[Editors Note: I was 46 before I learned that Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation did not free a single slave anywhere ....Jim W. Dean]
The most persistent and pernicious Big Lie regarding the so-called “Civil War”— more properly called the “War to Prevent Southern Independence”— is this:
Noble and saintly yankees fought the war to abolish slavery; evil Confederates fought to preserve it.
The historical record incontrovertibly refutes this Big Lie and yet it lives on, repeated incessantly by many who know better, and by many, many more who accept without challenge what they were taught in government schools.
The proverbial phrase “the victors write the history” was well-known well before the war.
In fact, General Patrick R. Cleburne, arguing for freeing slaves in exchange for military service, warned what would happen should the South’s bid for independence fail:
”… Every man should endeavor to understand the meaning of subjugation before it is too late. … It means that 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 influences of history and education to regard our gallant dead as traitors, our maimed veterans as fit objects for their derision. …to establish sectional superiority and a more centralised form of government, and to deprive us of our rights and liberties.” –Major General Patrick Cleburne, C.S.A. (Jan. 2, 1864)
Cleburne’s warning was indeed prophetic. The Big Lie is the official myth taught in virtually every public school in the country. Jim Dean noted this above, and he even went to a fancy prep school for two years in Massachusetts.
It is the myth believed and repeated incessantly by most Americans who never looked any deeper than the textbook they were issued in junior high history class. And when FDR’s New Dealers migrated from government service to academia in Southern universities, they made sure the Big Lie was taught down here in the South.
The facts and the historical record, which we will review below, are widely and easily available, but unfortunately most Americans don’t see it as their duty to understand American history in more depth than was offered in the superficial, comic-book summary they heard in government schools.
“It is a testament to the effectiveness of 140 years of government propaganda that a 308 page book filled with true facts about Lincoln could be entitled “The Lincoln No One Knows.” It is not a matter of a poorly-performing government education system but quite the opposite:
The government schools have performed superbly in indoctrinating generations of American school children with a pack of lies, myths, omissions, and falsehoods about Lincoln and his war of conquest.
As Richard Bensel wrote in Yankee Leviathan, any study of the American state should begin in 1865. The power of any state ultimately rests upon a series of government-sponsored myths, and there is none more prominent than the Lincoln Myth.” –Thomas DiLorenzo, from The Unknown Lincoln
The Sons of Confederate Veterans has as its mission statement what is commonly called “The Charge,” issued by General Stephen Dill Lee, who was then the Commander General of the United Confederate Veterans.
The Charge is a reflection of Cleburne’s warning above, and a stated desire to keep alive the memory of the Confederate soldier’s true history and motivation and the founding principles he fought to defend.
” To you Sons of Confederate Veterans, we submit the vindication of the cause for which we fought; to your strength will be given the defense of the Confederate soldiers’ good name, the guardianship of his history, the emulation of his virtues, the perpetuation of those principles he loved and which made him glorious and which you also cherish.
Remember, it is your duty to see that the true history of the south is presented to future generations.” —Lt. General Stephen Dill Lee, Commander General, United Confederate Veterans, New Orleans, Louisiana, 1906
First, let’s establish HOW the war was started, then we’ll proceed to WHY.
South Carolina seceded December 20th, 1860. Major Robert Anderson, commanding U.S. forces in Charleston, moved the garrison in Fort Moultrie (Sullivan’s Island across the harbor East of Charleston proper) –which he deemed indefensible– to Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. He made this move in stealth in the middle of the night on December 26th.
South Carolina officials were understandably infuriated, but Anderson refused to evacuate Sumter. President Buchanan was a lame duck; he didn’t want a war started on his watch, but refused to issue orders either way.
South Carolina officials made clear that the U.S. Army staying in Sumter was NOT an option and that resupply or reinforcements would be viewed as a hostile act.
On January 9th, an unarmed steamer, the Star of the West, approached Charleston harbor intent on reinforcing Sumter with more troops and ammunition (see diagram below). Charleston batteries fired warning shots near the ship and the Star of the West turned and fled.
By February, South Carolina had joined six other states in the Confederate States of America. Confederate officials pressed for the evacuation of Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens (Pensacola, FL). Buchanan stonewalled and the crisis escalated. Lincoln would inherit the crisis March 4th.
“[T]he Union … will constitutionally defend and maintain itself… In doing this there needs to be no bloodshed or violence, and there shall be none unless it be forced upon the national authority.
The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the Government and to collect the duties and imposts; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere.” –Abraham Lincoln, from inaugural address, March 4, 1861.
Lincoln essentially declared war in his inaugural address March 4th in which he promised not to invade or attack any one EXCEPT…EXCEPT to hold the forts and property of the U.S. government for the purpose of collecting tariffs. In essence, he was denying the right of secession and promising to invade the southern states and force them back into the Union.
Lincoln refused to meet with Confederate emissaries sent to negotiate full payment for U.S. properties now within the jurisdiction of the C.S.A. Secretary of State Seward gave mixed signals, suggesting that evacuation of the forts was likely — in fact, all senior U.S. military officers recommended immediate evacuation to Lincoln.
Instead, Lincoln ordered a flotilla of war ships with additional troops and supplies to Charleston, then advised Confederate officials that it was coming to “resupply” Sumter, “by force if necessary.”
