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Why Americans Want to Believe

the Civil War Was Fought To Free The Slaves  

by Vernon R. Padgett, Ph.D.

3 November  2004
www.globalresearch.ca 6 November 2004

The URL of this article is: http://globalresearch.ca/articles/PAD411A.html

We like simplicity.  "The War was Fought Over Slavery," or The North Fought to Free The Slaves," is simple, as simple as a Pepsi commercial.  For a society raised on Pepsi commercials, the One Factor theory (slavery) has enormous appeal.   

We like to believe that Good Guys Win in the end.  Since the blue uniforms won, then what they fought for must have been the right thing.  We won all our other wars, except a few that we don't talk about, and we were the good guys in all those wars.  (World War I is still hard to figure out—whatever did we get into that for?-- that's another essay.)  

Unknown Facts About Slavery

How do we fit "The North Fought to Free The Slaves" with these annoying facts about slavery--

      1. Lincoln didn't emancipate the slaves until about halfway through the war;

      2. Lincoln fired two generals who did free slaves in 1861 and 1862;

      3. Lincoln didn't emancipate any slaves under his actual control (imagine U.S. President George W. Bush stating today that the minimum wage is now going to be $20 an hour-- in Mexico and Canada);  

      4. The underground railroad didn't stop at the Mason/Dixon line. It reached all the way to Canada .  Why?  Because such states as Illinois , the Land of Lincoln , had laws that a black could be whipped if found within the state for more than three days;

      5. There were five slave states among the Northern states, and slavery was legal in these five Northern states after the "emancipation" of slaves that were not under Northern control;

      6. Lincoln 's idea of how to deal with emancipated slaves was to send them to Africa , and a new African country was created for this purpose;

      7. Slavery was legal in the north even after the fall of the Confederacy; and

      8. The flag that flew over slave ships was the United States ' Stars and Stripes, never a Confederate flag. 

Do we want to bring up these facts about slavery?--

      9. That Africans were captured by other Africans to be sold into slavery?

     10. That Africans sold other Africans to Northern, not to Southern, slave dealers, for transport in Yankee slave ships? 

     11. That blacks as well as whites owned slaves? 

     12. That the institution of slavery had never been safer than in 1860?   Lincoln personally supported a new constitutional amendment protecting slavery forever, which he signed, which Congress had passed, and Illinois had already ratified, when war broke out.  

"The institution of slavery had never been more secure for the slave owners, with the Supreme Court in their back pocket, with the Constitution itself expressly protecting slavery, and mandating the return of fugitive slaves everywhere -- a mandate Lincoln said he would enforce; with Lincoln also declaring he had no right to interfere with slavery and no personal inclination to do so; with Lincoln personally supporting a new constitutional amendment protecting slavery forever . . . There is nothing the South could have asked for, for the protection of slavery, that wouldn't have been gladly provided, just as long as the South remained in the Union" (Adams, 2000). 

     13. That there were more free blacks in the South than in the North in 1860?  According to the United States Census of 1860, the free states had 222,745 Free Negroes, and the slave states had 259,078 free blacks.  These numbers were given in a small New York Times article on 31 March 1862 , with the note that "the slave-holding states have given a wider extension to the principle of emancipation than the non-slaveholding states.  This is a fact which should not be forgotten by those who would admire philanthropy in deed rather than in words." 

     14. Slavery would have ended in America within a generation without war, as it became economically unsatisfactory.  Racism, which we find at least as much in the North, is not the basis for slavery -- economic advantage is, and slavery was on its way out as it lost its economic advantage to machinery.  

As far as I have been able to tell, the above statements, with the exception of the last one, are facts -- They are not an author's opinion; they are matters of public record. 

Who Else Fought for the South?

Also, talking about blacks fighting for the South brings up other questions that annoy many folks, for example, "Who else fought for the Confederacy?"  We don't like to accept that blacks fought for the Confederacy because the next question is what about other minorities? -- Indians?  (Most fought for the South); Hispanics?  (Most fought for the South); and Jews?  (While U.S. Grant was issuing his General Order No. 11, an order that could have served as a blueprint for Hitler in the 1930s, the Confederacy had a Jew, Judah Benjamin, holding three Cabinet positions and serving as President Davis's most trusted adviser). 

