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Why They Fought for the South





Some insights into why some Americans chose to fight for the Confederacy.....

by Carole E. Scott

(Text and graphics copyrighted by C. E. Scott, 1997)

The South's motive for going to war in 1861 has traditionally been described as economically-based immorality, while the North's has been portrayed as non-economically-based morality, and this, the most bloody war of the 19th century, has been justified on the basis of it having been necessary in order to eliminate slavery even by some who believe it would have come to an end without war. This scenario makes for a good morality play, but it is bad history. (Slavery was eliminated in other countries and in Washington, D.C. without violence by compensating slave owners.)

Only in the United States and in Santo Domingo (Haiti), where slavery was eliminated as a result of a slave revolt, was blood shed in order to eliminate slavery. (Fear in the South of a revolt like the one in Haiti was intense, particularly in South Carolina, which had a slave majority, and in counties in other Southern states where slaves were a majority or accounted for a substantial percent of the population.) Leading the long effort to rid the world of slavery was Great Britain, which eliminated slavery throughout its empire through a program of gradual emancipation and compensation of slave owners. The last ditch defenders of slavery, says Bernard Lewis in Race and Slavery in the Middle East, were religious conservatives in Mecca and Medina. Legal slavery did not disappear from the world until 1974, when Mauritania made it illegal. In pretty much all but name, slavery continues to exist in some countries.

There is no question but that it was the capture by the new, anti-slavery party (Republican) in 1860 that caused the Southern states to secede from the Union in 1861. After the subsequent war that forced the return of the South to the Union, both the South and history was reconstructed. According to the dominant, New England historians, the preservation of slavery was what the South fought for; while Northerners fought in order to eliminate slavery.

However, long-standing complaints by Southerners about the centralization of power in Washington and a tax policy that benefitted the North at the expense of the South and the fact that the great majority of white Southerners owned no slaves and some Southern critics of slavery like Robert E. Lee chose to fight for the Confederacy, suggests that something other than slavery motivated Southerners. That Northerners, too, were motivated by more than their distaste for slavery is shown by the fact that in his First Inaugural Address Abraham Lincoln declared that, "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so."

Many Northern workers feared competing with either slave labor or free black labor. "Reduce the supply of black labor," said President Lincoln, "by colonizing the black laborer out of the country, and by precisely so much you increase the demand for, and wages of, white labor."

After war broke out, Ethelbert Barksdale, who represented Mississippi in the Confederate Congress, justified his support for enlisting slaves in the Confederate Army on the basis of his belief that "the end which is paramount to all other considerations, and to which all else is secondary, is the achievement of our independence and our assured escape from Yankee domination."

"It is said," said Confederate General Patrick Cleburne, "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."

Camille Jules Armand Marie, the Prince de Polignac, a Frenchman who became a Confederate Major General, explained his views on the causes of the War this way: "It is only necessary to recall into mind the two main currents of political opinion which ran in the United States prior to the war. In the North, more especially in New England, the leading men of the day aimed at a greater concentration of political power & advocaed the supremacy of the Federal government over the states. The Southern statesman unanimously denounced that tendency as unconstitutional. They contended that, in practice, it must end in placing a dictatorial power in the hands of an oligarchy & would leave all interests, general & local, at the mercy of a shifting majority. In conformity with traditions established by the founders of the great republic, they adhered to the doctrine of States-Rights as the only means of preserving an equitable balance of power throughout the Union. With these two conflicting political tendencies, viewed in the abstact, the social question of domestic slavery had nothing whatever to do. The two opposed doctrines & consequently the main issue would have remained the same if slavery had already ceased to exist in the Southern States, only in this case the Northern wire-pullers would have had to screen their selfish aims & motives behind another less convenient pretext."

Lord Acton, a British statesman well known for his declaration that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, in a November 4, 1866 letter to Robert E. Lee wrote, "I saw in States Rights the only availing check upon the absolutism of the soverign will, and secession filled me with hope, not as the destructioin but as the redemption of Democracy....I deemed that you were fighting the battles of our liberty, our progress, and our civilization; and I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo."

