A CONDENSED LOOK AT THE SOUTHERN SIDE OF THE CIVIL WAR
Michael T. Griffith
@All Rights Reserved
When I began to study the Civil War, I realized that much of what I had been taught about it in school was either wrong or incomplete. It has been said that history is written by the victors. This is especially true when it comes to the Civil War. The Southern side of the story is rarely presented fairly in our public schools and textbooks today. I believe it is important that we as Americans know the whole truth about the Civil War. The purpose of this article is to present the South’s side of the story.
The following basic facts are undisputed:
The seven states of the
The version of the Civil War that’s taught
in nearly all textbooks goes something like this: “The only reason the South
wanted to leave the
We will consider twelve issues relating to
the Civil War: Why Did the South Secede?
Did the South Have the Right to Secede?
What Caused the War? Who Started
the War? The
Emancipation Proclamation. Republicans, the North, and
Racism. Was the War Fought Over
Slavery? What Happened at
Why Did the South Secede?
Nearly all textbooks give the impression
that the South withdrew from the
Most people aren’t aware that, even as
Most Southern leaders who advocated secession in order to protect slavery did so because they believed that Lincoln and the Republicans in Congress would try to abolish slavery by unconstitutional means and that Southern slaveholders would not receive compensation for their slaves. Southern spokesmen felt this would be unfair, since Northern slaveholders had been able to receive various types of compensation for their slaves when most Northern states had abolished slavery several decades earlier. They knew that emancipation without compensation would do great damage to the Southern economy. Critics note that many Southern statesmen voiced the view that slavery was a “positive good.” Yet, even the “positive good” advocates acknowledged that slavery had its evils and abuses. In any case, there were plenty of Southerners who opposed slavery and who were willing to see it abolished in a fair, gradual manner, as had been done in most Northern states. After all, 69-75 percent of Southern families did not own slaves. However, few Southerners believed the Republicans were interested in a fair, gradual emancipation program. The more extreme Republicans, who were known as “Radical Republicans,” certainly weren’t interested in such a program.
Few people today understand why the South
distrusted the Republican Party. Not
only was the Republican Party a new party, it was also the first purely
regional (or sectional) party in the country’s history. Republican leaders frequently gave inflammatory
anti-Southern speeches, some of which included egregious falsehoods and even threats (Susan-Mary
Grant, North Over South: Northern Nationalism and American Identity in the
As mentioned, slavery was not the only
factor that led to secession. If one
reads the Declarations of Causes of Secession and the Ordinances of Secession
that were issued by the first seven states of the Confederacy, one finds that
there were several reasons these states wanted to be independent and that some
of the reasons had nothing to do with slavery.
For example, the Georgia and Texas Declarations of Causes of Secession
included economic complaints, in addition to concerns relating to slavery. The
The South’s long-standing opposition to the
federal tariff was another factor that led to secession. The South’s concern over the tariff was
The South had valid complaints about the tariff. Jeffrey R. Hummel, a professor of economics and history, notes the negative impact of the tariff on the Southern states and concedes that Southern complaints about the tariff were justified:
Despite a steady decline in import duties, tariffs fell disproportionately on Southerners, reducing their income from cotton production by at least 10 percent just before the Civil War. . . .
At least with respect to the tariff’s adverse impact, Southerners were not only absolutely correct but displayed a sophisticated understanding of economics. . . . The tariff was inefficient; it not only redistributed wealth from farmers and planters to manufacturers and laborers but overall made the country poorer. (Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War, Chicago: Open Court, 1996, pp. 39-40, 73)
A major point of contention between the North and the South was the issue of the size and power of the federal government as defined by the Constitution. Most Northern politicians supported a loose reading of the Constitution and wanted to expand the size and scope of the federal government, even if that meant giving the government powers that were not authorized by the Constitution. Most Southern statesmen supported a strict reading of the Constitution and believed the federal government should perform only those functions that were expressly delegated to it by the Constitution. From the earliest days of the republic, Southern and Northern leaders battled over this issue. Our textbooks rarely do justice to this important fact.
Four of the eleven Southern states did not
join in the first wave of secession and did not secede over slavery. Those four states—Arkansas, North Carolina,
Tennessee, and Virginia—only seceded months later when Lincoln made it clear he
was going to launch an invasion in order to “save” the Union. In fact, those states initially voted against
secession by fairly sizable majorities.
However, they believed the
Virtually no history textbooks mention the
fact that each Confederate state retained the right to abolish slavery within
its borders, and that the Confederate Constitution permitted the admission of
All states reserved
the right to abolish slavery in their domains, and new states could be admitted
without slavery if two-thirds of the existing states agreed—the idea being that
the tier of
Did the South Have the Right to Secede?
I believe the evidence is clear that the South had the right to secede. None other than Ulysses S. Grant, the commanding general of the Union army for much of the Civil War and later a president of the United States, admitted he believed that if any of the original thirteen states had wanted to secede in the early days of the Union, it was unlikely the other states would have challenged that state’s right to do so. Grant also conceded he believed the founding fathers would have sanctioned the right of secession rather than see a war “between brothers.” Said Grant,
If there had been a desire on the part of any single State to withdraw from the compact at any time while the number of States was limited to the original thirteen, I do not suppose there would have been any to contest the right, no matter how much the determination might have been regretted. . . .
