When news of Abraham Lincoln's election to the presidency reached South Carolina in November 1860, joyful Charlestonians took to the streets as if their candidate had won. They erected liberty poles near the battery, and booming cannons saluted the Palmetto flag. "The tea has been thrown overboard," editorialized the Charleston Mercury. "The revolution of 1860 has been initiated."
That evening, in a foreshadowing of events to come, fireworks lit the sky above Fort Sumter. Who could doubt, wrote Mercury publisher Robert Barnwell Rhett Sr., "that the other Slaveholding States, when once the Union is broken," would join "in the formation of a Slave Republic" to protect "their institutions, from Abolition rule in Washington?"
Autumn 2010 marks the sesquicentennial of the election of 1860 and the secession of South Carolina. In 1860, Americans understood what was at stake, though they scarcely knew how to respond. Defeated Democratic candidate Stephen Douglas labored to craft a compromise to bring the seceding states back into the Union.
Meanwhile, President-elect Lincoln refused to budge on his party's opposition to slavery in the territories. A compromise on Southern demands for the West, he said, might lead to "filibustering for all (foreign lands) South of us, and making slave states of it."
A century and a half later, many Americans have been misled about the events leading up to the Civil War. A new textbook for Virginia fourth-graders, Joy Masoff's "Our Virginia, Past and Present," makes the wholly untrue claim that "thousands of Southern blacks fought in Confederate ranks."
The notion that black Americans willingly fought for what Rhett called "a Slave Republic" is no accidental error. Rather, that falsehood, commonly advanced by groups such as the Sons of the Confederacy, is designed to perpetrate a larger lie: that the Confederacy did not exist to protect slavery, or that slavery was not the root cause of the bloodiest conflict in our history.
And Masoff has company in this deception. Last spring, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell declared April to be Confederate History Month in Virginia. The governor's initial announcement failed to mention slavery. When asked why, he insisted that "there were any number of aspects to that conflict between the states." McDonnell later amended his statement, but Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a fellow Republican, rushed to his defense. The whole controversy "doesn't amount to diddly," sniffed Barbour, who, according to a recent Newsweek profile, has a Confederate flag, signed by Confederate President Jefferson Davis, hanging on the wall of his office.
As the nation readies itself for anniversary ceremonies marking the war years, Americans need to understand why the Civil War took place. If McDonnell hopes that American students will study the history of the Confederacy, educators at all levels should support him. But if he wishes to honor what Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens described as a nation whose "corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man," then his proclamation should offend all Americans.
Modern defenders of Confederate History Month point out that a majority of Southern whites did not own slaves, a fact that is true but irrelevant. The Confederacy was not forged by middle-class farmers but by planters who correctly feared that Lincoln's election and the Republican policy of restricting slavery from Western territories imperiled the slave system.
Of the white South Carolinians who met in a state convention to vote for secession, 90.5 percent were slaveholders. And of those convention delegates who owned slaves, 41.4 percent owned 50 or more black Americans, while 27 were among the largest planters in the South.
Despite the fact that the Confederate Constitution explicitly protected slavery, the Sons of the Confederacy, who wrote much of McDonnell's initial statement and supplied the research for Masoff's text, claim that the "preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South's decision" to secede. In reality, after an initial burst of enthusiasm, non-slaveholding soldiers quickly lost interest in dying to preserve the property rights of rich planters. When re-enlistments fell off, the Confederate Congress responded in the spring of 1862 with the first draft law ever passed in the Western Hemisphere. That law exempted whites who owned 20 or more slaves.
Unlike supporters of Confederate History Month, who persist in claiming that some African-Americans supported the breakaway republic, secessionists were completely honest in explaining why they desired a separate country. On a speaking tour of the North in 1860, former Alabama Congressman William Lowndes Yancey told a Boston audience that the Founding Fathers had intended the nation to be forever governed by a white "master race."
Speaking in Frederick Douglass' Rochester, N.Y., Yancey promised that "all we ask is to be allowed to keep Southern slavery, and we will not let the negro insult you by coming here and marrying your daughters." Confederate President Jefferson Davis agreed. As the owner of more than 200 slaves, the Mississippian attributed secession to the "hostile measures" waged by Northern politicians "for the purpose of rendering insecure our property in slaves."
When governors and influential Southern politicians protest that they merely wish to honor Confederate veterans, they willfully mangle history by ignoring the root cause of secession.
Joy Masoff is right about one thing: Americans should study Confederate history, if only to better understand why there was a Civil War and to learn just how far our nation still has to travel when it comes to race.
Douglas Egerton, a descendant of North Carolina slaveholders and Confederates, teaches American history at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y. His books include "Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election that Brought on the Civil War" (2010). He writes for the History News Service.