Given these facts, how can anyone say "the North Fought to Free the Slaves" or "The Civil War was Fought to End Slavery?" 

If it is not hard enough to say that, given the above evidence, it is harder yet, when one considers the body of evidence on black Confederates.  If many blacks were shooting at Union soldiers, can we say that the Northern soldiers were there "to free the slaves"?  If many blacks chose to fight for the South, how could the War have been exclusively concerned with slavery?  Maybe there were other issues.  Now we might have to examine economic factors.   Like the Morrill Tariff of March 1861, the largest tariff in American history, a 47% tax paid to the federal government — of which 84% stayed in the North-- In the 1830s and 1840s, federal revenue collected amounted to $107,500,000, with the South paying $90 million and the North $17.5 million (Adams, 2000, p. 27).   

How many black Confederates is "many"?  A few hundred slaves or free blacks would not force us to reconsider our view of black Confederates.  But what if tens of thousands of blacks, both free and slave, fought for the Confederacy, not just in the army in subsidiary roles, but also in combat?  Then we would have to consider why individual black Southerners fought.  Some were slave owners themselves, and/or occupied respected positions in their communities as Free Men of Color (especially in Louisiana and Virginia) or Free Women of Color ( Charleston-- 6000 free blacks, mostly women).   

There is a large body of evidence, from every state in the Confederacy, much of it in the United States government's Official Record of the War of the Rebellion , documenting the service of black Confederates in combat, as well as their service as teamsters, cooks, musicians, nurses, hospital stewards, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, shoemakers, sappers, pioneers, foragers, working to take care of horses and mules, hostlers, and of course as servants and laborers, both skilled and unskilled. 

Given the numbers of blacks who filed, and were awarded pensions in Tennessee , South Carolina , and other Southern states in the 1920s and 1930s, many tens of thousands must have served in the Confederate armed forces-- 250 in Tennessee alone were awarded Confederate Colored Man's Pensions between 1921 and 1936.  

How many thousands of blacks must have served Tennessee in the Civil War, for as many as 250 to still be alive by 1921?  They also had to meet other conditions, such as finding two members of their unit to vouch for their service and they had to have been in service at the end of the war.  Given these and other strict conditions, some 7,000 to 15,000 blacks must have served Tennessee , and if the Tennessee example holds across the South, some 70,000 to 150,000 blacks must have served the Confederacy.  

Despite the factual record based on the Official Record, Southern State Pension applications, and hundreds of individual accounts of black Southern soldiers in battle, fighting for their homes and families in the South, many still refuse to accept the evidence, and reject the idea of black Confederates out of hand.  Some say they were "forced" to fight. 

But how to we explain black Confederate George Washington Yancey, captured with the Georgia militia, escaped and found his way back to his Southern unit, was captured again at Missionary Ridge, escaped a second time, found his unit at Atlanta and fought with them, and was captured a third time, at Macon, escaped from federal custody a third time, and served the Confederacy for the rest of the war as a forager?  How exactly was he "forced" to serve the Confederacy? 

How do we explain why black Confederate Louis Napoleon Nelson stated after the War that he "rode with Forrest in every major battle," and why he attended 39 United Confederate Reunions, and insisted that he be buried with his medals from those UCV reunions?  How was Private Nelson forced to do those things? 

How to we explain why 38 blacks attended the 1890 Alabama reunion of the United Confederate Veterans?  Who was "forcing" all 38 of these blacks, 25 years after the war, after reconstruction, etc.?   Look at the Alabama UCV photo—judge the evidence for yourself:  http://blackconfederates.tripod.com/

We disbelieve in black Confederates because it leads to questioning that the war was "about slavery."  We disbelieve in black Confederates because otherwise we would eventually get around to the question: "So What Was The War About?"-- Why were 360,000 Northern boys and men killed?  For what were their lives spent?  What would you say to a 19 year-old man, dying in front of the wall at Fredericksburg , as to why his life was taken?  That is a hard question. 

Why Did Northerners Fight?

We all understand why 250,000 Southerners died.  They died defending their homes and families from an enemy who affected a scorched earth policy rivaled in warfare only by Napoleon in Spain in 1808, or the Nazis and Soviets in WWII. 

But why did Northerners fight? 

