One: Warnings and Threats
In 1858, Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis, the future President of the Confederate States of America, spoke before Mississippi’s state legislature. In his speech, Davis predicted that the next President–if he be an abolitionist–would lead the North to violate the rights of states in the South:
It seems now to be probable that the Abolitionists and their allies will have control of the next House of Representatives, and it may be well inferred from their past course that the will attempt legislature both injurious and offensive to the south. I have an abiding faith that any law which violates our constitutional rights, will be met with a veto by the present Executive. – But should the next House of Representatives be such as would elect an Abolition President, we may expect that the election will be so conducted as probably to defeat a choice by the people and devolve the election upon the House.
Davis then went on to state his support for a “revolution” if that should occur:
Whether by the House or by the people, if an Abolitionist be chosen president of the United States, you will have presented to you the question of whether you will permit the government to pass into the hands of your avowed and implacable enemies. Without pausing for your answer, I will state my own position to be that such a result would be a species of revolution by which the purposes of the Government would be destroyed and the observances of its mere forms entitled to no respect.
I say to you here as I have said to the Democracy of New York, if it should ever come to pass that the Constitution shall be perverted to the destruction of our rights so that we shall have the mere right as a feeble minority unprotected by the barrier of the Constitution to give an ineffectual negative vote in the Halls of Congress, we shall then bear to the federal government the relation our colonial fathers did to the British crown, and if we are worthy of our lineage we will in that event redeem our rights even if it be through the process of revolution.
The interesting part of the speech, though, was not his stunning declaration in support of a Southern revolution against the North. On the contrary, the most interesting part was his explanation for this tension between the North and the South and exactly what state right he believed an abolitionist President and the Northern states threatened in particular:
The master mind of the so-called Republican party, Senator Seward, has in a recent speech at Rochester, announced the purpose of his party to dislodge the Democracy from the possession of the federal Government, and assigns as a reason the friendship of that party for what he denominates the slave system. He declares the Union between the States having slave labor and free labor to be incompatible, and announces that one or the other must disappear. He even asserts that it was the purpose of the framers of the Government to destroy slave property, and cities as evidence of it, the provision for an amendment of the Constitution. He seeks to alarm his auditors by assuring them of the purpose on the part of the South and the Democratic to force slavery upon all the States of the Union. Absurd as all this may seem to you, and incredulous as you may be of its acceptance by any intelligent portion of the citizens of the United States, I have reason to believe that it has been inculcated to no small extent in the Northern mind.
That’s right. Jefferson Davis supported a Southern revolt against the North and abolitionist leaders because of the threat they posed against the institution of slavery. He believed that the Southern states should fight for states’ rights, yes—but it was the right to preserve the institutionalized slavery of black people (and, as he mentions in the speech, for purely economic purposes, as a great deal of Southern labor work came from the servitude of black slaves).
Davis, though, wasn’t the only official who hinted at the seemingly inevitable Civil War. In what would be his final address before Congress, President James Buchanan spoke of the situation in December, 1860:
The long-continued and intemperate interference of the Northern people with the question of slavery in the Southern States has at length produced its natural effects. The different sections of the Union are now arrayed against each other. The immediate peril arises from the fact that the incessant and violent agitation of the slavery question throughout the North for the last quarter of a century has at length produced its malign influence on the slaves and inspired them with vague notions of freedom. Hence a sense of security no longer exists around the family altar. How easy would it be for the American people to settle the slavery question forever. All that is necessary to accomplish this object; and all that the slave States have ever contended is to be let alone and permitted to manage their domestic institutions in their own way. For this the people of the North are not more responsible and have no more right to interfere with similar institutions in Russia or in Brazil.
Upon the principles then announced by Mr. Lincoln and his leading friends, we are bound to expect his administration to be conducted. Hence it is, that in high places, among the Republican party, the election of Mr. Lincoln is hailed, not simply as a change of Administration, but as the inauguration of new principles, and a new theory of Government, and even as the downfall of slavery. Therefore it is that the election of Mr. Lincoln cannot be regarded otherwise than a solemn declaration, on the part of a great majority of the Northern people, of hostility to the South, her property and her institutions — nothing less than an open declaration of war — for the triumph of this new theory of Government destroys the property of the South, lays waste her fields, and inaugurates all the horrors of a San Domingo servile insurrection, consigning her citizens to assassinations, and her wives and daughters to pollution and violation, to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans. Especially is this true in the cotton-growing States, where, in many localities, the slave outnumbers the white population ten to one.
