By 2061, will we know what started the Civil War?

The Debate that Never Ends

On Tuesday, we heard the first shots of the Civil War re-enacted at Fort Sumter, 150 years after the real shots that inspired them. At first blush, it would seem that all is peace, nostalgia, and remembrance in the sesquicentennial of America's bloodiest war.

But if the letters to the editors in our state's newspapers are any indication, there is at least one issue that is still hotly contested and widely misunderstood. That, of course, is the cause of the secession and war.

I will not belabor the point here, as anyone capable of reading is capable of learning the truth. The Southern states — including South Carolina — declared very clearly and directly in their secession documents that their purpose was to defend slavery against Northern, abolitionist, and Republican imperatives.

In 1861, Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, declared, "Our new government['s] ... foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and moral condition."

It is all there in black and white. The founders of the Confederacy did not mince words.

But I was surprised at one name I found last week among the neo-secessionists and historical revisionists on the editorial and op-ed pages: Kirkpatrick Sale.

A former Vermont resident, Sale is one of America's most interesting — and perhaps most important — public intellectuals. He has written a number of books, including a history of the Students for a Democratic Society and Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy, a refreshingly different interpretation of the great explorer. But what he is most noted for in recent years is his critique of technology and its impact on human beings and the environment. Machines and capital have led to the creation of enormous corporations and empires, he writes, designed to control people and resources for the purpose of creating profit.

Sale's solution to this crisis is to create smaller states by breaking up the huge nations that now dominate the globe. He does not say much about reducing the size of corporations or human greed. This is an oversight that essentially makes him an 18th century philosopher in the 21st century. But it also makes him a secessionist, and, as such, this humanist and environmentalist has acquired some strange bedfellows among modern Confederate sympathizers.

Had it ended there, I would not have written this column. But when I opened my Post and Courier to the op-ed page on April 5, I was astounded to learn that Sale is not only dwelling among us in Mt. Pleasant, but he has become a serious historical revisionist. Specifically, Sale opined in a full-length column that slavery was not the cause of the Civil War, relying on that hoary old sophistry that somehow the war had nothing to do with slavery until Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863.

Sale writes: "The great falsehood that the Union was fighting for a high moral cause, the elimination of chattel slavery for 4 million people ... was a myth concocted later in the war when the war was going poorly for the North."

Such a reading of history suggests a failure to grasp the passions and nuances of the times.

Everybody, North and South, black and white, knew what the great issue was in the winter of 1860-61. Even before secession, Southerners in their correspondence and newspapers often referred to Northerners — all Northerners — as "abolitionists." Once the shooting started, they called the Union armies "abolitionist armies." Anybody who witnessed the fighting in Kansas in 1855, or John Brown's raid at Harpers Ferry in 1859, knew that these were proxy battles in a larger war to come, a war between North and South, between abolitionist and slaveholders.

Even the slaves themselves knew they were the subject of this great conflict. When Union troops marched onto Southern soil, they were met by throngs of slaves, fleeing their plantations, knowing they could find freedom behind Union lines. Thousands of these slaves — along with many thousands of runaways living in the North — joined the Union Army to fight for their freedom and the freedom of their families. All of this was before Lincoln made it official with the stroke of a pen.

I am actually a fan of Kirkpatrick Sale. I have read a couple of his books and several of his pieces in national magazines. But in the case of last week's column in the P&C, I think he is clearly rewriting history to serve his neo-Luddite ideology. And in the process, he seems to be attracting friends he may not want to be seen with. So I would say to him, "Welcome to the 'hood, Mr. Sale. But be careful of the company you keep."