A Minute With...

Civil War expert Bruce Levine

4/8/2011  8:00 am

The American Civil War marks 150 years this month. It was April 12, 1861, when Confederate batteries fired on federal Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, S.C., starting four years of bloody, costly warfare and wrenching change. University of Illinois historian Bruce Levine (pronounced La-VEEN) has written extensively about the war and its consequences, especially for the South. He discussed some of the common myths and misconceptions about the conflict in an interview with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.

First of all, what do you think qualifies something as a myth, versus just another interpretation of history?

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A myth is an entrenched but inaccurate belief that persists by ignoring or denying the evidence. An interpretation is based on evidence and draws plausible conclusions from that evidence. 

What are some common myths about what caused the war, or at least caused the South to leave the Union?

Many people continue to believe that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery – that the South tried to leave the Union to protect “states’ rights” in general or because it objected to the Republican Party’s stand on tariffs or other unrelated matters. But the record of the North-South conflict during the 40 or so years before the war shows unmistakably that slavery was central to it. And the leaders of the secession movement said as much in 1860-61. They left the Union because they believed that Lincoln’s election imperiled the security of slavery, an institution that they considered essential to their own happiness and prosperity.

Lincoln gets pegged with a wide collection of what you label as myths – he fought only to save the Union, or fought only to free the slaves, or cared nothing about slaves. How do you explain these perceptions, and what’s closest to the truth?

It is, of course, a mistake to think that Lincoln went to war in 1861 in order to abolish slavery in the southern states. He went to war to preserve the Union. But secession (and therefore war) only occurred because of the stand that Lincoln and the Republicans took concerning slavery.

Lincoln had detested slavery since his youth. He considered it unjust and inhumane and bad for the country as a whole in many ways. He did not believe that the U.S. Constitution permitted a president to interfere with slavery within the states.

But during the 1850s, Lincoln joined others in helping to create the new Republican Party in order to stop slavery from spreading any further within the United States and its territories. Like many others, furthermore, Lincoln thought that if slavery could be restricted to the states where it already existed, it would eventually die out even there. It was widely assumed that – for economic, social and political reasons – slavery needed to expand in order to survive.

Let’s also remember that if Lincoln had been willing to preserve the Union at all costs, he could have done so. Many called upon him in 1860-61 to avoid or reverse secession by backing down on the subject of slavery’s expansion. He steadfastly refused to do that, and his party backed him up.

As the war began, how united was the South in its support for the cause? After all, you note that only about a third of all white families in the Confederacy owned slaves.

Many non-slaveholders also valued slavery because they benefited from it indirectly in various ways. Probably more importantly, most non-slaveholding southern whites endorsed slavery because they believed strongly in white supremacy – and they thought only slavery could keep black people in a firmly subordinate position. And then, of course, once the war actually began and Union troops entered the southern states, other non-slaveholders could be induced to fight for the Confederacy in the name of protecting their family and friends and to repel “alien” intruders.

But from the very outset, some non-slaveholding white southerners – especially in the hills and mountains and some other districts – opposed secession and remained opposed throughout the war. Thousands joined Union army regiments. The western counties of Virginia refused to participate in secession, and many there resisted secession with arms in hand. Here was the origin of the modern state of West Virginia. Other people tried unsuccessfully to do the same thing in eastern Tennessee.

Likewise, how important was ending slavery for northerners as a reason for fighting as the war began?

Only a rather small minority of northerners went to war for the purpose of abolishing slavery. Most fought first and foremost to preserve the Union. But that’s not the end of the story. Northern Democrats may have been interested only in saving the Union. But more than half of all voters in the free states had cast their ballots for Lincoln and his party in 1860. They, too, wanted to defend the Union – but like Lincoln himself they also wanted to see that Union eventually rid itself of slavery.


Levine is the J. G. Randall Distinguished Professor of history and a professor of African American Studies. His books include “Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves During the Civil War” and “Half Slave & Half Free: The Roots of Civil War.” An upcoming book, scheduled for release next year, is tentatively titled “The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Confederacy’s Defeat and Slavery’s Destruction.” (A news release about some of the themes of that book can be found here).

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