Counterpoint Why Non Slave holding Southerners Fought

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GwilymT

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At the susquisentennial of the Civil War, Historian Gordon Rhea, himself a descendant of Confederate soldiers, gave a talk at the Charleston Library Society on the often asked question of non-slave owning southerners’ motivations to fight for the Confederacy, whose expressed purpose for being was the protection of slavery. He discusses fears of slave uprisings, the pro slavery propaganda of politicians, preachers and community leaders, and good old fashioned racist fear of black equality as the main drivers.

In the early portion of his address he asks and lays out his method of answering:

“ But what about those Southerners who did not own slaves? Why would they risk their livelihoods by leaving the United States and pledging allegiance to a new nation grounded in the proposition that all men are not created equal, a nation established to preserve a type of property that they did not own?

In order to find an answer to this question, please travel back with me to the South of 1860. Let’s put ourselves into the skin of Southerners who lived there then. That’s what being an historian is about: putting yourself into the minds of people who lived in another time to understand things from their perspective, from their point of view. Let’s set aside what people said and wrote later, after the dust had settled. Let’s wipe the historic slate clean and visit the South of 150 years ago through the documents that survive from that time.”

Here are his remarks in full:


I find them informative and thoughtful. Are these the reasons non-slaveholders fought?
 
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lupaglupa

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I don't argue with the sources he brought together and the way he articulated them. I think many Southerners had reconciled themselves to the morality of slavery and most were well aware of its necessity to any continued prosperity in their local economies. But in my opinion, influences like the ones cited by Rhea shaped opinion before the war. After the war, began, most men joined up and fought for other reasons, similar to reasons held by men in every war. Young men thought it would be an adventure and a way to prove their bravery. Some joined simply because friends had and they wished to be a part of the group. Men of status raised companies as a way to show their standing in the community. Most of all, once the war had started and the threat of war itself became a reality, men joined to protect their families. I think any deeper philosophy was a far second in their minds.
 

GwilymT

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I don't argue with the sources he brought together and the way he articulated them. I think many Southerners had reconciled themselves to the morality of slavery and most were well aware of its necessity to any continued prosperity in their local economies. But in my opinion, influences like the ones cited by Rhea shaped opinion before the war. After the war, began, most men joined up and fought for other reasons, similar to reasons held by men in every war. Young men thought it would be an adventure and a way to prove their bravery. Some joined simply because friends had and they wished to be a part of the group. Men of status raised companies as a way to show their standing in the community. Most of all, once the war had started and the threat of war itself became a reality, men joined to protect their families. I think any deeper philosophy was a far second in their minds.
I agree that the reasons soldiers fight are as varied as the soldiers themselves, however, I think Rhea convincingly illustrates the general mindset of southerners at the time. The war was seen as a religious struggle against godless abolitionists. The south is still an area where religion permeates almost every aspect of society, social, educational, and political. In the years leading up to the war southern preachers were telling the people that it was their Christian duty to defend slavery. I think it puts to rest the bogus “why would people who don’t own slaves fight for slavery” question and the bogus “only x percent of southerners owned slaves so the war couldn’t have been about slavery” statement. These people were fighting for their religion and society, both of which were inseparable from the institution of slavery and, as Rhea states, it’s past time for apologetic southerners to come to terms with the truth.
 

Paul Yancey

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I enjoy reading Gordon Rhea and I am now reading his book on the Battle of the Wilderness. However, in this case I don't think he quite hits the nail on the head. He tells us what the politicians are thinking, what the preachers are preaching, and what some of the local leaders are doing, but he doesn't really address what is in the hearts and minds of the common people.

There has been a trend among historians to incorporate a psychological/cultural element into their interpretations of history. I think this is a useful approach, and I also believe that part of the human psyche is to distrust, until proven otherwise, those who are different from us. The cultural differences between North and South during this time period have already been discussed in great detail on other threads on CWT. I will say that it is also important to remember that during this period there was not the ease of communication and transportation that exists today. I have no statistics, but I would venture to say that many people during this period had not traveled far from the borders of their own state. This lack of interaction between the peoples of the North and South only served to exacerbate these cultural differences and further ingrain a parochial mentality.

At the start of the Civil War, the country was less than eighty years removed from the Revolution. That spirit that motivated the patriots to rebel against what they saw as tyrannical rule from Great Britain was still very much alive to the people of the South. Southerners were also much influenced by the philosophy of Jefferson - agrarian society, limitations on the size and scope of Federal government, and a strict interpretation of the Constitution.

