What Was the Civil War Really About?

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The Civil War began 148 years ago this month with the assault on Fort Sumter and ended when rebel forces surrendered in 1865, but the battle over how to teach the conflict to new generations of Americans has never stopped.

Ask Northerners the cause of the war, and the answer often is a single word: slavery. In many places in the South, the answers can vary: states' rights, freedom, political and economic power.

As students across the region begin springtime Civil War lessons, historians say the election of Barack Obama as the first African American president offers an unprecedented opportunity to break through stereotypes and view the era in broader ways.

"His election means we can be more honest. We can stop giving one-word answers," said Edward L. Ayers, a Civil War scholar who is president of the University of Richmond, in the city that became the capital of the Confederacy.

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Raul A Garcia - 4/30/2009

Add to the condundrum of enslavement the culpability by both Northern and English/European industry and business, who also abetted and derived profits from this nexus. There were serious cleavages as was rightfully stated by Mr. Besch- I can add Bacon's rebellion in late seventeenth century, which needs re-appraisal, as another germ. I think Mr. Loewen is right in focusing on South Carolina, I would add Virginia colony because of its preponderant leadership, important political/military leaders in the infancy of the Republic and that imprimatur on the subsequent history.

Randll Reese Besch - 4/25/2009

Which was tied to the economy and autonomy of the states and commerce too. Slavery was just the big invisible elephant in the room no one wanted to talk about. A pox on this nation from the beginning when it was compromised out of the Bill of Rights in order to "maintain the union" at its birth. It isn't a simple answer by no means, with many contingent factors involved, but there was no compromise this time and it popped in 1861 instead of in the 1850's or 1832.

Stephen Barber - 4/23/2009

Does anyone entertain or discuss war and secession as separate, potentially unrelated, events? Was war inevitable or could Lincoln have let the South go? I find it interesting that contingency is often missing from CW debates.

James W Loewen - 4/22/2009

Throughout 2008, I asked about two thousand teachers at the workshops I gave across the US, why did the South secede. Contrary to this article, answers do NOT vary by region. I asked in central FL, ND, OR, southern CA, OH, Memphis, etc.About 15% had voted for slavery, 2 to 5% for the election of Lincoln, 60 to 75% for states' rights, and 2 to 20% for tariffs and taxes.
Then I read to my audiences from the key document, "Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union."
My forthcoming book, TEACHING WHAT REALLY HAPPENED, has a chapter on this matter. Meanwhile, everyone needs to Google and read this document. It answers the question.

John D. Beatty - 4/22/2009

...and end with a politically correct statement. That's what the ACW was "about." Sumter was not "assaulted," and chattel slavery was only an institution of one party in the sectional conflict and failure of American politics to resolve essentially insolvable issues.

Yet, the twin fantasies of "states' rights" (to what, exactly?) and "the rights of man" (universal suffrage?) are the simplistic and demonstrably false "causes" that teachers still try to sell.