The Confederacy and the road to war

Various flags of the confederacy during the Civil War.

Various flags of the confederacy during the Civil War.

With all the high-profile news stories we have seen recently regarding the South Carolina shootings and the ensuing commotion over flags associated with the Confederacy I thought it was about time we did a post regarding the history and causes of the Civil War. But before I begin I want to make it absolutely clear, that not only am I completely against racism in any shape or form (and this goes for all the Naked History team) but that as a Historian, the contents of this post are unbiased and objective. We condemn racial violence in all its forms, and any discussion regarding this post MUST remain tolerant of all regardless of skin colour, culture or beliefs.

The basis of the Civil War in America, has been argued to be found within the constitution itself. Written by the Founding Fathers of the United States, one of the most important passages concerned the right to overturn any government which consistently abuses and usurps the governed and was contained within the Declaration of Independence.

‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.’

When Independence was declared from Britain in 1776, the Continental Congress allowed for the protection of the rights of the population to be protected from unfair powers, taxes and so forth being imposed on them, without the lawful right to terminate that power. This right was subsequently incorporated into the Bill of Rights and further the Constitution. However when the Constitution was agreed and ratified it left out any mention or formal Bill of Rights, concluding that this would be assumed at State level. A bill was later added as a series of ten amendments by James Madison who although agreeing its omission in the first instance, came to see it as a necessity later on.
The problem started with issues arising from these various decrees of the fledgling nation. The main problems being those who contested the constitution discreetly allowed the right to hold slaves, as they were considered ‘property’ and the fact that Jefferson et al had transferred the ‘inalienable right’ to life and liberty, which meant ALL men. Pro-slavery advocates insisted that this meant all WHITE men, further that all men are created equal, also excluded black men. Jefferson, Washington and Franklin all owned slaves. It has been shown that a total of twelve US Presidents owned slaves, eight whilst in office.

As the North of America expanded with a substantial increase in population, particularly Europeans, and a rapid growth in industrialisation, the Social Class system inherited from the immigrant forefathers who settled the first colonies declined rapidly in conjunction. Gone were the days of the elite minority holding sway over a large working class majority. Now it was within the boundaries of possibility for a hard-working lower class man to invest and progress upwards to become a successful and fairly wealthy man. And this was proven time and again. The opportunities were available, and were taken. The Southern states however were still very much an agrarian region, heavy on the plantations and farmsteads of old. Cotton and Tobacco were still the staples of the states, and land was still owned by a few high-class elite and worked by a large population of slaves. It has been stated though, that the notion of all southern white men owned lots of black slaves, is a misconception.

Around 25% of the Southern families owned one or more slaves. The majority of these slave owners worked alongside of their slaves in the fields, and the largest part of them were treated moderately if not extremely well, when other comparisons were added for context. As the South were known to be deeply Christian for the most part, although slavery was claimed as accepted within the bible, many felt this did not mean they had to treat them badly. The moral responsibility of owning a slave, and the financial investment that went with buying and housing slaves, providing for their well-being and so forth, meant it was within the boundaries of common sense to ensure your slaves were well looked after. Of course, there were many that couldn’t grasp this concept and as a result subjected their slaves to harsh inhumane treatment. Probably as many in the North as in the South. We rarely hear the tales of well-kept slaves, illiteracy and various other factors no doubt play a great part in that. And from a modern apologist viewpoint, lets face it, tragedy and hardship “sells” better than “well actually, i was pretty well looked after, thanks very much.”

As further territories joined the Union, the push particularly from the South came to allow these states to become slave-states. A bill had been passed to restrict movement, import and sale of slaves at the turn of the century. The South’s issue was a congressional one. Due to their lack of voting population in comparison with the Northern States, the three-fifths compromise had been instituted which gave the Southern states a portion whereby each slave owned was representative of three fifths of a man/vote and therefore the tally gave them an extra three fifths representation in Congressional seats, which gave them an edge in elections. On the downside, it was argued that this three fifths should also be factored in when assessing the South for taxes and tariffs meaning they paid considerably more than their Northern counterparts. As they were a poorer region, their main staples being export goods, both to Britain and to the North, the increase in tariffs meant it was cheaper for their buying market, to purchase both the finished goods and the raw materials, elsewhere, causing a further loss of revenue. Congress would not allow all new territories to become slave-states, which impeded the movement of the established Southern population into these new areas.

