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The Civil War’s Basic Cause: Sectionalism

In this late 1940 address to the Southern Historical Association, historian Frank L. Owsley (1890-1956) spoke of the sectional cause of the Civil War and the North’s reluctance to allow the South to seek political independence.  Prof. Owsley was born in Alabama, taught at Vanderbilt University and was a member of the Southern Agrarians.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

The Civil War’s Basic Cause: Sectionalism

“Before attempting to say what were the causes of the American Civil War, first let me say what were not the causes of the war.

Perhaps the most beautiful, the most poetic, the most eloquent statement of what the Civil War was not fought for is the Gettysburg Address. That address will live as long as Americans retain their love for free government and personal liberty; and yet in reassessing the causes of the Civil War, the address whose essence is was that the war was being fought so “that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth” is irrelevant.

Indeed, this masterpiece of eloquence has little if any value as a statement of the basic principles underlying the war.

The Civil War was not a struggle on the part of the South to destroy free government and personal liberty, nor on the part of the North to preserve them. Looked at from the present perspective of the worldwide attempt of the totalitarians to erase free governments and nations living under such governments from the face of the earth, the timeworn stereotype that the South was attempting the destruction of free government and the North was fighting to preserve it seems unrealistic and downright silly.

If the destruction of democratic government by the South and its preservation by the North were not the causes of the Civil War, what then were the causes? The surface answer to this question is that in 1861, the Southern people desired and attempted to establish their independence and thereby to disrupt the old Union; and that the North took up arms to prevent the South from establishing this independence and to preserve the Union.

This [Southern] state of mind may be summed up thus: by the Spring of 1861, the Southern people felt it both abhorrent and dangerous to continue to live under the same government with the people of the North. So profound was this feeling among the bulk of the Southern population that they were prepared to fight a long and devastating war to accomplish a separation.

On the other hand, the North was willing to fight a war to retain their reluctant fellow citizens under the same government with themselves.

The cause of that state of mind which we may well call war psychosis lay in the sectional character of the United States. In other words, the Civil War had one basic cause: sectionalism.

Our national state was built, not upon the foundations of a homogenous land and people, but upon geographic sections inhabited severally by provincial, self-conscious, self-righteous, aggressive and ambitious populations of varying origins and diverse social and economic systems; and the passage of time and the cumulative effects of history have accentuated these sectional patterns.”

(The Fundamental Cause of the Civil War, Frank L. Owsley, excerpt, Address to Southern Historical Association, November 8, 1940)

 

 

Southern Scholarly Conversation

Alabamian Clarence Cason (1896-1935) as a writer experienced the continuing sectional bias of Northerners toward the South as he sought to describe and explain the culture of his native region. His well-known book “90 Degrees in the Shade” made it known that the slow pace of life and work in the South was the result of the sultry climate, and helped create the region’s unique culture, cuisine, and outdoors lifestyle coveted by Northerners.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Southern, Scholarly Conversation

“Wishing to be complimentary, a forthright city editor of a Manhattan newspaper once proclaimed that young men from the South make excellent reporters provided they can rid themselves of malaria and gentility. This characterization may be accepted as a fair statement of the reputation of Southerners abroad in the land. By malaria the city editor meant not so much the pathological state induced by the mosquito’s sting, as that dreamy and miasmic attitude of mind usually associated with the disease.

And by gentility the editor intended to imply a false assumption of gentlemanly graces and immunities, especially an immunity from a conscience which holds steady work to be a duty.

From his own point of view the Manhattan journalist of course spoke with accuracy. But from the point of view of the indigenous Southerner he was altogether wrong. For the terrestrial aims of the Southerner are not the same as those of the New Yorker or New Englander. To be properly appreciated for his native qualities, the honest Southern person should stay at home.

When I went north to college, a dean, after learning the region of my nativity, asked in a tone of slight facetiousness what I considered the aim of Southern scholarship. Did I also think Southern scholars had to do nothing but sit pleasantly on a vine-covered back porch and drink lemonade?

I shall always feel that one of the tragic failures of my experience was that I did not, to our common astonishment, say, “Yes — provided the scholarly conversation is graceful, well-mannered, and leisurely enough.”