The majority of Southerners were small farmers and merchants - this led Southerners to place an enormous importance on land and the self-reliance that was demanded from the working of that land. IMO, this also led Southerners to believe that it was in their best interests that the power of government reside at the local and state level.

When Lincoln was elected, representing what was clearly a Sectional party at the time, Southerners naturally felt threatened. For the large plantation owners it was obviously the threat of the end of slavery, but for the common man and woman of the South (the great majority of which were not slave holders), the threat was much more basic: The threat being that the "Northern way of life" was going to infringe on their own daily lives. To many in the South, the North represented Industrialization, the growing influence of new immigrants, and an ever expanding role of Federal Government that was only going to increase as it became clear that more states created from the territories were going to be added to the Northern side of the ledger.

But didn't all Southerners aspire to be slave holders and own large plantations some may argue. I have never bought into this argument. If this were the case why then did not great numbers of Northerners come streaming to the South to seek fame and fortune through the ownership of plantations. I quite simply believe that most Southerners were content with their way of life and wished to create their own government which they felt would best represent their interests. The other common argument is that slavery is sometimes mentioned in the articles of secession and therefore it must mean that all Southerners were fighting to protect slavery. Again I disagree. Does everyone agree with every decision made by their Government? Does every soldier who ever went to war go for the same reasons?

When the first shots of war came, the average non slave holding Southerner was not fighting for the protection of slavery. They were fighting to protect their land and their way of life from an invading army. I think this quote from Emory M. Thomas' book The Confederate Nation 1861-1865 sums it up quite well - "The essential fact of the Confederate experience was that a sufficient number of white Southern Americans felt more Southern than American or, perhaps more accurately, that they were orthodox Americans and Northerners were apostates. Southern sectionalism became Southern nationalism and underwent trial by war."

I apologize for rambling on. Let me end by saying that the institution of slavery was and always will be wrong. However, I hope I have provided some thinking points that not all Southerners fought for the protection of slavery. Do not let your interpretations be clouded by the fallacy of presentism.
 

FedericoFCavada

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"Presentism" eh? What motivated individual soldiers is complex, but was often simply that they were caught up in the rhetoric and emotions of the time, and, like Robt. E. Lee himself, sided with their home state or local homeland. With no public schools to speak of, there was little indoctrination into a "national consciousness" like what prevails today in the name of "education."

As for non-slave holding Southerners who fought for the Confederacy, they really did fight for the protection of slavery. That is what secession was over, and those are the politics that brought them into the field. And while I'm neither Joseph T. Glathaar nor our fellow forum member @AndyHall , the fact remains that many of the Southern States--and certainly the first seven that seceded--were not merely "societies with slaves" but full-blown slave societies. Slavery suffused social relations. Non-slave holders aspired to become slave holders. Sons intended to inherit wealth, including human property. Non-slave holders rented slave laborers. They were entirely familiar with the institution and what it entailed. Non-slave holders were employed as slave paterollers enforcing slave codes.

Most importantly, and this is where I dispute the claims of "presentism": people of salient European ancestry, aka. "whites" embraced an ideology of white supremacy and racial oppression and anti-black bigotry. The North was not all that different in such social attitudes, but the fact remains that there was more to North American slavery than merely slavery associated with blackness/ salient African ancestry, but rather the ideological buttresses to defend and enshrine the practice.
 
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DaveBrt

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But didn't all Southerners aspire to be slave holders and own large plantations some may argue. I have never bought into this argument.

When the first shots of war came, the average non slave holding Southerner was not fighting for the protection of slavery. They were fighting to protect their land and their way of life from an invading army.
While I agree with most of your post, the creation of the strawman that all Southerners aspired to be slaveholders and own large plantations gets in the way of the rest of you argument.

I think every small farmer wanted more hands to help improve and expand his livelihood and standard of living. While children would eventually provide extra hands, it was faster to buy a slave, then another or two. And the wife will not let the farmer forget who is bearing those future hands and feeding the present hands -- she wanted help, now! In the records of my own families, I find several with only one woman slave and perhaps her daughter; I also see several with a slave woman and two or three slave men.

Only one family in our lines could have been well off, and he made his money in the North Carolina gold field before going to Georgia to buy a few hundred acres to farm. When he died four years later, there are only records of a slave woman and a 12-year old girl. I see nothing in his records or actions to indicate he wanted to go the plantation route, but he had slaves.

You claim that when the shooting started, the non slave-holding Southerner was not fighting to protect slavery. That is a statement that has not been proven, and I am curious how you think you know that. Slavery gave the poorer whites a status one step higher than they would have had without slaves, and it gave better off whites the ability to have a level of comfort they could not have had otherwise. They had so built slavery into their society that it was just too painful to consider life without it.
 

