More than 150 years after the end of the American Civil War, we have movements to change flags, rename parks and streets, and remove all monuments from public view; but only those associated with the Confederate side. Why? They will claim it was all about slavery and racism, but they usually offer almost nothing but talking points based on the same old hero/villain narrative, and zero historical context.
Late Historian, Shelby Foote, would say that those who say the Civil War was not about slavery at all are equally as wrong as those who say that is what it was all about. No honest, informed person would deny that it played a role in the conflict. However, when discussing this topic, it is important to take into account the rest of the factors.
The words of president Abraham Lincoln himself are a good starting point. In his first inaugural address, around the onset of the Civil War, he made it very clear that he had no intentions of interfering with the institution of slavery. His exact words were “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”
In August of 1862, nearly a year and a half into the war between the states, he clarified his motivation in a letter to the founder and editor of the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley. Again, he made it clear that the war was not about ending slavery. At the root of it was a desire to preserve the Union, as seen from the Federalist (conflicting with the anti-federalist) perspective:
“If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”
“I know, as fully as one can know the opinions of others, that some of the commanders of our armies in the field who have given us our most important successes believe the emancipation policy and the use of the colored troops constitute the heaviest blow yet dealt to the Rebellion, and that at least one of these important successes could not have been achieved when it was but for the aid of black soldiers. Among the commanders holding these views are some who have never had any affinity with what is called abolitionism or with the Republican party policies but who held them purely as military opinions.”
He continued in the same letter to say that “I thought that whatever negroes can be got to do as soldiers, leaves just so much less for white soldiers to do, in saving the Union.” Need I continue, or are his words I have presented thus far making it as crystal clear as possible? Note that I am not trying to make the man look bad in any way, and I would oppose the removal of any of his monuments just as I do those of the Confederacy, but it is important to recognize that his motivation was not to free an oppressed minority from Democrat slaveholders in the south.
People also have a tendency to mistake these monuments as symbols of white supremacy, when that simply is not the case. There were not only many black soldiers who fought for the cause of southern independence, but also Jews, Latinos, and Native Americans. In the Stan Armstrong film, Black Confederates: The Forgotten Men in Gray, Professor Ed Smith of American University emphasizes something I couldn’t agree more with:
“I think the problem that we have today is most Americans have a difficult time accepting the past because we read into the past the prejudices of the present. The moment you do that, you’re not dealing with history.”
Unfortunately, this misguided ignorance is expensive. It costed approximately $2.1 million to remove just four monuments in the city of New Orleans alone. With a crime rate substantially exceeding the national average, and the highest poverty rate in the state of Louisiana, you’d think the city’s resources could be better allocated towards something that actually matters.
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