Corrigan’s Editorial Note: I designed and taught a first-year writing course on the theme of Fake News. I asked students to write four essays. The first grounded the course in an exploration of what truth is, why it matters, how to sort it out, and how to avoid being duped by those who would distort it. The second and third asked students to practice truth sorting, first together as a class and then independently, using a method I call Empathetic Information Literacy. My student Olivia Mann did excellent work throughout the whole course and then edited her writing afterward for it to appear here. This is the third of her four essays.
Statues have fallen and protests have erupted. Lines have been drawn and arguments are thrown from both sides of the fence. It would seem that America’s past has come to haunt its citizens. I had heard of the argument over what the Civil War was about before, mostly in passing by a television, scrolling through the internet, or even from those around me when trucks drive by on the highway flying Confederate flags. I grew up with a fascination for studying the Civil War, so I decided to investigate. To help me with my investigation, I sought out two specific examples of a claim I had often encountered. One man, Paul Craig Roberts, wrote a blog post titled “How We Know The So-Called “Civil War” Was Not Over Slavery” saying that “[t]he real issue between North and South could not be reconciled on the basis of accommodating slavery.” The second man, David Reynolds, wrote an article on his website titled “The War Between States WAS NOT About Slavery” and similarly stated that “[a]fter all these years, there still exists national historical ignorance and lies about this war of Yankee aggression and atrocities. The War Between the States was about State’s Rights and not about slavery.” With my examples of the claim found, I would launch into my investigation process of pausing, caring, checking thoroughly, and acting.
After finding concrete examples of the claim, I took a moment to step back from the issue and close my computer. To start, I thought about the times I studied the Civil War when I was younger. I put myself into that mindset for a moment and made sure to acknowledge why this issue had piqued my interest—that childhood fascination. But I also thought through the possibility that I might jump to a conclusion or carry bias into the investigation because of my affinity for Civil War history. This claim, unlike others, has to do with the past as much as the present. We know the outcome of the original Civil War, but the current uncivil war of division, racism, and unrest that it has ignited is being fought around us still. It reminded me of the old saying, how if we do not study history we are doomed to repeat its events. After thinking these things over, I went about several hours of my evening as I normally would. I had dinner, I hung out with a few friends, took a shower. When I returned to my room, I sat back down and thought for just a while longer before diving into the next stage of my investigation. This time, I focused on clearing my thoughts and getting into a calm state of mind. I put some earbuds in and listened to a few minutes of music. Then, I got started.
Any investigation or research starts with a question. First, I wanted to know whether the claim I was looking into is true or not. Therefore I had to rephrase the claim as a question that I could work towards answering. “Was the Civil War primarily about slavery?” I also needed to come up with possible answers to guide my investigation. The Civil War could be primarily about slavery, not primarily about slavery, it could be about slavery only on one side of the war, it could be about slavery just as much as it is about other things, or it could be only a little bit about slavery. This thought process led me to have a lot more questions. What does “primarily” mean? Can you fight a war where each side is not fighting the other over the same issue? What was the language of people at the time of the Civil war, both Northerners and Southerners? What other reasons are presented as alternatives for what the Civil War was “about”? What information backs up the claims—on either side? Why might people be making this claim now when the Civil War was so long ago? In other words, why does it matter so much to them? What is at stake for understanding the truth of this matter?
Before I moved into looking at the people involved in this issue during the present day, I decided to take a quick look at those who were involved in the past. I knew that the “sons and daughters of the Confederacy” today had a lot of pride and an emotional stake in their heritage. To understand them a little bit before I looked into the claim they often support, I wanted to understand what their great-grandfathers went through, to help me put into context what these modern “Confederates” think about when they look into their family history of the Civil War.
I started my investigation with a short History.com video called the “Impact of the Civil War.” It talked about the trauma from the war, especially to the soldiers on both sides. Then, I looked at a National Park Service article called “Civilians at Gettysburg.” This article compiles a bunch of little snippets of individual stories. Each one briefly shows the role of a civilian who found themselves pulled into or caught in the fighting at Gettysburg for one reason or another. Additionally, they are all named. Lastly, I read a longer article from American Battlefield Trust about the “Life of the Civil War Soldier in the Army.” It outlines where these soldiers came from, what was asked of them, the typical demographic of the individuals, unit demographics, the decisions they had to make, and the daily struggles for both survival and basic needs. My favorite parts included:
In the course of this process, men learned the particular brand of patience known to soldiers today as “hurry up and wait.”… They were not without fear, panic, and indecision. Still, we cannot help but look at their service with admiration and draw lessons and inspiration from their endurance, sacrifice, and ideals.
