The Biggest Lie About the Civil War

Since 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of The Civil War, perhaps it would be improper to allow the year to expire without commenting on a popular misconception about the bloodiest conflict in American history. Did we say misconception? Nay, it’s an outright lie, spread by proponents of the Confederate cause.

The Big Lie: “It Wasn’t Really About Slavery.”

Advocating slavery would not be a very popular course at present; and it wasn’t even universally popular at the time. Consequently, it often has been camouflaged by other supposed motives. The right to secede. (For what purpose?) Government  policy. (Pertaining to what?) Economic factors. (An economy powered by what?) States’ rights. (To do what?) Every supposed impetus you could name, even if legitimate, could be directly linked to slavery.

“States’ rights” is an especially popular excuse these days; one reason is that it aligns the Neo-Confederates with the Neo-Conservatives, both of whom are concentrated below the Mason-Dixon line.  But both actually support states’ rights only when convenient. For an example of how quickly the Neocons can be prompted to do an about-face on states’ rights, see Bush vs. Gore. For an example of how easily the Confederates could be prompted to do so, see how pissed they became at Northern states who opted not to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act.

From the Horse’s…er,  Mouth

Obstinate adherence to an ideology always requires a certain willingness to ignore facts. But the Dixienauts also seem quite willing, when it suits their purposes, to ignore the words of their own beloved iconic leaders: Confederate “President” Jefferson Davis and “Vice-President” Alexander Stephens.

In January 1861, then-Senator Davis delivered a farewell speech to the U.S. Senate in which he declared why his state of Mississippi was to become a Union dropout:

She has heard proclaimed the theory that all men are created free and equal, and this has made the basis of an attack upon her social institutions.

Stephens was even more explicit. In what was to become known as the Cornerstone Speech, delivered in March of 1861, he declared:

This (equality) was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.

And he added:

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.

But my favorite part of his speech is this:

This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science…Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics.

Any questions?

A Dose of Sanity

For an example of what Stephens considered sane behavior, see page 282 of Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliers, in which he describes a standard treatment, known as “Derby’s dose”, administered to runaway slaves by one certain slave owner:

The runaway would be beaten, and salt pickle, lime juice, and bird pepper would be rubbed into his or her open wounds. Another slave would defecate into the mouth of the miscreant, who would then be gagged for four to five hours.

Yes, surely this was the slave’s “natural and normal condition”.

They’ll Rise Again and Again

The Confederate mentality is still very much with us. It never left. You can’t really expect it to when history has so whitewashed what the Confederacy really stood for, and posterity has been so willing to honor the memory of those who died in battle regardless of the values they represented. You may recall that President Ronald Reagan caused a stir by paying tribute to Nazi soldiers, apparently not even considering the implications of his actions.

Walk through Gettysburg and you’ll see monuments to Confederate soldiers right there with monuments to Federal troops, as if their causes were equally noble. They weren’t. One side fought to preserve the Union, the other to rip it apart in order to preserve the institution of slavery. No amount of “politically incorrect” revisionism can change that.

Slavery, whether they knew it or not, was what those Confederate troops fought and died for. And whether they know it or  not, it’s what today’s Neo-Confederates are glorifying.


  1. lets forget about assigning political correctness to revisionist historians who claim other motives for the confederate cause, actually I thought it was the other way around,

    Economics and survival that was the reason, the godly semi Cromwellian general stonewall Jackson stated ” if they ( the north ) lose this war their big fat-cat industrialists will just lick their wounds and go away and find some other enterprise to make vast profits and probably wont even lose a dime doing it, if we ( confederates lose we will lose are whole way of life and the south will be destroyed .

    Sounds like a pretty convincing argument to me that has little to do with slavery as such , in fact sounds as if they would rather have had more time to look for another form of protecting the profits from cotton by themselves rather than be forced into it by a bunch of abolitionists who at the at the victory of the north didn’t care much what happened to the freed slaves
    evolution patience ,discussion and negotiation would probably have saved thousands of lives, but the American colonists just love their revolutions , uniforms, warriors and creating new nations .

    Unfortunately for the south unlike the English colonists round two went to King Abraham and the “Tyrannical” Bluebottles rather than the lobster-backs of old England and king George

    • The South was afraid of losing its “whole way of life”? And what exactly was that way of life founded on?