Rather than wait for war ships and the greater likelihood of loss of life on both sides, the Confederates decided to force a surrender before they arrived. Anderson was given a final chance to evacuate Sumter, given a deadline and told when the bombardment would commence. He replied that he would not evacuate.
The bombardment commenced on April 12th and Anderson surrendered on April 14th due to fears the magazine (with powder and ordnance) would ignite. No one was killed during the bombardment and Anderson’s garrison was allowed to peacefully leave the fort .
Though he made force necessary, Lincoln had succeeded in provoking the Confederates to fire the first shots and it had the desired effect: it incited a war fever in the North. On April 15th, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to invade the southern states to force their return to the Union, or as he phrased it, to quell “a rebellion.”
As a result of Lincoln’s call for a coercive force, four more states seceded in protest to join forces with the C.S.A. Virginia seceded April 17th and North Carolina, Arkansas and Tennessee followed in short order.
The stealthy taking of Fort Sumter was an act of war. The stated intention to insert more men and ammunition BY FORCE was another act of war. The bombardment of Fort Sumter to force its surrender was an act of war, but it was NOT the first act of war in the conflict.
There would have been no war if Lincoln had not ordered invasions and naval blockades of southern states. The southern states made known they wanted a peaceful separation. The answer to WHY the southern states fought the war is painfully obvious: Self Defense. Duh! Because their country was being invaded!
In the same Inaugural Address (March 4th, 1861) in which Lincoln promised to use force to collect the tariffs (protect U.S. tax revenues), Lincoln reiterated his previous statements that he had no intent, no lawful right and no inclination to interfere with slavery where it existed.
He went on to say that he supported the proposed Constitutional Amendment (the Corwin Amendment) that would constitutionally enshrine slavery beyond the reach of the U.S. Congress.
The proposed amendment reads as follows:
“No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.”
But Congress also approved the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution on July 25th, specifically stating the purpose of the war was to reunite the southern states into the U.S.A. It was clearly stated the war’s purpose was to “preserve the Union” and NOT to overthrow or interfere with “the rights or established institutions of the states” (slavery). This unequivocal statement from Congress and Lincoln’s unequivocal support for the Corwin Amendment directly contradict the official Big Lie. But there’s more. As you’ll see below, Lincoln’s stated purpose remains the same 16 months into the war.
“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.” –Abraham Lincoln, from letter to Horace Greeley, Aug. 22, 1862
This was just days before the Emancipation Proclamation extended the offer, once again, to preserve slavery if the southern states would simply lay down their arms and return to the Union.
“We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.” —Secretary of State William Seward
“The Union government liberates the enemy’s slaves as it would the enemy’s cattle, simply to weaken them in the conflict. The principle is not that a human being cannot justly own another, but that he cannot own him unless he is loyal to the United States.” –London Spectator, 1862
Right up to very near the end of the war, the South could have saved slavery simply by returning to the Union.
Independence was the southern goal.
General John B. Gordon, in his book Reminiscences of the Civil War (p. 19) summarized it this way:
“But slavery was far from being the sole cause of the prolonged conflict. Neither its destruction on the one hand, nor its defense on the other, was the energizing force that held the contending armies to four years of bloody work. I apprehend that if all living Union soldiers were summoned to the witness-stand, every one of them would testify that it was the preservation of the American Union and not the destruction of Southern slavery that induced him to volunteer at the call of his country. ….No other proof, however, is needed than the undeniable fact that at any period of the war from its beginning to near its close the South could have saved slavery by simply laying down its arms and returning to the Union.” —General John B. Gordon, from Reminiscences of the Civil War, page 19
If the Declaration of Independence justified the secession of 3,000,000 colonists in 1776, I do not see why the Constitution ratified by the same men should not justify the secession of 5,000,000 of the Southerners from the Federal Union in 1861… We have repeatedly said, and we once more insist that the great principle embodied by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence that government derives its power from the consent of the governed is sound and just, then if the Cotton States, the Gulf States or any other States choose to form an independent nation they have a clear right to do it… And when a section of our Union resolves to go out, we shall resist any coercive acts to keep it in. We hope never to live in a Republic where one section is pinned to the other section by bayonets.” —Horace Greeley, NewYork Tribune, Dec. 17, 1860.
In December of 1860 and January of 1861, many newspapers across the North and Midwest echoed Greeley’s sentiments to “let the South go in peace.” But the bankers, railroads and shippers soon informed the press of the financial implications of southern independence.
The editorial tune changed dramatically in February and March of 1861 to “No, we must NOT let the South go,” and “what about our shipping?” and “what about our revenue?” As the New York Times noted on March 30th, “We were divided and confused until our pockets were touched.” [ See Northern Editorials on Secession, Howard C. Perkins, ed., 1965 -- See Sample editorials here. ]
All the powder keg needed was a spark to ignite a war. Lincoln sent the war ship flotilla to Charleston and it was on. Lincoln had his excuse.
There you have it. The North prevented southern independence because it threatened their financial interests. The South wanted independence for its own best interests, in the tradition of the American Founders. It sought peaceful separation, but fought in self-defense when invaded and blockaded.
The current best estimate for death toll of the war is 750,000 American soldiers and at least 50,000 southern civilians. Adjusted to current population, that’s the equivalent today of 8 million Americans dying in four years.
The Official Big Lie was created and maintained to obscure the overthrow of the Founding Principles, and the true motivations that resulted in tragic and unnecessary death on an epic scale.