No one really knows why men go away to war to fight.  They don't fight for their flag, or their country, or God-- they fight for their comrades (e.g., Remarque; Kirst, Böll; McPherson; Ambrose).  Southerners fought because the North invaded the South.  Why did Northerners fight?  We do not want to ask that question, and discussing why blacks fought for the South leads us ultimately to the question:  Why did anyone fight for the North?  We know why 1 of 5 of them fought-- they were not Americans-- but were literally off the boat from Germany or Ireland .  Step off the boat at Ellis Island , and step into a New York Infantry Regiment.  Fight in order to get your citizenship.  But what about the other 4 of 5?  

Slavery had died out everywhere else in the world except Brazil , and was on its way out in the Southern states.  Was the death of 600,000 Americans worth the ending of slavery some 10 or 20 years sooner? 

Can Modern Psychology Help?

Can modern psychology help?  Psychology is the study of human behavior and cognitive processes.  Heider's Balance Theory and Festinger's Cognitive Dissonance Theory help explain why we believe what we believe, when the evidence fails to objectively support those beliefs. 

In the classic 1959 experiment, students at the University of Minnesota were paid $1 or $20 to lie to the next student in line to do their part of the test procedure.  In 1959, $1 and $20 were like $5 and $100 in today's dollars.  The lie they had to tell to the next student was that the boring procedure was "really very interesting."  Later they were surveyed on just how interesting they thought it was.  The students paid the $100 for lying rated the boring task as-- boring.  However, the students paid only $5 to lie rated the task as very interesting.  They had come to believe in their own lie. 

Festinger explained these discrepant findings by a new concept:  Cognitive Dissonance.  His reasoning was that the students paid $100 had sufficient justification for their lie-- they had the $100.  In their minds, they might have thought about it this way:  "I was paid very nicely to tell a small lie, and for another $100 I'd do it again!"  But what about those students who were paid only $5?  They were not paid well for lying-- so how did they justify the lie?  They could not-- who would lie for what barely amounts to lunch money?  The lying did not balance with their belief that they were basically honest people, and the reward for lying did not justify the lie.  

So these lying students rearranged their beliefs-- and remembered the boring procedure as actually very interesting.  If the procedure really was interesting, then they had not told a lie.  This brought their behavior (lying) into balance with their beliefs about themselves (they were not liars).  This research has been replicated thousands of times, and is among the most widely-accepted findings of 20th century psychology. 

Applying Psychology To Understanding Why We Believe

What does this have to do with believing the North fought to "Free the Slaves" or that the Civil War was fought to free the slaves?  First:  Consider World War II.  Imagine for a moment a huge scale of justice.  On the one hand place the Nazis-- and on the other hand, the Holocaust of 10 million Jews and others-- Soviet POWs, Polish civilians, gypsies, homosexuals, German mentally retarded and mentally ill.  On the one hand, the greatest criminals of the 20th century, and on the other hand:  The greatest crime.  There is a rough balance-- the two fit together in this imaginary scale of justice. 

Move to 1963, and the assassination of President Kennedy.  The suspect was an unemployed, nondescript bum, Lee Oswald.  The evidence was that he acted alone.  There was no balance there-- a strong, young, vibrant U.S. president on the one hand, and on the other, a nameless bum with a $14 mail order Italian army surplus rifle.  

What happens when there is this discrepancy between beliefs?  We revise our beliefs to bring them into balance-- like the students did in the 1959 lying study—like many of us did with the JFK assassination. 

In the assassination of JFK, many of us in fact simply rejected the evidence.  We believed instead that a vast conspiracy caused the death of JFK-- the Mafia did it.  Or, the CIA did it.  Or the KGB, or FBI, or LBJ, or the Martians .... There are 5000 books on the Kennedy assassination, with nearly as many theories on who killed Kennedy.  In each of these cases, a cognitive balance is achieved.  A young president on the one hand, and forces on the other hand of such magnitude-- the FBI, CIA , U.S. Army, Soviet KGB--  those provide a rough balance on that huge imaginary scale of justice.  If you have any doubts that Oswald acted alone, read Gerald Posner's 1993 Case Closed .  It answers every problem with the evidence in the JFK assassination.  Oswald did act alone-- case closed.