If they [the founding fathers] had foreseen it, the probabilities are they would have sanctioned the right of a State or States to withdraw rather than that there should be war between brothers. (The Personal Memoirs Of Ulysses S. Grant, Old Saybrook, Connecticut: Konecky & Konecky, 1992, reprint of original edition, pp. 130-131)
There is nothing in the
Constitution that prohibits a state from peacefully and democratically
separating from the
powers not delegated to the
The Constitution does not give
the federal government the power to force a state to remain in the
Critics of the Confederacy
cite certain clauses in the Constitution about the supremacy of federal law or
about states not being allowed to enter into treaties with foreign powers,
etc., etc. However, it goes without
saying that such clauses only apply to states that are in the
The great early American
constitutional scholar William Rawle said a state had the right to secede. Rawle was a contemporary of founding fathers
Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and was appointed by George Washington as
the first U.S. Attorney for
depends on the state itself to retain or abolish the principle of
representation, because it depends on itself whether it will continue a member
This right must be considered as an ingredient in the original composition of the general government, which, though not expressed, was mutually understood. . . . (A View of the Constitution of the United States, 2nd Edition, 1829, Vol. 4, p. 571)
Another early American legal
giant, George Tucker, also said a state had the right to secede. Like Rawle, Tucker was a contemporary of
Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and corresponded with the former. Tucker came to be known as the “American Blackstone.”
Tucker was a professor of law at the
The federal government, then, appears to be the organ through which the united republics communicate with foreign nations and with each other. Their submission to its operation is voluntary: its councils, its engagements, its authority are theirs, modified, and united. Its sovereignty is an emanation from theirs, not a flame by which they have been consumed, nor a vortex in which they are swallowed up. Each is still a perfect state, still sovereign, still independent, and still capable, should the situation require, to resume the exercise of its functions as such in the most unlimited extent. (Tucker, editor, Blackstone’s Commentaries: With Notes of Reference to the Constitution and Laws of the Federal Government of the United States, Volume 1, Philadelphia: William Birch and Abraham Small, 1803, Appendix: Note D, Section 3:IV)
The principle of peaceful
separation was as American as apple pie.
The South had no desire to
overthrow the federal government. The
South seceded in a peaceful, democratic manner, with the support of the
overwhelming majority of Southern citizens.
The Southern states used the same process to secede that the original
thirteen states used to ratify the U.S. Constitution, i.e., by voting in
special conventions comprised of delegates who were elected by the people. The one exception was
What Caused the War?
The war was fought because
The Confederacy did not want war. One of the first things Jefferson Davis did
after assuming office as president of the Confederacy was to send a peace
It should be pointed out that many Northern
citizens opposed the war and believed the South should be allowed to leave in
peace. Dozens of Northern newspapers
expressed the view that the Southern states had the right to peacefully leave
Who Started the War?
The standard textbook answer to this
question is that the South obviously started the war because it “fired the
first shot” by attacking
In his inaugural speech, given weeks before
the attack on
If Lincoln had desired peace, he knew all he had to do was evacuate Fort Sumter, as his own secretary of state had been promising would be done for weeks. When the Confederate authorities were told the fort was going to be evacuated, Confederate forces stopped building up the defenses around the harbor and celebrated. Across the harbor, Major Anderson was grateful the fort would be evacuated and that therefore North and South would separate peacefully (Cisco, Taking A Stand, pp. 105-106).
Some Northern leaders who wanted peace urged
Republicans protested loudly over the fact
that several Southern states seized numerous federal installations before
The Emancipation Proclamation
Everyone can agree that slavery needed to be abolished. However, the Emancipation Proclamation, signed on January 1, 1863, left over 400,000 slaves in bondage. Let’s take a moment to consider the purpose, nature, and legality of the Emancipation Proclamation.
The proclamation was a war measure, as the document itself states. The Radical Republicans hoped the proclamation would produce a slave revolt in the South, even if this resulted in the deaths of thousands of women and children on plantations and farms. (Perhaps it’s an indication of how most slaves were treated that no such revolt ever occurred, even though many plantations and farms were being run by women and children at the time, since most of the men were engaged in the war effort.)
The proclamation did not free a single slave
in any of the four Union slave states nor in any of the regions of the South
that were then under Union control. The
proclamation excluded the slaves in those areas. The proclamation only applied to slaves in
the Confederate states, where
The Emancipation Proclamation asserted freedom for slaves in those areas that were not under control of the federal government and left slavery untouched in areas where federal control was effective. It seemed a halting measure of dubious effect and shaky legality, and the Confederates denounced it as a call for a slave revolt. (In Blum and Catton, Edmund Morgan, Arthur Schlesinger, Kenneth Stampp, and C. Vann Woodward, editors, The National Experience: A History of the United States, Second Edition, New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1968, p. 360)
African-American scholar Lerone Bennett
documents that Lincoln only issued the proclamation under intense pressure from
the Radical Republicans, who were threatening to cut off funds to the army if
emancipation wasn’t made a war objective, and that Lincoln only began to
seriously consider the Radicals’ demands after Union forces suffered several
defeats (Bennett, Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream,
Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company, 2000, pp. 23-24, 415-420, 498-504; see
also Klingaman, Abraham Lincoln and the Road to Emancipation, pp. 139,
148-149, 200-202). Bennett also shows
The proclamation provided no compensation for slaveholders, even though Lincoln himself had said this should be done, and even though most slaveholders treated their slaves humanely (as even many abolitionists had once been willing to admit). Few Northern abolitionists had ever supported compensated emancipation. The Radical Republicans certainly weren’t about to support such a plan. They didn’t care that several Northern states had reaped fantastic profits from the slave trade. Nor did they care that when most Northern states had abolished slavery they had done so gradually and in a manner that enabled Northern slaveholders to recover the cost of their slaves.