One of the several individual flags of the confederacy, this one representing Mississippi displaying the now controversial "battle flag" in the corner.

One of the several individual flags of the confederacy, this one representing Mississippi displaying the now controversial “battle flag” in the corner.

Eventually as things grew harder, the Southern states began to talk of secession from the Union, their argument being that their right upon independence was to form a Union based on individual sovereign states, and the formation of a federal government was based on their right to opt in or opt out. As they had effectively opted out the last time a centralised government had removed their rights, they were able to use the same rules to do so again. As Lincoln was elected President, South Carolina, followed by six other slave states, withdrew themselves from the Union, and began to install their own alternative Confederation. Within a short space of time four further states joined the new Confederacy and two further states, declaring neutrality, were considered to be included within the parameters, Missouri and Kentucky.

Lincoln and Congress promptly declared the new confederation to be rebels and their government illegal. The Confederates argued that under the terms of the Constitution they were within their rights to form their own country. A blockade was then self-imposed by the breakaway states, where exports of their materials were restricted, in the hopes that the trading nations would be forced to accept their legitimacy. It backfired. England had stockpiled enough raw materials to keep themselves supplied for the foreseeable future, The Northern states bought it in from elsewhere, in particular, Southern states that remained within the union.

Now…. About that flag! The confederation produced their own seal, and designed their own flag. It was a circle of seven stars on a background of blue, cornered on a larger flag with three bars, of red and white. As time progressed, with the accompaniment of four further states into the confederacy and the two assumed, the number of stars within the circle increased to thirteen. Although the Confederate flag was unpopular with some, claims of being reminiscent of the stars and stripes of the Union, the stars and bars remained the flag of the confederation until 1863. A later design contained the familiar ‘Battle Flag of the Confederate Army’ that people recognise MISTAKENLY for the flag of the confederacy, sitting in a corner of a sea of White. This flag was designed by early white supremacist William Thompson, and was rejected as it was too white and looked like a flag of surrender. A red bar was later added to the far right of the flag, and this design was accepted in the later stages of the war, but lasted only a few months until the defeat and surrender of the Confederacy.

To this day, the flag of the Confederacy was, is and remains, the circle of stars on blue, placed on red and white bars. There were 250,000 free black men living in the confederate southern states during the civil war, many of which assisted and supported the Confederate movement in various ways – for example there were at least FIVE units of militia in the South made entirely of black soldiers. Many were unable to fight in combatant roles, and so took none combatant roles instead, and it has been offered in debate that these men were somehow coerced or forced to fight alongside their owners. This is entirely without foundation. They were FREE men, who wanted to protect their homes and families from the Union forces about whom they had heard terrible tales; Rape of wives, murder of their children, burning of their homes and so on.

The second version of the Stars and Bars showing the updated 13 stars representing the secession states of the Confederacy.The original had seven stars.

The second version of the Stars and Bars showing the updated 13 stars representing the secession states of the Confederacy.The original had seven stars.

It needs to be said, that the Confederacy itself started to break down quite quickly, as internal differences grew between its member states who disagreed on fundamental issues and the financial hardships and the emotional cost of the war began to take their toll. There was talk of further secession amongst the Confederate states. Some areas making moves to rejoin the Union, as early as 1863. We must also remember that several southern areas were Union sympathisers, and several Northern areas were Confederate sympathisers. It was not as clear cut and straightforward as north versus south. Fractures within states, Virginia for example occurred. To take this monumental event that affected an entire country and had repercussions on the fundamental laws and rights of the nation, and turn it into a simple issue of “to have slaves or not” is to grossly misrepresent an entire population, the difficult choices they had to make, and the outcome of those choices.

As with the Swastika of the Nazi party, previously a symbol of peace, and an emblem of the Boy Scout movement, more recently the attempted misappropriation of the Poppy, Symbol of remembrance of the fallen of the Great War and subsequent conflicts for 20th and 21st Century Allied military forces, which British Nationalist parties have attempted to claim as a symbol of their dedication to promoting National Pride to the exclusion of anybody who doesn’t fit that model, the battle flag of the Confederate Army has been mistakenly claimed as a symbol of something it didn’t represent, and furthermore shouldn’t. It is one symbol of a piece of American History that shaped the Nation it has become, a nation that continues to grow and learn. That war was about the rights of the Nation and the rights of the People. Not a flag.

Phoebe