In the aftermath of Appomatox, the process of reunifying the country naturally came to include a chivalrous recognition by victorious Northerners that their Southern adversaries had fought bravely and honorably on behalf of a sectional political perspective which, though defeated in a decisive contest of strength, had been legitimately defended.
The academic left today, of which Christopher Clausen, writing in Wilson Quarterly, is a typical example, is determined to rewrite history and delegitimize the War for Southern Independence by insisting on reducing the Southern cause to a failed battle to preserve Slavery. Any sympathetic view of Southern motivations is dismissed as “Lost Cause-ism,” the Lost Cause being defined as a false post-War romantic narrative constructed to obfuscate Southern guilt for treason and unjustified revolution on behalf of the indefensible crime of slavery.
All this is arrant nonsense and radical agitprop, not history.
Slavery was certainly a cause for secession and the Civil War, but it was what Aristotle would have referred to as the material cause. The efficient cause of secession was States’ Rights and the cause for which most Southerners fought was merely defense of family, home, and fire-side against armed invasion.
Lincoln promised in his First Inaugural Address that he had “no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists.” He assured Americans that he had “no lawful right to do so” as well as no inclination.
It is important to remember that, at that point, only seven states had seceded. It might be argued that the seven Deep South cotton states seceded on the basis of a determination to preserve a social and economic system including slavery, but Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas seceded only after Lincoln’s April 15 call for troops to invade and subjugate the states which had previously voted to leave the Union.
The most important states of the Confederacy in size of population, including Virginia which became the seat of the Confederate capital, did not secede for slavery at all, but to defend the right of self determination of the citizens of individual states against federal power.
The rather Goreyesque Civil War Monument in front of the courthouse in the nearby county where our fox hunt’s kennels is located says on its base:
ERECTED TO THE MEMORY OF THE SONS OF CLARKE WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES IN DEFENSE OF THE RIGHTS OF THE STATES AND OF CONSTITUTIONAL GOVERNMENT
There is no mention of slavery.
So demented with self-righteous infatuation with the politics of race have historians become, that the staggering corruption and misgovernment of the Reconstruction Era, in which suddenly-emancipated illiterate primitives in league with looting outsiders and corrupt locals were given control of the governments of conquered states at the point of the bayonet, has become a Golden Age of racial justice sadly ended by the electoral compromise of 1876.
When I was in school, so many decades ago, we still used to be informed of the staggering debt burdens piled up in a few short years by Reconstruction Era black governments, which kept many Southern states impoverished and unable to fund more than the most rudimentary educational systems right up to the time of WWII.
Today, we are advised by scholars like C. Vann Woodward that “the North had fought the war and imposed Reconstruction for three reasons: to save the Union, to abolish slavery, and, more equivocally, to bring about racial equality. The first two aims were achieved and soon accepted, however grudgingly, by the South. The third, seemingly assured by constitutional amendments and supporting legislation, was bargained away for most of another century.”
Most Union soldiers, certainly Grant (who tried to buy the island of Hispaniola to settle all the freed slaves upon) and Sherman (who was morally indifferent to slavery) and Lincoln himself (who intended to deport the emancipated slaves to Africa) would have been astonished to have ascribed to them the goal of racial equality. In so far as ending slavery was a major motivation to Northern soldiers, it most often took the form a desire to eliminate slavery and with it the presence of a colored population on US soil. One could argue that for a majority of Northern soldiers the Civil War was a war being fought to assure the future existence of a whites-only United States.
Clausen’s article is a disgrace, anachronistically contorting 19th century reality into a useful narrative for post-1960s racial politics.