Lost Causality

The Civil War’s Dirty Secret: It Was Always About Slavery

The war was never about states’ rights, unless it was the states’ right to permit slavery, and Charles Lamar was its firebreathing poster boy.

04.10.15 4:02 PM ET

Seven score and ten years ago, Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, and the great American Civil War ended, or so we’ve read in high school textbooks and on Wikipedia.

The chivalrous Lee, in countless hues of grey on his white horse, and the magnanimous Grant in muddy boots were icons that the reunited-by-force United States needed desperately a century and a half ago, and that we’ve cherished ever since.

But the war did not really end at Appomattox, just as it did not really begin four years before when South Carolina militias opened fire on the tiny Union garrison in the massive, unfinished fort called Sumter that dominated Charleston Harbor.

And if we want to stop and think today about what that war was about—what made it happen—then cannons, shot and shells, minié balls, muskets and swords do not, in the end, tell us very much. Brave men were called on to fight for their homes and their ideals, or because they didn’t have better sense, and, as in every war, they kept on fighting for their brothers in arms.

In the South, the spirit of camaraderie and defiance ran so hot and so deep that for generations afterwards, and to this day in some corners of the air-conditioned Sunbelt that was once the Confederacy, people will tell you about “The Lost Cause.”

But, let’s be clear. The cause of the South was not the cause of chivalry, nor was it about the revolutionary ideals of the Boston Tea Party, as many claimed at the time. “The tea has been thrown overboard; the revolution of 1860 has been initiated,” declared Charleston’s Robert Barnwell Rhett as the Carolinians prepared to secede from the Union and precipitate the war.

Rhett was one of the coterie of radicals in the South who came to be known as “fire-eaters,” and their cause was not the cause of freedom that the founding fathers fought for in the American Revolution. Their cause was slavery: holding slaves, working slaves, buying and selling slaves—black chattel considered less than human beings by custom, by the courts, and even by the Constitution, whose authors never mentioned slavery but weasel-worded it into the founding document of the Union.

According to the original U.S. Constitution, slaves, who had no rights whatsoever as citizens, would be counted as three-fifths of a person for the census that determined a state’s representation in Congress. This constitutional right—for such it was—was not one the slave-holding states were willing to give up, because they feared if they lost their disproportionate power in Washington, eventually their “right” to own other human beings to clear their land, grow their crops, and make their fortunes for them would be challenged.

The cry of “self-preservation” in the face of the federal government was “always on the lips of a Carolinian when he is about to justify an outrage connected with Slavery,” wrote the British consul in Charleston in the 1850s.

Every so often, rumors of a “servile insurrection” stirred hysterical emotions and ruthless reprisals. One plot for a slave rebellion stoked by a “free person of color” named Denmark Vesey was crushed before it even began in the 1820s, but 40 years later it still lingered like a nightmare and a prophecy in the minds of Southerners.

The notion that had existed in the early part of the century that the hideous “peculiar institution” would somehow atrophy and disappear had itself evanesced. The cotton gin, a machine separating seeds from fiber that was invented at the end of the 18th century, had made a marginal crop into a source of enormous revenues. But the cotton economy of the South was hugely rapacious. It burned out old land so that new acreage constantly had to be opened, and that was the job of slaves.

The hunger for that fresh territory and the slaves to work it was insatiable. The annexation of Texas and the subsequent war that took a huge part of Mexico in 1848 was not enough to satisfy them, because not all that territory would be slave-owning. The South and its friends in the North (like President James Buchanan) wanted Cuba, too, and many Southerners supported efforts to invade and conquer and annex more of Mexico and much of Central America.

More land, more slaves, meant more money and more power to dominate the federal government and make it support people who wanted more land, more slaves and more money. And in the 1850s a movement grew that was best defined as “rule or ruin”: if the slave-owning South could not control the federal government, then it would break away from it. The Union, as the famous headline in the Charleston Mercury declared in December 1860, would be “dissolved.”

One of the issues that the fire-eaters played on was the reopening of the slave trade with Africa that had been banned since 1808. (The Constitution had enshrined it up until that date.) By the mid-19th century, most Americans, including most Southerners, knew that the traffic had been horrific, and many understood that it was, in fact, a holocaust. It had continued to Cuba and Brazil, and stories often reached the American press of ships packed so tightly with human cargo that, as one horrified U.S. naval officer put it, there was “scarcely space to die in.”

The fire-eaters pushing for secession argued that this was not a crime at all. Slavery, as Mr. Rhett (the would-be heir to the Tea Party) put it, was “a blessing to the African race and a system of labor appointed by God.” Such men firmly believed that the world markets for the cotton that slaves produced—especially the great military powers of Britain and France—would put aside their moral qualms and support the South for the sake of its white gold.

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In essence, they convinced themselves that King Cotton was the king of England. But that was not the case. The British government never did join the Confederates in their war with the Union. And without such support the agrarian Confederacy was all but doomed in its fight against the heavily industrialized and much more populous North. Only the genius of Robert E. Lee was able to keep the war going for as long as it went on.

