150 Years Ago Today Began the Great War Between the States: Thoughts on the Tragedy and Necessity of the Civil War
I was born and raised deep in the heart of Dixie, in the Florida panhandle, only twenty minutes or so away from Alabama right across the state line, where, tragically, some of the most brutal forms of chattel slavery that was the basis for the South’s economy was practiced, in the dense pine forests near my home town of Pensacola, Florida. I remember as a child visiting many Civil War museums and sites and none of us in those days great up without memorizing the words to “Dixie”[a song written by a Northerner, ironically] and singing it with gusto. I then recall learning, as I grew older, the real history behind the “War of Northern Aggression” and feeling deep horror and shame at the thought of how this nation treated millions of people living here, bought and sold as property. Over twelve million people from Africa were brought against their will between the 16th and 19th to the “New World” with 650,000 brought to the United States. While slavery had gradually gone away in the Northern States, in the South, by 1860, there were four million men, women and children owned as slaves and they were the essence of the Southern economic system.
The Civil War was fresh in the living memory of the Deep South I grew up in, a South that was being wracked by another conflict, born of the Civil War: the civil rights movement. One could argue that the Civil War was finally not truly over until civil rights legislation was passed and enforced throughout the South. 150 years ago began that great conflict that would consume so many of our nation’s men, at the time, on both sides. I remain deeply distressed that even some of my fellow LCMS pastors are so willingly complicit with attempts to recast the history of the times and make it appear as though the issue of slavery was not at the very heart of the issues that precipitated the Civil War.
Slavery was a festering wound in the side of the United States at its very inception, when, frankly, hypocritically, the same men who declared that all men are created equal owned as property fellow men, as slaves. The war was long in coming, but perhaps inevitable and tragically, finally necessary. But what a great tragedy it was. I think that no better words have ever been spoken on why the war was necessary than those spoken by Abraham Lincoln at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg. Following Lincoln’s speech, are words from a speech given by the vice-president of the confederacy, driving a nail into the coffin of the argument that the Civil War was not about “slavery.” When people talk about the “culture” of the South, and “peculiar institution” of the South, let’s be clear: that culture, that “peculiar institution” was slavery!
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
And here are Alexander Stephens words, talking about the purpose of the formation of the Confederate States of America:
“The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution of African slavery as it exists amongst us, and the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him . . . were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. . . . Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its corner- stone rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first in the history of the world based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. . . . Many governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination of certain classes of the same race; such were and are in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation. With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system . . . . I have been asked, what of the future? It has been apprehended by some that we would have arrayed against us the civilized world. I care not who or how many they may be against us, when we stand upon the eternal principles of truth, if we are true to ourselves and the principles for which we contend, we must triumph.”