The South was not the first region to consider secession as a way to escape the domination of another region. Unhappy with the domination at that time of the Union by the South, during the War of 1812, the New England states met to consider nullification and secession. Subsequently, South Carolina attempted to nullify high tariffs that cost Southerners by raising the cost of manufactured goods, but benefitted Northern manufacturers by from protecting them from foreign competition and provided funds for internal improvements that diverted the West's trade from the South to the North.

"The material prosperity of the North," said the delegates to Georgia's secession convention, "was dependent on the Federal Government; that of the South not at all. In the first years of the Republic the navigating, commercial, and manufacturing interests of the North began to seek profit and aggrandizement at the expense of the agricultural interests. Even the owners of fishing smacks sought and obtained bounties for pursuing their own business..."

"As to the cause of the war," claimed antebellum Georgia businessman Mark Anthony Cooper, "it is chargeable not to the abolition of slavery, which was only an incident and exciting cause, but to the capital of the country seeking to control the government through its indebtedness and to foster itself by exceptions and immunities and by profits on the currencies made and controlled by it. War alone could furnish a pretext for doing what it desired."

As the image of Virginia slave-owner George Washington on the Great Seal of the Confederacy makes clear, the men who gathered in Montgomery, Alabama in 1861 to form a Southern Confederacy believed they were creating a new nation in the image of the confederation of sovereign states their grandfathers had created. They believed that the United States was established as a league or association of sovereign states for their mutual benefit. To accomplish this, certain, limited powers had been delegated to a central government, and they agree with the view expressed by Lincoln in his First Inaugural Address that whether or not slavery would be legal in a state was a decision to be made at the state level. (Fearing failing to be reelected, Lincoln later changed his mind and freed all the slaves living in Confederate-held territory. After the Confederacy was defeated, all slaves were freed.)

Clearly, the dominant view in the South was that it was ridiculous to claim that the Declaration of Independence denies the legitimacy of slavery because it proclaims that all "men" are created equal, as one of the complaints levied in it against Britain's King George III was that he was attempting to stir up a slave insurrection. They noted, too, that the U.S. Constitution as it existed in their day condoned slavery; specifying, for example, that for the purpose of determining how many representatives a state would have in Congress, only three-fifths of its slaves would be counted, and that escaped slaves would be returned to their owners by the states to which they fled.

Lincoln quoted the Declaration of Independence to justify his stance, noting that it said all men are created equal. Southerners also turned to the Declaration of Independence to justify their cause, saying that they were exercising the "Right of the People to alter or to abolish" any government that failed to secure the inalienable rights it proclaimed they possessed. Although Lincoln believed that the language of the Declaration of Independence composed by a slaveowner, Thomas Jefferson, was in conflict with slavery, he noted in an 1858 letter that it did not require political and social equality for free blacks.

Robert E. Lee wrote his wife in 1856 that, "in this enlightened age there are few, I believe, but what will acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil...;" yet, he turned down the opportunity to lead the Union Army to take a much lesser post with the Confederate Army. (Subsequently, he was promoted.) In contrast to Lee, the typical Southerner, believing that the Bible sanctioned slavery, did not consider it to be immoral. (In a speech before the Economic and Business Historical Society in 1996, the noted historian Eugene Genovese observed that in the critical struggle over biblical exegesis--and, in a deeply religious country, biblical exegesis was, in fact, politically critical--the slaveholders mopped up the abolitionists on the question of whether the Bible sanctioned slavery. There was, however, one great problem with the scriptural defense of slavery, as Lincoln and many other antislavery men saw. In a sense, it said too much, for the Bible did not sanction racial slavery; it sanctioned slavery per se--slavery regardless of race.") Southerners also believed that their slaves fared better than the North's "wage slaves".

The United States went to war, not because slaves were held in the South, but because a fort in Charleston's harbor that was occupied by its troops was fired upon by Confederate troops. (Lincoln's determination to continue to hold onto forts and custom houses in the Confederate States may be explained by the fact that federal revenues, almost all of which then derived from tariffs, fell by 26 percent after the South left the Union. The Union holding onto the fort in Charleston's harbor, which was viewed by Confederate officials to be a provocation equal to the British closing of the port of Boston in 1774, provided Lincoln with the provocation needed to justify going to war when Confederate troops fired on it.) Lincoln's call to the states for troops to put down rebellion in the Lower South led to the secession of several of the slaveholding the states of the Upper South.

