The most popular arguments about the Civil War concern who started it and for what cause. Americans generally accept that the North held the right causes: union and the abolition of slavery. On the other hand, they claim that important Southerners wished to expand slavery and duped their compatriots into believing the conflict to be about States’ Rights. (A common rebuttal is “Yeah, States’ Rights for slavery!”) Yet, in these days, the corrupt federal government and the undue interference from that body into the lives of ordinary Americans make people look at the American Civil War with fresh eyes. They ask questions like: “What evidence is there for a right to secede? Did the South really fight for slavery or was there general disapprobation of the institution? Which side really started the war, i.e. is there any truth to the appellation ‘War of Northern Aggression’?”
Two books of interest to those who wish to look into these questions and to defend the Cause of the South are John S. Tilley’s Facts the Historians Leave Out: a Confederate Primer and The Confederate Cause and Conduct in the War between the States by Dr. Hunter McGuire and George L. Christian. Both works reinforce one another; yet, one gets the impression that Tilley’s work relies heavily upon the work of McGuire and Christian. Those latter two individuals served in the Army of Northern Virginia and wrote their reports in the year 1900, when they discovered how much the Confederate cause had been abused in modern history textbooks.
In order to refute the arguments of Northern apologists, they had the novel idea of drawing from Union accounts and Northern historians of the war. They especially rely upon George Lunt’s The Origins of the Late War. In addition to this work, they quote many Founding Fathers and famous men in the North to point out the friction between North and South even as early as the Revolutionary War, and how the idea of secession–at least after that first and most fortunate secession from England in 1776–originated in New England around the time of the War of 1812.
One of the most interesting topics is the shelling of Fort Sumter. Essentially, the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, and President Lincoln sent a convoy of troop transports and warships to the Federal fort in Charleston Harbor, while the situation of the fort was still being negotiated. South Carolina was earnestly negotiating for the evacuation of the fort while Stanton equivocated. Both Stanton and Lincoln felt that the flotilla sent to the fort would prove useful whether it succeeded (thus ensuring Federal control of the fort) or failed–uniting Northern states in a war against the South. The commander of the fort, Robert Anderson, received advance notice of the flotilla’s mission, and wrote back: “I ought to have been informed that the expedition was to come. Colonel Lamon’s remark convinced me that the idea, merely hinted at to me by Captain Fox, would not be carried out. We shall strive to do our duty, though I frankly say that my heart is not in the war which I see is thus to be commenced.” (Tilley, John. Facts the Historians Leave Out (p. 44)) This and more evidence besides point to the American Civil War having been initiated by the North, while the South hoped to secede peacefully.
Those are just two points made in Tilley’s book and the reports of McGuire and Christian. They also thoroughly defend the South’s conduct during the war, and point out many other causes of tension besides slavery, which few Southerners outside of the Knights of the Golden Circle would have thought worth fighting for. Only five percent of Southern whites–one percent of the entire white population of the United states–actually owned slaves by 1860! Besides this, the books mention how Virginia and Georgia had banned slavery prior to the American Revolutionary War, but these bans were overturned by King George III. Many important slave owners thought it a point of honor to free their slaves upon their death. Virginia failed to succeed in banning slavery in 1832 only because they did not have the funds to repatriate the slaves. This idea sounds discordantly in modern ears but, had Lincoln himself survived longer, he would have been at the forefront of exiling freedmen.
But, I want to mention one barely substantiated point, which I thought it in poor taste for McGuire and Christian to bring up. A letter had apparently been written by a Union officer talking about a spoils system in Sherman’s army for high ranking officers. This letter was held for some reason in a Southern town and released after the war. While Sherman’s “bummers” or foragers had a notorious reputation, it goes too far to imagine Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee being run like a pirate crew. Yes, many Union soldiers and even officers did pillage (cf. General Nathaniel “Spoons” Banks), but I had not heard it described as an organized system of booty apportionment anywhere else. Yes, Sherman broke the rules of civilized warfare, but he did not do it for personal profit.
McGuire and Christian’s work concludes with a beautiful eulogy to Stonewall Jackson by Hunter McGuire. British military men remarked to him that the consensus was that the five greatest English speaking generals (as of 1900) were Wellington, Marlborough, Washington, Lee, and Jackson–three Virginians among them! McGuire himself had been a close friend and physician in Jackson’s army, and his account is fascinating to read. I’ll leave you with this one passage from McGuire’s reminisces of Jackson:
A sad incident of the battle of Fredericksburg stirred him very deeply. As we stood that night at our camp, waiting for someone to take our horses, he looked up at the sky for a moment and said, “How horrible is war!” I replied, ” Yes, horrible, but what can we do? These people at the North, without any warrant of law, have invaded our country, stolen our property, insulted our defenceless [sic] women, hung, and imprisoned our helpless old men, behaved in many cases like an organized band of cutthroats and robbers. What can we do?” “Do,” he answered, and his voice was ringing, “Do; why shoot them.”