For my next step in caring, I decided to look into finding other people who may have feelings, stories, or opinions similar to those of the claim I was investigating. I wanted to find someone who talked about themselves or their family. In my research, I ended up finding those who claimed “the Civil War was not primarily about slavery” often also the advocaced for Confederate statues and vice versa. So, when I went looking for human stories, I turned my attention to those who put their support in the legacy of the Confederacy today, since many of them have similar reasons for doing this as those making the claim I am investigating. It turns out that right in my university’s city, Lakeland, Florida, there was a huge debate a few years ago over the proposed removal of a Confederate statue in our park downtown.
When I looked into this matter, I found some YouTube videos by “Jeff History Rogers.” In one video, he is expressing his support for the statue and some of his opinions regarding why it and the Confederate legacy deserve to be honored. However, my attention was caught by the brief mention of his lineage. He explains that his ancestors during this time fought in the war. He goes on to say that they were so poor they most likely did not own slaves, or if they did they were treated with respect, “like employees.” His point in these statements was that not everyone who fought for the Confederacy owned slaves. But by hearing his personal story added to the claim, I was able to see why it matters so much for him to defend it. In a way, he believes he is defending his family. The second video I watched from Mr. Rogers was of him discussing the genealogy of his paternal grandmother. He had gathered information from a cousin and Ancestry.com to find out the names and details of some of his ancestors who fought in the Civil War. Again, there is something unique about just hearing names of real people read—that is what this care step is about. Although we do not know what his ancestors went through exactly, we can assume they went through a lot of the horrors I read about in the historical descriptions of the war that I discussed earlier. When I link that with the pride in Mr. Roger’s voice as he read the names and their corresponding Confederate regiments, it further helps me see why this issue is important to people. It is a family matter to many of them, and they are determined to promote what they feel is “just” for their lineage.
In looking around at articles related to the Confederate statue in Munn Park, I also came across a woman named Virginia Robinson, quoted in an article about black community leaders speaking up to the city commissioners about moving the statue. I gathered some of her words and what was said about her in the article:
“Scars run deep and long,” said Virginia Robinson, a Paul A. Diggs neighborhood organizer. “The Civil War was about economics, some say. I say as the descendant of a slave, yes it was about economics, about using slaves as labor.” The monument honors “those who fought to keep slavery alive,” Robinson said. Unlike the supporters of the monument, who say it celebrates the sacrifice of a soldier fighting for his home, she said the memory of the discrimination the monument represents is cemented in the living memories of some Lakeland residents.
By doing a bit of digging, I was able to find a little bit more about Mrs. Robinson and her husband. They were July 2019 “CityMakers” in Lakeland for their work with the Paul A. Diggs Neighborhood Association, especially regarding their Save Our Children Campaign. The award is given for significant contributions to the community. The Robinsons and their Association help identify needs in families and run events such as Story Time in the Park and a Walk-Run. Importantly, the small biography done on them includes this information:
It’s hard to imagine settling into a new city with a child on the way, but life doesn’t seem to abide by any set standards. Such was the case when the Robinsons first came to Lakeland some 46 years ago, just two years after they married. “At the time, there was no housing for people of color in Winter Haven,” Virginia explained. “In Lakeland, we heard of a new community being developed called Golden Northgate, on the ‘black’ side of town.”
This background information combines with Mrs. Robinson’s statements in the Ledger article to tell me a fairly put-together story about why she wanted the statue taken down. It would seem that Mrs. Robinson sees the statue as a memorialization of slavery and racism. She even speaks directly to my claim: “The Civil War was about economics, some say. I say as the descendant of a slave, yes it was about economics, about using slaves as labor.” For Mrs. Robinson, such support for the Confederacy, especially the claim that the Civil War was not about slavery, feels like adding insult to injury by minimizing the real and tangible trauma of racism.