  2. Slavery of course , but you could hardly blame them we British practiced it wnen we established the colony first with local indians ( who didnt like doing anymore than the white eurpeons) then the opportunity came from Arab traders and their much more virgorous and muscular negro slaves, it seemed the problem of working cotton fields and that terrible heat was solved.
    By the time British abolished the trade Virginnia and others had an entire world and way of life built upon this principle industry of cotton.
    Now you can call it what you like , evil , immoral and other such expletives but the fact remained it was a way of life that was difficult to change or reform without shifting entrenched attitudes and creating alternatives.
    Many Southern politcians and lobbylists at the time were anti slavery but they needed an economic way out not force of arms and dictation from an area of the country that was not effected by thoses same economic considerations .
    The same is happening today between western and Arab nations we think we can solve thier problems for them and dictate to them about democracy etc etc , but most if not all when given the vote , simply vopte for Islamic parties.
    Perhaps the North should have put its money where its mouth was and provided financial incentives to southern slave owners to abolish slavery in their estates, by taxing the the abolishionists and industrialist who declared for it. ??

    Just a thought , because thats exactly what the British did to British west indian slave owners .

    • I have long thought that if an economic means was used to end slavery instead of war, that the American South, and the entire USA, would be a much different place today. No people respond well when they are forced at gunpoint to do something, no matter how evil the behavior being corrected.

      Since the New Year, it was the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. I saw several news bits about it, but none of them mentioned that it only freed slaves in the rogue states. It was a bridge too far for Lincoln and could have led to the compromise states leaving the Union.

      If you look at the policies during Reconstruction, you will see the legacy of the damage they did today, too. They did little to raise up the status of the freed slaves. Whites did have their right to vote taken away for a couple of decades (reversing inequalities has never worked historically). There were many universities opened for freed slaves, thus the Northern carpetbaggers invented segregation, a time bomb that finally exploded 100 years later.

      I believe 100% that the South fought for slavery. I strongly suspect that wasn’t the only reason. I also believe that ending slavery was not the only motivator for the North to attack. If it were, there might have been some plan for what to do with the freed people afterwards other than sending them to found Liberia, itself a fairly racist act.

  3. The trouble with history is that none of us were there, if that seems like a ludicrous remark, I’m sorry , but people should never be judged out of their era or context.
    eighty five years may seem a very long time ( 1776 to 1861) but most people alive back then in simple terms didn’t regard the war of independence as being anymore a long time ago than we regard the second world war , the constitution was even fresher, , so from the confederate point of view they were being bullied by a Washington into dismantling their principle source of income over the issue of a few slaves of which the general consensus around the world and not just in the very new United States and further , backed by the controversial state of science at the time, proclaimed the negro ” a throwback species of early man ” some way up the evolutionary ladder but not Quite like us!.

    It’s hard to imagine from the perspective of 2013 how otherwise quite normal people could have believed this nonsense , but let’s look at what was going on back then:

    The British Having lost their American colonies had gone on to forge an empire twice to three times as large as when America was British and even found a new continent which again was full of rather primitive people of a black hew that had not even managed to invent the wheel , the same was true of Sub Saharan Africa, indeed the only race ( in their view) given the rather obvious evidence, of their eyes that didn’t seem to have advanced beyond the jungle , many wore tree bark as clothes and adopted undignified dances which some historical naturalist at the time innocently referred to as “just like monkeys”.
    Further researching, some abolitionists at the time based their anti-slavery views more on their pity for the treatment of dumb animals than any real belief that the “negro was the equal of any other Human species ( * We of course now know we are all the same species,) let alone the white European , who in less than 200 years had accelerated in industry , science and innovation streets ahead of any other civilisation in the world of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries .

    When seeking to understand reasons and causes in history it is not helpful to judge people on the basis of the current political correct zeitgeist , equally it is not realistic to imagine that every slave owner was a sadistic monster who preyed and practiced cruel and unusual punishments on his slaves , one must remember that Jefferson was very much in love with one of his. Equally there is no evidence that Washington mistreated his slaves.

    further, it was more or less accepted back then in the mainstream that slaves were property in the same way as livestock and the law often reinforced this principle ( IE: Amistad)

    So to follow on our little journey of discovery into the mind of an average Dixie confederate in the streets of Richmond in 1861 , to him/her the dispute seemed in the simplest terms to be a silly argument over peoples ownership of livestock , however to the more sophisticated and educated southerner it was a cynical attempt by the north to drag the South down the road of industrialisation with all that entailed, i.e. the desertion of the farms for jobs in the city ( probably the north who were already a long way up that road) a guise by the fat cat northern industrialists to subjugate the south , monopolise the labour into factories and collect all the profits at the expense of the Southern land owning cotton farmers ( which ironically is just what happened after the south was crushed) .
    At the very extreme of the views it appeared as if their fellow countrymen had betrayed the revolution and its founding principles only to behave even worse than the British Parliament and now seeking to impose on them, that which the thirteen colonies had imagined the British to be doing to them as former English Colonists ( I have to put “imagined” after all I’m British)

    In Fact even general Jackson was famous for his comment that this was “Their second war of independence”.