Even Henry Lewis Benning, a Confederate general and a justice of the Georgia State Supreme Court, issued a warning: “The consequence will be that our men will be all exterminated or expelled to wander as vagabonds over a hostile earth, and as for our women, their fate will be too horrible to contemplate even in fancy.”
Many leaders in the South painted secession and civil war as inevitable consequences of the South’s unwillingness to abandon institutional slavery and the North’s unwillingness to continually fuel it.
Two: Expansion Into Central & South America
In the years leading up to the Civil War, the nation was expanding and gaining new territories in the West thanks in part to President James K. Polk. Polk, however, didn’t want to stop there. In 1848, he attempted to negotiate a deal with Spain that would effectively allow the U.S. to purchase Cuba as an American territory. Jefferson Davis was ecstatic to say the least: “Cuba must be ours” to “increase the number of slave-holding constituencies.” That was the deal-maker for Davis and most Southern states: Cuba was already a slave territory, and it could provide economic gains due in part to natural resources. To Davis’s dismay, Spain declined.
The Southern states, however, didn’t want it to end there. They wanted the federal government to conquer Mexico, Central America, the other Caribbean islands, and (oddly enough) Brazil. For the Confederates, this would have been an opportunity to expand their reach and power and to acquire even more slave labor, which would have positively influenced the Southern states’ economies.
Looking into the possibilities of the future, regarding the magnificent country of tropical America, which lies in the path of our destiny on this continent, we may see an empire as powerful and gorgeous as ever was pictured in our dreams of history. […]How sublime in its associations! How noble and inspiriting the idea, that upon the strange theatre of tropical America, once, if we may believe the dimmer facts of history, crowned with magnificent empires and flashing cities and great temples, now covered with mute ruins, and trampled over by half-savages, the destiny of Southern civilization is to be consummated in a glory brighter even than that of old, the glory of an empire, controlling the commerce of the world, impregnable in its position, and representing in its internal structure the most harmonious of all the systems of modern civilization.
I want Cuba, and I know that sooner or later we must have it. If the worm-eaten throne of Spain is willing to give it for a fair equivalent, well—if not, we must take it. I want Tamaulipas, Potosi, and one or two other Mexican Stats; and I want them all for the same reason—for the planting and spreading of slavery.
And a footing in Central America will powerfully aid us in acquiring those other states. It will render them less valuable to the other powers of the earth, and thereby diminish competition with us. Yes, I want these countries for the spread of slavery. I would spread the blessings of slavery, like the religion of our Divine Master, to the uttermost ends of the earth, and rebellious and wicked as the Yankees have been, I would even extend it to them.
Three: Fugitive Slave Laws
In 1793, the nation adopted the Fugitive Slave Act, which made it illegal for a state to harbor a runaway slave (a fugitive slave was essentially a slave that escaped to a free state). If a free state captured a runaway slave, it had no choice but to return the slave to its owner. Because many slave-holders felt the law wasn’t strong enough, a stronger law was passed as part of the Compromise of 1850. That version of the Fugitive Slave Act would later be known amongst abolitionists as the “Bloodhound Law.” Many Northern states protested, even going so far as to pass legislation that would defy the Fugitive Slave Act, which South Carolina so duly noted in its Declaration of Secession: “We assert that fourteen of the States have deliberately refused, for years past, to fulfill their constitutional obligations, and we refer to their own Statutes for the proof.” Since the non-slaveholding states refused to accept and conform (and essentially undermine the compromise between the non-slaveholding and the slaveholding), the Southern states, especially South Carolina, felt they no longer had any obligations to those states and, thus, the Union itself: “In the State of New York even the right of transit for a slave has been denied by her tribunals; and the States of Ohio and Iowa have refused to surrender to justice fugitives charged with murder, and with inciting servile insurrection in the State of Virginia. Thus the constituted compact has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the non-slaveholding States, and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation.”