One label Southerners sometimes apply to this war, the War of Northern Aggression, suggests what likely motivated some Southerners to fight for the Confederacy.

"Every man should endeavor to understand the meaning of subjugation before it is too late. We can give but a faint idea when we say that it means the loss of all we now hold most sacred - slaves and all other personal property, lands, homesteads, liberty, justice, safety, pride, manhood. It means the history of this heroic struggle will be written by the enemy; that our youth will be trained by Northern school teachers; will learn from Northern school books their version of the war; will be impressed by all the influences of history and education to regard our gallant dead as traitors, and our maimed veterans as fit objects for derision." -- Confederate General Patrick Cleburne


"Beginning about 1820," notes Pauline Maier in the July/August 1997 issue of American Heritage, workers, farmers, women's rights advocates, and other groups persistently used the Declaration of Independence to justify their quest for equality and their opposition to the 'tyranny' of factory owners or railroads or great corporations or the male power structure. It remained, however, especially easy for the opponents of slavery to cite the Declaration on behalf of their cause....Even in the eighteenth century, however, assertions of men's equal birth provoked dissent. As slavery became an increasingly divisive issue, denials that men were naturally equal multiplied. Men were not created equal in Virginia, Joyn Tyler insisted during the Missouri debates of 1820: 'No sir, the principle, although lovely and beautiful, cannot obliterate those distinctions in society which society itself engenders and gives birth to.'"

Its slave-based economy was what most distinguished the Antebellum South from the rest of the nation, and this "peculiar" form of property right was the right that generated the most emotion. It is clear that the "bottom line" for the Southern political late in the antebellum period was his position on slavery. Slavery defined the South and made it far more cohesive than was the North, which had no such litmus-test issue. Yet, despite their fierce attachment to slavery, Southern whites' support for equality, democracy, and individual freedom was as heartfelt as Northerners'. The difference was that, in the North, it was for all men (not women); while in the South it was for white men only.

Slaves were not uniformly distributed in the South. The great majority of them were held in areas where large-scale agriculture was the most economic method of farming. As a result, few lived where the terrain was rugged and/or not very fertile. Few, too, lived near the Mexican border because most people considered it too risky to hold them so near a border that they could gain their freedom by crossing. (This is one reason why Southerners were anxious for Florida to become a part of the United States. Northerners opposed the acquisition of territory where slavery was economic because it would increase the South's political power. Northerners' desire to reduce the South's political power is why only 3/5ths of the slaves were included in a state's population for the purpose of allocating seats in the House of Representatives.)

Although most slaves were employed in farming, many in those pre-home appliance days were house servants. (Slave owners often called them "servants," rather than slaves, and referred to them as members of the "family".) Over half the residents of Charleston in 1860 were black. For two generations South Carolinians believed they saw the handwriting on the wall: some day the North was going to move to abolish slavery. Thus, for years, Carolinians figuratively shouted "fire" at their fellow Southerners, who, for the most part, shut their ears and crossed their fingers.

William J. Cooper, Jr. reports in The South and the Politics of Slavery, 1818 - 1856 says that a poor white told a traveler that many people he knew wanted slavery abolished, but "it wouldn't never do to free 'em and leave 'em here" because "nobody couldn't live here then." He tells of an Alabamian removing to Texas who said that "I'd like it if we could get rid of 'em to yonst. I wouldn't like to hev 'em freed, if they gwine to hang around." Distaste for blacks led many poor whites to emigrate from heavily black areas to "whiter" parts of the South and to the Midwest, where they were prohibited from settling until well into this century.

Over half the nation's export income in the late antebellum period derived from its exports of substantially slave-produced cotton. However, slaves were also employed in producing other crops and in various trades in factories. The cost of training a slave in a trade was justified by either the work he could perform for his master or what he could be hired out for.

