Thursday, June 8, 2017

Why Civil War: Secession & the War of the Union

Why Civil War?

The causes and complexities of the secession crisis and War of Union of the 1860s are often a topic of discussion and dispute.  Unfortunately, nearly as often, these causes and complexities are distorted or exaggerated to justify one side or the other.  It is my hope to fairly and concisely lay out some of the key causes and motivations that turned the sectional dispute into a war, especially hoping to fill out an understanding of Southern motivations and rationale.

Usually the South is blamed for the advent of Civil War; really a War of Independence or a War of Union.  Secession and war are considered and treated as equivalent to one another.  Secession is war.  There is an important distinction, however, between the two, as history demonstrates.  Let us begin with secession.  Why did the South secede?

The Southern concerns were these: the Northern states pursued a set of economic policies (on tariffs, internal improvements, for instance) that undermined Southern economic interests.  The tariff issue was no small matter for the South, as Southern cotton exports made up more than half of American exports.  Further, Northern states had proven unwilling to recognize and enforce fugitive slave laws (as required by the Constitution), and they had railed against the South and the institution of slavery, seeking to restrict their ability to bring their "property" to the western territories; this even after the Dred Scott decision of 1857 that affirmed that as a Constitutional right.  Add to this the kind of affirming rhetoric that glorified John Brown at Harpers Ferry in 1859 and his militant anti-slavery techniques.  A host of issues divided the sections, and slavery, important in itself, became symbolic for them all.

The South may have lost control of the House of Representatives some years before, but had been able to rely on its standing in the Senate and the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court to broker compromises or defend its regional interests.  With the admission of several free states without new Southern states to balance, the South lost its equal status in the Senate.   On top of that, when the Republican Abraham Lincoln of Illinois was elected President, he was not even on the ballot in any of the states that would form the Confederacy except Virginia (in the Old Dominion, he received 1.1% of the vote; as an interesting side note, Lincoln carried California with 32.3% of the vote!).  That means that Lincoln did not receive a single popular vote, never mind electoral vote, in NC, SC, GA, FL, TN, AL, MS, LA, AR, and TX.

Presidential Election of 1860.

For the fire-eaters in places like South Carolina, they determined to get out while the getting was good. They lost Congress, the Presidency, and the Supreme Court would soon inevitably follow. They had no expectations that the federal government would ever protect their interests, especially when they had shown that they weren’t willing to uphold their Constitutional rights.  As far as they were concerned, the Union that was the United States, no longer protected their interests, and they understood that departure from this free Union was their legal right.  States like Virginia, when they ratified the Constitution, expressed their understanding that they had the right to withdraw if the new government acted to injure or oppress the people.  (Cf., Ratification of the Constitution by the State of Virginia

John B. Gordon, a Confederate general, and later Governor of Georgia and member of the U.S. Senate, expressed the Southern understanding thus: “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.” (cf., General Gordon's Reminiscences)

Conventions were called, delegates elected, and the secession crisis was at hand.

Hence, the Deep South (The Cotton States: SC, GA, FL, AL, MS, LA, and TX) went ahead and seceded, from December 1860 to February 1861, before Lincoln even took office in March 1861.  These states (like MS) did express the protection of slavery as a reason for secession. (The MS ordinance can be viewed here: Mississippi Secession Ordinance)   The Vice-President of the new Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, himself a Unionist opposed to secession, but who remained loyal to Georgia, famously expressed this in his “Cornerstone Speech.” (Cf., Stephens: Cornerstone Speech)

For the upper South (The Tobacco States: VA, NC, TN, AR), secession only came after President Lincoln actually called up troops to invade the Cotton States after Fort Sumter. Virginia had actually voted against secession at the beginning of April (Cf., VIRGINIA CONVENTION VOTES AGAINST SECESSION), but reconsidered once Lincoln proposed to make it a war and invade the Deep South to compel them to remain.  For Virginia, the debate was about coercion.  Governor Letcher of Virginia responded to the call for troops to subdue the Deep South thus: "You have chosen to inaugurate civil war, and having done so, we will meet it in a spirit as determined as the Administration has exhibited towards the South." (Cf., New York Times: GOV. LETCHER REPLY TO SECRETARY CAMERON)

North Carolina, too, initially opposed secession, not even calling a convention.  The Tar Heel State changed her tune when President Lincoln called up troops:  “Congressman Zebulon Vance, a western Unionist, was gesturing to the heavens ‘for peace and the Union of our Fathers’ when someone handed him news of Lincoln’s call for troops. ‘When my hand came down,’ Vance recalled later, ‘it fell slowly and sadly by the side of a secessionist. I immediately, with altered voice and manner, called upon the assembled multitude to volunteer, not to fight against but for South Carolina.’”  (Cf., NY Times Opinionator: ‘The Death Knell of Slavery’):

This is an important point – the Southern states actually seceded at different points with different specific reasons and motivations.  All of them were content to separate from the United States without a war.  Confederate Vice-President Stephens in his “Cornerstone Speech” remarked in March 1861: “This revolution has been signally marked, up to this time, by the fact of its having been accomplished without the loss of a single drop of blood.”  Nevertheless, they were also clearly willing to defend their right to secede with force of arms.

