It’s the tail end of Confederate History Month, and once again ahistorical extremists on both sides of the argument bring so little erudition and so much illogic to reflecting upon the nature of the Confederacy that it becomes difficult to understand its meaning and place in American history.
On the one hand, you have those that, contrary to the historical record, assert the rebellion was all about slavery. They ignore that few of those who fought in the war actually owned slaves (although most of the power in the Confederacy was held by men who owned slaves or whose sources of wealth and power were derived from it) and that there were genuine states-rights sentiments within a significant portion of the population (although its is questionable whether even a majority felt that way). Economic and political considerations certainly played roles in triggering the attempt to secede.
But on the other hand, equally as ignorant are claims that slavery had little or nothing to do with the Civil War. Not only is this an exceptionally selective reading of history (there are almost no professional and/or academic historians that ever have claimed slavery was not an important rationale for the war), but also tap dances around the important moral question that slavery presented.
To some, this issue particularly should matter because they take great, perhaps inordinate, pride in personal histories that valorize those who fought for the Lost Cause. They appear compelled to write out slavery by assigning it minor importance or arguing it would had evolved away anyway without war because failure to do these would stain the motives of those who fought for the Confederacy.
Yet to do so they have to block out some very inconvenient facts, such as the CSA’s Vice President Alexander Stephens’ blunt admission that the war was about the perpetuation of slavery, that many non-slaveholders acted knowingly in ways to support slavery during the war, that the South started the war firing the first shots despite no oppressive moves being made by the federal government (appointing new postmasters that might actually deliver abolition tracts in the South does not count as “oppressive”), or that if slavery would have ended decades later without war does not invalidate the morality of a war to defend the Union that had the practical impact of ending immoral bondage.
What we need to take from this observation is that this was a tragic but necessary period in American history. It ended a moral evil that all too many in the South were either openly supporting or at least complicit in its retention (there were some like my wife’s ancestors in the South who openly resisted the Confederate government and refused to fight on its behalf), but for anybody to condemn or valorize automatically those who fought on behalf of a regime that promoted this evil does not truly understand the larger picture.
And that understanding is of the greatest tragedy, even more than the killing and violence that came of it – that many who fought for the Confederacy did not recognize the immoral outcomes of their actions, and that by their leaders’ desire for continued power and wealth some sacrificed themselves for something that was not worthy of their sacrifice. It’s a story as old as human history – more recent examples being ordinary Germans for Nazism, Russians and related Slavs for communism, and Japanese for the militaristic and racial ideologies of their past dictatorial regime.
That should be the purpose of Confederate History Month, to reflect upon how war came about in response to a situation so fundamentally at odds with our moral understanding of the human condition and why, despite the immorality of the peculiar institution, so many acted willingly or ignorantly to defend it. Making slavery either the only or a subordinate cause of the Civil War are unserious attitudes that cannot contribute to this improved understanding.