    In the north most of the arguments in Lincolns mind was shaped by his childhood experience of his father not being able to get work as he could not compete with slaves, further he suggested and whole heartily supported the notion that even after war and emancipation that the “Blacks should be repatriated back to Africa , as he did not believe that white men could or would live happily alongside the negro.

    As for the south the war created more problems than it solved and you have quite rightly identified some of them , the other and perhaps more damaging was the wholesale resentment by southern whites toward both Negros and the north ( especially whose families who had lost sons and grandsons and( there were many) in the war.

    Given the circumstances of the time, I maintain my former position that that the south went to war to save itself from economic ruin at the hands of the north, coupled with a distrust of the motives of the Washington government and it would seem they were correct, as nothing much changed for the former slaves, indeed some even opted to remain slaves , hard as that is to believe, but when you know little else and are uneducated and afraid of starving to death even slavery has its advantages.

    So ended the bloodiest war in US history which achieved very little for the negro that propaganda has lead us to believe it had been fought to free , as the confederates predicted it resulted in the complete destruction of their way of life, their infrastructure and in most cases many members of their families .

    In the end only the carpet baggers won and America was damaged in both its principles and its morality, its claim to the higher moral ground with respect to its former mother country and the then world’s leading superpower of the day, was dashed in the burning embers of Richmond, as The British( themselves huge benefactors from the slave trade ) had despite this abolished slavery all over their entire colonies without firing a shot.

  4. Actually the biggest lie is that the American Civil War was solely over slavery, it was not, slavery was a factor one of multiple factors which are also stated in the declarations of causes and secession ordinances which are overlooked in order to make slavery the overt self-righteous cause to justify the war. Sectionalism developed similarly to the sectionalism between Britain and the colonies, over greed of power, expansion, economy, social issues between these entities.

  5. Yes I think that was what I said.? or did I miss something ?, further I suppose I should have said the bloodiest war ever fought on American soil , as indeed the stats bear out, only British Army causalties during the first world war exceeded the numbers

  6. “Derby’s Dose” refers to a practice which occurred in Jamaica, not in the United States. A slave named Derby was “catched eating canes” – young sugar cane in the field – and subjected to the punishment to which you refer. The conditions slaves suffered under in Jamaica were horrific.

    The conditions of the slaves in the United States, particularly by the time of the Civil War, were much better in every respect. In fact, Alexander Stephens – whom you quote – was so well-regarded by his slaves that they stayed on with him after the war.

    • I’m not sure how you conclude that the conditions of the slaves in the U.S. were “much better in every respect”. They were still subjected to horrific abuses, just as slaves in Jamaica and anywhere else were. This is in no way negated by the occasional exception.

  7. You state my comment was stated already but it is no where to be seen.

    I have said nothing offensive and don’t understand why it has not posted

    • The comment you refer to was judged to offer nothing of value. It just tried to be confrontational (see post titled Culture Of Confrontation) with silly repetitions of ideas already addressed in the post.

  8. All wars are fought over economic control . It’s absurd to think the American Civil war was fought over that type of slavery alone back then. Why would the Union care about freeing the slaves , they didn’t . When they could have an overall control over all people economically. Which is exactly what happened. Now we all are debt slaves with true freedom lost. We won our independence in the Revolutionary War and then lost it in the American Civil war. The whole subject of it being about Slavery was nothing more than an irrelevant political tactic. That nobody gave a crap about .

    • I normally don’t even approve comments as kooky as this, but yours is so particularly kooky that it’s as irresistible as a bad traffic accident.

  9. As a Brit, after watching the film Lincoln a few years ago, I decided to take a look at the wording of the declaration and was somewhat shocked and saddened by what I read and it explained a comment by the comedian Chris Rock in one of his DVDs – “… make way to much money putting our brothers in jail.” This didn’t make sense to me at the time but it did after I read the wording of the declaration.

    When the US abolished slavery, sadly it did so for everyone except themselves – you only need read the wording to see that this is the case. Every time a person goes to jail in the US, they become a slave. I was born in Iceland and the US has approximately 4.2 more people in jail than there are people in the country I was born in.

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