Inglorious Cause

An excerpt from a story I wrote about Civil War tourism a couple of years ago:

There exists, especially in the South (where I have lived for 36 of my 53 years), a passionate, often rancorous and seemingly willful misunderstanding of why the Civil War happened. Even today, decades after the last surviving veteran has turned to dust and memory, a discussion of the issues that divided North and South can end abruptly with the declaration, “Them’s fightin’ words!”

“The reasons for the war are still very controversial for a lot of people,” notes Steven Longcrier, founder and executive director of Georgia Civil War Heritage Trails (www.civilwarheritagetrails.org).

For secession apologists and defenders, the war remains a whitewashed glorious cause, speckled with the blood of noble patriots.

Many neo-Confederates claim slavery was not the central issue; it was “states rights.” Their ancestors fought for self-governance, to defend their homes against northern aggressors (all of which still points right back at the peculiar institution, the thing their states rights and self-governance protected, and the thing the North ultimately fought to end once Lincoln got around to the Eman-cipation Proclamation).

Of course, most Southerners did not own slaves. Nor did most Southerners make the decision to secede, either; that was made by the few men in power, the one percent (or so, you get the idea) of the Confederacy, many of whom owed their fortunes to slave labor.

For bona fide Confederates – unlike latter-day revisionists who have been whooping it up at secession celebrations, like the costume ball in Charleston several months back – slavery was never the elephant in the room, because the actual secessionists weren’t shy about their reasons.

So when the Georgia Historical Society (GHS) recently dedicated a new historical marker in Milledgeville near the old state house, it read in part: “Secession began in response to Abraham Lincoln’s election … and the belief that his Republican party was ‘anti-slavery in its mission and its purpose,’ according to Georgia’s secession ordinance.”

In Georgia’s Declaration of Causes (approved January 29, 1861, 10 days after the state voted to secede), the word “slavery” appears 26 times. “States rights” doesn’t appear at all.

“Like it or not, it always comes back to race and slavery,” says GHS president Todd Groce, a native Virginian with a Ph.D. in history who has written and lectured extensively on the South and the Civil War. “Slavery is what caused secession. It wasn’t until decades after the war that some surviving Confederates put forth a different argument. They were the first revisionists.”

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