If you aren't sure what the cause of the Civil War was, you are not alone. Even though American historians overwhelmingly cite slavery as the central reason for Southern rebellion, rarely are American students taught this information. Our ignorance is hardly by accident.
This gap in our knowledge probably leads back to Mildred Lewis Rutherford, born in Athens, Georgia in 1851. She was a vocal opponent of women's suffrage. Her father and maternal uncles were among Georgia's wealthiest slave-owning elite. She served as president and longtime historian general of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. [The UDC still gets mentioned today for having controversially erected some 450 Confederate memorials during the late 1800s and early 1900s - three decades after the Civil War ended. The vast majority of Confederate monuments were built during the Jim Crow Laws era: 1877 to 1964. At this time, the UDC also popularized, not the Confederate flag, but a modernized version of the Confederate battle flag. It was quickly embraced by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists and hate groups, who call it the "Rebel flag" or Dixie flag".]
Some say that history is written by victors, but such has not been the case for the American Civil War. Rutherford and the UDC worked tirelessly and systematically to ingrain children with "Confederate Catechism" and Edward Pollard's "Lost Cause". These philosophies pay homage to antebellum slave-owning society, and serve as blunt proclamations of white dominance over African-Americans. They minimize the racism of slave owners, and the brutality of the plantation system.:
“Slaves were not ill treated ... Slaves, for the most part, were faithful and devoted. Most slaves were usually ready and willing to serve their masters ... Render it possible for these representatives of our Southern race to retain for that race its supremacy in its own land." -Mildred Lewis Rutherford
In one of the most effective efforts to rewrite history, the UDC used textbooks and after-school programs to hard-wire the minds of young white Southerners with Civil War history from the point of view of the defeated Confederacy - or "slave-holding states" as these Southern states called themselves. Rutherford and her UDC sisters used their formidable social and political clout to organize textbook review committees, that included 5 former Confederate generals. They pressured school boards to ban books that stated the Civil War was fought over slavery. Libraries were provided with arduous check lists and instructed to "reject" offending book. These books were banned with "unjust to the South" written across the book's cover. For generations, the UDC molded young minds in hopes it would be perpetually sustained. Sadly, subsequent generations have been willing to carry the torch, leaving African-Americans mired in poverty and exposed to racial violence.
What are the enduring affects on American education? Archival documents written by the founders of the Confederacy clearly spelled out their reason for seceding and forming the Confederacy was specifically to defend and perpetuate slavery. Historians agree this is factual, and historical documents confirm these facts. Yet, not until 2018 did the Texas Board of Education finally vote to teach slavery as having been the central issue causing the American Civil War. (This ruling was set to be implemented in 2019-2020, but whether or not it actually happened is anyone's guess.) Incredulously, some aspects of the system of racism are unchanged since the Civil War.
How is American culture affected? Students of the UDC grew up to become devout pro-segregation adults in the 1950s and 60s. It is believed that racism is taught, and without it being taught, racism would not exist. Our failure to teach the violent shameful truth about US history is a litmus test representing the anti-racist work white Americans need to be doing.
What is the hidden costs of Confederate monuments? A century and a half after the Civil War, American taxpayers have spent upwards of $40 million on Confederate monuments—statues, homes, parks, museums, libraries, cemeteries and organizations — that perpetuate defeated Confederates' racist ideology and white power of the "Lost Cause". Significant public funding of tax payer money supports Confederate sites and groups in Mississippi, Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee, Missouri and Kentucky. [Smithsonian Magazine,, 2018]
Photo: Detail of US History (forgotten).
Oil on canvas and mixed media.
The Union was made up of only 13 states, when Southern states began seceding prior to the Civil War. Cotton was King, the Southern economy was thriving (thanks to free slave labor), and these were heady times for those with wealth and power. The Industrial Revolution, western expansion and building the First Transcontinental Railroad gave hope of new sources of making money.
