The American Civil War, Fought Over Slavery, Begun by South CarolinaMarch 7, 2007 at 1:30 pm | Posted in America, American politics, Civil War | 146 Comments
With that shot on the Union ship “Star of the West” the Civil War officially began. The causes of the Civil War are complex and deep, however one word describes the heart of the division of America that led to actual fighting: slavery.
Thousands of books have been written on the subject. My few words here will not be comprehensive, and certainly nothing to improve upon any of actual scholars who have studied the topic in full. My point here is to make clear a few things, because—and I am continually surprised at this—today’s Republicans, especially the more militant, hardcore right-wing Christian kinds, believe the South was right, that the South was innocent, and that the war was not fought over slavery. The irony is that today’s Republicans call themselves the Party of Lincoln. Heh, he’s rolling in his grave right now over what his party is thinking today! So let’s get a few things straight about the civil war that tore our country for so long.
In 1796, George Washington, America’s first president, gave his Farewell Address. In his final words to the Union, he addressed that very word, union. He said:
The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize. But as it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed, it is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts…
The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations…
But these considerations, however powerfully they address themselves to your sensibility, are greatly outweighed by those which apply more immediately to your interest. Here every portion of our country finds the most commanding motives for carefully guarding and preserving the union of the whole.
He emphasized how a unified States would be less prone to foreign intervention, more freedom and more safety and security. He also warned against those who would attempt to weaken this union:
With such powerful and obvious motives to union, affecting all parts of our country, while experience shall not have demonstrated its impracticability, there will always be reason to distrust the patriotism of those who in any quarter may endeavor to weaken its bands.
Distrust the patriotism of those who endeavor to weaken its bands.
In contemplating the causes which may disturb our Union, it occurs as matter of serious concern that any ground should have been furnished for characterizing parties by geographical discriminations, Northern and Southern, Atlantic and Western; whence designing men may endeavor to excite a belief that there is a real difference of local interests and views. One of the expedients of party to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.
He continues pressing the point of the strength of a Unified States versus the separation of the states into smaller allied groups:
To the efficacy and permanency of your Union, a government for the whole is indispensable. No alliance, however strict, between the parts can be an adequate substitute; they must inevitably experience the infractions and interruptions which all alliances in all times have experienced. Sensible of this momentous truth, you have improved upon your first essay, by the adoption of a constitution of government better calculated than your former for an intimate union, and for the efficacious management of your common concerns. This government, the offspring of our own choice, uninfluenced and unawed, adopted upon full investigation and mature deliberation, completely free in its principles, in the distribution of its powers, uniting security with energy, and containing within itself a provision for its own amendment, has a just claim to your confidence and your support. Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty. The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government. But the Constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.
Nearly half of President Washington’s farewell address covered the important issue of unity, the United States of America. The whole being more important than the part. The national being more important than the local. Why did he spend nearly half of his farewell address focusing on this topic? Because even then, in 1796, he saw the division that would destroy his beloved country. He never named the issue, because he was a slave-owner himself, and because there were many issues which divided the nation (he does mention an issue the Western states had brought up regarding a deal with Spain). The point is that for President George Washington, what was most important was that the union would remain whole.
Unfortunately for President Washington, the union would not remain whole, but bitterly divided. Northern states that used to employ slavery, abolished the practice over the next few decades. The North also increased its population due mostly to immigration from European countries. By 1860, Northern states had a population of 22,08,250 while Southern states had a population of 9,103,332. Furthermore 39% of those 9 million Southerners were slaves while only 2% of the Northern states’ population were slaves. These numbers show many things.
1. Only about 5 million Southerners were white and only about 2.5 million of them male, who fought for their lands quite bravely in the Civil War. That so few could stand against so many Northerners is definitely romantic.
2. More importantly, in a democracy, especially a representative republic, where representatives are based on population levels, the South was constantly in the rut, losing more and more, and as such fearing the Constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. This is a very important point because as America expanded to the West, what would those new states base their laws and governance on? Would they allow slavery? If not, the South would basically lose out on its greatest asset.
