Back to Top

UWBTS — Chapter 38:


Chapter 38 — What Was the War of 1861-1865 All About?

By H. V. Traywick, Jr. of Virginia, S.I.S.H.


Names tell a lot, and that conflict had many names.  The one that seems to have stuck is “The Civil War.”  But is this an accurate description? Civil wars by definition are wars waged between two or more factions within a country struggling for control of the government.  But Robert E. Lee was not fighting to take over the government of Abraham Lincoln any more than George Washington was fighting to take over the government of George III.  Quite to the contrary, both were fighting to get out from under those governments, and Lincoln and George III were fighting to prevent them from doing so.  Why?

Did the North wage war against the South because the South fired the first shot?  South Carolina – with far more provocation – did no more than Massachusetts did when she seceded from the British Empire and fired on the British troops at Lexington and Concord.

Did the North wage war against the South to preserve democracy?  Notwithstanding Lincoln’s stirring rhetoric in his Gettysburg Address, government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” did not “perish from the earth” when the Southern States withdrew from the Union.  It perished when they were driven back into it at the point of the bayonet.  Furthermore, while Lincoln was issuing this stirring address, his suspension of the writ of habeas corpus had been in effect for ten months and up to 38,000 of his critics and political enemies had been languishing in his dungeons without trial from one end of his domain to the other.  At home, opposition printing presses had been destroyed by Mr. Lincoln’s Army and editors threatened with death, while Lincoln was conducting total war against a Southern people who only wished to be let alone, and whose attempt to peacefully withdraw from a voluntary Union would not have in any way prevented the North from having all the democracy it desired.

We are very often told the War was fought over slavery.  “Just look at the Ordinances of Secession,” we are told.  “They had slavery written all over them.”  A little research will show that this generality did not apply to all of them – such as Virginia’s.  But even if it did, so what?  The Ordinances of Secession were not Declarations of War.  Where slavery was mentioned it was in the context of legal briefs giving examples of Northern state’s violations of the Federal Constitution.  They were Declarations of Independence.  However, one will notice that this is never mentioned in the National narratives, because it would directly repudiate the National legacy of the Declaration of Independence that the thirteen slaveholding colonies signed in 1776.  So to cloud the issue, the contention that slavery caused the war is emphatically and always implied – but never explained!  Lincoln himself could not even explain it.  In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln said of slavery:

All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war.  To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.

Let us take another look at this.  “All knew,” Lincoln claims, that “somehow” slavery was the cause of the war.  We see here in Lincoln not some infallible Oracle of Truth, but merely an obfuscating lawyer arguing his case by ignoring the question of “How?” – the very question fundamental to his accusation.

The fallacies of Lincoln’s accusations are readily apparent.  The Southern States – far from withdrawing from the Union in order to expand the territorial limits of slavery – essentially gave up their claims to the territories rather than live under a Northern despotism, and thereby restricted their avenues for the expansion slavery!  This not only brought about what Lincoln said was the Federal Government’s sole object – to restrict slavery’s expansion – it went most of the way towards peacefully removing slavery from the United States altogether!  As for rending the Union, “even by war,” I would ask: Who rebuffed Southern diplomatic overtures of peace from December 1860 to April 1861?  Whose garrison committed the first act of war by spiking the guns at Ft. Moultrie and slipping into Ft. Sumter in the dark of night in direct violation of the truce then in effect?  And who deceived the South diplomatically until he could send a powerfully armed armada to Charleston to provoke the South into firing the first shot?

If the North was fighting a Crusade of Liberation, why didn’t she wage war on New York City and Boston, the largest home ports for slave-trading ships in the world in 1861?  Or on Africa herself and her slave-raiders – such as the Kingdom of Dahomey – the largest exporters of African slaves in the world?  Or on New England and her manufacturing profits gleaned from slave-picked cotton?  Why?  Because slavery was not the issue of the “Irrepressible Conflict,” as William Seward contended.  The “Irrepressible Conflict” was between the “opposing and enduring forces” of an agrarian economy and an industrial economy.  The respective labor systems of the antagonists were just as irrelevant in this conflict as in any other war of conquest. 

Why did Northerners abolish slavery in the first place?  Was it because of their superior morality?  Or was it because in an industrialized economy a free-labor system is more profitable to an employer than a slave-labor system? Adam Smith – in his classic treatise on economics entitled The Wealth of Nations – explained it all in 1776 and set the Abolition ball rolling.  And if abolishing slavery in their States was because of the Northerners’ superior morality, why did they first sell their slaves “down the river” before the abolition laws went into effect?  Did they wish merely to rid themselves of a troublesome and unprofitable labor system, or to rid themselves of their African population as well?  Alexis de Tocqueville makes some interesting observations on this in his classic work, Democracy in America.

But did the North in fact abolish slavery?  Or did she merely transform it into something a little more discreet and a lot more profitable?  Slavery is as old as Egypt, and the Preacher tells us there is no new thing under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9).  If the borrower is the servant to the lender (Proverbs 22:7), then some of us have voluntarily sold ourselves into indentured servitude to our mortgage bankers, but our children have been sold into involuntary servitude with a seventeen trillion dollar national debt.  And when did this happen?  It was all inaugurated during Political Reconstruction of the conquered former Confederate States.  Lt. Gen. Richard Taylor, CSA, son of President Zachary Taylor, described the carpetbagger as being worse than Attila the Hun, for Attila could only steal existing wealth, while the carpetbaggers stole the labor of unborn children with their invention of public credit.  And they are still waxing fat on the backs of our enslaved children.

