Another brief interlude - for histr'y's sake.

Posted by Whit Barringer , Monday, June 09, 2008 4:16 PM

Matt Yglesias, a blogger for The Atlantic, dabbles in Civil War history for a moment today. He was responding to Publius' post on the end of the Civil War, and how it was ultimately to our benefit that Robert E. Lee did not pursue a guerrilla war after the South had lost. Matt disagrees not with the "Thank God for good sense" sentiment, but more to the fact that there would have been a chance for guerrilla warfare at all:

I'm not sure that reflects a correct understanding of the strategic conflict during the Civil War. It's true that in a conventional war of national liberation, this kind of guerilla strategy would be the expected line for the Confederacy to take. But the rebels had a very specific goal in mind -- they seceded from the Union after Lincoln's electoral victory because they wanted to preserve slavery. It's very hard to see, however, how a guerilla strategy could have been consistent with the goal of maintaining slavery or the plantation economy.
I commented with this:

I'll respectfully disagree with that analysis of what the Confederacy was fighting for. Yes, slavery was part of it. It was as much a part of the cause of going to war as it was for Lincoln to adopt it as one of the reasons to keep fighting. But the primary reason? It was about states' rights more than any of the rest of it, because the South felt that the North was violating them in more ways than competing for slave/non-slave states.

Slavery is so often cited as the reason for the war. While it's wrapped in big flashing blinking letters, it wasn't the only reason, or even the primary reason. In the eyes of the South, there was more at stake than losing slaves. If it was only about slaves, then the non-slave holding South wouldn't have gotten involved. Around 1/3 of the South owned slaves at the beginning of the war, and it's very loosely estimated that close to 1/3 of the Southern armies came from slave-holding families (though I've heard it estimated lower than this).

So, for your original hypothesis, it would still make since for guerrillas to fight for states' rights and independence, as they do all over the world now. You're right about guerrillas fighting for slavery. It would be a hopeless cause if there ever was one. But states' rights? That's the stuff of revolutions.
I understand Matt's point, but I also see that he's missed the boat a bit on what the Southerners were trying preserve. Their way of life was not to go out and beat slaves all day, as revisionists often believe. Slavery was an horrid institution and the world is better to be rid of it, but it mischaracterized the demographics of the South when roughly 2/3 or more of the population didn't even own slaves. No, there were other reasons for these people to fight.

Let's put it another way: If your neighbors are so upset about gas prices for their SUVs and Hummers and decide to go to war (metaphorically or otherwise) with an oil-producing country to preserve their way of life, would you fight if you didn't even have a car? Or would you fight, for lack of choice, when that oil-holding country invaded your land? I don't believe it was much different than that for our ancestors.

But don't worry about it. It will never happen, right?

1 Response to "Another brief interlude - for histr'y's sake."

Jeremy Says:

Fair point, Whit -

I had an amazing US History teacher in High School (now a prof. at UALR) and he opened my eyes to the fact that there was more to the civil war than the slavery "bedtime story." Like all the bedtime stories, there's a kernel of truth to it, but it's far more complicated that that.

So, here's to the truth - good, bad, and complicated!


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