Even When It Wasn’t About Slavery, It Was About Slavery

courtesy Library of Congress
courtesy Library of Congress

I often hear people say that the Civil War in the US wasn’t about slavery (you may wonder where I am to often hear people go on about slavery), but the more I read history the harder it is to believe. Take the transcontinental railroad, for instance. One of the reasons it took so long in getting started is that everyone (most everyone) had settled on the idea that the federal government should help pay for it. Problem was that the slave state politicians wanted the route through slave country which meant purchasing land from Mexico (would this land be free or slave?). The free state politicians knew their anti-slavery constituents wouldn’t go for that. Everyone was SO TIRED of fighting over slavery every day in Washington for years! So the railroad stood still.

And then there was this sticky situation in Cuba . . . there was a time when Manifest Destiny wasn’t tinged with corruption. It was a brief time, yet most Americans supported the idea of spreading liberty . . . enter the slave states. Some (not all) saw Central and South America as the last beacon of hope for keeping slavery alive. Spain controlled Cuba and Cuba had slaves.

Filibuster William Walker launched several expeditions into Latin America. For a time he ruled Nicaragua, although he was eventually forced to return to the United States. In 1860, he was captured and executed in Honduras. Wikipedia
Filibuster William Walker launched several expeditions into Latin America. For a time he ruled Nicaragua, although he was eventually forced to return to the United States. In 1860, he was captured and executed in Honduras. Wikipedia

Back long ago some men (private citizens) took it upon themselves to gain territory for their country. They spent their days organizing grand and semi-grand plans to capture places. The Americans who did this were called FILLIBUSTERERS.

A Venezuelan-born resident of Cuba, Narciso López, who, like some wealthy Cuban slave-owners, was wary of shaky Spanish rule over the island, and thus sought to have it annexed by the United States in order to ensure slavery’s preservation in Cuba. Cuban property owners were concerned that Spain would give in to British pressure to abolish slavery in Cuba. López organized several failed expeditions to liberate Cuba from Spanish rule, the last resulting in his capture and execution in Havana in 1851. The American public condemned Spanish actions, especially López’s execution without trial, but U.S. President Millard Fillmore did not issue a denunciation. Public anger against Fillmore’s seemingly lukewarm support for expansion contributed to a Whig defeat in 1852.

In an attempt to mollify the Democratic Party’s staunch proslavery wing, the new President, Franklin Pierce, appointed the proslavery politician Pierre Soulé as Minister to Spain in 1853. However, Soulé did not possess a personality well-suited to tactful diplomacy. During his appointment, Soulé disregarded his instructions to preserve Spanish sovereignty and delivered an unauthorized ultimatum to the Spanish Government regarding a seized U.S. merchant ship. Soulé also wounded the French Ambassador in a duel and began to associate with Spanish revolutionaries planning to overthrow the government. In 1854, Soulé met with other U.S. Ministers to draft a document known as the Ostend Manifesto, which outlined U.S. reasons for attempting to purchase Cuba from Spain. Once the documents were publicly released, they proved embarrassing for the Pierce Administration, and U.S. Secretary of State William Marcy implied that Soulé had instigated the meeting. In the meantime, the Spanish Government began to take countermeasures against U.S. interest in Cuba. The Spanish Minister to the United States, Angel Calderón de la Barca, gathered intelligence on planned filibustering expeditions to Cuba. In Cuba, officials took steps to free slaves who had arrived on the island after 1835 and planned to organize a free black militia that would oppose any proslavery invaders. Growing antislavery sentiment in the northern United States and Spanish determination to hold on to Cuba eventually forced U.S. leaders to end attempts to acquire the island.” READ MORE

So was slavery the only reason for war? We could say there were other contributing factors but behind most of them was the country’s wrestling with this core issue. If people took slavery lightly or didn’t find the institution morally repugnant the politicians may not have had so many long and heated battles in the 1850’s.

10 responses to “Even When It Wasn’t About Slavery, It Was About Slavery”

  1. The Irish Confederate officer Patrick Cleburne may be the source deniers use when saying slavery wasn’t the primary issue. Cleburne suggested freeing the slaves to fight for the Confederates:
    It is said that slavery is all we are fighting for, and if we give it up we give up all. Even if this were true, which we deny, slavery is not all our enemies are fighting for. It is merely the pretense to establish sectional superiority and a more centralized form of government, and to deprive us of our rights and liberties.

    Cleburne mad a good point but some have mangled it.

    Most Civil War fires burned from match or wood — not all.
    Abolitionists = the matches. Slaves = the wood. You don’t need to have a match or wood to have a fire.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Read Alexander Stephens’ Cornerstone speech from March 1861. Sums up the Confederate “cause” nicely.


    • @ssheafterhistorian — Idiots existed and still exist on each side of the Mason -Dixon. One man can not sum up the reasoning and motivations of individual members of either side. If the North cared so much for the Black man; I doubt Blacks would be rioting in the Northern states, in today’s world. I mentioned some Southerners have mangled Cleburne’s summation but Southerners did have independent thoughts. When the Blacks killed all the Whites in Haiti, many worried about the ratio of Whites to Blacks in the South. The Seminole wars were another factor. Sorry if I don’t find your Cornerstone speech very enlightening. The speech was simple minded but did not cover the complex situation. We many need to fight elsewhere if you don’t see my point.


