After the Civil War, it became common for ex-Confederates to downplay the role slavery had played in secession. With slavery dead and no bloody orgy of vengeance from the ex-slaves, former rebels found it embarrassing that they had fought and lost such a horrid war for such an ignoble a goal as keeping other people in bondage. So they constructed the legend of the Lost Cause in which defending slavery had no part. Instead, they had been fighting to defend their homes against a Yankee invasion, for honor, states’ rights, etc. To the limited extent African Americans had a part in the Lost Cause narrative, it was as faithful servants, subordinate companions, and deferential southern patriots who knew their place and kept it.
Before and during the Civil War, white Southerners did not experience the same embarrassment about slavery and proved more candid in describing their war aims. An excellent example comes from the December 16, 1861 issue of Richmond’s Daily Dispatch. Writing from Fairfax, Virginia, on December 8, an unnamed correspondent related a supposed conversation between Gen. George McClellan and a Confederate prisoner, Redmond Burke. Burke had been captured by federal troops on September 23, while scouting for J.E.B. Stuart. Imprisoned in Washington, D.C., he managed to escape and make it back to Confederate lines, where he related to the Richmond correspondent the story of his supposed conversation with Gen. McClellan.
The conversation boiled down to slavery and its relationship to the war. According to the Daily Dispatch it started with McClellan asking:
‘”I can only answer for myself,”’ was the reply, and not for others. I am fighting for liberty and against despotism. We have our slaves and hold them as property. You say slavery is a curse — we think differently. We find the negro better off with the white man for a master, and the history of the world has proved it.”
‘”I cannot understand how the negro can be more happy a slave than he could if free. You do not seem to appreciate the blessings of liberty. All men must be free and equal to insure happiness and prosperity to the country.”’
‘”I see new your feeling,”’ said Burke, “you are trying to abolish slavery and you are fighting us for this alone. You are trying to destroy an hereditary institution of the South and in the attempt you strike at the hearts of the people. You are mistaken.”
‘”But you have done more,”’ said Burke ‘”you have nullified the laws of Congress; in eleven States you have passed Personal Liberty bills; you have annulled the Dred Scott decision, and you have taken from the people the right of the habeas corpus.“’
Whether the supposed conversation between Burke and McClellan actually took place is irrelevant. It became a vehicle through which a prominent newspaper in Confederate capital could remind its readers the reason for secession, which clearly arose from slavery. Southerners might speak of Northern despotism, but from Burke’s words they themselves were fighting for the right to be despots over their slaves. They also believed, that from the beginning of the war, the North aimed to destroy slavery. Which might not strictly speaking be true, but given Northern actions dating from Gen. Benjamin Butler’s contraband policy certainly gave credibility to the notion and over the course of the war became true.