The argument that the War Of Northern Aggression was not based on the issue of slavery is an argument so weak as to not to be considered by anyone who has studied history, but then again, those who make this argument are very rarely historians. I’ve listened to this argument all of my life, having lived in The South during that time, and I’ve never once heard anything that dissuaded me from my conviction that the one single driving issue for the war was slavery. Without that issue there would have been no war.
My case for this is simply put; the rich land owners in The South wanted to remain rich. They cared not at all of the suffering of the slaves and they cared even less about the overpowering and grinding poverty of poor whites that made up the vast majority of the population. Yet the rich people sold the idea of succession to the poor, and therefore sold the war to them. It was a matter of regional integrity and cultural purity, in which they wrapped the war in quite prettily, and that illusion has yet to be dispelled even over one hundred and fifty years since it was spawned. There are still poor white people who believe The South is a homeland once taken away from them, and they cannot and will not believe that war freed their ancestors from a fate just slightly less worse than that of slaves.
When I have any sort of discussion of this issue with Southerners the first thing I do is ask them why the Confederate Constitution was set up the way it was. Most have no idea such a document existed at all, and I then ask them how do they know the reasons behind succession if they have no idea who wrote and planned how The South would exist if they have never read the governing articles which would define how the Confederacy would operate? Who wrote it? Who were the representatives from the individual states who contributed to it? What did it have to say about the issue of slavery?
Slavery was illegal in most part of the world by then and most European countries had long since banned the practice. In one of the most telling political concessions in the Confederate Constitution is the banning of the importation of slaves from Africa. Clearly, the people who owned slaves did not care about the slaves or where they came from, but this article was meant to assuage the European powers that might become very important allies against the United States. Slavery would not only define the war but it would also define the diplomacy. The Confederation, willing to fight a war to keep slavery intact, was from birth forced to take a step away from it.
Documents from the era of the War Of Northern Aggression are of two sorts. The first is the correspondence from the soldiers in the field which are laced with patriotic fervor. The second is from those who are seeing the war far from the front. The men who started this war, the Confederates who seek the dissolution of the Union speak only in terms of economics. Riches and racism drive their part in this, and they care nothing at all about who dies to preserve their plantations. Greed, pure and simple, is the reason for this war. Only those men who money could afford to start the war and money is why they started it. Racism is their way of justifying keeping other human beings in bondage and it is an institution that still exists today, for very much the same reasons. Yet no matter the outcome of the war the poor whites were going to be handed a life pretty much the same. They would remain poor. They would remain under educated. They would remain convinced it was poor blacks who were making a living off of their sweat regardless of the evidence that it was rick white people who were living quite well off of everyone else. There is still very much of this mindset going on, hence this conversation.
Racism in The South is not the same as regional identity. More than any other part of this nation, The South is more clearly defined by a culture, an accent, and a sense of commonality. In some ways this is a good thing but there are still some very self-destructive behaviors we cling to in each generation. We cannot make peace with the rest of the world, the United States, or ourselves as long as we deny the root cause of the War Of Northern Aggression to be slavery. This is not to say that we cannot be proud that we were once a nation. This is not to say that we cannot define who we are by where we live. But the idea that the people who lived at Tara are “Our people” is ludicrous and it is wrong. Those were the people who sold us the idea the war would keep us together when it fact that war, had it been won, would have ensured the poor would remain forever poor.
Most poor whites today who fly the Confederate battle flag have no idea why that is a symbol of everything that is wrong with The South. To them, it is the flag of a nation born of a people who rose up against the Federal government bent on dominating each state in turn. You cannot blame them for their distrust of the Federal government, but at the same time their ignorance of history is truly profound. At the end of the day those who fly that flag are either racists who wish to turn the clock back far enough so they can be poor white trash in a world of black slavery, or they are those who embrace their own willful ignorance, in a world where they, and their children, are left in a past that never existed.