If the Southern states were still actually
Of course, the Southern states had in fact
If the Emancipation Proclamation had covered all slaves, if it had included compensation for slaveholders, and if it had contained guarantees against a slave revolt, it would have been on solid moral ground. It still would have been unconstitutional, but it would have been consistent, fair, and moral. However, the proclamation contained none of these things. It was intended as a war measure. It left Northern slaves in bondage. Its real purpose was to advance the effort to subjugate the South, even if that meant causing the deaths of thousands of women and children. The Radicals and other Republicans were using Southern slaves as pawns in their effort to conquer the South.
Republicans, the North, and Racism
(NOTE: In this section it will be necessary to quote some offensive words and statements from the Civil War era. I apologize to those readers who are offended by them.)
The same Republican-controlled Congress that eventually made forceful emancipation a secondary goal of the war and that imposed oppressive Reconstruction rule on the South after the war, also sanctioned the federal government’s terrible mistreatment of the American Indians. Historian C. Vann Woodward put it this way:
The same Congress that devised Radical Reconstruction . . . approved strict segregation and inequality for the Indian of the West. (In Blum and Catton et al, editors, The National Experience, p. 416)
With the Republicans firmly in control of
the federal government, the Union army began a series of brutal campaigns
against the American Indians a few months after the Confederate commanding
general, Robert E. Lee, surrendered at
I agree with Thomas DiLorenzo’s point that the Republicans’ treatment of the Indians raises questions about their professed concern for social justice:
The fact that the
war against the Plains Indians began just three months after Lee’s surrender
calls into question yet again the notion that racial injustices in the South
were the primary motivation for Northerners’ willingness to wage such a long
and destructive war. No political party
purporting to be sensitive to racial injustice could possibly have even
contemplated doing to the Indians what the
Both the Southern Confederates and the Indians stood in the way of the Whig/Republican dream of a North American economic empire, complete with a subsidized transcontinental railroad, a nationalized banking system, and protectionist tariffs. Consequently, both groups were conquered and subjugated by the most violent means. (The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, Paperback Edition, New York: Three Rivers Press, 2003, pp. 222-223)
Another example of Republican hypocrisy was the Republican Party’s platform for the 1868 presidential election. Ulysses S. Grant ran for president on this platform, and won handily. The platform stated that the Southern states should be forced to allow blacks to vote but that the Northern states should be allowed to decide this issue for themselves. The Republicans took this position even though every Northern state that had voted on amendments for black voting rights in the preceding three years had soundly defeated those amendments. Republican leaders knew that racism was so widespread in the North that they would lose the election if they advocated forcing the Northern states to allow blacks to vote. Many Republicans themselves weren’t enthusiastic about voting rights for Northern blacks anyway.
Many Republican leaders, including some of
the Radicals, held racist views.
Thaddeus Stevens, the leader of the Radicals in the House, not only
opposed racial integration but believed blacks were less intelligent than
whites and, in the words of friendly biographer Fawn Brodie, “insisted that he
had never held to the doctrine of Negro equality” (Fawn Brodie, Thaddeus
Stevens: Scourge of the South, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1959,
p. 193; Hummel, Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men, p. 300). Incidentally, Stevens also believed the
Constitution was “a worthless bit of old parchment” (Brodie, Thaddeus
Stevens, p. 292). Another powerful
Radical in the House, George Julian, lectured his fellow Republicans about
their racism, saying, “The real trouble is that we hate the negro. It is not his ignorance that offends us, but
his color. . . .” (Kenneth Stampp, The Era of Reconstruction,
1865-1877, Vintage Books Edition, New York: Vintage Books, 1965, p. 102). Benjamin Wade, a leading Radical in the
Senate, was overheard “railing about too many 'nigger' cooks in the capital”
and complaining that he had eaten so many meals “cooked by Niggers” that he
could “smell and taste the Nigger all over” (Klingaman, Abraham Lincoln and
the Road to Emancipation, p. 53). In
the 1860 election campaign, numerous Republican leaders championed their party
as the true “White Man’s Party” that would keep the western territories safe
for white labor (McPherson, Ordeal By Fire: The Civil War and
Reconstruction, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982, p. 123).
The North has nothing to do with the Negroes. I have no more concern for them than I have for the Hottentots. . . . They are not of our race. (In Klingaman, Abraham Lincoln and the Road to Emancipation, p. 295)
Lincoln himself held racist views. As a politician in
I will say, then, that 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 not nor ever have been in favor of making voters of the free negroes, or jurors, or qualifying them to hold office, or having them to marry white people. I will say in addition, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races, which, I suppose, will forever forbid the two races living together upon terms of social and political equality, and inasmuch as they cannot so live, that while they do remain together, there must be the position of superior and inferior, that I as much as any other man am in favor of the superior position being assigned to the white man. (Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1832-1858, New York: The Library of America, 1989, edited by Don Fehrenbacher, p. 751)
To be fair, it should be noted that
To understand something of the nature of that problem we must look at the position of the American Negro in the 1860s. . . . Throughout the nation there were 488,000 free Negroes. . . . Most free Negroes—258,000—lived in the South. . . .
“Free people of color” were welcome in few places. In the North they were almost universally segregated, excluded from public life, and their children barred from white public schools. In those areas where separate Negro schools were provided they were inadequately financed and instruction was poor. . . .
