It’s About Slavery, Stupid
The first lesson I’ve learned so far during this endeavor is that talking about the Civil War makes people uncomfortable. Case in point: Erin and I made a short sojourn to Richmond to visit the Museum of the Confederacy over the holiday break. Going to the museum didn’t seem like a big deal to us - it was only a couple hours of driving, it was inexpensive to visit, and it seemed like a fairly decent site to begin this year of discovery.
At least, it seemed that way until we realized that we didn’t know exactly where the museum was. This is where I encountered my first hurdle - I was pretty uncomfortable asking for directions to the Museum of the Confederacy. I felt like it begged an explanation - we’re students or we’re history buffs or we’re from Canada - anything that basically would explain we’re not racists. It felt like just mentioning the Confederacy meant I had to have a qualifier or explanation so I wouldn’t be judged.
Shortly after my fumbling for directions to a delicate site, American Heritage Magazine published an article in its Civil War Chronicles series entitled “The First to Secede.” The article examines the events leading up to South Carolina’s secession 150 years ago in two ways - what people want to think happened and what actually happened. Being a Texan born and bred, my exposure to the Civil War in any contemporary context was nill. While Texans may still be asserting their right to separate into their own nation if they so choose, they aren’t exactly flying the stars and bars over the state capitol or calling for the South to rise again.
Google “What Caused the Civil War” and you’ll be sure to find plenty of answers - slavery, certainly, but also state’s rights (a favorite amongst contemporary Civil War buffs), economical and social differences, taxes and tariffs, and any number of reasons. But one needs to look no further than South Carolina in 1850 to know what mattered to the Southern states - as Edward Bryan wrote on the eve of John C. Calhoun’s death, Give us slavery or give us death. South Carolina pushed to reopen international slave trading in 1856. In 1858, South Carolina was introducing legislature to limit the travel of Northern citizens through the state, concerned with the kind of “ideas” that might come with them. Let’s not single out South Carolina though - Mississippi and Virginia distinctly cite African slavery as the sole reason for secession from the Union.
Even four years into the war, both Southerners and Northerners knew what this war was really about. In Lincoln’s second inaugural address, he says "One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All indeed knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of war." Yet why do we struggle with this so mightily now? And whose to blame?
James Loewen, who wrote the American Heritage article, points to the defeat of the Confederacy and the rise of “The Lost Cause” narrative for this historical shift in perspective. Yet no matter how you dress it up, no matter how you justify it, no matter how many places you can cite a non-slavery motivator, it’s impossible to ignore the fact staring you in the face - the South went to war to defend their right to own slaves and to continue enslaving an entire race for all time.
This particular chilling reality is exactly what made me so uncomfortable trying to get directions to the Museum of the Confederacy.