While some in the North hated slavery because they felt that it was wrong, most people held no opinion of it at all, and some even condoned it because abolishing it would be bad for business. Without slaves there would be no cotton. Without cotton the textile industry would suffer. To many it was just that simple.
Besides, if they could abolish slavery just like that, what would the country do now with the nearly 4 million ex-slaves? No, the north, including one Abraham Lincoln was not pressing for the abolishment of slavery. There were many individuals who certainly did, but not as a whole.
It is the expansion to the west that set things in motion. If western states were against slavery, the South would lose its political clout and influence, and would expect at some future point for its way of life to cease. This was their fear. As to how founded or unfounded, I’m not sure, myself. I haven’t studied the topic enough. I do know that the North passed several laws and tariffs that pressed and choked Southern states. In 1832, South Carolina nearly seceded from the Union over tariffs. President Jackson threatened the state with invasion, stating that the state cannot simply ignore the federal government. South Carolina backed off. Here is a portion of Andrew Jackson’s proclamation regarding nullification by South Carolina:
The ordinance is founded, not on the indefeasible right of resisting acts which are plainly unconstitutional, and too oppressive to be endured, but on the strange position that any one State may not only declare an act of Congress void, but prohibit its execution- that they may do this consistently with the Constitution-that the true construction of that instrument permits a State to retain its place in the Union, and yet be bound by no other of its laws than those it may choose to consider as constitutional. It is true they add, that to justify this abrogation of a law, it must be palpably contrary to the Constitution, but it is evident, that to give the right of resisting laws of that description, coupled with the uncontrolled right to decide what laws deserve that character, is to give the power of resisting all laws. For, as by the theory, there is no appeal, the reasons alleged by the State, good or bad, must prevail. If it should be said that public opinion is a sufficient check against the abuse of this power, it may be asked why it is not deemed a sufficient guard against the passage of an unconstitutional act by Congress. There is, however, a restraint in this last case, which makes the assumed power of a State more indefensible, and which does not exist in the other. There are two appeals from an unconstitutional act passed by Congress-one to the judiciary, the other to the people and the States. There is no appeal from the State decision in theory; and the practical illustration shows that the courts are closed against an application to review it, both judges and jurors being sworn to decide in its favor. But reasoning on this subject is superfluous, when our social compact in express terms declares, that the laws of the United States, its Constitution, and treaties made under it, are the supreme law of the land; and for greater caution adds, “that the judges in every State shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.” And it may be asserted, without fear of refutation, that no federative government could exist without a similar provision. Look, for a moment, to the consequence. If South Carolina considers the revenue laws unconstitutional, and has a right to prevent their execution in the port of Charleston, there would be a clear constitutional objection to their collection in every other port, and no revenue could be collected anywhere; for all imposts must be equal. It is no answer to repeat that an unconstitutional law is no law, so long as the question of its legality is to be decided by the State itself, for every law operating injuriously upon any local interest will be perhaps thought, and certainly represented, as unconstitutional, and, as has been shown, there is no appeal.
If this doctrine had been established at an earlier day, the Union would have been dissolved in its infancy. The excise law in Pennsylvania, the embargo and non-intercourse law in the Eastern States, the carriage tax in Virginia, were all deemed unconstitutional, and were more unequal in their operation than any of the laws now complained of; but, fortunately, none of those States discovered that they had the right now claimed by South Carolina. The war into which we were forced, to support the dignity of the nation and the rights of our citizens, might have ended in defeat and disgrace instead of victory and honor, if the States, who supposed it a ruinous and unconstitutional measure, had thought they possessed the right of nullifying the act by which it was declared, and denying supplies for its prosecution. Hardly and unequally as those measures bore upon several members of the Union, to the legislatures of none did this efficient and peaceable remedy, as it is called, suggest itself. The discovery of this important feature in our Constitution was reserved to the present day. To the statesmen of South Carolina belongs the invention, and upon the citizens of that State will, unfortunately, fall the evils of reducing it to practice.
