There are more books written about the U.S. “Civil War” than any other subject with the exception of Christianity and the Bible. In the foreword of my book, The Un-Civil War: Shattering the Historical Myths, published in 2011, I noted that despite the hunger of Americans to know about the Civil War, it is the least understood war in American history in terms of its political causes and ethical conduct. The second least understood war in American history is the Vietnam War, which I also published a book about in 2009, entitled Lessons from the Vietnam War, Truths the Media Never Told You. The history of both wars suffers from ideological distortion by the media, but the history of the Civil War and the Reconstruction era of 1865 to 1877 also suffers from continued ideological distortion by government propaganda to justify the war.
The government and progressive media narrative of the Civil War focuses on one issue—slavery, turning the war into a morality play about freeing Southern slaves. No knowledgeable and politically uncorrupt scholar can endorse such a politicized and distorted simplification of history. Yet that is the prevailing and oft repeated public understanding of the “cause” of the war. Slavery was an important secondary issue, but it was not primarily driven by a moral rejection of the institution by most Northern political leaders or their constituents.
Slavery is an institution that limits human freedom and productivity and is fraught with the potential for human abuse. It also presents extreme dangers to the peace, stability, and social well being of any society. However, the conditions and abuses of slavery in the South were greatly exaggerated by Northern media and political leaders to justify Northern aggression and tyranny throughout the war, during Reconstruction, and still today. Under the strong influence of Christian teachings in the South, slavery was much more benign than generally believed today, perhaps the most benign in human history. Extensive research by Fogel and Engerman in 1974 and the Slave Narratives, compiling interviews with former slaves by the Roosevelt Administration from 1936 to 1938, indicates that Southern slaves had significantly better nutrition, housing, and medical care than Northern industrial workers. Physical abuse was uncommon and unlawful. Over 80 percent of the former slaves interviewed by Roosevelt Administration employed scholars had a favorable opinion of their former masters.
But my favorite way to make points is to use quotes by significant historical participants and knowledgeable scholars. Quotes make history more real and help people sort out truth from misinformation and disinformation.
Woodrow Wilson, the most scholarly of U.S. presidents, in his History of the American People, offered this explanation of how slavery came to receive such exaggerated emphasis as a cause of the Civil War:
“It was necessary to put the South at a moral disadvantage by transforming the contest from a war waged against states fighting for their independence into a war waged against states fighting for the maintenance and extension of slavery.”
Here are some additional quotes from varied sources:
“The Northern onslaught upon slavery is no more than a piece of specious humbug designed to conceal its desire for economic control of the Southern states.”
—Charles Dickens, 1862, British author.
“The contest is really for empire on the side of the North, and for independence on that of the South, and in this respect we recognize an exact analogy between the North and the Government of George III, and the South and the Thirteen Revolted Provinces. “
—London Times, November 7, 1861.
“Every man should endeavor to understand the meaning of subjugation before it is too late…It means the history of this heroic struggle will be written by the enemy; that our youth will be trained by Northern schoolteachers; will learn from Northern school books their version of the war; will be impressed by the influences of history and education to regard our gallant dead as traitors, and our maimed veterans as fit objects of derision…It is said slavery is all we are fighting for, and if we give it up, we give up all. Even if this were true, which we deny, slavery is not all our enemies are fighting for. It is merely the pretense to establish sectional superiority and a more centralized form of government, and to deprive us of our rights and liberties.”
—Maj. General Patrick R. Cleburne, CSA, January 1864.
“As for the South, it is enough to say that perhaps eighty percent of her armies were neither slave-holders, nor had the remotest interest in the institution. No other proof, however, is needed than the undeniable fact that at any period of the war from its beginning to near its close, the South could have saved slavery by simply laying down its arms and returning to the Union.”
—Confederate Lt. General John B. Gordon, later a distinguished Governor and U.S. Senator from Georgia.
“If you bring these [Confederate] leaders to trial, it will condemn the North, for by the Constitution secession is not rebellion. Lincoln wanted [Confederate President] Davis to escape, and he was right. His capture was a mistake. His trial will be a greater one.”
—Salmon P. Chase, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, July 1867.
After two years in prison, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was released without trial.
“They (the South) know that it is their import trade that draws from the [Southern] people’s pockets sixty or seventy millions of dollars [$1.5 to $1.7 billion in 2012 dollars] per annum, in the shape of duties, to be expended mainly in the North, and in the protection and encouragement of Northern interests. These are the reasons why these people do not wish the South to secede from the union.”
New Orleans Daily Crescent, 1861.
“The principle for which we contend is bound to reassert itself, though it may be at another time and in another form.”
—President Jefferson Davis, CSA.