(Culture in the South, Middle Class and Bourbon, Clarence Cason, UNC Press, 1934, excerpt, pp. 478-481)

 

Self-Preservation Compelled Secession

Foremost in the minds of Southerners by 1860 was the incessant abolitionist agitation that had wrought Nat Turner’s murderous rampage in 1831, and most recently then, John Brown’s in 1859. The memory of brutal slave uprisings and massacres in Santo Domingo and what may lay ahead for them had much to do with separating the South from the North. Rather than work toward a practical and peaceful compromise to end the labor system inherited from Britain, the abolitionists and Lincoln himself allowed the drift to war and the end of the republic.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Self-Preservation Compelled Secession

“What mighty force lay back of this Southern movement, which by the beginning of February, 1861, had swept seven States out of the Union?

An explanation early accepted and long held by the North made it simply the South’s desire to protect slavery. Forty years of wrangling over this subject, fortified by many statements Southerners had made about it . . . [and] South Carolina in her secession declaration had made the North’s interference with slavery her greatest grievance, and the subject appeared equally large in other seceding States.

Yet simple answers are never very satisfying, and in this case it was too simple to say that Southerners seceded and fought a four-year war for the surface reason of merely protecting their property in slaves. Had not the South spurned the Corwin Amendment, which guaranteed slavery in the States against all interference by Congress? And what happened to the subject of slavery in the territories, which had loomed so big in the 1850’s? Now it was forgotten by both the North and the South.

Slavery was undoubtedly a potent cause; but more powerful than slavery was the Negro himself. It was the fear of what would ultimately happen to the South if the Negro should be freed by the North, as the abolitionists seemed so intent on doing – and Southerners considered Republicans and abolitionists the same.

This fear had worried [John C.] Calhoun when he wrote in 1849 “The Address of Southern Delegates in Congress to their Constituents.” It was not the loss of property in slaves that the South feared so much as the danger of the South becoming another Santo Domingo, should a Republican regime free the slaves.

And it is no argument to say that Lincoln would never have tried to do this. The South believed his party would force him to it if he did not do so of his own volition. If he were not himself an abolitionist, he had got his position by abolition votes. A friend of Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, told him that the South’s knowledge of what happened in Santo Domingo and “Self-preservation had compelled secession.”

(A History of the South, Volume VII, The Confederate States of America, 1861-1865, E. Merton Coulter, LSU Press, 1950, excerpts, pp. 8-10)

The South’s Sable Arm

By January 1865 the alleged cause the North fought for, the emancipation of the Negro, was being advocated by many high officials in the South and effectively dispensed with that claimed Northern war aim. On November 7, 1864, President Jefferson Davis had proposed “the training of 40,000 Negroes for service,” and emancipation for those who should fight for Confederate independence. Davis had previously opposed arming blacks for military service as he felt they were not trained for war, were better suited to agriculture, and should not be used inhumanely as cannon-fodder as the North was doing.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

The South’s Sable Arm

“[A group] of Southerners led by Gen. Pat Cleburne [wrote] in a petition presented to Gen. Joseph E. Johnston by several Confederate officers: “Will the Slaves fight? – the experience of this war has been so far, that half-trained Negroes have fought as bravely as many half-trained Yankees.”

[Judah] P. Benjamin, Secretary of State, urged that the slaves would be certainly made to fight against the Southerners if not armed for Southern defense. He advocated also the emancipation of those who would fight — if they should fight for Southern freedom.

In a letter to President Davis, another correspondent argued that since the Negro had been used from the outset of the war to defend the South by raising provisions for the army, that the sword and musket be put in his hands, and added: “I would not make a soldier of the Negro if it could be helped, but we are reduced to the last resort.”

Sam Clayton of Georgia wrote: “The recruits should come from our Negroes, nowhere else. WE should . . . promptly take hold of all means God has placed within our reach to help us through this struggle – a war for the right of self-government. The enemy fights us with Negroes, and they will do very well to fight the Yankees.”

A strong recommendation for the use of Negroes as soldiers was sent to Senator Andrew Hunter at Richmond by General Robert E. Lee, in January 1865. “I think, therefore,” said he, “We must decide whether slavery shall be extinguished by our enemies and the slaves be used against us, or use them ourselves at the risk of the effects which may be produced upon our social institutions. My own opinion is that we should employ them without delay. I believe with proper regulations they may be made into efficient soldiers.

[We must encourage fidelity in the black soldier] by giving immediate freedom to all who enlist at the end of the war to the families of those who discharge their duties faithfully (whether they survive or not), together with the privilege of residing in the South. To this might be added a bounty for faithful service . . . “

(Black Southerners in Confederate Armies, J.H. Segars & Charles Kelly Barrow, editors, Southern Lion Books, 2001, excerpts, pp. 6-7)

Charleston’s Colored Masters

Many of antebellum Charleston’s free black population owned slaves, and the Brown Fellowship of that city was organized in 1790 by black commercial slaveowners who saw no need to emancipate their black brethren. In 1796, Samuel Holman, a mulatto slave trader from Rio Pongo, West Africa was admitted to that colored society, which preserved the distinction between free persons of color and slaves.  On the eve of war in Wilmington, North Carolina, the labor utilized in erecting Dr. John D. Bellamy’s mansion included free black carpenter with slave workers who underbid white carpenters. The latter petitioned the legislature in the mid-1850s to increase the tax on slaves so white workers could find work.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Charleston’s Colored Masters

“Many prominent citizens like Christopher Gustavious Memminger, an influential lawyer and politician of Charleston County, believed that the free black community served a useful role and protected the interest of slaveholders.

Since many of the well-to-do colored persons were slave masters and landholders, the whites concluded that the free black elite would join them in support of the institution of slavery. At the outbreak of the Civil War, the lines were drawn by the free black populace and the views of white supporters of the colored community seemed accurate.

On April 12, 1861 . . . the black masters saw the opportunity to affirm their commitment to South Carolina and sided with the white slaveowners. A group of free blacks from Charleston City, including a number of colored slaveowners, issued the following statement:

“. . . [Our] attachments are with you, our hopes and safety and protection from you . . . our allegiance is due to South Carolina and in her defense, we will offer up our lives, and all that is dear to us.”

The sentiments of the Charleston black slaveowners were shared by the black slaveowners of other counties. For example, William Ellison, a cotton planter and the owner of 63 slaves, offered his aid to the Confederate Army in Sumter County.

As the Confederate Army began to make successful advances in the summer of 1862, the black masters continued their farming operations with slave labor. As the war raged on, shortages of meat and other foodstuffs were not the only dilemma faced by the colored masters. Even the wealthiest colored masters could not always purchase clothing for their families and slaves. Quite often the slave masters employed their female slaves to make homespun clothing.

[After 1863, many black masters] sought to liquidate their human chattel . . . before the Union Army forced them to emancipate their slaves. As the war continued to worsen for the Confederacy, other colored masters probably attempted to sell their slave property but could not find a willing buyer because the Union Army was advancing towards South Carolina.

Yet even as the Confederacy was falling into disarray, many of the black masters refused to sell their slaves, while others chose not to grant their servants nominal freedom. As late as 1865, there were 81 colored slave masters who owned 241 slaves in Charleston City. Many of these slaveowners used their slaves as workers and did not intend to emancipate them.

Among the invading troops [at Charleston in early 1865] were the Twenty-first US Colored Troops. When they reached the city, a crowd of jubilant free blacks and slaves greeted the soldiers; but the colored masters of Charleston perceived the invasion as apocalyptic destruction rather than salvation.”

(Black Slaveowners, Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790-1860; Larry Koger, University of South Carolina Press, 1985, excerpts, pp. 189-192)

The South the Land of Serfs

John C. Calhoun learned of secession from the New Englanders of 1814; it was heard again in the early 1830s, and by the 1850’s the quest for a Southern republic became more than mere abstractions. As the increasingly revolutionary and changed North became looked upon as a millstone around the neck of the South, making further progress within the Union seemed impossible. Lucius Q.C. Lamar would tell a Richmond crowd in June, 1861: “thank God, we have a country at last . . . to live for, to pray for, to fight for, and if necessary, to die for.”

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

The South the Land of Serfs

“What should this new nation be called? Since there were questions of more importance to be settled in Montgomery, in a matter of fact way the constitution makers called it the Confederate States of America. Yet there were suggestions that it be called the Republic of the Southern United States of America, and Thomas R.R. Cobb wanted to call it the Republic of Washington. As time went on sundry other names were suggested, such as Appalachia, Alleghenia, Chicora, Panola, or even just Southland.

The Federals liked to call it Secessia, which did not displease the Richmond Whig editor too much, for he felt that the United States might well be renamed Servia, as it was a land of serfs made so by Lincoln’s tyrannies.

But this editor and other strongly State-rights Southerners wanted none of these names – not even Confederate States of America, for that indicated a nationality. They hated the word “national” when applied to the South; there was no Southern nation, they argued. There were eleven nations in the South; they hated the word “State,” as it was a Yankee term. They would compromise on “commonwealth”; but the term “League of Nations” should be applied to the whole, or “The Allied Nations” or the Allied Republics.”

As for the people, historically they came to be called Confederates . . . and though their enemies delighted in calling them “rebels,” the Southerners took up this term very early and gloried in it. They liked to recall that George Washington was the first great American rebel and Martin Luther was another great rebel. In fact, “Southern” was especially disliked by some, as it indicated merely the southern part of the old Union.