The situation of the black American when the war ended was ambiguous. . . . Northerners as a whole, willing to concede freedom, were hostile to equality. Many of them dreaded an incursion of black folk after the war—especially among lower paid workers who feared Negro competition and some not so poorly paid who resented possible Negro entry into their crafts. The use of Negroes as strikebreakers during the war and their employment in areas where whites were out of work resulted in agitation and riots and intensified anti-Negro feeling.
however, was by no means confined to workingmen. Between 1865 and 1867 voters in
African-American scholars John Franklin and Alfred Moss:
There can be no
doubt that many blacks were sorely mistreated in the North and West. Observers
like Fanny Kemble and Frederick L. Olmsted mentioned incidents in their
writings. Kemble said of Northern blacks, “They are not slaves indeed, but they
are pariahs, debarred from every fellowship save with their own despised race.
. . . All hands are extended to thrust them out, all fingers point at their
dusky skin, all tongues . . . have learned to turn the
very name of their race into an insult and a reproach.” Olmsted seems to have believed the
Was the War Fought Over Slavery?
The war was fought over Southern
independence, not over slavery.
In July 1861, after the First Battle of
Manassas (Bull Run) had been fought, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution, by
an overwhelming majority, that declared the war was not being fought to disturb
slavery, nor to subjugate the South, but only to “maintain the Union” (i.e., to
force the Southern states back into the Union).
A few months later, in September, a group of Radicals visited
The war itself really had nothing directly to do with slavery. It’s true that issues involving slavery were the most important factors behind the first wave of secession, but secession and the war were two separate events, and four of the Southern states did not secede over slavery. As noted earlier, secession was a peaceful, democratic process. The seceded states posed no threat to the federal government, and they had no intention of trying to overthrow the government. The Confederate states wanted to live in peace with the North and offered to pay their share of the national debt and to pay compensation for all federal forts in the South.
If the Southern states had not seceded,
there would have been no war and slavery would have continued. If the Southern states had surrendered when
The reaction of the Northern abolitionists
to the proposal of fellow abolitionist Moncure Conway is further proof the war
was not fought over slavery. At least a
few of the abolitionists were Republicans, and nearly all of them strongly
supported the Radicals.
To most Southerners, independence was more
important than the continuation of slavery.
This is not surprising, since less than 10 percent of Southern citizens
actually held title to slaves, and since 69-75 percent of Southern families did
not own slaves (John Niven, The
Coming of the Civil War: 1837-1861,
Arlington Heights, Illinois: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 1990, p. 34; Divine et al,
editors, America Past and Present, p. 389; see also the 1860 Census). Early in the war, James Alcorn, a powerful
A Confederate soldier who was captured early in the war expressed the South’s reason for fighting in simple yet eloquent terms. He wore a ragged homemade uniform, and like most other Southerners he didn’t own any slaves. When his Union captors asked him why he was fighting for the Confederacy, he replied, “I’m fighting because you’re down here” (McPherson, The Battle Cry of Freedom, p. 311, emphasis added).
What Happened at
The question that really should be asked is, Why did thousands of Confederate prisoners die of starvation, disease, and exposure in Northern prison camps when the Union army could have easily given them adequate food, housing, and medical care?
Yes, thousands of Union prisoners died of
starvation, disease, and exposure at the Confederate prison camp at
One of the most balanced and objective
treatments of the issue of
prison, until the soldiers built huts for themselves, was but a stockaded
enclosure of sixteen and a half acres in southwestern
Much could be said about the thousands of
Confederate prisoners who died in Union prison camps and about the horrible
conditions in many of those camps. The
The worst Union
prison was in
Did the South Control the Federal Government Until 1860?
The claim is frequently made that the South controlled the federal government until the 1860 election, and that therefore the South showed a lack of tolerance and fairness when it seceded in response to Lincoln’s victory. However, anyone who is familiar with American history knows that the South did not control the federal government until 1860. Many Northern politicians and writers trumpeted this myth for political and propaganda purposes. A major component of this myth was that the alleged “Slave Power” in the South was behind the South’s supposed domination of the federal government. Some Northern leaders even claimed there was a “Slave Power conspiracy” to impose slavery on the entire country. When the war ended, Radical Republicans issued dire warnings about the need to crush this supposed “Slave Power” in order to justify their subjugation and looting of the defeated South.
For one thing, wealthy Southern plantation
owners, i.e., the men who allegedly comprised the supposed “Slave Power,” did
not dictate Southern politics. Moreover,
they were by no means uniform in their political beliefs. In fact, many affluent planters were Whigs
(Frank Owsley, Plain Folk of the Old South, LSU Press Edition, LSU
Press, 1982, pp. 141-142; Arthur Schlesinger, The Age of Jackson,
Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1945, p. 453; McPherson, The Battle Cry
of Freedom, p. 242). And, as
mentioned earlier, some of the wealthiest slaveholders opposed secession. In
Nor is it to be inferred that a plantation “aristocracy” somehow controlled the political destinies of the region, for the current of democracy had eroded the powers of the gentry until “whatever influence the planters exercised over the political action of the common people was of a personal and local nature” [quoting Owsley, Plain Folk of the Old South, p. 139]. (The Civil War and Reconstruction, pp. 40-41)
If the South truly “controlled” the federal government until 1860, one can only wonder why the federal tariff was never as low as the South wanted it to be, why Congress gave the Northern states a legal monopoly in the lucrative shipbuilding business and why this monopoly was never repealed, why it took ten years for Texas to be admitted as a state, why Cuba was never annexed, how the Missouri Compromise became law in 1820, how the Tariff of Abominations passed Congress in 1828, how the Force Bill passed Congress in 1833, how the tariff act of 1842 passed Congress, how the John Calhoun resolutions of 1847-1848 were all defeated, how the Wilmot Proviso passed the House of Representatives twice, how the Compromise of 1850 was enacted, why Kansas wasn’t admitted as a slave state, why the Missouri Compromise line wasn’t extended to the west coast, and how the draconian Morrill Tariff passed the House in 1860. (Some critics claim that Southern congressmen supported the 1828 Tariff of Abominations, but in point of fact most Southern congressmen voted against it [Taussig, The Tariff History of the United States, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1910, pp. 61-62].)