In the article I cited at the beginning of this essay, Al McCray outlines the misconceptions he believes are plaguing America regarding the facts and history surrounding the Civil War. He has concluded that the southern states were patriotically exercising their right to secede from the voluntary union. He also claims that slavery was inserted into the narrative by the North as a cover-up for their aggression and hostility towards the South. Furthermore, he questions the actions of President Lincoln for not freeing the slaves day one, if that was the goal. McCray says that the North was only interested in plundering the wealth of the South and fueling their economy with war. McCray admits that slavery is wicked but goes on to say that slavery was a common thing throughout history and every race was enslaved to another. He even brings up that African kings were the ones selling their people to the United States, and that slavery was ending all over the world of its own volition, already, without war. Some of his more integral quotes include:
It’s been one hundred and fifty years since brave patriotic Southerners drove the Imperialist Yankee army from Fort Sumter South Carolina… After all these years, there still exists national historical ignorance and lies about this war of Yankee aggression and atrocities. The War Between the States was about State’s Rights and not about slavery… Why did not President Lincoln issue a proclamation day 1 of his presidency to free the slaves?… Why did President Lincoln say something like, “I will not free a single slave if it kept the Union together?”
I found Al McCray’s personal website to do a bit of digging about him and his credibility. He is the Managing Editor of TampaNewsAndTalk.com, where a label on the site says “investigative journalism, news, and talk shows.” I cannot find any real information about him personally, therefore I do not know what training or qualifications he may have. But from what I can tell, his work is only published on TampaNewsAndTalk.com, a company and organization for which I cannot find any information about elsewhere, other than McCray’s website. The URL indicated by the name itself seems to redirect me back to his personal website. This comes across as a serious lack of reputability and credibility. Additionally, some of the other articles’ headlines are highly sensationalized, the majority are controversial and opinionated, there are no sources or citations, and I even found a few spelling errors. The website is also unprofessional visually and quite difficult to navigate. Because of all these things, I do not find this article very credible.
Turning to my other source, Paul Roberts’ article speaks significantly about the brainwashing that has been done to promote “lies masquerading as history.” Roberts brings up Lincoln’s endorsing of the Corwin Amendment in his speech, going on to say that if the North was not fighting against slavery, why is the South painted as fighting for the practice? Roberts claims that the real issue was economics and that blaming the war on slavery was a moral tactic to cover up aggression and war crimes. He also mentions the “phony hook” in South Carolina’s Declaration of Causes of Secession, showing that it did not outline slavery as their reason but the way the North had treated them. Here are some of his major points in the article:
“How come the South is said to have fought for slavery when the North wasn’t fighting against slavery?”… Demonizing the enemy with moral language works for the victor. And it is still ongoing. We see in the destruction of statues the determination to shove remaining symbols of the Confederacy down the Memory Hole… The secession document makes the case that the North, which controlled the US government, had broken the compact on which the Union rested and, therefore, had made the Union null and void.
Elsewhere on Paul Roberts’ site, I was able to find more information about him. The website itself is his personally, but also represents the organization that he is chairman of, the Institute for Political Economy. The “About” section lists his numerous academic appointments, book contributions, and the newspapers he has written articles for, the majority of them recognizable and reputable. Additionally, Roberts was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury under President Reagan. Therefore I find Roberts himself to be fairly reputable in some regards, but it doesn’t inherently mean he has expertise in the Civil War. These credentials are enough to make me listen to his words, but not enough to prove I should believe them entirely. Also, his site does not have as well-known or credible status as he may have. Furthermore, Roberts did a much better job of bringing in outside sources and evidence into his opinionated article, though the language was loaded at times. Some conclusions are jumped to a bit abruptly, with “facts” being bookended by abrupt statements. I would consider this article somewhat credible, but worthy of a fair amount of caution due to how it was all presented.