If the doctrine of a State veto upon the laws of the Union carries with it internal evidence of its impracticable absurdity, our constitutional history will also afford abundant proof that it would have been repudiated with indignation had it been proposed to form a feature in our Government…
I consider, then, the power to annul a law of the United States, assumed by one State, incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which It was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed.
Clearly, South Carolina’s weak attempt to ignore a law passed by Congress, and then threaten the Union with secession, was rebuked strongly, and appropriately by President Jackson. Clearly also, it was an unconstitutional move by South Carolina. It is no surprise to anyone then that in 1860, South Carolina would take the first shot. But we’ll get to that soon enough.
As the nation grew larger, expanding westward, laws were passed and compromises reached to avert a bloody showdown between the North and South. The problem still arose from the fact that the North was growing in numbers far greater than the South, or slave-owning states, even though Texas was set up as a slave-owning state in the Compromise of 1850. As I showed earlier, the numbers show a huge disparity between the two sides.
As recounted here
The whole mess went up in smoke in the presidential election year of 1860. The Democratic party split badly. Stephen Douglas became the nominee of the northern wing of the party. A southern faction broke away from the party and nominated Senator John Breckinridge of Kentucky. The remnants of the Whig party nominated John Bell of Tennessee.
Into this confusion the new Republican party injected its nominee, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was a moderate Republican. As such he was a compromise candidate, everybody’s second choice. He was convinced that the Constitution forbade the Federal government from taking action against slavery where it already existed, but was determined to keep it from spreading further. South Carolina, in a fit of stubborn pride, unilaterally announced that it would secede from the Union if Lincoln were elected.
To everyone’s amazement Lincoln was victorious. He had gathered a mere 40% of the popular vote, and carried not a single slave state, but the vote had been so fragmented by the abundance of factions that it had been enough.
South Carolina, true to its word, seceded on December 20, 1860. Mississippi left on January 9, 1861, and Florida on the 10th. Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas followed.
What were the reasons? Let’s read the declarations of secession themselves from the various states:
I’ve always found Mississippi’s declaration to be most amusing:
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.
Could they be more ridiculous? In any case, at the heart of all the declarations of secession is the desire to prolong and continue the practice of slavery. The South felt the noose of the loss of political power, and instead of following the rest of the nation toward a better future, decided that their best interest no longer resided with the union. Two Southern presidents, Andrew Jackson and George Washington both stated clearly the larger union was of greater priority. Could the South learn to move on? No.
So what happened when South Carolina broke away, followed by the rest of the South? Nothing really. Not at first. The North didn’t suddenly invade the South. The South didn’t suddenly attack the North. President James Buchanan could really do nothing about the South seceding as his term was ending. Abraham Lincoln won the election in November 1860, but the first shot was fired on 10 January 1861. And of course, it all started in South Carolina.
This link explains well what happened:
The January 26, 1861 edition of Harper’s Weekly featured the following illustration, showing the First Shot of the Civil War. The first shot was fired on January 10, 1861. It was fired by the South Carolinians on Morris Island. They fired on the Union Ship “Star of the West” as it attempted to reinforce Major Anderson at Fort Sumter.
Nothing else happened until April 12, 1861, when the war began, again by South Carolina firing on Fort Sumter:
After her secession from the Union, South Carolina perceived herself as a sovereign state – the presence of Union forces in an armed fortress whose guns commanded her principal harbor was intolerable as it belied her independence. For President Lincoln the voluntary abandonment of this fortress was equally intolerable as it would be a tacit acknowledgment of South Carolina’s independent status.