A. Roy

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He tells us what the politicians are thinking, what the preachers are preaching, and what some of the local leaders are doing, but he doesn't really address what is in the hearts and minds of the common people.

Yes, good point here. He makes a good case that important 'influencers' in Southern society tried to create a pro-slavery environment, but doesn't do much to prove that everyday people bought into it. Not in this article, anyway.

Roy B.
 

leftyhunter

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I don't argue with the sources he brought together and the way he articulated them. I think many Southerners had reconciled themselves to the morality of slavery and most were well aware of its necessity to any continued prosperity in their local economies. But in my opinion, influences like the ones cited by Rhea shaped opinion before the war. After the war, began, most men joined up and fought for other reasons, similar to reasons held by men in every war. Young men thought it would be an adventure and a way to prove their bravery. Some joined simply because friends had and they wished to be a part of the group. Men of status raised companies as a way to show their standing in the community. Most of all, once the war had started and the threat of war itself became a reality, men joined to protect their families. I think any deeper philosophy was a far second in their minds.
Also @GwilymT
The Confedrate Conscription Act and the harsh punishment for evading Conscription might have to do with non slave owners fighting for the Confederacy. It also has something to do with why 104k Southern whites enlisted in the Union Army.
Leftyhunter
 

leftyhunter

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Yes, good point here. He makes a good case that important 'influencers' in Southern society tried to create a pro-slavery environment, but doesn't do much to prove that everyday people bought into it. Not in this article, anyway.

Roy B.
Maybe it does. Unionist activity got more pronounced as the war dragged on. Even Newt Knight was intialy somewhat pro Confedrate but had a change of heart.
Leftyhunter
 

leftyhunter

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Yes, good point here. He makes a good case that important 'influencers' in Southern society tried to create a pro-slavery environment, but doesn't do much to prove that everyday people bought into it. Not in this article, anyway.

Roy B.
The fact that most Southern whites fought for the Confedracy with the caveat over one hundred thousand men were opposed enough to bear arms for the Union and the fact that racial equality came long after the ACW argues most Southern whites were comfortable with slavery.
Leftyhunter
 
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eeric

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But didn't all Southerners aspire to be slave holders and own large plantations some may argue. I have never bought into this argument. If this were the case why then did not great numbers of Northerners come streaming to the South to seek fame and fortune through the ownership of plantations.

I question the above thought, why would northerners want plantations that require slaves to maintain and prosper ?

I do agree with most of your thoughts however.
 

GwilymT

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Yes, good point here. He makes a good case that important 'influencers' in Southern society tried to create a pro-slavery environment, but doesn't do much to prove that everyday people bought into it. Not in this article, anyway.

Roy B.
I think it paints a very clear picture, especially given the religious element, of the general mindset of a southern white man in 1860. (I’m sure that southern black men or women may have had a slightly different mindset) just as today where religion holds a great sway among American minds, even more so in the south, one can only imagine the primacy of the latest sermon on the 1859 white southerners.
 

GwilymT

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"Presentism" eh? What motivated individual soldiers is complex, but was often simply that they were caught up in the rhetoric and emotions of the time, and, like Robt. E. Lee himself, sided with their home state or local homeland. With no public schools to speak of, there was little indoctrination into a "national consciousness" like what prevails today in the name of "education."

As for non-slave holding Southerners who fought for the Confederacy, they really did fight for the protection of slavery. That is what secession was over, and those are the politics that brought them into the field. And while I'm neither Joseph T. Glaathar nor our fellow forum member @AndyHall , the fact remains that many of the Southern States--and certainly the first seven that seceded--were not merely "societies with slaves" but full-blown slave societies. Slavery suffused social relations. Non-slave holders aspired to become slave holders. Sons intended to inherit wealth, including human property. Non-slave holders rented slave laborers. They were entirely familiar with the institution and what it entailed. Non-slave holders were employed as slave paterollers enforcing slave codes.

Most importantly, and this is where I dispute the claims of "presentism": people of salient European ancestry, aka. "whites" embraced an ideology of white supremacy and racial oppression and anti-black bigotry. The North was not all that different in such social attitudes, but the fact remains that there was more to North American slavery than merely slavery associated with blackness/ salient African ancestry, but rather the ideological buttresses to defend and enshrine the practice.

I think this is where the religious defense of and encouragement of slavery in the Christian churches of the south comes into play. There is a difference between a person in 1860 thinking that whites are superior and a person thinking that it’s god’s will for a race to be kept in chains and that Christian society requires such.

