The Civil War: Causes, Myths, and Sources (Part 1 of 2)

To even try to say the Civil War not not about enslavement is to deny evidence and disrespect the Black Men, Women, and children who suffered and died to build this nation we love to celebrate as the best ever, the beacon of democracy. 


Among scholars of the Civil War, enslavement, or of African-American History, for example, there really is no debate to speak of: The Civil War was about an ever growing controversy related to the institution of slavery–no more, no less. In fact, in one of my graduate seminars, Slavery and American Society with Steven Deyle (his book is an excellent read, by the way), back in 2009, we had a discussion that involved three questions: When was the Civil War possible? When Was the Civil War probable? When was the Civil War inevitable? My response was: 

I would argue that the Civil War and divisions between the North and South were possible beginning in 1619 when Jamestown, Virginia, bought its first shipment of approximately twenty enslaved Africans from Dutch slave traders. Ira Berlin and others argue, from the beginning of chattel slavery in North America, the North was never more than a “society with slaves” whereas Southern colonies–for example, Virginia in the 1660s as evident by Anthony and Mary Johnson–quickly became “slave societies.” Likewise, I believe the Civil War was probable with Eli Whitney’s innovation of the cotton gin in the 1790s and the resulting Cotton Kingdom. The Civil War was inevitable in the 1830s with the rise of anti-slavery and abolitionist groups in the North and with proslavery arguments becoming firmly established in Southern mores. 

Political conflicts and compromises in the 1850s only further delayed the already inevitable. Be sure to read my article about the Bleeding Kansas riots in Disasters and Tragic Events. You should be able to read it through Google Books here and then by searching for “Bleeding Kansas” in the little search bar on the left below the image of the book. The article is on pages 61-65. 

Despite this much-deserved scholarly consensus that the Civil War was only about enslavement–one supported by all of the available evidence–the general public and various sectors of governmental organizations persist in saying it was about states’ rights and a host of other things. See this article of mine from August 2013 that looks at how the Texas STAAR test distorts history. In Texas, the state curriculum falsely states causes of the war as being: “states’ rights, slavery, sectionalism, and tariffs” OR “sectionalism, states’ rights, and slavery.” Regardless of the inaccuracy, ORDER here speaks volumes. 

Confederate History Months have become somewhat popular as well as offensive documents such as this one issued by Brazoria County, which I have protested against numerous times due to its countless factual accuracies and offensive nature. (More on this here, part two of this posting.)

We must remember that Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind and a host of other literature associated with the Plantation Myth and the Lost Cause rhetoric were deliberately created and promoted to rewrite history at the expense of those United Statesians racialized as Black. The Cuban-Spanish-American War (1898) also contributed to this nation-wide shift in historical memory- the (White) nation “needed” to be unified and happy. Additionally, the rise of the de jure Culture of Segregation in the South speaks to both the rewriting of history and the uniting of all Whites against all Blacks, and it speaks to the very important role issues of enslavement played in the Civil War–especially since via sharecropping, convict leasing (also known as neo-slavery), the lynching of Black Men and the rape of Black Women, and many, many other cruelties, African-Americans were in many ways put back in enslavement-like conditions but for sure were not given the freedoms promised by Emancipation.

If you remember nothing else, remember that no one said anything about the Civil War being about “states’ rights” until well after the war and only did so in a deliberate effort to rewrite History such that it might look more favorably on the South.

The only “states’ right” being fought for was the right to keep enslaved Blacks as property and unpaid laborers that could be and were bought, sold, and killed. This “right” and desire was vocally stated. Southern states desired a society where only White Men and Women could be citizens. 

Anytime we hear the phrase “states’ rights,” it is absolutely essential to also recognize how it is a code term for racism (and classism and resistance to Civil Rights and Human Rights). For example, 8 Sneaky Racial Code Words and Why Politicians Love Them says the following about “states’ rights”:

Totally innocent and nonracial, right? Not so much. López says we first heard this from Barry Goldwater, who was running on a very unpopular platform critical of the New Deal, during the 1964 presidential election. “He makes the critical decision to use coded racial appeals, trying to take advantage of rising racial anxiety in the face of the civil rights movement,” says López. In other words, while “states’ rights” is a pretty racially neutral issue, you just have to look at what was happening at the moment to realize that everyone knew it translated to the right of states to resist federal mandates to integrate schools and society.

There are an abundance of primary sources where people in the Civil War era tell us exactly what they were fighting for. Likewise, countless scholarly books on the Civil War examine why the Nation went to war. This list is designed to help direct people to good sources. If you know of other “must reads,” let me know, and I will add them. 

Select primary sources:

Select secondary sources:

This is not to say a homogenized North and South existed. This is also not to say that people in the North were committed abolitionists–they weren’t–and although part of their time, they were generally most racist toward Blacks.  

Slavery caused the war and started the war, but the war was not about ending slavery until 1863, until that point is was about preserving the Union. 

See also: