The Civil War and slavery


By Matthew Little

The research for our last column (“A sesquicentennial celebration,” April 28) revealed quite a few things during that period of American infancy of which I had been totally unaware. Maybe I had been napping when they were discussed in history class.

One of them was the fact that Abraham Lincoln was not the Great White Savior and protector of the slaves that I had been led to believe all these years. He just happened to have been in office at the time when the abolitionist movement was in progress.

As a matter of fact, he was quoted as saying, “If I could have saved the union and leave slavery in place, I would gladly have done so.” At other times he stated that freed slaves should be sent to Africa or Central America.

Lincoln also stated several times that he would not tamper with slavery where it already exists, but would oppose the expansion of it. Another thing that came as a surprise to me was the revelation that the small, costal state of South Carolina was the initiating state of the Confederacy regarding the Civil War and the secession.

On December 20, 1860, a little more than a month after Lincoln’s election, South Carolina initiated a giant convention in its capital city of Charleston they called the “Great Slaveholders Convention.” The initiators boasted that the convention would “stretch its arms over a territory larger than any power in Europe.”

Their justification for attempting to break up the union was that they were merely following the mandate of the founders, who had established the country as a slaveholding country in the beginning. Another one of the confederates went so far as to claim that unless succession was supported, within 10 years or less “our children will become the slaves of Negroes.”

That and other intimidating rhetoric apparently worked for just about every state below the Mason-Dixon line that rushed to secede, ultimately costing some 650,000 lives and still losing their most prized possessions — the slaves.

For all practical purposes, Charleston, the capital city of South Carolina, became the capital of the rebellious Southern insurrection. The constitutional convention, which mothered the idea of separation, was conceived and held in that comparatively small southern city. And, the initial shots that started the war were fired on a federal stronghold, Fort Sumner, in the Charleston Harbor.

Before the war, Charleston was known primarily as a center of the slave trade. Some 40 slave traders operated within a two-block area. (Some of those sales booths still exist as tourist attractions.)

The politics of the U.S. during that era might also surprise some of us. The slave-holding, rebellious, intransigent South politically was overwhelmingly Democratic Party members. The Republican Party, on the other hand, was comprised largely of the northern states.

There were several political issues that separated the two sides, such as states’ rights, the industrialized north vs. the agrarian south, and a general clash between the two diverse cultures. But, as Emory Thomas, author of The Confederate Nation, states, “The heart and soul of the secession and the four years of war was slavery and race.”

The Civil War was a conflict of epic dimensions that rendered a racial and economic revolution, fundamentally changing the South’s cotton economy and transforming four million slaves from chattel to citizens, and eventually to leaders.

Matthew Little welcomes reader responses to