It’s true that there were periods when the South had more influence on federal policy than did the North, but there were also periods when this was not the case. At no time did the South “control” the federal government. Cooper notes that “after mid-1854 no chance remained for a congressional majority on any initiative marked as a southern measure” (Jefferson Davis, American, p. 284). The South was usually able to block or modify unwanted bills in the Senate, but not always, and the South was frequently unable to defeat unwanted bills in the House. As early as 1819 “the North had built up a decisive majority in the House of Representatives” (Divine et al, editors, America Past and Present, p. 281).
As for the presidency, Presidents John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, William Harrison, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan were all Northern politicians. And who were the Southern presidents? They were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, John Tyler, James K. Polk, and Zachary Taylor. So the South by no means enjoyed exclusive control of the White House prior to the war. Furthermore, the “Southern” presidents didn’t automatically take the South’s side on all issues, just as the “Northern” presidents didn’t automatically take the North’s side on all issues. For example, President Taylor sided with Northern politicians on crucial aspects of the Compromise of 1850 and also supported the Wilmot Proviso, even though he himself was a slaveholder.
When the South did exercise considerable
influence on federal policy, it used that influence in efforts to reduce taxes,
to limit the growth of the federal government, to curb or eliminate harmful protectionist
trade policies, to impose fiscal responsibility on federal spending, to abolish
the corrupt United States Bank, to preserve our free banking system, to
prohibit the use of tax dollars for wasteful corporate welfare schemes, to
expand the land area of the United States by acquiring new territory, to
preserve the sovereignty of the states, and to enforce a strict interpretation
of the Constitution. Under Southern
I’m not saying that Southern politicians did
no wrong. For example, the
Southern-inspired 1836-1844 gag rule in the House of Representatives, which
prevented debate on petitions to abolish slavery in the
The Reconstruction Era
Time only allows me to provide a brief sketch of the “Reconstruction” program that the Republicans imposed on the South after the war. I don’t deny that some good things were accomplished during Reconstruction. Nor do I deny that Reconstruction, as bad as it was, could have been worse. However, most textbooks only talk about the good aspects of Reconstruction and either ignore or minimize the negative aspects. The unjust, illegal aspects of Reconstruction merit discussion.
Reconstruction began in 1865 and officially
ended in 1877. The Radicals took
substantial control of Reconstruction in 1867.
Reconstruction was bad enough from the outset, but it became much worse
under Radical influence. The Radicals
illegally placed the South under military rule.
They divided the South into five military districts, each governed by a
Union army general. They nullified the
recent Southern elections and refused to allow Southern congressmen to take
their seats in Congress, even though these men had been elected in elections
that were just as valid as any election that had been held in the North. Not content with their political subjugation
of the South, the Radicals and other Republicans allowed the Southern states to
be looted and exploited for years by Northern business interests and by corrupt
Reconstruction governments. The Radicals did these things over the strenuous
The Radicals also shamelessly contradicted
the earlier Republican claim that the Southern states had not left the
During the worst period of Reconstruction, Southerners who voiced objections to Republican policy could be jailed, and even executed, without indictment or trial. Southern newspapers that criticized Reconstruction ran the real risk of being shut down, and some newspapers were closed down for this reason. Federal troops were stationed all over the South, and in many cases their conduct was disgraceful and abusive. Many Republican operatives and other Northerners who came to the South poisoned race relations by inciting former slaves to hate and persecute Southern whites. The Republicans made it illegal for males who had served in the Confederate army or in the Confederate government to vote or hold public office. Ex-Confederates could only vote if they were willing to lie by taking the “ironclad oath.” The oath disqualified any man who had served in the Confederacy or who had even “aided” the Confederacy. Of course, this excluded a large majority of Southern men. To their credit, some Southern black leaders opposed denying former Confederates the right to vote, but their efforts were unsuccessful. New Southern legislatures and governors were chosen in elections in which most former Confederates were barred from voting. These corrupt Reconstruction state governments imposed oppressive taxes on their citizens and also stole or wasted a staggering amount of taxpayer money.
Hummel notes the heavy tax burden that was imposed on the South after the war:
. . . the war-ravaged South suffered under some of the heaviest
state and local taxation in proportion to wealth in
Northern business interests took full advantage of the South’s subjugation during Reconstruction. African-American scholars Franklin and Moss note that “Northern financiers and industrialists took advantage of the opportunity to impose their economic control on the South, and much of it endured for generations” (From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, p. 264). Kenneth Davis concedes that Southern railroad companies were "burdened for decades by unfair rates and restrictive tariffs set by Northerners, who controlled the vast majority of railways and the legislatures that set rates" (Don't Know Much About the Civil War, pp. 425-426).
“But,” some will ask, “wasn’t slavery abolished under Reconstruction?” Yes, slavery was abolished during the Johnson phase of Reconstruction when the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified on December 18, 1865. We can all agree that slavery was wrong and that it needed to be abolished. But it was abolished in a way that was unfair and that caused enormous damage to the Southern economy. Under the Thirteenth Amendment, Southern slaveholders received no compensation for their slaves. The abolition of slavery without compensation cost the South about two billion dollars in capital, and it reduced real estate values by at least that amount. In terms of modern monetary value, this represented a total loss of over sixty billion dollars.