Lincoln learned that the garrison at Fort Sumter was in trouble on the day he took office in March 1861. The garrison was running out of food and supplies and had no way of obtaining these on shore. The President ordered a relief expedition to sail immediately and informed the Governor of South Carolina of his decision. Alerted, General P.G.T Beauregard, commander of the Confederate military forces, realized he had to quickly force the evacuation of the fort before the relief expedition’s arrival. He would try threats first, and if these failed he would bombard the fort into submission.
The firsthand account is a fascinating read. The garrison had told the South Carolina soldiers that they were due to run out of provisions fairly soon. That did not stop South Carolina from the bombardment.
On the afternoon of April 11, waving a white flag, two members of General Beauregard’s staff were rowed across Charleston’s harbor to Fort Sumter carrying a written demand for surrender. One of the emissaries – Stephen D. Lee – wrote of the experience after the war:
“This demand was delivered to Major Anderson at 3:45 P.M., by two aides of General Beauregard, James Chesnut, Jr., and myself. At 4:30 P.M. he handed us his reply, refusing to accede to the demand; but added, ‘Gentlemen, if you do not batter the fort to pieces about us, we shall be starved out in a few days.’ The reply of Major Anderson was put in General Beauregard’s hands at 5:15 P.M., and he was also told of this informal remark. Anderson’s reply and remark were communicated to the Confederate authorities at Montgomery. The Secretary of War, L.P. Walker, replied to Beauregard as follows:”
‘Do not desire needlessly to bombard Fort Sumter. If Major Anderson will state the time at which, as indicated by him, he will evacuate, and agree that in the meantime he will not use his guns against us, unless ours should be employed against Fort Sumter, you are authorized thus to avoid the effusion of blood. If this, or its equivalent, be refused, reduce the fort as your judgment decides to be most practicable.’
” The same aides bore a second communication to Major Anderson, based on the above instructions, which was placed in, his hands at 12:45 A.M., April 12th. His reply indicated that he would evacuate the fort on the 15th, provided he did not in the meantime receive contradictory instructions from his Government, or additional supplies, but he declined to agree not to open his guns upon the Confederate troops, in the event of any hostile demonstration on their part against his flag. Major Anderson made every possible effort to retain the aides till daylight, making one excuse and then another for not replying. Finally, at 3:15 A.M., he delivered his reply. In accordance with their instructions, the aides read it and, finding it unsatisfactory, gave Major Anderson this notification:”
‘FORT SUMTER, S.C., April 12, 1861, 3:20 A.M. – SIR: By authority of Brigadier-General Beauregard, commanding the Provisional Forces of the Confederate States, we have the honor to notify you that he will open the fire of his batteries on Fort Sumter in one hour from this time. We have the honor to be very respectfully, Your obedient servants, JAMES CHESNUT JR., Aide-de-camp. STEPHEN D. LEE, Captain C. S. Army, Aide-de-camp.’
“The above note was written in one of the casemates of the fort, and in the presence of Major Anderson and several of his officers. On receiving it, he was much affected. He seemed to realize the full import of the consequences, and the great responsibility of his position. Escorting us to the boat at the wharf, he cordially pressed our hands in farewell, remarking, ‘If we never meet in this world again, God grant that we may meet in the next.’
It was then 4 A.M. Captain James at once aroused his command, and arranged to carry out the order. He was a great admirer of Roger A. Pryor, and said to him, ‘You are the only man to whom I would give up the honor of firing the first gun of the war'; and he offered to allow him to fire it. Pryor, on receiving the offer, was very much agitated. With a husky voice he said, ‘I could not fire the first gun of the war.’ His manner was almost similar to that of Major Anderson as we left him a few moments before on the wharf at Fort Sumter. Captain James would allow no one else but himself to fire the gun.
The boat with the aides of General Beauregard left Fort Johnson before arrangements were complete for the firing of the gun, and laid on its oars, about one-third the distance between the fort and Sumter, there to witness the firing of ‘the first gun of the war’ between the States. It was fired from a ten-inch mortar at 4:30 A.M., April 12th, 1861. Captain James was a skillful officer, and the firing of the shell was a success. It burst immediately over the fort, apparently about one hundred feet above.
