Valerie Protopapas, a member of our Society, is a non-academic who is very active in the study of history, especially of the era surrounding the War Between the States. She is also the editor of the journal of The Stuart-Mosby Historical Society, “The Southern Cavalry Review.” Her study prompted her to write the following three-page essay and submit it to the Society for on-line publication. We have inserted the title, “Figuring Out What Lincoln Was Up To: A Non-academic Explains it in Three Pages.” The essay follows, unabridged.
So it was a Civil War after all…..
“In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. . .” Abraham Lincoln ~ First Inaugural Address.
I have always believed—reasonably, I think—that Lincoln used this term before ever a shot was fired in order to apportion an equal part of the blame for the war he was prepared to initiate to stop Southern secession. After all, in a civil war, both sides engage in warfare in order to secure power in the country in question. However, we know that certainly the States of the South had no desire to wrest political power unto themselves, thus rendering the rest of the States subject to their control. Indeed, all that the cotton States wished to do was leave a union which had become burdensome and detrimental to the interests of their citizens. In fact, the rest of the States which seceded did so only after Lincoln called for troops to “put down the rebellion” in the Cotton States. Virginia, North Carolina and the other States of the upper South seceded only after they realized that they were being ordered to commit treason as defined in the Constitution as a means of depriving their fellow Southerners of their God given rights, a situation which was unacceptable both politically and morally. Of course, Lincoln also realized that secession itself was not sufficient to bring even most non-Southern States to the point at which they would countenance an invasion of the South. Secession was recognized as a constitutional right open to any state that so desired to utilize it. Even the issue of slavery—which played a major role in the contretemps—was not enough for the ordinary Northerner or Westerner to take up arms against those who had but lately been fellow Americans. And, of course, this is why the false flag of Fort Sumter become necessary—but that is another story. So, given the above, why do I now believe that Lincoln was right—whether he actually understood why, which I doubt—when he called what followed a “civil war?”
In order to understand how I came to this conclusion, one must recall one of those mind tricks so popular not too many years ago. One was shown a rectangular piece of white paper and was asked to read what was written upon it. The paper contained a number of oddly formed and placed black shapes which were totally devoid of any resemblance to letters. As these shapes didn’t make up words, it seemed impossible to answer the question posited by the person playing the game. Some people never “got it” until it was explained to them! But others started to look at the paper from a different perspective and soon discovered that there were words—but the words were not the black marks! Rather, they were what originally appeared to be only the white background, the black marks serving to give shape to the white letters. The point is that until one looked at the piece of paper from an entirely different perspective, one could not answer the question. This happened to me in the matter of Lincoln’s “civil war.” I began—as the readers of the paper did—with a preconceived understanding of the situation. The South wanted to leave “the union” and Lincoln did not want them to do so. First, the assumption was that he needed the revenues—and he did. He is even quoted, though I do not know if the quote is “sourced,” as asking what he would do for money if the Cotton States seceded since they paid over 75% of the government revenues. Indeed, the entire economic foundation the war was undeniable whether it be the tariff revenues or the threat of a new “free trade” nation on the same continent. But obviously, Lincoln’s method of warfare—whether it was to end slavery, an institution upon which much of Southern prosperity depended or the waging of total war which devastated the region—was such that the South would be able to contribute little if any revenues to the federal treasury for decades after war’s end. As this, indeed, proved to be the case, it would seem that a simple economic motive makes no sense whatsoever! Decimating a quarter of one’s country is not a feasible strategy for economic health!
So if economics wasn’t the answer, what was? Was it truly about slavery? No. When to prevent European and British recognition of the Confederacy—and as a possible military strategy to foster servile insurrection—Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, the negative response from his own side effectively removed ending slavery as a rallying cry throughout the North. Furthermore, the “Union” States had severely limited the presence of blacks within their own borders, preventing them from immigrating into those States and often so circumscribing the behavior and rights of those who did live there as to make them slaves in all but name. Ending slavery in the South by effectively destroying its way of life could only mean that the millions of blacks in that section would have to seek their livelihood elsewhere—something that the rest of the Union was unwilling to permit.
