I hope Kevin Levin will excuse me if I piggyback on him again so quickly. I wouldn’t do it if he hadn’t shared an article yesterday highly relevant to Civil War Emancipation. I will say, as an aside, that I fully intend to do the same thing in the future under similar circumstances, giving full credit to the source, of course. So I’m in Kevin’s debt for sharing this article on Facebook.
What Kevin shared was Gordon Rhea’s recent article in the Civil War Trust newsletter, entitled “Why Non-Slaveholding Southerners Fought.” Rhea provides a highly cogent explanation of why non-slaveholding whites were willing to fight for Confederacy when they had no slave property to defend. Rather than summarize Gordon Rhea’s article, I’ll let him do so for himself which he does quite well.
The reasons that Southerners gave their fellow Southerners for Secession – from the pulpit, from their political and community leaders, in their reading material. There was much more – I haven’t discussed newspapers yet — but the message was the same. Secession was required to preserve slavery. Why should non-slaveholders care? Because slavery was the will of God, and those who opposed the institution – the abolitionists – were by definition anti-God. More to the point, secession was necessary to preserve white supremacy, to avoid a race war, and to prevent racial amalgamation. For Southerners to remain in the Union, be they slave-owners or non-slave-owners, meant losing their property, their social standing, and the “sacred purity of our daughters.” Tariffs appear nowhere in these sermons and speeches, and “states’ rights” are mentioned only in the context of the rights of states to decide whether some of their inhabitants can own other humans. The central message was to play on the fear of African barbarians at the gate.
I heartily recommend everyone read the full article. To be candid, it isn’t that Gordon Rhea is revealing anything particularly new, although he does so quite eloquently, but in the face of the stubborn challenge of the so-called “neo-Confederates” I find it particularly encouraging to read an author who describes himself as a “Southerner . . . and a descendant of former slave-owners” also to say “The Confederate States were established explicitly to preserve and expand the institution of slavery.” And a few paragraphs later to state, “why should we celebrate a heritage grounded in hate, a heritage whose self-avowed reason for existence was the exploitation and debasement of a sizeable segment of its population?” At the risk of seeming patronizing and with the greatest respect, I sincerely join him in his hope “that we use the opportunity of the Sesquicentennial to open a frank and civil dialogue about what happened 150 years ago.” Any honest and honorable scholar should hope for no less.