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Slaves to fiction

Revisionist attempts to reframe old debate don't wash

Revisionist attempts to reframe old debate don't wash

October 24, 2004|by Thomas G. Clemens

The recent flurry of letters from neo-Confederates asserting that slavery had no role in the Civil War is troubling, as they seem doggedly determined to force counterfactual information on the public. The trend towards "true Southern history," minimizing the slavery issue by insisting that all of America was racist, and that slaves fought for the Confederacy is a spurious and disingenuous argument. Using half-truths and outright misinformation, they try to avoid what any serious historian of the Civil War recognizes as a major issue of the war.

Having studied the Civil War since my early teens and teaching it on a college level here in Hagerstown and at George Mason University, I feel qualified to point out a few holes in their argument. First of all, yes, much of America was racist, at least by today's standards, but that does not mean that slavery was not an issue in the war.

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The controversy was not on a humanitarian basis, but was political and economic. Many states outlawed slavery soon after the Revolutionary War, and slave-state representatives were determined to "force" slavery into the newly acquired western territories. There was no political effort to eradicate in existing states, but a strong attempt to halt the spread of it to the new territories in the West.

The much-cited proposed 13th amendment in 1861 was intended as a compromise to reassure the southern states that their property rights were not in jeopardy due to Lincoln's election, and it did pass in Congress. Because of their insistence of spreading slavery, southern states chose to leave the Union and fire upon Fort Sumter rather than take that assurance. The actual 13th amendment did indeed outlaw slavery and end the institution, but the claim that three southern states ratified it before Lee surrendered is disingenuous.

The three state legislatures cited by the author of a recent letter were not the same ones that had decided to secede. They were Union-occupational legislatures dominated by Unionists that had little connection to Confederate states. Surely the author does not suggest that the Richmond legislature was approving United States Constitution amendments while still maintaining their Confederate independence!

Another writer cites a large number of blacks who aided the Confederate cause, some in combat. This too is stretching a point. Prof. Smith's estimate of 90,000 blacks who served the Confederacy in one way or another is just that, an estimate. Since the author who cites this number then states that there were 250,000 free blacks in the South, these numbers present a problem. Either there was an unusually high rate of volunteerism, 90,000 men out of 250,000 men, women and children, or many of these 90,000 blacks serving the Confederacy were slaves. If most of them were slaves, which most historians think is the case, then they are not exactly willing participants. Even if a couple of thousand free blacks did volunteer and did participate in armed conflicts, it is still a miniscule proportion of the roughly 1 million men who served the Confederacy. Most references to blacks in the Confederate army cite them as servants, cooks, teamsters, etc. Many of them were, and remained, slaves and unless someone can find testimony from them stating their willingness to do so, we must consider the possibility of them being forced labor.

As for Robert E. Lee being "an abolitionist," as Michelle Hamlin stated, the notion is ludicrous. The term abolitionist was a highly pejorative and emotionally charged word, and Lee would have been very insulted to have it applied to him. He did indeed free the slaves inherited from his father-in-law, as required by his father-in-law's will. It is not a true indicator of Lee's personal feelings, although we know he stated he disliked the institution.

This manumission does not make him an abolitionist because he never advocated freeing anyone else's slaves, and is unclear whether he would have freed these particular slaves if it were not required.

If Lee and the South were not fighting for slavery, why in the world did Lee's army hunt down hundreds of free blacks in Pennsylvania and drag them southward in chains? This is an established and accepted fact of the Gettysburg campaign, and taken with Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens' famous speech where he described slavery as the "cornerstone" of southern society, makes any logical person wonder how the South could not be fighting for slavery while fighting to preserve that society. If nothing else, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was designed to make slavery an issue of the war, not on humanitarian terms, but on political, military and economic terms. If the South was not fighting for slavery before January 1, 1863, at which time the proclamation went into effect, they certainly were doing so after that date.

Latter day denials of the facts will not change them. Slavery was part of the war, deeply intertwined in Southern economy and society, and the focal point of much of the debate that led to the war. While it is incorrect to attribute the entire cause of the war to slavery, it is equally incorrect to deny its influence.




Thomas G. Clemens is a resident of Keedysville.

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