The Ordinance of Secession and “Declaration of the Immediate Causes” drafted by South Carolina grandees intent not only on justifying their own state’s withdrawal from the Union in December 1860, but on persuading the other slave-holding states to join it, was concerned entirely and exclusively with the question of slavery. It quoted the Constitution. It cited the Declaration of Independence. But it was not about all men being created equal. And it was not about tariffs, as some have argued since. And it was not merely about the general principle of states’ rights. It was specifically about the states’ rights to enshrine slavery, pure and simple—and evil—as that was, and the obligation of the federal government to guarantee the rights of human-property owners. Since the Feds weren’t likely to do that under the new Lincoln administration in Washington, the Carolinians argued, “self-preservation” dictated secession. They were determined, come what may, to make their world safe for slavocracy.

So where did the Civil War begin and where did it end? One can pick many places, many times, but an illuminating version of the story can be built around one figure: a young red-haired fire-eater from Savannah, the heir to a huge banking and commercial fortune in the North as well as the South, named Charles Augustus Lafayette Lamar.

In 1858, Lamar backed the voyage of a sleek 118-foot yacht called the Wanderer that sailed to the coast of Africa, loaded 471 Negroes on board, according to contemporary accounts, and landed weeks later on Georgia’s Jekyll Island. Roughly 370 Africans were offloaded there. The other 101 had died at sea: acceptable attrition when Negroes could be sold in the South for six, eight, ten times what they cost in the baracoons of  West Africa. Their bodies had simply been thrown overboard. (“The shark of the Atlantic is still, as he has ever been, the partner of the slave trader,” as one British editorialist put it.)

Lamar and his partners sent the Wanderer on its voyage not only to make money, but to flout the federal law. A whole generation of slave traders hauling their tortured cargo to Cuba under the American flag had proved, on the rare occasions when they were caught, that no U.S. court would convict them for what was supposed to be a capital crime. Indeed, Southern grand juries would not even indict them. And Lamar and his cronies proved that once again.

“They are rather amused at the idea of embarrassing the Federal Government, and perhaps, in a lesser degree, of annoying Great Britain,” the British consul in Charleston advised London in 1859, “but they will awake from their delusion.”  He predicted that the Democratic Party, which the slave interests had dominated, would be torn apart by the fire-eaters pushing for ever greater power, and the anti-slavery Republicans, the party of Abraham Lincoln, would come to power. “When this shall happen, the days of Slavery are numbered,” wrote the consul. “The prestige and power of Slave holders will be gone, never to return.”

And so it was. Lamar got what he had wished for. Most of the slave-holding states seceded from the Union, and they fought long and hard for their independence. Through much of that time, as a skilled organizer of blockade runners, Lamar not only survived but thrived. But as the Union troops of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman marched through Georgia in 1864, Lamar took up arms—and he would not put them down.

By then, it should have been obvious to all that the war was over. So desperate had the Confederates become that they even started talking about emancipating the slaves if only Britain and France would, at long last, back them. But by 1864 it was far too late for that.

On April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered at Appomattox.

On April 14, 1865, Robert Anderson, who had surrendered Fort Sumter exactly four years before, raised the Union flag there once again in a ceremony intended to write a definitive end to the war. If he had had his wishes, he said, he would have done it in silence. In attendance were many former slaves who had enlisted as Union soldiers. One of the honored guests was the son of Denmark Vesey. But the event was forever overshadowed by the murder in Washington a few hours later of President Abraham Lincoln.

Still, Lamar continued to fight, stubborn and defiant as ever.

On April 16, 1865, Union and Confederate troops clashed on the outskirts of Columbus, Georgia. There are several different accounts of how Lamar died. In one that circulated among his relatives he was trying to surrender when he was shot almost by accident. But the one preferred by Erik Colonius, whose 2006 book The Wanderer is essentially a biography of Lamar, is far more dramatic:

“In a few minutes the fighting was hand to hand,” Confederate soldier Pope Barrow recalled later. “A Federal cavalryman, whose horse had been shot from under him, stepped in front of Black Cloud, the horse Col. Lamar was riding, seized the bit with his left hand, and threw up his carbine with his right, and called on Lamar to surrender. Quick as lightning, Lamar plunged his spurs into his horse’s sides and tried to run over his opponent. At that instant—as the horse reared and plunged above the soldier—he fired, and at the crack of the carbine Lamar fell lifeless to the ground.”

And so, Charlie Lamar’s war came to an end.

But there are times, and maybe today is one of those times, when one looks at the great questions of race and rights in the United States and realizes the spirit of the fire-eaters—their rationalization of racism, their contempt for the federal government, their penchant for violence, their self-deluding vision of their place in the world, and their desire to impose their values on the majority—all that, I am afraid, lives on.