Next, I turned my attention to trying to find sources and articles about the opposing side of the argument. Not just in terms of the claim, but in terms of analyzing more of the facts and words of the Civil War. My first find was a study of documents done by John Pierce that examines the primary sources involved in determining what the Civil War was about—specifically the “Articles of Succession” issued by every Confederate state. From this article, I gained a better understanding of the major themes in the Articles, as well as an idea of how much certain topics were discussed within them. It would seem that slavery was the most mentioned topic and was given the most devotion by the vast majority of the states. The article outlines all of the various reasons given by the states for succession, sorting them into categories of slavery, state’s rights, and other grievances. The slavery issues are much higher in number, and a majority of the issues in other categories relate directly back to slavery anyway:
Each declaration makes the defense of slavery a clear objective. Some states argue that slavery should be expanded. Abolitionism is attacked as a method of inciting violent uprisings. Mississippi and Georgia point out that slavery accounts for a huge portion of the Southern economy… The states argue that the Union is a compact, one that can be annulled if the states are not satisfied with what they receive in return from other states and/or from the federal government… All of the states negatively mention Abraham Lincoln’s election and his suspected abolitionist leanings.
This article links me to another article on the website that provides the entire text of each of the “Articles of Succession.” Therefore, I know that they are getting their information directly from these integral primary sources and I can trust the article’s data and outline. They simply did the work of breaking down the Articles for me. I also noted that the American Battlefield Trust, where this study was published, is a non-profit organization with a good reputation aimed at the preservation of the Civil War and Revolutionary War battlefields and history. They are a BBB accredited charity, a four-star charity on Charity Navigation, featured on Best American Charities and Guide Star, and they are sponsored by History.com. This gives me some level of confidence in their reputability and credibility.
Second, I found a Baltimore Sun article that was originally written for the Los Angeles Times by Robert S. McElvaine. He ties together a lot of very valuable trains of thought, all backed up by the understanding I gained with the previous source. He explains that the argument that “the Civil War was not about slavery but about states’ right and “Southern independence” is essentially a backward reality. As he puts it, “[t]he Civil War was not fought to end slavery; it was fought to defend slavery. The confusion stems from the failure to realize that that two sides in a war need not be fighting over the same issue.” I found this a powerful understanding that put the entire debate into context for me. Here is what Mr. McElvaine goes on to say:
The objective of the North was not to end slavery but to preserve the Union. What the South sought was not to end the Union but to preserve slavery. Few major historical events can properly be attributed to a single cause. But it is accurate to say that slavery was the cause of the Civil War. There would have been no secession, no Confederacy and no war had the South not been intent on maintaining its “peculiar institution.” Slavery was the raison d’etre of the Confederacy. The “liberty” the Confederacy sought to preserve was the liberty to own human beings.
With all of this in our heads, we come to a place where we see that the Civil War may have indeed been primarily about States’ Rights—the “right” to hold people as property. Whether or not slavery was indeed their legal right under the laws of the land (morally, it is obviously not a right) is not the issue we’re investigating. Whether or not slavery was the cause of the war is the question at hand. Also, the Los Angeles Times and Baltimore Sun are well-known newspapers. They seem to be slightly left-leaning in terms of loaded language, but they have a reputation for accuracy and credibility. Additionally, I was able to find a biography of Mr. McElvaine and he has a lot of credibility in terms of his extensive education, accolades, publications, and positions.
Before I made a definitive determination, I wanted to take a quick look at the definition of “primarily.” Using the Oxford Dictionary, I was presented with two definitions, both striking and helpful. The first said “[t]o a great or the greatest degree; for the most part, mainly.” With the second stating “[a]t first, in the first instance; originally.” We can see that for something to be “primarily about” it would have to have the majority of attention and main focus or be the first center of attention. I was fascinated because, based on what I had seen, both of these definitions describe the way slavery was positioned at the center of the Civil War. It was the catalyst, and it was the majority issue even if slavery was the “states’ rights” in question. The institution of slavery was still at the forefront.
Throughout this process, I have learned that the truth of a matter can often be in the details, and that this dilemma as a whole is a bit more multifaceted than I might have expected. I found that for something to be “primarily about” it would have to have the majority of attention and be the main focus. We know this was the position of slavery based on the secession documents and language of the time. I found that you can fight a war where each side is not fighting for the same issue. Especially when one side chooses to start the fight, even if they do not start the war itself. Again, when we examine the language of President Lincoln in contrast with the Confederate secession documents, we see that this was exactly the case. The people who claim the Civil War was about economics, state’s rights, or the Union’s desire to keep the industry and economy provided by the south are exactly right. The problem with the thought process that I have discovered is that they fail to realize that the “state’s rights” and “economics” in question were still slavery, the right to slavery, and the economy of the institution. However, the Union entered the conflict in an attempt to keep the country together, not necessarily because they wanted to free the slaves or stop the South from engaging in slavery. That was a worthwhile cause that some people did fight for, and ultimately became a side-quest of the war and its politics. It was in the best interest of the Union as an idea of unity and as an economy to keep the South and its industry as part of the United States. The South’s motives of protecting the institution of slavery simply came first.