Back to the Civil War, and the death of 600,000 Americans:  What balances the unprecedented loss of American life-- a loss greater than that of all other wars combined?  Let's look at reasons typically given for why the North fought against the South.  

1. Getting even for Fort Sumter ?  No-- Some still harp "You started it," but mature adults who can think past their last fist fight tend to look for deeper reasons for the unprecedented slaughter of 1861-1865.  But did the war really start “because” of Fort Sumter ?  True, Fort Sumter was fired on, and the history books record that the war started, but why didn’t the war start earlier, when South Carolina fired on a federal ship—Captain M’Gowan’s report, in the Official Records , New York, Saturday, Jan 12, 18 61:  “When we arrived about two miles from Fort Moultrie, Fort Sumter being about the same distance . . . where there was a red Palmetto flag flying, opened fire upon us-- about five-eighths of a mile.  We continued on under the fire of the battery for over ten minutes, several of the shots going clear over us.  One shot passed clear of the pilot-house, another passed between the smoke-stack and walking beams to the engine, another struck the ship just abaft the fore-rigging and stove in the planking, while another came within an ace of carrying away the rudder.”  Why didn’t the war start “because” of that incident?  True, no one was killed.  But no one was killed in the attack on Fort Sumter either.  Some state that the war started at Fort Sumter because the new president wanted war, and Sumter provided the right excuse, and it would have started at Fort Pickens the following week if it hadn’t started at Sumter (Current, 1963; Adams, 2000).  

     2. Settling States Rights issues?  No, that doesn't have the deep appeal to match the deaths of more than half a million Americans.  Who can talk about 600,000 dead Americans, and then argue that all that was for "States Rights"?  Few people want to couple legalistic argument with the absence of a father, son, and brother from every home in the South-- and every 5th or 6th home in the North. 

     3. Settling Tariff issues?  No.  Same problem-- only scholars on the tariff see a deep role in that war for tax issues, and few others want to acknowledge that 600,000 Americans died to settle any tax problems.  In our minds, tax issues on the one hand, and on the other, the death of a family member from every home-- they just don't provide the balance we need.  

     4. Preserve our Great Experiment in Democracy!  This was the "Great Northern Cause" until nearly halfway through the war.  Union soldiers died to ... preserve the Union To force South Carolina back into the Union .  Imagine today that North Dakota leaves the country.  Who would give their life to force North Dakota back?  Does anyone today believe that Union boys died because they wanted to force South Carolina back into a country she didn't want to be in?  Even abolitionist Horace Greeley said "let our erring sisters go in peace."  Why should I care if North Dakota , or South Carolina , or 11 other states, leave the Union Why should I give my live, or the lives of my family members, to force them to stay with the rest of the country?  Did a single Northerner buy this line?  Imagine that your ex-wife or husband suddenly discovered that "there is no constitutional right to secede" from your legal marriage, and now they had to be forced back into Union with you.  Would you want them back? 

Did the South want to destroy the "Great Experiment in Democracy"?  If the South won, would the United States have disappeared?  No, they still would have been there, still with the same government, same constitution (written by Southerners), same president, same congress, same everything, except 11 states. 

If you believe that the South wanted to take over the Northern states, then you might believe that the Civil War was fought to preserve the "great experiment in democracy."  President Davis is not remembered for quotable lines, but "All we ask is to be left alone" shows the falsehood of this claim for why the North fought.  And finally, we get to reason number 5.

5. To End Slavery.  


Americans believe the War was about Ending Slavery because that is the only cause that provides the cognitive balance we need to justify the death of 600,000 Americans.  Many of us will never believe that Lee Oswald acted alone in killing John Kennedy, because there is no sense of balance between the stature of the president and the stature of the assassin.  In the same way we believe that the KGB and the Martians, or whoever, killed JFK, so we believe the Civil War was fought to end slavery. 

In spite of pages of facts that show that the North had slave states, that the North was at least as racist as anywhere else; in spite of evidence that tens of thousands of Southern blacks fought in defense of the Confederacy, in spite of the evidence that slavery would have died on its own within a generation, many of us still believe that the Civil War was fought to end slavery, because those other reasons just don't provide the cognitive balance that justifies wasting the lives of 600,000 American men. 


Share comments or corrections with me at [email protected]

Vernon R. Padgett

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