      • Are we talking a street fight here, boys?

        Okay so I agree that there were many things going on even the history books and newspapers of the time that led to war.

        I was just reading about the Confederate cavalry coming in to Pennsylvania before Gettysburg and rounding up the black women and children to bring them back to slavery–never mind there were tons of free blacks in the area.

        One Confederate wrote to his family saying what his peers were doing was disgusting and he couldn’t do it. That’s a man of integrity right there! Bravo for unsung heroes.

        As far as rioting in the north goes watch out it’s coming to every community. It’s how a horrible government divides and conquers.

        Whenever a culture glamorizes bad behavior young boys with no fathers are going to look for their manhood on the streets (even cops are influenced by this glamorization of gangsta culture). I also blame the liberated free love culture. Yeah, it’s great to have fun and party, but who’s taking care of the kids?

        Men and women of all cultures need to see what is so obvious: kids need strong parents and FATHERS are SO IMPORTANT. Men need to be men. And don’t even get me started on the money making scheme of the prison industry.


    • Here is a perfect example of rationalizing a bad idea. I don’t blame Stephens in a way, because just at that time (or around) Darwinian ideas began floating about. We can look back and judge everyone by crying racist, but evolutionary ideas, the god of SCIENCE etc seemed to many thoughtful people to be the answer to life’s many questions about unfairness. My old priest called it “the lucky sperm club.”

      Looking back we can see where Darwinian thought leads–more racism, mass killings of the born and unborn in the name of the master race.

      The ordinary tensions of a country with sectional differences are one thing and did not get people North of South all frothed up for war. Reading the lyrics to Civil War era songs is very telling (and a fun thing to do).

      I used to have my 5th grade students in a mostly black inner city school pretend to be Northerners and Southerners and debate the issues (I’d probably get fired today). The interesting thing was how quickly the “Southerners” rationalized slavery to make their points.

      All people tend to be tribal, I think. We make it a black and white thing here in the States, but it’s bigger than that.


  3. There are reasons other than slavery for the war that broke out between the states, but I think slavery was a compelling force since the South at that time was dependent upon it for its economic system. (It was easy for the more industrialized North to oppose it.) Still, it was a system that was doomed for extinction due to industrialization and the costs associated with maintaining it (both economic and psychological).

    One of your posters makes the point that Southerners were concerned about the ratio of Blacks to Whites after the Haiti uprising. That’s true – and also after the Nat Turner uprising.

    If far-seeing Southerners realized the system was doomed to become extinct, what made them willing to fight the North? Certainly poor Whites who held no slaves were not reticent about going off to war, and did so at great cost to their own livelihoods. Perhaps it had to do with a distrust of Federalism. Southerners believed their patriotic duty was to the South, not to the man sitting in the White House in the North. States’ Rights was a rallying cry for those who believed they had the right to live their lives as they and their immediate neighbors agreed was good for them (not necessarily for the country as a whole).

    Even so, the issue of slavery was a source of division between the North and South from the start, almost destroying the fledgling nation before it even got started.

    It’s a tragic and shameful chapter in our history and continues to haunt us even today.


    • By the looks of the comments this still makes blood pulse faster. Taking a step back I can see that since Biblical times life is full of tragic mistakes. No country is clean. I think one of the problems with dwelling on our one huge mistake is that it never really allows for people to heal–like in a marriage. People don’t stay married by bringing up the affair again and again. Also in a marriage if you don’t look around you tend to think your problems are worse than everyone else’s. Life is haunting–for everyone on this planet (thinking of the be-headings of Christians at the moment).

      I agree that there were other contributing factors to the war. but reading David Porter’s BRILLIANT book The Impending Crisis leads me to agree with him that there were always sectional tensions over things like tariffs, free labor, etc but in general the country (or loose confederacy of states) was pretty homogenous in their Christian faith and respect for the Constitution. Many, many Southerners fought long and hard to find solutions other than war, but they were silenced.

      It seems that with each passing political crisis involving slavery (Missouri Compromise, Compromise of 1850) politicians were forced tactically into corners by the many different voices–abolitionists, pro-slavery, popular sovereignty folks, railroad magnates, Filibusterers, average Joes.

      When a way of life seems threatened people begin to rationalize even what they may deep down know is “bad” like slavery. Just because they rationalized it didn’t make it right.

      So every congressional session was fraught with emotional turmoil. Every decision big or small was discussed as it related to the elephant in the room.

      Porter makes the point that it’s easy for us historians to look back and say it was obvious that this or that thing would lead to war, but it was a very slow process–a very painful one of even national political parties breaking into shattered pieces. It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion.

      As far as boys going off to war (sorry boys) powerful people have always been able to whip young, courageous, idealistic and clueless boys to fight wars (I think we’re in Afghanistan for opium now–but maybe that’s just my strong distrust of the Federal government). 🙂

      Thanks for the very thoughtful comment, dear Kate. Can’t we meet for coffee sometime? Hugs.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. My apologies. Your post reminded me how some Southerners have tried to skip over slavery, as the reason to go to war. For someone to shrink the reason to such a simple minded statement sent my blood rushing. The called me Rocky in the Navy, for a reason. Generally good-natured but a fighter always awaits to explode.


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