Southern slaveholders should have been able to recover the cost of their slaves, just as Northern slaveholders had been able to do decades earlier. Most Southern slaveholders treated their slaves humanely. Many of these men believed they had a Christian duty to properly and respectfully care for their slaves. One doesn’t have to condone human bondage to acknowledge that in most cases Southern slavery was administered humanely. This isn’t the place for an extended discussion on slavery in the pre-war South, but it should be pointed out that Southern slaves had a life expectancy that was comparable to urban populations and higher than in Europe, that 66-80 percent of slave marriages were not broken up, that nearly 40 percent of the marriages performed in Southern Episcopal churches between 1800 and 1860 were slave marriages, that even in the 1850s many slaves were able to buy their freedom because they were permitted to earn money, and that hundreds of thousands of slaves were converted to Christianity. Granted, no matter how humanely slavery was administered, it was still wrong. The point is that most Southern slaveholders did not deserve to lose their slaves without compensation, and that this unfair policy did great damage to the South’s economy.
Textbooks note the fact that Radical
Reconstruction included civil rights reforms that enabled former slaves to
vote. However, they almost never mention
information that sheds important light on those reforms. If the Republicans had
enacted and implemented these reforms in a legal, ethical manner, and if their
motives for doing so had been noble, they would deserve nothing but praise. But such was not the case. Most Republican leaders supported the
imposition of these reforms because they wanted to control and exploit the
Southern states, not because they really cared about the fate of the
ex-slaves. Republican operatives
manipulated, and sometimes even coerced, ex-slaves to vote Republican so the
Republican Party could take over Southern state governments. Once the Republicans achieved this goal, they
proceeded to engage in large-scale corruption and oppression, which harmed
blacks and whites alike. A respected
moderate Southern leader in
Civil rights could and should have been advanced through legal, ethical means. Yes, this would have taken longer, but it would have preserved the constitutional republic that our founding fathers gave us, and all Americans would have been better off in the long run. Instead, in the name of imposing civil rights on the South, the Republicans, led by the Radicals, subverted the rule of law, permitted Republican operatives to engage in astonishing corruption, looted the South for years, poisoned race relations, illegally and unethically amended the Constitution, further destroyed the balance of power between the states and the federal government, and empowered the federal government to perform functions that the founding fathers did not want it to perform.
I would like to conclude this discussion on
Reconstruction by quoting a substantial portion of President Johnson’s veto of
the first Radical Reconstruction Act.
Before doing so, I should point out that the Radicals tried to remove
Johnson from office because he opposed their Reconstruction program, even
though he had staunchly supported the war and had opposed secession. When
I have examined the bill "to provide for the more efficient government of the rebel States" with the care and the anxiety which its transcendent importance is calculated to awaken. I am unable to give it my assent for reasons so grave that I hope a statement of them may have some influence on the minds of the patriotic and enlightened men with whom the decision must ultimately rest. The bill places all the people of the ten States therein named under the absolute domination of military rulers. . . .
The bill . . . would seem to show upon its face that the establishment of peace and good order is not its real object. The fifth section declares that the preceding sections shall cease to operate in any State where certain events shall have happened. . . . All these conditions must be fulfilled before the people of any of these States can be relieved from the bondage of military domination; but when they are fulfilled, then immediately the pains and penalties of the bill are to cease, no matter whether there be peace and order or not, and without any reference to the security of life or property. The excuse given for the bill in the preamble is admitted by the bill itself not to be real. The military rule which it establishes is plainly to be used, not for any purpose of order or for the prevention of crime, but solely as a means of coercing the people into the adoption of principles and measures to which it is known that they are opposed, and upon which they have an undeniable right to exercise their own judgment. . . .
I submit to Congress whether this measure is not in its whole character, scope, and object without precedent and without authority, in palpable conflict with the plainest provisions of the Constitution, and utterly destructive to those great principles of liberty and humanity for which our ancestors on both sides of the Atlantic have shed so much blood and expended so much treasure. . . . (Veto of the first Reconstruction Act, March 2, 1867)
The True Nature of the War
In reality, the Civil War was not a civil
war. In a civil war, two or more
factions fight for control of the national government. But the South was not trying to overthrow the
national government, nor was it trying to achieve exclusive control of the
government. The South merely wanted to
leave the federal government in peace and was willing to pay its share of the
national debt and to pay compensation for federal installations in the Southern
states. The Confederacy tried to
establish peaceful relations with the federal government, but
The Civil War was a war of aggression
against the South. Republican leaders
and their Northern industrialist backers used the force of the federal
government to destroy Southern independence.
Some of these men despised the South.
Radical Republicans saw in secession an excuse to subjugate and exploit
the Southern states. Northern business
leaders who bankrolled the Republicans feared that their financial empire would
be threatened if the Confederate states were able to trade directly with other
nations with the much lower Confederate tariff.
The Republicans weren’t about to lower the tariff, since they were
committed to drastically raising it (which they did soon after the South
seceded). Rather than fairly compete
with the low Confederate tariff by lowering the federal tariff, the Republicans
and their Northern financial backers opted to destroy the Confederacy by force. Charles Adams demonstrates that after the
Confederacy announced its low tariff, influential Northern business interests
began to strongly oppose peaceful separation and
and financial leaders wished to destroy the influence of the agrarian South in
Most Republican leaders, while claiming they
were “saving” the
The Republicans and their generals waged a
shameful form of “total war” against the South, causing the deaths of some
50,000 Southern civilians and wiping out whole towns in the process. They hired thousands of unscrupulous
mercenaries, including many criminals fresh from European jails. They violated just about every rule of civilized
warfare known to man. They used tactics
that today would justify prosecution for war crimes. A few Union generals, including George
McClellan, objected to this cruel form of warfare, and at least one general,
Don C. Buell, resigned from the army in protest--but these men were the exception,
not the rule. On the other hand, the
vast majority of Confederate generals refused to use the brutal tactics that so
many Union generals were using. At one
point, some Confederate officials urged Jefferson Davis to order Confederate
forces to employ the barbaric tactics that were being used by Union generals
like William Tecumseh Sherman and Phil Sheridan, but
After the war, most Republicans in Congress
continued to violate the Constitution.