(A History of the South, Volume VII, The Confederate States of America, 1861-1865, E. Merton Coulter, LSU Press, 1950, excerpts, pp. 58-59)

 

Sen. Fulbright on Southern Poverty

Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas advised his fellow congressmen from the North as to why the South lagged behind in economic development and education, and the reason for this. Fulbright was a signatory of the Southern Manifesto of March 12, 1956 that denounced what was viewed as unconstitutional actions of an activist and legislation-enacting Supreme Court, and all advised legal means of resistance.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Senator Fulbright on Southern Poverty

“From 1946 when the Senate first dealt with Harry Truman’s proposed Fair Employment Practices Commission, (FEPC) and on through a series of filibusters and bitter civil rights contests, Fulbright has been prominent among the Southern bloc. He has been a leader in debate and strategy; he has spoken out as strongly and frequently as any other Southerner.

More than most, he has addressed himself to the South’s unique problems — poverty, ignorance, disease, lack of economic opportunities. He has tried to place these problems in historical perspective, and in that sense can he himself best be understood.

The historical facts of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction and its bitter aftermath, crippled the South. The South WAS treated like a conquered territory; it WAS exploited; it DID become ever more insulated and removed from the mainstream of American life. Its fears, frustrations and antagonisms are without parallel in the American experience.

In common with other Southern politicians, Fulbright has been frustrated in attempting to effect change. With his own business background and intimate knowledge of financial conditions in Arkansas, he particularly has resented the domination of outside economic interests — Northern economic interests.

Once, when opposing the routine appointment of a Philadelphia banker to the Federal Reserve Board, he gave a revealing glimpse into his own attitudes:

“The people of the North are extremely solicitous of our welfare and progress,” he said. “They assure us that if we furnish better schools and abolish poll taxes and segregation, strife will cease and happiness [will] reign. They are critical of our relative poverty, our industrial and social backwardness, and they are generous in their advice about our conduct.

Their condescension in these matters is not appreciated . . . because these people . . . have for more than a century done everything they could to retard the economic development of the South.

It is no secret that the South was considered like a conquered territory after 1865. Since that time, the tariff policy and freight rate structure were designed by the North to prevent industrial development in the South; to keep that area in the status of a raw material producing colony. Above and beyond these direct restrictions, the most insidious of all, the most difficult to put your finger on, is the all-pervading influence of the great financial institutions and industrial monopolies.

These influences are so subtle and so powerful that they have in many instances been able to dominate the political and economic life of the South and West from within those States as well as from Washington.”

From his first moment in Congress . . . [Fulbright] has fought for passage of a federal aid to education bill . . . [as he believed] that the best hope for amicable race relations lies in improving education.

“It is paradoxical,” he once said, “that Southern educational systems should be expected to produce well-rounded, broad-minded, and wholly dispassionate individuals whose well-developed intellectuals can suddenly reject lifelong patterns of conduct. This is a high standard to expect for schools without adequate facilities — stemming from a tax base incapable of producing sufficient revenue. Southern States — and particularly my own — have made valiant efforts in recent years to devote greater portions of their resources to education, but . . . only since the 1930’s has the South begun to share in the prosperity and affluence of America.”

(Fulbright, The Dissenter, Johnson and Gwertzman, Doubleday & Company, 1968, excerpts, pp. 148-150)

 

“Let the Lightnings of Heaven Rend Me”

 Reuben Everett Wilson was born in Stokes County, North Carolina, enlisted in the Yadkin (County) Grey Eagles, and was elected lieutenant of Company B, Twenty-first North Carolina Troops in May 1861. Less than a year later he was transferred to Company A, First North Carolina Sharpshooters where he rose to Major. In August of 1862 he was severely wounded near Warrenton, Virginia when an enemy ball broke both bones in his forearm, and grapeshot shattered his left leg below the knee. In early April, 1865 near Petersburg, his left leg was cut off by an enemy shell, was captured, hospitalized, paroled, rearrested, imprisoned, and finally released in December 1865.

Of his participation in defending his State and country, Major Wilson said after the war:

“If I ever disown, repudiate or apologize for the cause for which Lee and Jackson died, let the lightnings of Heaven rend me, and the scorn of all good men and true women be my portion. Sun, moon, stars, all fall on me when I cease to love the Confederacy.”

One might surmise that Major Wilson believed he was fighting for his State, and the Union known as the Confederate States of America.