As I began to ponder what was actually being contended in the War of Secession, I realized that Lincoln stood for the Hamiltonian understanding of what the United States (with a capital “U”) was supposed to be as a nation. Unlike Jefferson’s limited Republic, Hamilton and those with him wanted if not a monarchy (Washington would not permit himself to be made a king!), then the next best thing, an Empire! Lincoln did not want to lose the South for economic reasons but also for political reasons. Empires do not cede territory as Americans had already learned in 1776 and 1812 when the colonists and later American citizens engaged the British Empire over American independence. Empires acquire territory either peacefully—as with Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase—or by the sword as in the Mexican War, a true war of empire with its own false flags. By the middle of the 19th century, America was caught up in the same heady desire for “empire building” which had engaged Europe and Britain for a century and more. A great many Americans wanted to be players on the world stage and Washington’s cautionary advice to “…avoid foreign entanglements…” was long since forgotten. Only in the South did the rather parochial Jeffersonian ideals of moral, economic and political restraint and personal liberty still hold sway. The South wanted the original Republic while the rest of the nation had moved past those modest ideals and embraced an ideal of centralized power that would eventually make the United States a very large player on the world stage. The socialist revolutions in Europe of the 1840s was finding a home not only in the nation but especially in the Lincoln government, both civil and military. And while there were doubtless those in the South who embraced this new view of America, the moral, ethical and especially religious character of the Southern people rejected much of what humanist socialism and atheistic communism with its all-powerful central authority proffered as path to the future.
But the South’s reaction to what it rightfully saw as this new course was guided by that section’s understanding of the irreconcilable nature of that course relative to the individual liberties of each Southern man as guaranteed in the Founding documents. The new way of centralized power was an anathema to the Southern mind. Power and wealth meant little or nothing when exchanged for conformity and the abandonment of Christianity and personal freedom. The South could not—and, more importantly, would not—adopt the path that the rest of the nation had embarked upon and the only course left open to it (even if many did not truly understand the matter in this light) was to leave and, in so doing, maintain the original concept of the Founding Fathers—that is, a limited Republic. So, in effect, the Confederate States of America was not a new nation, but was, in fact, the original nation brought forth in 1776. Yes, there was a new nation, but that nation was the remnant which now wished to follow a very different path from that begun in 1776 and defined in 1789. This new nation retained the name of the old republic—which is what caused all the confusion in the first place—but, in fact, had over time, metamorphosed into an empire with all that that implies. Thus, when the South attempted to leave an empire it did not support and re-establish the old republic, that faction which supported the empire waged war to defeat that effort and maintain the empire intact. In effect, you did have two factions waging war to gain control of a nation. The only difference here is that the people of the South were not fighting to bring the rest of the nation back to the republic of the Founders, but rather to escape a situation they could neither prevent nor even influence. They were willing to permit their fellow “Americans” to have their empire but they wanted to be left alone to have their republic! Of course, that could not be permitted. As previously noted, empires do not cede territory neither do they permit the existence of economic or political competition, especially in close geographical quarters. Indeed, the United States had still not accepted a British presence on its northern border and after the war, weapons were sold to Irish patriots by the U. S. military to be used in an invasion of that country as a means of freeing Ireland from the grip of Great Britain. The United States didn’t support that invasion, but had it been successful they would certainly have utilized it to gain more territory at the expense of both the Irish and the Canadians.
So, in conclusion, Lincoln’s point was well made. It would be a civil war. Two factions would fight for control of a nation—or rather one faction would fight to preserve a nation albeit within a limited geographical location—while the other faction would fight to overthrow that original nation, regain “lost” territory and establish an empire all of which happened as our present circumstances make so painfully clear. The confusion arises, I believe, because the new “national-no-longer-federal-government” was permitted to use without correction by either side, the claims and promises directly attributed to the nation’s founding even when those claims and promises were not just abandoned, but openly rejected. Certainly most of the Bill of Rights—not to mention a large part of the Constitution itself—was forsaken by Lincoln’s government and military never to be resumed. No rational claim can be made by those who approve and applaud the actions of “the Union” that there was any constitutional legality involved in its actions or that the results obtained were either legal or moral. All that occurred is defended with the notion that he who prevails militarily is in the right. That is, of course, moral, ethical and philosophical—not to mention historical—nonsense.
The American Civil War was far worse than most such conflicts. Whatever the changes wrought when Cromwell supplanted Charles I, England remained England. We know this because not too many years later Charles II was restored to his father’s throne without so much as a hiccup in the life of most Englishmen. Such was not the case in the American struggle. Not only were a people and their culture purged from what remained of the political and social entity that once was the United States of America, but the nation of the Founding Fathers was laid waste, discarded and effectively destroyed. Its remnants can be seen in photographs of desolated Southern cities and the rotting corpses of those Americans who died—alas in vain—to protect and preserve it: the soldiers in gray.
Valerie Protopapas, Member, The Society of Independent Southern Historians