They imposed a clearly illegal military rule on the Southern states and
proceeded to plunder those states for years.
The Radicals and their supporters in the Union army accused and jailed
Jefferson Davis on the absurd charge that he was involved in the conspiracy
The Radicals came close to establishing a military dictatorship in the name of “reconstructing” the defeated Southern states. The Radicals passed a bill that said the military didn’t have to obey the president’s orders unless the commanding general of the Army approved those orders (McDonald, States’ Rights and the Union, p. 213). The bill also made it a crime for any officer to obey orders except those that came from the commanding general (Brodie, Thaddeus Stevens, p. 298).
Just imagine what most Americans today would
think if the secretary of defense refused to step down when suspended by the
president but instead barricaded himself in his office, issued an order for the
arrest of the man appointed to replace him, and asked friendly members of
Congress to intervene. And imagine what
most Americans would think if the commanding general
of the Army then stationed troops around the Pentagon in order to keep the
secretary of defense in power against the president’s express wishes. Impossible? Couldn’t happen in
There were other Radical abuses. In January 1868, the Radicals and most of their fellow Republicans passed a bill, over Johnson’s veto, that transferred all of Johnson’s authority in Reconstruction to General Grant. The Radicals also worked to deny President Johnson his constitutional authority to appoint justices to the Supreme Court by amending the Judiciary Act so the president couldn’t fill vacancies that might occur on the high court (McDonald, States’ Rights and the Union, p. 211). After Edwin Stanton barricaded himself in his office and asked the Radicals for help, two Radicals, Senator Zachary Chandler and Representative John Logan, personally led a company of one hundred men to guard the War Department building (Brodie, Thaddeus Stevens, p. 335).
When even the Lincoln-packed Supreme Court tried to curb Republican lawlessness, the Radicals reacted with outrage. In the Ex Parte Milligan case, the high court finally gathered enough courage to conclude that it was illegal to impose military rule on civilians in non-combat areas where civil courts were still in operation (which was what the Republicans had been doing, in the North, for much of the war). The Radicals were furious with this ruling, partly because it implied they had committed judicial murder, since several civilians had been sentenced to death by federal military courts. Then, in Ex Parte McCardle, the Supreme Court upheld the right of habeas corpus and reaffirmed the principle that civilians couldn’t be tried in military courts when civil courts were available. The Radicals were so angered by this decision that they introduced bills in Congress that would have (1) abolished the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction in all habeas corpus cases, (2) ended all judicial review of acts of Congress, and (3) prohibited the high court from reviewing cases that involved “political questions,” including the Reconstruction Act. This was an open attack on basic American concepts of government, justice, and due process. For example, if the Supreme Court were denied jurisdiction in habeas corpus cases, it would be unable to protect citizens against unlawful arrest and imprisonment. That was exactly what the Radicals wanted. Luckily, the bills were defeated. “Had they been enacted,” notes McDonald, “the Court would have been destroyed as an arbiter of the Constitution” (States’ Rights and the Union, p. 218).
I’m not arguing that all the Radicals were
corrupt or that everything they believed was wrong. Although I share the view that many of the
Radicals were more interested in power than in civil rights, I also believe
that some of them were sincere. The
Radicals deserve credit for eventually forcing
In a very real sense, the
Civil War was not North vs. South; rather, it was hardline Republican leaders
and certain Northern business interests vs. the rest of the country. Although the vast majority of Southerners supported
the Confederacy, at least 40 percent of Northerners did not support the
Republicans and wanted to halt or even abandon the federal invasion of the
South. Before the war, dozens of
Northern newspapers voiced the view that the South should be allowed to depart
in peace. During the war, so many
Northern citizens opposed
A good indication of
just about any point in the war, it’s probable that a majority of Americans
opposed the use of force to hold the
One of the many untold stories of the Civil
War is the fact that Indians, Hispanics, and African Americans supported and
even fought for the Confederacy. The
five tribes of the
Thousands of Hispanics served as soldiers in
the Confederate army, and some even served as commissioned officers. In his book Hispanic Confederates (Clearfield Company, 1999),
John O’Donnell-Rosales identifies 3,600 Hispanic Confederate soldiers by name
and unit. The Confederate commissioner
There is evidence that thousands of African
Americans fought for the Confederacy.
For example, the chief inspector of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, Dr.
Lewis Steiner, reported that he saw about 3,000 well-armed black Confederate
soldiers in Stonewall Jackson’s army and that those soldiers were
"manifestly an integral portion of the Southern Confederate
Army." In a Union army battle
report, a “General D. Stuart” complained about the deadly effectiveness of the
black Confederate soldiers whom his troops had encountered. Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest
had slaves and free blacks serving in units under his command, and said of
them, “These boys stayed with me . . . and better Confederates did not live.” After the Battle of Gettysburg, Union forces
took seven black Confederate soldiers as prisoners, as was noted in a Northern
newspaper at the time, which said, “. . . reported among the rebel prisoners
were seven blacks in Confederate uniforms fully armed as soldiers.” None other than African-American abolitionist
Frederick Douglass complained that there were “many” blacks in the Confederate
army who were armed and “ready to shoot down” Union soldiers. During the Battle of
Chickamauga, slaves serving Confederate soldiers armed themselves and asked permission
to join the fight—and when they received that permission they fought
commendably. Their commander, Captain J.