 

Slaves and the South

Southern uneasiness regarding slavery agitation had its origins in the murderous Haitian and Santo Domingo slave revolts, and Northern abolitionist encouragement of slave insurrection in the South, culminating in Nat Turner’s 1831 terrorism and John Brown’s attack. In contrast to their strenuous efforts to incite violent slave uprisings, the abolitionists never advanced a peaceful and practical solution to the slavery they abhorred.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Slaves and the South

“Abolitionist assertions that the bondsmen were frequently inadequately clothed, underfed and driven to death are economically unreasonable. Masters wished to preserve the health and life of their slaves because a sick Negro was a liability and a dead Negro was worth nothing. A rude plenty prevailed on the average plantation.

“The best preventative of theft is plenty of pork,” was the advice of a Virginian. Kindliness and patience, frequently extended even to a tolerance of slackness in every concern not vital to routine, created a degree of contentment among the slaves to keep them docile. Although Jefferson had declared “the whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions,” Harriet Martineau sympathized with the masters.

She wrote: “Nothing struck me more than the patience of the slave-owners . . . with their slaves.” Travelers often wondered who were the actual victims of the slave system.

Despite abolitionist allegations to the contrary, flights and revolts were infrequent. Fear that they should become general led the South to introduce ruthless laws for the apprehension of the absconders and federal legislation to protect their institution.

Actually, however, the thousands of slaves who ran away formed but a slight portion comprising the total slave population. During the several decades of its existence only some 75,000 Negroes used the underground railroad, which was organized to aid them in their attempt to reach Canada.

Flights were prompted by various causes. Some slaves undoubtedly ran away because they were talented or sensitive mulattoes who desired freedom. Others wished to escape from barbarous punishments peculiar to the slave system. Many fled . . . not to escape slavery but to return to their families and former homes. Some strayed for reasons not associated with slavery; they became tramps or vagabonds or fugitives from deserved punishments and crimes. Most slaves, unlike migratory free Negroes of a later generation, did not move from their original homes.”

(The South Old and New, A History, 1820-1947, Francis Butler Simkins, Alfred A. Knopf, 1947, pp. 46-47)

A Splendid Body of American Soldiers

After fighting Sherman’s army of invaders to a standstill with one-quarter of their strength, Joe Johnston’s revived Army of Tennessee marched in review and under the gaze of the assembled North Carolina citizens. Gen. Thomas L. Clingman of North Carolina, exhorted his chief to allow his men to fight the invading host to the last, surpass the Greeks and gain everlasting immortality.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

A Splendid Body of American Soldiers

“After the battle of Bentonville, General [Joseph E.] Johnston retired his army to Smithfield, where he remained confronting [the enemy] for three weeks. While here General Johnston held a review 6 April, at which many ladies and civilians of Raleigh, including Governor Vance and officers of the State and Confederate Government were present. The army presented a fine appearance and the men were in excellent spirits.

There were in this army remnants of commands who under Albert Sidney Johnston won the first day’s battle of Shiloh, and nearly annihilated Grant’s army. Men who under Bragg, had won the battles of Murfreesboro and Chickamauga, and under Johnston had confronted Sherman from Dalton to Atlanta; the men who under Hood, had been in the disastrous battle of Franklin; who had followed [Generals Nathan Bedford] Forrest and [Joe] Wheeler and [Wade] Hampton and had successfully defended Fort Sumter for four years against the combined land and sea forces of the United States, and the brigades of [General Robert F.] Hoke’s Division, who had won endearing renown in the Army of Northern Virginia.

Here also were assembled those regiments of Junior Reserves, who under Colonels Hinsdale, Anderson, Broadfoot and Walter Clark emulated the heroism of their veteran comrades, and who on the battlefields of Kinston and Bentonville had shown they were of the same [mettle] as their sires and deserving of imperishable record in the history of their country.

It was a splendid body of American soldiers; survivors of a hundred battlefields; and as they marched proudly in review before their General, they were conscious of duty nobly done and nerved for any future service that might be required of them in defense of their country.

General Clingman visited his brigade while in camp at Smithfield, and though on crutches, asked of General Johnston the honor of commanding the rear guard. This was denied him, as he was physically unable to perform such duty, and he addressed the Southern commander as follows:

“Sir, much has been said about dying in the last ditch. You have left with you here thirty thousand of as brave men as the sun ever shone upon. Let us take our stand here and fight the two armies of Grant and Sherman to the end, and thus show to the world how far we can surpass the Thermopylae of the Greeks.”

(Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-65, Walter Clark, editor, Volume IV, Nash Brothers, 1901, excerpt, pp. 498-499)

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