Patrols drawn from the militia that white males were required to join were supposed to make sure that blacks did not travel without passes or meet in large groups except at religious services. So that these services would be in "white" churches, in some areas blacks were discouraged from or forbidden to form their own congregations. However, in other places, whites helped blacks form their own congregations. (One black Sunday school was headed by Thomas J. Jackson, who was to gain fame during the War as Stonewall Jackson.)

Free blacks labored under a number of restrictions on their activities; were subject to special taxes; and could not vote or hold public office. (The same was true of white women.) At various times and places it was illegal to teach slaves to read. (Southerners often ignored this prohibition. One who did was Georgia Congressman and Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens.) Whites suspected of opposing slavery or consorting with blacks could suffer serious consequences.

A Santo-Domingo-like revolution was planned for Charleston by Denmark Vesey, a free black. From 1818 to 1822, he organized blacks for an uprising in which all whites--men, women, and children--would be killed. (Note that no such uprising like this took place in the Confederacy during the War.) Taking the advice of a free, slave-owning mulatto, a mulatto house slave betrayed Vesey, and the uprising never took place. The discovery of Vesey's plot led to the execution of thirty-five blacks. Another thirty were deported. (A rumored attempt by black slaves and white indentured servants in 1714 in New York City led to the execution of more people than took place in Massachusetts as a result of the much more well known Salem witch trials. At that time, one-fifth of the residents of New York City were slaves and black freedmen.)

Black slave owners who were not part white lacked the social acceptance of their mulatto brothers, who, on rare occasion, married white men and women and were accepted into white society. Although some of the slaves owned by blacks were family members, blacks often owned slaves for the same reason whites did: as income-earning investments. Only a small minority of blacks were free, and only a very small minority of them owned slaves.

The fact that the Haitian slave revolt was preceded by the formation of abolitionist societies in France that flooded Haiti with anti-slavery tracts was not lost on Southerners. Undoubtedly, they saw parallels between the French abolitionists and those in the North who filled Southern mails and Congress with, respectively, anti-slavery tracts and anti-slavery petitions. Not lost on Southerners, either, was that troops sent from Revolutionary France to retake its Haitian colony took sides with the blacks. This was widely attributed to France, like the other European colonial powers, having concluded that the best way to keep the United States from annexing their Latin American colonies was to make them as black as possible.

By 1865, it was obvious to both Confederate officers and enlisted men that the infusion into the Union Army of a steady stream of immigrants from Europe and freed slaves insured the North's victory unless this was countered by the enlistment of slaves. The recommendations of soldiers and Confederate President Jefferson Davis and other Confederate officials that slaves be enlisted engendered a fierce debate prior to the authorization of their enlistment by the Confederate Congress.

The Confederacy considering enlisting slaves was not as far fetched as many today probably believe. Early in the War, for example, it was reported in the Southern press that some mixed race, free men (some of whom may have owned slaves) had offered to organize a regiment composed of their peers. Uniformed, black musicians served from the start of the War. Individual slaves who served as personal servants, laborers, or cooks may on occasion have picked up guns and fought. Some mixed-race men enlisted in the Confederate Army on an individual basis.

Heather Cox Richardson in The Greatest Nation of the Earth, Republican Economic Policies During the Civil War observes that, "A new tariff went into effect in March 1861, and the South, which abhorred the new law, refused to permit the Union government to collect duties from it or, in fact, to collect any customs duties in Southern ports. Worse still, the Confederate government talked of setting a low tariff, or none at all, which would pull foreign trade South. Since the Union government depended almost entirely on customs duties for revenue, the situation threatened to cripple Union finances."

Northerners have always called it the Civil War, but until comparatively recently Southerners called it the War Between the States or the War for Southern Independence. Although the nomenclature of the victor is today used by virtually everyone, the old Southern nomenclature was the more accurate, because a civil war is one whose initiators have as their objective the overthrow of the existing government, and this was no more the objective of the South than was the overthrow of the British government in 1776 by the revolutionaries in America.

If you are interested in learning more about the Confederate debate on emancipation, see The Gray and the Black by Robert F. Durden.

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