No, the North was not fighting to free the slaves.  Lincoln said so himself.  He specifically stated that he was fighting to save the Union.  What he neglected to add, however, was that he was fighting to save the Union for Northern financial and industrial interests! And what were some of these interests? The industrializing North, with her sectional majority, was rapidly gaining control of the Federal Government and wielding it to accomplish her political ambitions to centralize its power, and use her control of that power to accomplish her industrial ambitions for high protective tariffs, bounties for transcontinental railroads, and the creation of national banks to manage it all, all at the South’s expense, turning the Southern States into her agricultural colonies – of the sort that England had earlier created with her thirteen Colonies.  With the election of Lincoln and the triumph of his strictly Northern sectional party, the Cotton States saw it all coming and got out from under the North’s control once and for all through State Secession.

So what was the War all about?  Quite simply, it was the North’s war against the South’s secession.  Secession is an Imperialist’s worst nightmare.  When the thirteen Colonies rebelled against England’s economic exploitation by seceding from the Empire, England sent in the Redcoats.  When the Southern States rebelled against Yankee economic exploitation by seceding from the Union, the Yankees sent in the Bluecoats.

With the secession of the Southern States, the North lost her largest source of tariff revenues, her source of cotton for her mills, a large portion of her markets for her manufactured goods, and control of the mouth of the Mississippi.  (So the North propagandized, but Confederates were pledging to keep that key river open to steamboats engaged in international trade.)  If the South were to be allowed to leave the Union and get out from under the control of the North and her sectional majorities, the North feared its economy might wither on the vine.

So the North provoked the South into firing the first shot, blockaded the Confederate coasts, and marched her armies across the South to the tune of the Puritanical and militantly intolerant “Battle Hymn of the Republic” – burning and pillaging and raping and killing – until she drove the Southern States back into the Union.  Then – by the Reconstruction Acts that dis-franchised Southern intelligence and enfranchised Southern ignorance under the control of unscrupulous and predatory Northern carpetbaggers and demagogues propped up by Federal bayonets – the North passed Amendments that effectively gutted the Constitution of its federative nature, and put the Federal Government under her unlimited control. With the stumbling blocks of the South and the Constitution finally out of the way of her ambitions, the North then sent Sherman, Sheridan and Custer out to the Great Plains to tend to the Indians, who were in the way of her transcontinental railroads.  But this doesn’t look very good on the pages of a school history book or in a National Park Service film presentation, so the North’s war of conquest must be cloaked in robes of morality and turned into a war of liberation.  To the victor belong the spoils, and the “Official History Book” – written by “Court Historians” – is one of the spoils of war.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the South has been made the nation’s foil, the scapegoat, the traitor, the guilty one, fighting not to defend herself from invasion, conquest, and coerced political allegiance, but fighting to defend slavery.  And it should come as no surprise that the North has been made the righteous one, the “good guys,” fighting not a war of imperialism and conquest, but fighting a noble war of liberation under the tragic benevolence of “Father Abraham.” But the truth is that when Abraham Lincoln got the war he wanted, he suspended the writ of habeas corpus, secured for himself dictatorial powers, and – with the collaboration of newly elected Republicans – implemented the very usurpation that the Founders had struggled to prevent.

With the possibility of secession and nullification destroyed by force of arms in 1865, the States – who created the Federal Government in the first place – are no longer the final arbiters of the limits of Federal power granted by the Constitution.  The Supreme Court is.  But the Supreme Court is part of the Federal Government.  Therefore the Federal Government is the final arbiter of the limits of its own power – and that is the very definition of despotism.  This, then – the exact opposite of Emancipation – is the true legacy of Abraham Lincoln and his War to Prevent Southern Independence.  The Confederacy – the last remnant of the Republic of sovereign States bequeathed us by the Revolutionary Founders – was the American Empire’s first conquest. 

A Co-Editor’s Closing Comments

By Howard Ray White, S.I.S.H.

The writing and publication of this booklet would not have been possible without the guidance, reputation and writings of Clyde N. Wilson.  All who wish to express their appreciation for this, the work of the Society of Independent Southern Historians, should always remember the essential nature of Dr. Wilson’s role in making possible this contribution to the education of America’s future leaders with regard to a truthful understanding of America’s greatest tragedy – The War Between the States.

Appreciation is also due to the writers whose breath of backgrounds made this booklet one of broad experience.

But the most important way to express your appreciation for this work is to make financial contributions to the Society.  If a student, I suggest you turn to parents, relatives, and older friends and encourage them to contribute money toward printing and distribution.  And don’t forget the grandparents.  You will be surprised how much many of them know about the WBTS.  Engage in conversation, share what you all know and encourage their help in furthering this, the first project of the Society of Independent Southern Historians.  Go to .

Dr. Wilson’s final chapter is next.  Give it special attention as you consider further study.