For the average soldiers, it wasn’t that they were fighting because they owned slaves or aspired to, it’s because they believed that a slave society was a Christian society and, as their preachers told them, it was their Christian duty to fight for such a society. It’s what their pastor told them.
 
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jackt62

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I thought the Rhea article made a number of insightful points in the way that the institution of slavery permeated southern society, regardless of whether or not a particular individual owned slaves. As Rhea points out, the thought leaders of southern society (church leaders, politicians, news media) had a tremendous influence on the way that individuals viewed slavery, and in the ante-bellum area, slavery was regretfully seen by many as a "positive good." So its no wonder why southerners as a whole would defend the system that they lived under, especially when it was under attack by outsiders who lived in the "abolitionist" north. But to be sure, the reasons that southerners fought under the Confederate flag are more complex than the general thesis about slavery that Rhea espouses. For the average southerner, decisions about secession were out of their hands and once they faced the reality of being part of a breakaway "nation," other motivations for supporting that nation came into play.
 

GwilymT

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Yes, good point here. He makes a good case that important 'influencers' in Southern society tried to create a pro-slavery environment, but doesn't do much to prove that everyday people bought into it. Not in this article, anyway.

Roy B.
I think we also have to take into account that the south of 1860 (and the country at large) was really not a society of free and open information as we understand it. Outside of cities, one would get their news, political perspectives, and religious outlook on Sunday morning. They did not have cable TV or the internet. Perhaps they may get their hands on a regional newspaper but as Rhea addresses and given the southern penchant for censorship regarding slavery, these would serve little purpose other than to reinforce the preached mindset. If one wants to understand the south, listen to the preachers.
 
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DanSBHawk

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I think that James McPherson would agree with Rhea. Here is what McPherson wrote in Battle Cry of Freedom:

"So they undertook a campaign to convince nonslaveholders that they too had a stake in disunion. The stake was white supremacy. In this view, the Black Republican program of abolition was the first step toward racial equality and amalgamation. Georgia's Governor Brown carried this message to his native uplands of north Georgia whose voters idolized him.​
Slavery "is the poor man's best Government," said Brown. "Among us the poor white laborer... does not belong to the menial class. The negro is in no sense his equal... He belongs to the only aristocracy, the race of white men." Thus yeoman farmers "will never consent to submit to abolition rule," for they "know that in the even of the abolition of slavery, they would be greater sufferers than the rich, who would be able to protect themselves... When it becomes necessary to defend out rights against so foul a domination, I would call upon the mountain boys as well as the people of the lowlands, and they would come down like an avalanche and swarm around the flag of Georgia.​
Much secessionist rhetoric played variations on this theme. The election of Lincoln, declared an Alabama newspaper, "shows that the North [intends] to free the negroes and force amalgamation between them and the children of the poor men of the South." "Do you love your mother, your wife, your sister, your daughter?" a Georgia secessionist asked non-slaveholders. If Georgia remained in a Union "ruled by Lincoln and his crew... in ten years or less our children will be the slaves of negroes. "If you are tame enough to submit," declaimed South Carolina Baptist clergyman James Furman, "Abolition preachers will be at hand to consummate the marriage of your daughters to black husbands." No! No! came an answering shout from Alabama. "Submit to have our wives and daughters choose between death and gratifying the hellish lust of the negro!!... Better ten thousand deaths than submission to Black Republicanism.​
To defend their wives and daughters, presumably, yeoman whites therefore joined planters in "rallying to the standard of Liberty and Equality for white men" against "our Abolition enemies who are pledged to prostrate the white freemen of the South down to equality with negroes." Most southern whites could agree that "democratic liberty exists solely because we have black slaves" whose presence "promotes equality among the free." Hence "freedom is not possible without slavery."​
 

leftyhunter

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I question the above thought, why would northerners want plantations that require slaves to maintain and prosper ?

I do agree with most of your thoughts however.
Some Northeners did move South in order to buy slaves and operate a plantation and some also served as Confedrate Army Officers. Not sure how many ;possibly Confederate General Pemperton latter demoted to a lower rank in the artillery might be one example.
Leftyhunter
 

Ole Miss

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Simple callow soldiers from rural settings probably knew little about economics and politics beyond the local level. When their kin and friends joined a company they willingly went with the whole program as it would have been scandalous not to be involved. Being ostracized in a small community would have been beyond anything that could have happened to a young man. You need to realize that if he had been raised in a slave owning society that perceived the idea of owning another person to be natural, then why would it affect him whether or not if he owned a slave? I am not justifying the reasons men became Confederates merely sharing my views.
Regards
David
 
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