Slavery was not simply a "Southern problem". The economies of both the northern and southern states benefited from slavery. The cotton-growing area of the Union, with slave plantations, were stretched from Texas to south Pennsylvania, and fed into the northern economy. Cotton was processed in Rhode Island's fabric mills, which helped the development of New England's textile industry and the Industrial Revolution. The wealth made from growing and processing cotton helped fill the New York banks. The banks, in turn, loaned money to create new manufacturing opportunities in New England. The slave trade was undeniably a vital component of the development of American capitalism.
Not all Northerners had a moral objection to slavery, but areas of disagreement over slavery created mounting tension between the northern and Southern states. Laws in some northern states made it illegal for slaves to be transported through their states, This annoyed the "slave-holding states" (as Southern states referred to themselves), hampering their movement through the Union. The issue of whether or not slavery should expand into the west created more contention. Some northerners thought slave labor was too violent and unreliable, making it unsuitable for the newly developing industrial age. (Unreliable in that a labor force of slaves wanted to run away, were sickly and died young.) Northerners favored using cheap immigrant labor for the highly dangerous and poorly paid industrial jobs, such as building the Transcontinental Railroad. The South was unyielding, and wanted to assert their authority over these and other federal laws they did not agree with. Generations of Southerners had raked in profits of using free slave-labor, and bristled at the thought of paying wages for labor, and the possibility of not being able to expand their very profitable slave trade into the West.
Adding insult to injury to disagreements over laws constraining slavery, Abraham Lincoln's victory as president was achieved without a single Southern electoral vote. Seeing that their vote hadn't factored into the electing the US President, the South was left feeling even more excluded from the political system. One by one the Southern, cotton-growing, states seceded from the Union, and then piecemeal joined together calling themselves the Confederacy. It was no coincidence that the Confederacy was made up of the states where cotton was grown which were states most reliant on slave labor. The founders of the Confederacy referred to themselves as "slave-holding states" in missives sent to the northern (Union) states, and clearly spelled out their reason for seceding and forming the Confederacy as specifically being to defend and perpetuate slavery. The South's leaving the Union led directly to war. The war's winner would determine who would have political control over the system of slavery.
Most commonly called the "Civil War", the term "War Between the States" was used by Southerners after their defeat. After their victory, Northerners referred to it as "The War of Rebellion".
America proved its taste for violence long before war broke out between the Union and the Confederate States. In fact, there had never been a time of peace since the first Europeans stepped foot on what was to become the United States. With Columbus' arrival in the Caribbean in 1492, the Americas were mired in four centuries of the most unthinkable violence and genocide. For hundreds of years, mainly the Spanish, but also the English and French, fought the Native nations and fought each other, each wanting to colonize land for their own monarch. In the Proclamation of 1763, England's King George III felt the colonists had already helped themselves to enough Native American land, and closed down colonial expansion westward beyond Appalachia. The colonists had no intention of stopping until they succeeded at stealing all of the land from the Native Americans, even if that meant complete genocide. The colonists did not want the English monarchy telling them what they could and couldn't do. This lead to the Revolutionary War between the colonies and England, and the colonies eventually splitting from England. The Spanish used "just war" to justify enslaving anyone who refused to convert to Christianity or who rebelled against Spanish rule, and forced Natives to build missions from Florida to California.
justify the enslavement of Amerindians werethe concepts of “just war” (i.e. the notion that anyone who refused to accept Christianity, or rebelled against Spanish rule, could be enslaved
Before, during and after the Civil War, American presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, condoned the "extinction" of the Native Americans so as to steal their ancestral land.
Slaves posing for photo with Black Civil War soldiers.
The extension of slavery to new territories had been a subject of national political controversy since the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 prohibited slavery in the area now known as the Midwest. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 began a policy of admitting an equal number of slave and free states into the Union. But the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Actof 1854 (both grounded in the doctrine of popular sovereignty), along with the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision of 1857, opened all the territories to slavery.
Cotton-growing area in red.
Better Angels: Five Women Who Changed Civil War America, 2020, Robert C. Plumb
[Harriet Tubman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Clara Barton, Julia Ward Howe, and Sarah Josepha Hale came from backgrounds that ranged from abject enslavement to New York City's elite.]
A People's History of the United States, 1980, Howard Zinn