The firing of the mortar woke the echoes from every nook and corner of the harbor, and in this the dead hour of the night, before dawn, that shot was a sound of alarm that brought every soldier in the harbor to his feet, and every man, woman and child in the city of Charleston from their beds. A thrill went through the whole city. It was felt that the Rubicon was passed. No one thought of going home; unused as their ears were to the appalling sounds, or the vivid flashes from the batteries, they stood for hours fascinated with horror.”
The rest as we know it is history. Unfortunately, the South doesn’t like the fact that they are perceived as rebels and secessionists, even though that is exactly what they were. So you get individuals like Major General John Gordon who try to justify the actions of the South. He states:
During the entire life of the Republic the respective rights and powers of the States and general government had furnished a question for endless controversy. In process of time this controversy assumed a somewhat sectional phase. The dominating thought of the North and of the South may be summarized in a few sentences.
The South maintained with the depth of religious conviction that the Union formed under the Constitution was a Union of consent and not of force; that the original States were not the creatures but the creators of the Union; that these States had gained their independence, their freedom, and their sovereignty from the mother country, and had not surrendered these on entering the Union; that by the express terms of the Constitution all rights and powers not delegated were reserved to the States; and the South challenged the North to find one trace of authority in that Constitution for invading and coercing a sovereign State.
The North, on the other hand, maintained with the utmost confidence in the correctness of her position that the Union formed under the Constitution was intended to be perpetual; that sovereignty was a unit and could not be divided; that whether or not there was any express power granted in the Constitution for invading a State, the right of self-preservation was inherent in all governments; that the life of the Union was essential to the life of liberty; or, in the words of Webster, “liberty and union are one and inseparable.”
To the charge of the North that secession was rebellion and treason, the South replied that the epithets of rebel and traitor did not deter her from the assertion of her independence, since these same epithets had been familiar to the ears of Washington and Hancock and Adams and Light Horse Harry Lee. In vindication of her right to secede, she appealed to the essential doctrine, “the right to govern rests on the consent of the governed,” and to the right of independent action as among those reserved by the States. The South appealed to the acts and opinions of the Fathers and to the report of the Hartford Convention of New England States asserting the power of each State to decide as to the remedy for infraction of its rights; to the petitions presented and positions assumed by ex-President John Quincy Adams; to the contemporaneous declaration of the 8th of January assemblage in Ohio indicating that 200,000 Democrats in that State alone were ready to stand guard on the banks of the border river and resist invasion of Southern territory; and to the repeated declarations of Horace Greeley and the admission of President Lincoln himself that there was difficulty on the question of force, since ours ought to be a fraternal Government.
In answer to all these points, the North also cited the acts and opinions of the same Fathers, and urged that the purpose of those Fathers was to make a more perfect Union and a stronger government. The North offset the opinions of Greeley and others by the emphatic declaration of Stephen A. Douglas, the foremost of Western Democrats, and by the official opinion as to the power of the Government to collect revenues and enforce laws, given to President Buchanan by Jere Black, the able Democratic Attorney-General.
And I might add, two of those Founding Fathers who advocated a “more perfect union and a stronger government” were Southerners, Andrew Jackson and George Washington, not to mention Thomas Jefferson.
On one major point, Major General Gordon is very right. We do need a more rounded education about the Civil War. However, let’s not revise history and portray the North as aggressors, when clearly the South began the conflict, and that at its heart this conflict wasn’t about slavery. There was no other issue that Southern states were as troubled by as the institution of slavery becoming prohibited in the nation in which they were in. As Andrew Jackson said, however, if a state were to ignore and nullify one part of the law, it would “give the power to resisting all laws,” and destroy the union.
I close with the words of Abraham Lincoln on why he fought the South’s secession:
I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” … My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. … I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.