Seven Things You Should Know about the Civil War

With so much attention focusing on the Confederate flag this week, here are some things you should know about the Civil War:

1. The Civil War was not fought over slavery, at least not directly. When the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, their purpose was to defend their country from an invading force. Southerners fought to protect their homeland. Their war aim was to repulse a foreign invasion.

The war aim of the North was to preserve the Union and render void the secession of the eleven states that had withdrawn from the United States. Secession, not slavery, was the cause of the War. It was not until 1863, two years into the conflict, that the emancipation of some (not all) slaves became a war aim of the federal government. This purely military tactic then evolved into an abolitionist movement by the end of the war. If, however, the Union had won the war prior to 1863, it is almost certain that southern states would have been readmitted to the Union with slavery still intact.

2. Abraham Lincoln was not an abolitionist until the War made him one. Lincoln detested slavery, and he strongly opposed its spread to any new U.S. territories. But his political platform included leaving the institution in place where it was already practiced. Abolitionists were regarded as radical at this time, whereas Lincoln took a more moderate political stance, without which it is doubtful he would have won the election of 1860. Of course, Southerners certainly considered him radical enough to justify their withdrawal from the Union.

Lincoln came to identify with the abolitionist cause after the Emancipation Proclamation made the liberation of some slaves a stated war aim. By the end of the war, he had become the driving political force behind the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery.

3. The Emancipation Proclamation did not actually free many slaves. It only applied to states or parts of states that were regarded as in rebellion against the federal government at the time. It left slavery untouched in border states that did not secede (Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri). It also left slavery intact in parts of Confederate states that had come under Union control by 1863, including the entire state of Tennessee. Of course, you can imagine that in most places where it did apply, the citizens did not comply, since they did not regard President Lincoln as having any authority over them.

4. Abraham Lincoln ran for reelection during the War against his former general, George McClellan. There were times, particularly times of Confederate success, prior to the election of 1864, when it seemed that Lincoln would lose his reelection bid. It is interesting to imagine what a President McClellan would have done since, had the vote gone his way, it would have sent a strong message that the citizens of the United States were tired of the War. In my view, the South’s only path to victory lay in a political scenario like that one, where the North simply lost the willpower to fight.

But it was not meant to be. By November of 1864, a string of Union victories (particularly Sherman’s taking of Atlanta) had turned the tide of public opinion in Lincoln’s favor. He was reelected with a mandate to lead the country to victory.

5. The flag that we readily identify with the Confederacy is actually the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. As such, it did not represent the government of the Confederate States of America or its Constitution. It represented Lee’s army and did not, therefore, fly over the institution of slavery per se.

6. Wilmer McLean, a Virginia resident, has one of the most interesting stories of the War. He lived near Manassas, where the first major battle was fought in 1861. He was so close to the fighting that a Union shell exploded in his kitchen. Desiring to move his family to safety, he relocated to a town called Appomattox Courthouse. In 1865, Generals Grant and Lee negotiated the terms of surrender in his front parlor.

7. The Constitution of the Confederate States of America both protected the institution of slavery while outlawing the slave trade. That the Confederacy would seek to protect the institution in writing is no surprise, given that slavery was their primary purpose for seceding. But few people realize that these words are also in the Confederate Constitution in Article I, Section 9.1: “The importation of negroes of the African race from any foreign country other than the slaveholding States or Territories of the United States of America, is hereby forbidden; and Congress is required to pass such laws as shall effectually prevent the same.”

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