(This post is written by guest columnist, Hannah Kelly, in response to an op-ed piece in the Charleston Post and Courier titled, “A little talk about ‘The War.'”)
A few weeks ago, Kirkpatrick Sale told the story of how he informed his eighteen-year-old granddaughter of the true causes of the Civil War. Thus, in one gallant stroke of good old fashioned southern chivalry, he saved her from the brainwashing of her Brooklyn education which tried to convince her that the war was about slavery and morality.
As an eighteen-year-old myself, I don’t view teenagers with the same condescending slant that Sale seems to. I can only assume that his granddaughter brushed off his heroics with an easy “there he goes ranting ranting about the war again” mentality, smiled indulgently, and thought to herself well, he is my Grandfather. Luckily, Kirkpatrick Sale is not my grandfather, and thus I can contest his arguments on her behalf with a clear conscience.
The brunt of Sale’s argument is that Lincoln is to blame for the war, since he purposely goaded the South into an uprising. His argument totally fails to account for the different ideologies of the two sides. Sale views the war based on the assumption that secession from the United States was a legal act and that in doing so, the South created a sovereign nation that had rights against the federal government.
But the North (and indeed, the majority of people today) believed that secession was not a right the states possessed in the first place. So, when Sale says that Lincoln provoked the South by resupplying Fort Sumter, he bases his argument on a faulty premise. By all reasonable standards, Lincoln was simply performing his duty of restocking a federal outpost.
Lincoln himself is presented as a caricature of the monopoly man; a fat cat sitting atop a vast empire and trying to secure as much wealth as possible for himself and his friends (the North), stomping on the little man (the South) in the process. The war “was a simple case of Northern interests wanting to secure their source of revenue” Sale informs his granddaughter.
This is a Southern argument plain and simple. The Northern argument is that the federal government was doing its duty to preserve the Union in the face of rebellion. Sale’s comment doesn’t seem to realize its own contradiction. At its most basic, the war about the legality of secession. Sale himself acknowledges that secession was about slavery, that is, southern revenues.
Sale is correct however, when he says that the war was not explicitly about slavery until the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. His grand-daughter shouldn’t trust much that he says after that.
He states that the Proclamation did not free a single slave, which is not true. While as a war measure the document only applied to areas currently in rebellion (leaving the four slave-holding border states untouched), it immediately emancipated between 20,000 and 50,000 slaves in Confederate areas already subdued by the Union and officially changed the status of over 3 million others from “enslaved” to “free.”
He also states that this was not a humanitarian act on Lincoln’s part, but rather a political one. That is misleading. Since the war began in 1861, Great Britain, who bought southern cotton and whose best interests included a weak America, subtly supported the South. In order to block an official alliance, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. By making the war explicitly about slavery, the English (who, as a nation had been among the first to condemn slavery, banning it entirely in 1833), were unable to openly support the Confederacy. The morality of the issue overpowered the politics.
Sale closes the piece brazenly: “But the war was never about slavery.” Lovers of the Old South can rant all they want about Lincoln and states’ rights, throwing around high-minded ideas of the Confederacy defending a sacred way-of-life. But everyone knows that “way-of-life” is code for “slavery.” The Civil War was caused by slavery. As someone who has lived in South Carolina her whole life, I embrace this fact, knowing that until we truly admit the errors of the past, we can’t be free of them.
Sale’s mentality is not only ignorant, but dangerous, as over-veneration of the Confederacy can justify their beliefs and lead to tragedies like the one at the Emmanuel A.M.E. church. I want Sale’s granddaughter to know that not all Southerners are blinded by the romance of our past and can see it for what it was; a corrupt system built on greed, exploitation, and a lack of concern for human life.