Georgia would go on to concur with South Carolina’s contention, even making mention of the Supreme Court’s infamous 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford decision in which the Court held that the Fugitive Slave Act was in fact constitutional since black slaves were mere property, in that state’s Declaration of Secession:
The Supreme Court unanimously, and their own local courts with equal unanimity (with the single and temporary exception of the supreme court of Wisconsin), sustained its constitutionality in all of its provisions. Yet it stands to-day a dead letter for all practicable purposes in every non-slave-holding State in the Union. We have their convenants, we have their oaths to keep and observe it, but the unfortunate claimant, even accompanied by a Federal officer with the mandate of the highest judicial authority in his hands, is everywhere met with fraud, with force, and with legislative enactments to elude, to resist, and defeat him. Claimants are murdered with impunity; officers of the law are beaten by frantic mobs instigated by inflammatory appeals from persons holding the highest public employment in these States, and supported by legislation in conflict with the clearest provisions of the Constitution, and even the ordinary principles of humanity. In several of our confederate States a citizen cannot travel the highway with his servant who may voluntarily accompany him, without being declared by law a felon and being subjected to infamous punishments. It is difficult to perceive how we could suffer more by the hostility than by the fraternity of such brethren.
With this in mind, the Confederate States of America drafted its Constitution, which enumerated a master’s right to claim his own property—his slaves: “The citizens of each State shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States; and shall have the right of transit and sojourn in any State of this Confederacy, with their slaves and other property; and the right of property in said slaves shall not be thereby impaired.”
Four: White Equality
For Southerners, the economic benefits that accompanied slave labor wasn’t the only major factor in the South’s desire to preserve the institution of slavery. They also feared that the abolition of slavery would ultimately threaten white supremacy and the hierarchy of racial classism. In his letter to Governor Magoffin, Stephen F. Hale iterated the Southern fear of racial equality and the perceived derogation of the dominant white race:
If the policy of the Republicans is carried out, according to the programme indicated by the leaders of the party, and the South submits, degradation and ruin must overwhelm alike all classes of citizens in the Southern States. The slave-holder and non-slave-holder must ultimately share the same fate — all be degraded to a position of equality with free negroes, stand side by side with them at the polls, and fraternize in all the social relations of life; or else there will be an eternal war of races, desolating the land with blood, and utterly wasting and destroying all the resources of the country.
Rev. Richard Furman, along with other ministers, warned their congregations in November, 1860, of the immediate dangers the abolition of slavery imposes upon white supremacy and racial classism:
…then, by a vote of Congress, their great idea will be carried out — universal emancipation will be declared.– Then every negro in South Carolina, and in every other Southern States, will be his own master; nay, more than that, will be the equal of every one of you. If you are tame enough to submit, Abolition preachers will be at hand to consummate the marriage of your daughters to black husbands! Nay, nay! we beg pardon of South Carolina women for such a suggestion. If their fathers and their brothers have not the spirit to break loose from a government whose elected Chief Magistrate aims to establish such a state of things, the daughters of South Carolina would die for shame at the dishonor of the men.
In his infamous 1858 “Cotton Is King” speech, South Carolina Senator James Henry Hammond not only iterated the supposed belief that the “white race” was superior to the “Negro race” but that the North’s wage disparity between the poor and the rich—which he argued made the poor white people of the North economic slaves—was actually the greater immoral condition:
The difference between us is, that our slaves are hired for life and well compensated; there is no starvation, no begging, no want of employment among our people, and not too much employment either. Yours are hired by the day, not cared for, and scantily compensated, which may be proved in the most painful manner, at any hour in any street of your large towns. Why, you meet more beggars in one day, in any single street of the city of New York, than you would meet in a lifetime in the whole South.
We do not think that whites should be slaves either by law or necessity. Our slaves are black, of another and inferior race. The status in which we have placed them is an elevation. They are elevated from the condition in which God first created them, by being made our slaves. None of that race on the whole face of the globe can be compared with the slaves of the South. They are happy, content, unaspiring, and utterly incapable, from intellectual weakness, ever to give us any trouble by their aspirations. Yours are white, of your own race; you are brothers of one blood. They are your equals in natural endowment of intellect, and they feel galled by their degradation.
For the South, the grievances amounted to three main problems: 1) They wanted to expand slavery; 2) they wanted Northern states to obey fugitive slave laws; and 3) they feared racial equality and the obsolescence of white supremacy.
Five: Declarations and Ordinances of Secession
In late 1860, South Carolina became the first state to officially secede from the Union. In their official declaration of secession, South Carolina stated the violation of their state’s rights as the reason for secession: “The people of the State of South Carolina, in Convention assembled, on the 26th day of April, A.D., 1852, declared that the frequent violations of the Constitution of the United States, by the Federal Government, and its encroachments upon the reserved rights of the States, fully justified this State in then withdrawing from the Federal Union[.]”