Map of U.S. showing two kinds of Union states, two phases of secession and territories.
Blue: Free Union States.
Yellow: Slave Union States (Border States)
Light Red: Upper South States (Tobacco States), which seceded after Lincoln's call for troops.
Dark Red: Deep South States (Cotton States), which seceded after Lincoln's election.
["US Secession map 1861" by JĂșlio Reis - The source code of this SVG is valid.This vector image was created with Inkscape, and then manually edited.A trace, retouch, and recolour of Image:Secession Map of the United States, 1861.png by User:Tomf688.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

When the Deep South seceded, President James Buchanan of PA was in office, and would remain so until Lincoln’s inauguration in March 1861.  Buchanan viewed secession as being illegal, but also believed that a President had no legal power to make war on the states.  Hence, while he was President, there were attempts to retain federal property (several forts did remain under federal control, including Fort Sumter in SC, Fort Pickens in FL, and Fort Monroe in VA), but there was no war or invasion.  In his Fourth Annual Address in December 1860, President Buchanan observed: “The fact is that our Union rests upon public opinion, and can never be cemented by the blood of its citizens shed in civil war. If it can not live in the affections of the people, it must one day perish. Congress possesses many means of preserving it by conciliation, but the sword was not placed in their hand to preserve it by force.” (Cf., Fourth Annual Message to Congress on the State of the Union)

President Abraham Lincoln, too, considered secession illegal, but curiously, like Buchanan, also maintained a right of the people to Revolution: “This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing Government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it.” First Inaugural Address, March 1861. (Cf., First Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln)

Ultimately, it was Abraham Lincoln that determined that secession was illegal, the Union must be saved, and it must be saved by the use of military force.  For Lincoln, this was to be a war to save the Union – and he said it was so in a letter to newspaper editor Horace Greeley of NY in August 1862: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or 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. What I do about Slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save this Union, and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.” (cf., New York Times: Reply to Horace Greeley)

It is an interesting to ponder the question of using coercion to compel so many states to remain in a free union, even at the cost of over 600,000 lives and four years of war.

Without question, Abraham Lincoln was opposed to slavery, but he was also very much against racial equality, having said: "...I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races -- that I am favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, not of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people...there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality." -- Abraham Lincoln, 18 September 1858; Fourth Debate with Stephen Douglas.  Lincoln himself supported compensated emancipation and hoped to avoid racial issues in the U.S. by encouraging freedmen to emigrate. (Cf., Civil War Daily Gazette: LINCOLN ARGUES IN FAVOR OF COLONIZING THE FREED SLAVES)

Later on, as the war progressed, the decision was made to eradicate slavery.  The role of the freedmen in society, however, remained hotly debated.  Ending slavery and granting equal rights were two rather different things.  New York had overwhelmingly voted down a referendum to extend voting rights to blacks in 1860.  Indeed, at the time of the ratification of the 15th Amendment after the war, only 7 of the Northern states had extended voting franchise to African Americans.

That said, it should be highlighted that the institution of slavery, as it existed in ante bellum America, was morally problematic and certainly an injustice.  Perhaps the greatest injustice was the failure of U.S. laws to recognize slave marriages or to legally prohibit the separation of families.  Even if we seek to understand Southern motivations, we certainly ought not try to whitewash or justify the evils of slavery as it was practiced in the United States.  Of course, a study of slavery, to be complete, would also probe the unseemly role of northern ports in the slave trade, and the motivation to protect slavery in the calls for independence from Great Britain in the American Revolution.   America has had a race problem, and a problem with racism, but it is not limited to the South.  Of course, racism is hardly a uniquely American problem!

In sum, secession and war were two different matters, and the reasons that various individuals and states involved themselves in either certainly varied.

A great deal more could be said about the prosecution of the war and the era of Reconstruction that followed, but that is a subject for another day.

 Confederate Rebel Flag.svg      First National flag of the Confederate States of America
Left: The Battle Flag of the Confederate Army of Tennessee.
Right: The First National Flag of the Confederacy, the "Stars and Bars."

On a related note, then, a few thoughts about the controversial Confederate Battle Flag and its history.

The Confederate battle flag was not a civil flag of the Confederacy (though its design was incorporated into the 2nd and 3rd national flags), but a battle flag for Confederate forces.   In a square shape, it was the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, and as a rectangle, the flag of the Army of Tennessee.  During the war itself, the flag obviously symbolized the armed forces of the Confederate States.

It would become incorporated in the emblem of the Sons of Confederate Veterans in the 1890s; not unexpectedly, as it was a military flag, and the organization sought to commemorate military service.

Later, in the 20th century, the flag was used as a symbol of Southern resistance in the era of racial integration and the Civil Rights movement.

Hence, there are some racists that have used, and do use, the flag, to symbolize racism and white supremacy.  Others use it as a symbol of regional pride and autonomy.  Still others, like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, use it to honor those that sacrificed much for their home states.  Even the Anti-Defamation league, not an organization sympathetic to the memory of Confederate soldiers, notes regarding the flag: "because of the continued use of the flag by non-extremists, one should not automatically assume that display of the flag is racist or white supremacist in nature.  The symbol should only be judged in context." (Cf., ADL: Confederate Flag)

Like the era from which it came, the Confederate Battle Flag is a complex symbol.

For those interested, I earlier posted on the issue of the honor of Confederate veterans here:

In all of these issues, it is certainly important for the honest student of history to seek to understand the motivations of both sides, the complexities of the issues, and seek to learn what we can from the shortcomings of our forefathers and our Republic.

Live well!


  1. Well written and very informative. Thank you!

  2. Perspicacious analysis and crisp writing, as usual!