Earlier this week, a letter to the editor in the Wilson Post called for the removal of General Robert Hatton’s statue, which sits in the middle of the Lebanon town square. The letter elicited a number of online responses, many of them commenting on the writer’s ignorance regarding the Civil War’s origins. These commenters claim that the war was not about slavery.
The best way to understand why someone in the past made the choices that s/he did is to look at what s/he said or wrote. It’s not a fail-safe method, of course–people aren’t always honest. In this case, however, the secession conventions in several southern states left clear statements explaining why they were leaving the Union.
These convention statements don’t mean that every white southerner owned slaves or supported the institution (they didn’t). They don’t mean that every white northerner hated slavery and wanted racial equality (they didn’t). They don’t mean that the Lincoln administration initially saw the war as a way to end slavery (it didn’t). What they show, however, is that southern states clearly left because they feared the United States’ interference with slavery’s continuation.
Several southern states also sent commissioners to other southern states to convince their leaders to secede. They left correspondence behind that clearly shows that they used fears about the end of slavery and about racial integration should slavery end to fan the flames of secession.
Unless one believes that southern politicians coordinated a vast conspiracy to leave behind public records that hid their true intention, then it’s clear that they left the Union because they wanted to protect slavery. Whatever that means for the future of Confederate monuments and symbols today, let’s not distort history to ignore this fact.