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Historians gather to talk about Lincoln's role in Civil War

February 03, 2003|by BONNIE HELLUM BRECHBILL

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Dr. James Oliver Horton said that when he moved to Virginia 27 years ago, he was surprised to find that the Civil War was still very much alive there.

"People would talk about it as if it was still going on," he said.

Virginians often referred to the Civil War as "the late unpleasantness."

Horton, a panelist on The History Channel's weekly program "The History Center," addressed attendees of the "Lincoln and His Era: Myths and Realities" seminar at the Four Points Sheraton in Chambersburg on Saturday.

Horton is the Benjamin Banneker professor of American Studies and History at George Washington University and director of the Afro-American Communities Project of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution.

Horton's assertion that slavery was the central cause of the Civil War is "controversial, to say the least," he said.

"It was not the only cause, or the only important cause, but it was the central cause.

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"If you take slavery out of the equation, you don't have a Civil War with the sides involved as they were," the historian said.

While the tariff, taxation policies and states rights were factors, the "Confederate soldiers fought for honor and for the Southern way of life," he said. "Slavery was the foundation of the Southern way of life."

When Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, "it was the final straw for South Carolina," the first state to secede from the Union, Horton said. The vote to secede was 169-0.

Horton said that in 1860 the dollar value of slaves was greater than the dollar value of all the railroads, banks and manufacturing plants put together.

"Slaves were more valuable than anything but land," he said.

Only about one-third of Southerners were slaveholders, but nonslaveholders "had an undeniable stake in and loyalty to the institution of slavery," Horton said. "The abolition of slavery would place poor whites at the bottom of Southern society."

"The South was fighting to protect slavery, but the North was not fighting to abolish it," Horton said.

Northerners were more interested in containing slavery.

"Southerners wanted to take their 'property' with them into the American frontier. Lincoln stood firmly against that," he said.

In another segment of the seminar, Joan Chaconas of Brandywine, Md., displayed her 1862 Boyd's Directory. In it, Lincoln is listed as living in the White House, and his salary is revealed. The book contains city maps, and lists all the houses and businesses.

"It's an interesting book to sit and scan, and see who you know, in history," Chaconas said.

Chaconas, who works at the Surratt House Museum, which deals with Lincoln's assassination, gives tours of the nation's capitol related to when Lincoln lived there as congressman and president.

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