The right South Carolina believed each state had was, in fact, the subjugation and enslavement of black people:
A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that ‘Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,’ and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction. This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.
The following year, several states issued official declarations of secession, explicitly stating that slavery was the reason for which they felt the need to secede from the Union.
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.
[Texas] was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery—the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits–a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time. Her institutions and geographical position established the strongest ties between her and other slave-holding States of the confederacy.
In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon the unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of the equality of all men, irrespective of race or color–a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of the Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and the negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.
The prohibition of slavery in the Territories, hostility to it everywhere, the equality of the black and white races, disregard of all constitutional guarantees it its favor, were boldly proclaimed by its leaders and applauded by its followers. With these principles on their banners and these utterances on their lips the majority of the people of the North demand that we shall receive them as our rulers. The prohibition of slavery in the Territories is the cardinal principle of this organization.
The reason for secession, as made clear with explicit language in the first declarations of secession, was the preservation of the institution of slavery and the opposition to legal equality for black people. While in Savannah in 1861, Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederate States, said in his infamous “Cornerstone Speech”: “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas (of the Union); its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”
Six: The Confederate Flags
In February of 1861, the Confederacy’s legislative branch, the Provisional Confederate States Congress, organized the Committee on the Flag and Seal with South Carolina’s William Porcher Miles as the committee’s chair. The first order of business was to select a flag. The committee asked the public for ideas and suggestions, and they received quite a surprising response: a great number of people wanted the U.S. flag to also be their flag. So in compromise with the public, the C.S.A. officially adopted Nicola Marschall’s “Stars and Bars” design a month later. There were two big problems with the flag, though: one, many Confederates associated the design with abolitionism and injustice; and two, the flag caused problems on the battlefield because the flags of the U.S.A. and C.S.A. too closely resembled one another and confused soldiers from a distance, who couldn’t tell the difference between the two.
The second problem was solved in December of 1861 when Robert E. Lee adopted the Confederate Battle Flag (which William Porcher Miles of the Provisional Confederate States Congree designed earlier that year) for the Army of Northern Virginia. From that point on, the flag became widely associated with the Confederacy as a whole despite never being an official flag of the Confederate States.
Over the next year, the first problem grew into a substantial one. George Bagby, the editor of The Southern Literary Messenger, wrote in January of 1862: “Every body wants a new Confederate flag. The present one is universally hated. It resembles the Yankee flag and that is enough to make it unutterably detestable.” In 1863, the C.S.A. solved the problem when it adopted William T. Thompson’s “Stainless Banner” design, which incorporated the Battle Flag (most citizens wanted the nation to adopt the Battle Flag as its official flag, so the “Stainless Banner” design was more of a compromise than anything). The design featured the Battle Flag in the upper-left corner; the rest of the flag remained a white field, which prompted Thompson, a newspaper editor from Georgia, to refer to the flag as “The White Man’s Flag” even though the C.S.A. never officially referred to it as such. Thompson would go on to write on April 28, 1863:
While we consider the flag which has been adopted by the senate as a very decided improvement of the old United States flag, we still think the battle flag on a pure white field would be a suitable emblem of our young confederacy, and sustained by the brave hearts and strong arms of the south, it would soon take rank among the proudest ensigns of the nations, and be hailed by the civilized world as THE WHITE MAN’s FLAG.
The following month, he wrote of the flag: “As a national emblem, it is significant of our higher cause, the cause of a superior race, and a higher civilization contending against ignorance, infidelity, and barbarism. Another merit in the new flag is, that it bears no resemblance to the now infamous banner of the Yankee vandals.” He would also write: “As a people, we are fighting to maintain the heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored races. A White Flag would be thus emblematical of our cause.”
George William Bagby said of the “Stainless Banner” design and its use of the “Southern Cross,” a name often given for the Battle Flag, that the white field was perfect because it symbolized “the destiny of the Southern master and his African slave” to “the banks of the Amazon,” an allusion to the Southern desire to expand slavery into South America. There was a problem with the “Stainless Banner” design, though. It turned out that, because of the white field, the flag’s design could be misconstrued as a symbol of truce. To correct this, the Confederate Congress adopted Major Arthur L. Rogers’s “Blood Stained Banner” design in March of 1865, near the end of the Civil War.