemes that had been proposed, North and South, before the war, the Proclamation did not deal with necessary issues of compensation for deprived slave-owners, integration of ex-slaves politically or economically into white societies, or even for their deportation to Africa, an idea that Lincoln in particular had favored. It was, in short, a military ploy without moral or humanitarian foundation.

Finally, we should understand that the issue of slavery, strictly, was not the cause of Southern secession or the reason for the war on the Confederate side. The South did not want to protect slavery from a Northern attempt to abolish it, because no such attempt was ever intended or expressed by any serious party, and indeed Congress in 1861 had explicitly defended the continuance of the institution in the South. Nor did the South want to extend slavery into the Western territories, because it was clear it was neither a useful nor a welcome practice there, and besides when it formed the Confederacy it no longer had any constitutional claim to influence in those sections.

What the South wanted was to continue an economic system that it had inherited for 200 years, that had been fostered and maintained by Northern interests (particularly New England shippers and textile barons) that entire time, that had been the foundation of the United States economy both North and South from the beginning of the nation, and that was a way of life now so entrenched no one knew how to alter or ameliorate it even if, like quite a few, they wished to do so. And the South wanted to be free of Northern interference: the continued attempts by abolitionists (as John Brown in 1859) to foster slave rebellions and terrorism in the South, the refusal of Northern states to return illegal runaway slaves (or to return Brown’s companions who had fled North), the threat of increased tariffs on Southern goods, the stated purpose of the new Republican party to expand federal power in the interest of Northern industrialists, and the clear perception that Lincoln had come into office with a hidden agenda of limiting if not eliminating Southern influence on the national scene (he was elected with not a single Southern electoral vote). So, is all that clear? Now we can go on with four more years of sesquicentennial commemorations without all the myths and misunderstandings. Maybe.

Reprinted from Vermont Commons.