B. Briggs, later noted that these men “filled a portion of the line of advance
as well as any company of the regiment.”
There are numerous accounts of slaves assisting Confederate soldiers in
battle and helping them to escape capture afterward (see, for example, Francis
Springer, War for What?,
Another untold story of the Civil War is the
brutal way that many Union forces treated Southern slaves. One Union unit, commanded by Colonel John
Turchin, moved into
soldiers had no love for slavery, most of them had no love for slaves either. .
. . While some Yanks treated contrabands with a degree of equity and
benevolence, the more typical response was indifference, contempt, and
cruelty. Soon after Union forces captured
The case of the Union army’s treatment of the
Textbooks note that well over 100,000 slaves
served in the Union army, but they rarely inform the reader that thousands of
those men were forced to serve. Union
army records and other sources document that thousands of slaves were abducted
and then forced into military service; some were taken from their plantations
during Union raids, while others were seized in areas that were occupied by
federal forces. General John Logan told
General Grant, “A major of colored troops is here capturing negroes, with or
without their consent.” General Lovell
Rousseau informed General G. H. Thomas that “officers in command of colored
troops are in constant habit of pressing [i.e., forcing] all able-bodied slaves
into the military service of the
The conscription of slaves by federal forces
continued even after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. For example, several months after the
proclamation was issued, General Innis Palmer wanted to provide “laborers” for
federal troops at
Southern family journals and letters contain numerous accounts of Union soldiers forcefully removing slaves from their homes, even when the slaves made it clear they didn’t want to leave (see, for example, Henry Steele Commager, editor, The Civil War Archive: The History of the Civil War in Documents, New York: Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers, 2000, pp. 333-336, 675-677).
I’m not suggesting that all slaves remained loyal to their masters or to the South during the war. Many thousands of Southern slaves did in fact flock to Union lines, just as thousands of colonial slaves flocked to British lines during the Revolutionary War. But many Southern slaves remained loyal, and quite of few of them viewed Union troops as invaders.
What If the South Had Been Allowed to Go in Peace?
Did the world end when
I think both the
Some critics have suggested that if the
Confederacy had survived, World War II may have had a different outcome. But the fact that
If the South had been permitted to go in peace, slavery would have died a natural death in a matter of a few decades, if not sooner. Before the war, even some Northern politicians, such as William Seward, said slavery was a dying institution. The percentage of Southern whites that belonged to slaveholding families dropped by 5 percent from 1850-1860 (Divine et al, editor, America Past and Present, p. 389). Historian Allan Nevins noted that by the 1850s "slavery was dying all around the edges of its domain" (The Emergence of Lincoln, Volume 2, p. 469). Although slavery was still economically profitable, its days were numbered. Interestingly, some of the most vocal Northern abolitionists, including Wendell Phillips, welcomed the South’s secession because they believed Southern slavery would die out more quickly if the South were no longer part of the Union.
If the South had been allowed to leave in peace, over 600,000 soldiers (over half of them from the North) would have been spared death. Over 50,000 Southern civilians likewise would have been spared death. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers would not have been wounded for life. Millions of families would have been spared sorrow and anguish over their dead and wounded loved ones. Billions of dollars in property damage would have been avoided. And, race relations would not have suffered the poisoning that they experienced during and after the war.
“But,” some will ask, “wouldn’t the
What would the South be like today if the Confederacy had survived? No one can say with certainty, but it’s likely that taxes of all kinds would be much lower. Citizens would have much less government interference in their lives. Parents would have more control over their children’s education and over their local schools. Southern schools would most likely allow voluntary prayer, moral instruction, nativity plays at Christmas time, and formal Bible reading (as our schools used to do until the 1960s when the Supreme Court suddenly decided these things were somehow “unconstitutional”). There would be tough anti-pornography laws. The lives of unborn children would be protected by law. There would be no question that marriage should be reserved for a man and a woman. And a state government could place a Ten Commandments monument in front of a state judicial building without having to worry about a federal judge wrongfully ordering its removal.
However, all this being said, I think that
if the South had been allowed to go in peace, it would have eventually rejoined
Some people think it is unpatriotic or divisive
to defend the Southern side of the Civil War.
As a retired U.S. Army veteran and a flag-waving patriot, I reject that
view. Confederate citizens were Americans
too. They were citizens of the
“Confederate States of
It is time for the demonization and smearing of the Confederacy to stop. Compared with other nations of its day, the Confederacy was one of the most democratic countries in the world. Even during the war, the Confederacy held elections and had a vibrant free press. In fact, on balance, the Confederacy was more democratic than some nations in our day. Confederate citizens enjoyed every right that we now enjoy, if not more. The Confederacy sought peace with the federal government and only fought because it was invaded. The Confederate Constitution was patterned after the U.S. Constitution and contained improvements that even some Northern commentators acknowledged were praiseworthy.
Yes, the Confederacy permitted slavery, but it
left the door open for the admission of
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Michael T. Griffith holds a Master’s degree
(Magna Cum Laude) in Theology from The Catholic Distance University, a Graduate
Certificate in Ancient and Classical History from American Military University,
a Bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts from Excelsior College, two Associate in
Applied Science degrees from the Community College of the Air Force, and an
Advanced Certificate of Civil War Studies and a Certificate of Civil War
Studies from Carroll College. He is a
two-time graduate of the Defense Language Institute in