Ben Jones, chief of heritage operations for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, reminds us that James I. Robertson once wrote:
“Just as most Northerners did not fight to end slavery, most Southerners did not fight to preserve it.”
Let’s add what followed for some clarification: “By and large, owning slaves was the privilege of the well-to-do. The rank and file of the Southern armies was composed of farmers and laborers who volunteered to protect home and everything dear from Northern invaders, to keep their traditions and be left alone.”
Ben’s kindly conceded that one should use “Confederates” rather than southerners, and for good reason.
However, this quote, from Tenting Tonight, one of the volumes in the Time-Life series on the American Civil War, raises far more questions than it answers.
What traditions? Who was not leaving them alone? What were they failing to leave alone? What needed to be left alone?
Readers of this blog know that “the way of life” that Confederates fought to defend had at its base the maintenance of white supremacy, primarily through the institution of slavery. Far more white southerners (and far more Confederates) were directly or indirectly involved in the protection, preservation, and even promotion of this system than most historians once acknowledged. We’ve set aside statistics citing the number of slaveholders and seen that if we look at white southern families, the percentage of those families with slaveholders rises dramatically. Thus, on a five-person family of whites with one slaveholder, we’d say that just 20% of the family members owned a slave, but 100% of the family benefited from that ownership. Similarly, historian Joseph Glatthaar’s detailed study of the Army of Northern Virginia suggests that far more soldiers were directly involved in slavery than was once assumed to be the case.
Yet even Glathaar’s findings would suggest that if one third of the rank and file of the Army of Northern Virginia was vitally interested in the preservation of slavery due to family circumstances, two-third were not. Given the youth of that army, one might point out that many of the enlisted men simply has not amassed enough wealth to buy a slave (people tend to forget that some people fight for the right to have that which they do not have). Moreover, the southern economy depended a great deal on slavery, and the collapse of slavery would have a tsunami effect on the rest of the region’s economy, as indeed it did (elsewhere Mr. Jones has noted that there was no Marshall Plan for the South, a point we’ll address at some future date). Just as Mr. Jones has pointed to the collapse of Detroit, which was heavily dependent upon the automobile industry, the South was heavily dependent upon slavery for its prosperity. Take away slavery, and you take away that prosperity.
That brings us to the next point: many non-slaveholding Confederate soldiers dreaded the impact of emancipation. While they may not have embraced slavery, they cared far, far less for the alternative. Indeed, advocates of secession reminded non-slaveholders all the time of the consequences of emancipation. Blacks would demand equality: they would take jobs away from whites (jobs provided by the people with money in the South … secessionists were warning non-slaveholders to protect the interests of slaveholders by stating that wealthy southerners would simply seek cheaper non-white labor if emancipation came about). Secessionists who reminded non-slaveholding whites about the consequences of emancipation also never forgot to raise the notion that freed black men would come after white women as they demanded social equality. Protecting slavery was the best way to protect white supremacy, promote prosperity and opportunity, and prevent the consequences of black equality.
Now, Mr. Jones has taken much offense at my reporting that the Virginia Flaggers erected their first interstate flagpole by a trailer park, an unfortunate choice of venue given cultural stereotypes. Surely he would not argue that the Confederate fighting man was oblivious to these arguments. Certainly he would not argue that Confederates thought that slavery was the target of Yankee meddling, and the destruction of slavery would destroy many traditions, most of all white supremacy (they would be wrong about that, of course).
Let’s put it this way: Mr. Jones is chief of heritage operations for an organization that boasts 30,000 members descended from Confederate veterans. They have access to a great deal of material. So I’d like to see some letters from Confederate soldiers that distanced themselves from the preservation of slavery or promoted emancipation for the enslaved as a good thing (as opposed, say, because of military necessity). Surely such letters must exist if Mr. Jones is correct.
Mr. Jones has told me: “I think you need to learn a little more about the background of things before you offer what you think are authoritative statements.” Go to it, Mr. Jones. Here’s your chance to enlighten me. As I said, I’m perfectly willing to compare lists of scholarly publications. You go first.