The Civil War was fought over slavery.
White historians thought up the idea to make the “states rights” cause central to the war as a myth for Southern whites to save face. But it’s still a myth. I’ll repeat: the idea that the Civil War was fought over the principle of states rights is a myth designed to disguise the fact that the Civil War was fought over slavery.
Northern soldiers going into battle wrote in their diaries that they were going to end the vile practice of slavery for the honor of the union. Abraham Lincoln on meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is alleged by Stowe’s 1911 biographer to have said, “So you’re the little lady who started this great war,” a testament to the moral presence of Stowe and her work’s brutal portrayal of the degradation of slavery in the public perception of Lincoln – a presence that during Lincoln’s life was customarily described as his conscience.
Southern politicians and military leaders uniformly described the reason for secession as the need to preserve the Southern institution of chattel slavery against the efforts of the anti-slavery Republicans who had won the White House and desired to end the practice. Southern orators regularly declaimed the difference between Northern and Southern climates as the reason why white people shouldn’t be responsible for heavy labor in the South, and for the innate suitability of black people from Africa to enforced servitude and heavy labor on their behalf, and for the both as being the primary rational behind secession and the war.
When the Civil War commenced, the majority population of the state of Virginia was opposed to secession and the Confederacy. Unfortunately many of them did not have a political voice because they were slaves, the de facto majority population of the state. The white population of Virginia wasn’t particularly enthused about it either, many perceiving the war as being conducted on the behalf of the wealthy minority slave-holding population at the expense of everyone else. That controversy literal split the state into Virginia and West Virginia, as the Scotch-Irish population of the Appalachian mountains were themselves too familiar with the conditions of servitude and oppression at the hands of the wealthy Anglo-Saxon elite to support the Confederate States. At the war’s end, the majority of Virginians – yes, black, but many whites as well – greeted the Union troops as liberators.
That’s history, but only some of it. Not the type that McDonnell and the fat-ass losers that make up the various Confederate nostalgia groups of Virginia are willing to learn and acknowledge, but that’s because some of the most important history of the past hundred and fifty years hasn’t even fully happened yet. Victors write the history? No. Victors assume a history. To write one necessitates dissent. And through that dissent is how history sometimes happens.
UPDATE: O.K., so there are some definite errors in my own sense of history. Slaves were not a clear majority population in Virginia; they were a majority population in some states deeper South where, of course, cotton plantations were more central to the economy. At the time of the civil war, Virginia’s slave population was a bit less than half the population of the state. It may not have been a majority of Virginians that celebrated the collapse of the Confederacy, but if not, it was likely close to that. I apologize for letting my indignation at McDonnell’s presumption rush me past the fact-checking.