Symbols of the Confederacy are an inescapable fact of life in Southern states. The Confederate flag is displayed prominently near the South Carolina statehouse, evoked in multiple Southern state flags, flown in frontyards, on T-shirts and off pickup trucks. And those who fought during the Civil War to maintain antebellum "traditions" are glorified relentlessly.
A few days after a white shooter murdered nine black people attending Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, apparently driven by the same sort of racial animus present in this history, the nation is having a conversation about how, or if, these Confederate tributes have a rightful place in society.
This discussion has led some people to question if the Confederacy, and therefore the Civil War, was truly motivated by slavery.
“But there are other difficult truths. Among them, when the war began, it was not explicitly a war to end slavery. ... When hundreds of thousands of southern men took up arms (most of them non-slave-owning), many of them fought with the explicit belief that they were standing in the shoes of the Founding Fathers, men who’d exercised their own right of self-determination to separate from the mother Country,” wrote David French for National Review. “Others simply saw an invading army marching into their state -- into their towns and across their farms -- and chose to resist. And no one can doubt their valor.”
Others have made similar attempts to explain away the significance of slavery to the war. But like accused shooter Dylann Roof, whose manifesto clearly outlined his hatred for black people and his desire to start a race war, Confederate states and leaders at the time unabashedly declared that the Civil War was about maintaining the institution of slavery and propping up a system of genocidal, white supremacist oppression.
There’s nothing admirable about defending the Confederate legacy and its accompanying imagery. Yet many Americans are doing just that, often refusing to accept the role that Confederate pride and white hate played in the creation of these symbols (do a Twitter search and see for yourself).
Let's let the Southern states and their Civil War leaders speak for themselves.
Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, said the Southern states would fight to keep “the negro” in “his place” in a hard-to-misread statement on the day the Civil War began:
Many governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race; such were and are in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature’s laws. With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system. The architect, in the construction of buildings, lays the foundation with the proper material -- the granite; then comes the brick or the marble. The substratum of our society is made of the material fitted by nature for it, and by experience we know that it is best, not only for the superior, but for the inferior race, that it should be so. It is, indeed, in conformity with the ordinance of the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of His ordinances, or to question them. For His own purposes, He has made one race to differ from another, as He has made “one star to differ from another star in glory. The great objects of humanity are best attained when there is conformity to His laws and decrees, in the formation of governments as well as in all things else. Our confederacy is founded upon principles in strict conformity with these laws.
Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, cited slavery as the reason for going to war in 1861 and rallied in its defense until his death in 1889. His take on the Emancipation Proclamation, reiterated in his memoirs, is quite telling:
A proclamation, dated on January 1, 1863, signed and issued by the President of the United States, orders and declares all slaves within ten of the States of the Confederacy to be free, except such as are found in certain districts now occupied in part by the armed forces of the enemy. We may well leave it to the instinct of that common humanity, which a beneficent Creator has implanted in the breasts of our fellow-men of all countries, to pass judgment on a measure by which several millions of human beings of an inferior race -- peaceful, contented laborers in their sphere -- are doomed to extermination, while at the same time they are encouraged to a general assassination of their masters by the insidious recommendation "to abstain from violence, unless in necessary self-defense."
The Confederate leaders couldn't have been clearer about what they were fighting for.
But let's not forget where “The Great Emancipator,” Abraham Lincoln, thought slavery fit into all this. Contrary to popular belief, he wasn’t an abolitionist, nor did he support social and political equality for black people. He voiced the primary goal of the war in a letter to abolitionist and publisher Horace Greeley.
“I would save the Union," Lincoln wrote. As for enslaved Africans, they were just pawns in his war strategy: "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it. ... What I do about Slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save this Union."