Why does this claim and debate matter all these years later? What exactly is at stake? Why does this matter to people? From what I found in my care step, it is because “scars run deep,” and issues come back to haunt a country. This is a divisive issue because it challenges the ideas regarding the loyalty and motives of those in the Civil War. These issues are a parallel and direct correlation to the divisive epidemic of strained race relations in the United States. Debates and lines drawn in the sand like this are what continue to prevent us from coming together under one banner of “American.” As long as we cannot find common ground or come to an agreement – or at least mutual respect – on issues like this, we will continue to grow more and more divisive as a country. Perhaps the Civil War is such a hot topic because it is something eerily indicative of our division as a country today.
So, in conclusion, was the Civil War primarily about slavery? I would say that yes, it was. Primarily. Not only, not exclusively, and perhaps not even on both sides. But it was the inciting issue and the issue that remained at the center of the conflict. The South was indeed fighting for their rights and their economy. But those “rights” and that “economy” were wrapped around the foundation of protecting the institution of slavery. The Union wanted to protect the United States as a, well, united country. The war stemmed from the issues of slavery, even if other issues came into the fray as well. However, most wars are like that. Something starts the first battle and the initial choosing of sides, but other conflicts often come into play and make the situation more complicated and complex. Just like most things in life, there is no pretty black and white line. Perhaps there is a grey and blue one.
With my determination made, I turned to action. At first, I signed a Confederate statue removal petition and told some friends and family about my findings, but I wanted to do something bigger. I ended up embarking on a project to write, create, and record a video that I eventually posted to YouTube. This video was essentially a voice-over presentation, utilizing PowerPoint, iMovie, Audacity, SoundJay.com, and QuickTime to create a presentation, record it, produce my audio, and put it all together with some intro and outro music. In the video, I highlighted some of the key points from this paper, specifically pointing out the secession documents and differences between the South and North. Additionally, at the end of the video, I talked about why this issue is important in terms of racism, the Confederate statues, and the ancestral history involved. I explained that silence is consent, and we have to learn from history in order to not repeat it in the future, something I feel we are dangerously close to doing because of the division in our country today. You can find the video here:
“Brief Biography.” robertsmcelvaine.com
Camargo, Jonathan. “July 2019 CityMakers: Virginia and Lorenzo Robinson.” LoveLakeland.
“Civilians at Gettysburg.” National Park Service, Nov. 10, 2017.
Denmark, Sharon. “Drill Drill Drill.” Life of the Civil War Soldier. American Battlefield Trust.
Guinn, Christopher. “Black community leaders to Lakeland commissioners: Move Munn Park Confederate monument.” The Ledger, Nov. 20, 2017
“Impact of the Civil War.” History.com.
Mann, Olivia. “The Civil War Was Primarily About Slavery.” YouTube, Nov. 24, 2019, https://youtu.be/ChTJtue1dsY
Mccray, Al. “The War Between the States Was Not about Slavery.” Tampa News and Talk.
McElvaine, Robert S. “Civil War wasn’t to end slavery Purposes: The South fought to defend slavery. The North’s focus was not to end slavery but to preserve the union. The slavery apology debate misses these facts.” The Baltimore Sun, Aug. 31, 1997.
Pierce, John. “A Documentary Study.” The Reasons for Secession. American Battlefield Trust.
“Primarily.” Oxford English Dictionary.
Roberts, Paul. “How We Know The So-Called “Civil War” Was Not Over Slavery.” Institute for
Political Economy, Aug. 23, 2017.
Rogers, Jeff. “Munn Park Confederate Statue.” YouTube, Aug 5, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5YYYiMgrrBY.
Rogers, Jeff. “My genealogy on my dad’s mother’s side.” YouTube, May 1, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vcl_hNVRswg.