Myths of the American Civil War
Sam Vaknin, Ph.D. – 9/9/2005
The Civil War (1861-5) has spawned numerous myths and falsities.
The Republicans did not intend to abolish slavery – just to "contain"
it, i.e., limit it to the 15 states where it had already existed.
Most of the Democrats accepted this solution.
This led to a schism in the Democratic party. The "fire eaters"
left it and established their own pro-secession political organization.
Growing constituencies in the south – such as urban immigrants and
mountain farmers – opposed slavery as a form of unfair competition.
Less than one quarter of southern families owned slaves in 1861.
Slave-based, mainly cotton raising, enterprises, were so profitable
that slave prices almost doubled in the 1850s. This rendered slaves
– as well as land – out of the reach of everyone but the wealthiest
Cotton represented three fifths of all United States exports in
1860. Southerners, dependent on industrial imports as they were,
supported free trade. Northerners were vehement trade protectionists.
The federal government derived most of its income from custom duties.
Income tax and corporate profit tax were yet to be invented.
The states seceded one by one, following secession conventions and
state-wide votes. The Confederacy (Confederate States of America)
was born only later. Not all the constituents of the Confederacy
seceded at once. Seven – the "core" – seceded between
December 20, 1860 and February 1, 1861. They were: South Carolina,
Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas.
Another four – Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas
– joined them only after the attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861.
Two – Kentucky and Missouri – seceded but were controlled by the
Union’s army throughout the war. Maryland and Delaware were slave
states but did not secede.
President James Buchanan who preceded Abraham Lincoln, made clear
that the federal government would not use force to prevent secession.
Secession was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court only
in 1869 (in Texas vs. White) – four years after the Civil War ended.
New England almost seceded in 1812, during the Anglo-American conflict,
in order to protect its trade with Britain.
The constitution of the Confederacy prohibited African slave trade
(buying slaves from Africa), though it allowed interstate trade
in slaves. The first Confederate capital was in Montgomery, Alabama
– not in Richmond, Virginia. The term of office of the Confederate
president – Jefferson Davis was the first elected – was six years,
not four as was the case in the Union.
Fort Sumter was not the first attack of the Confederacy on the Union.
It was preceded by attacks on 11 forts and military installations
on Confederate territory.
Lincoln won only 40 percent of the popular vote in 1860. Hence the
South’s fierce resistance to his abolitionist agenda. In 1864, the
Republicans became so unpopular, they had to change their name to
the Union Party. Lincoln’s vice-president, Johnson, actually was
a Democrat and hailed from Tennessee, a seceding state.
He was the only senator from a seceded state to remain in the Senate.
Reconstruction started long before the war ended, in Union-occupied
Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee. Slave tax was an important source
of state revenue in the South (up to 60 percent in South Carolina).
Emancipation led to near bankruptcy.
The Union states of Connecticut, Minnesota, and Wisconsin refused
to pass constitutional amendments to confer suffrage on black males.
The Union army consigned black labor gangs to work on the plantations
of loyal Southerners and forcibly separated the black workers from
Contrary to myth, nearly two thirds of black families were headed
by both parents. Slave marriages were legally meaningless in the
antebellum South, though. But nearly 90 percent of slave households
remained intact till death or forced separation. The average age
of childbirth for women was 20.
Segregation was initiated by blacks. The freedmen lobbied hard and
long for separate black churches and educational facilities. Nor
was lynching confined to blacks. For instance, a white mob lynched,
in September 1862, forty four Union supporters in Gainesville, Texas.
Similar events took place in Shelton Laurel, North Carolina. The
Ku Klux Klan was the paramilitary arm of the Democratic party in
the South, though never officially endorsed by it. It was used to
"discipline" the workforce in the plantations – but also
The Democrats changed their name after the war to the Conservative
Party. By 1877 they have regained power in all formerly Confederate