Race and the War

Martin K. O'Toole, American Renaissance, January 2012

Agreement on race could not prevent our bloodiest war.

America’s greatest war — which ended slavery, devastated the South, and killed 620,000 soldiers and 50,000 civilians — does not even have an agreed-upon name. Federal zealots officially called it “The War of the Rebellion,” while Southerners generally preferred to call it “The War Between the States.” “The Civil War” is the name that seems to have stuck — despite Southern objections. As Jefferson Davis pointed out, the South did not want to rule the North; only to “be left alone.” A century and a half after the guns fell silent we still cannot agree on the names of some of the major battles: Is it Manassas or Bull Run, Sharpsburg or Antietam, Murfreesboro or Stone’s River?

What role race played in the war is, if anything, even more unsettled. Did Yankees and Confederates really disagree about the nature or status of blacks? Why did the South want independence? Did the North fight to abolish slavery? Were slaves loyal to the South and did some fight for the Confederacy? Conventional answers to these questions are not always correct. A strong case can be made for the view that North and South were essentially united on the subject of race at the time of the war, and despite the colossal struggle were quickly reunited afterwards.

A Thomas Nast illustration from Harper’s Weekly. The caption reads, “The emancipation of the Negroes, January, 1863—the past and the future.”

A Thomas Nast illustration from Harper’s Weekly. The caption reads, “The emancipation of the Negroes, January, 1863—the past and the future.”

The roots of war

By the time the war ended, many in the North flattered themselves that its goal had been abolition. The pages of Harper’sand other Northern magazines were filled with images of happy freedmen praising God and Father Abraham. It is clear, however, that the North did not start the war in order to end slavery but to maintain the Union. Many Northerners had a sentimental attachment to the nation created by the Revolution, and feared that disunion would diminish national glory and hobble manifest destiny.

There was a clear majority sentiment in the North against the expansion of slavery, but very few Northerners would have started a war to end it. However, fanatics have influence far beyond their numbers, and this was certainly true of the abolitionists. People usually associate the South with the Bible and strong opinions, but the antebellum North saw some of the most bellicose, blood-thirsty preaching—both secular and religious—ever heard in this country. It set a tone that was not representative but still alarmed the South.

The wildest abolitionists therefore held that slaveholders deserved to be exterminated. James Redpath, one of John Brown’s associates, saw a bright and bloody future. “Let nations be dismembered, let dynasties be dethroned, let laws and governments, religions and reputation be cast out,” he preached, if that was what it took to free the slaves—even to free just one slave: “If only one [black] man survived to relate how his race heroically fell, and to enjoy the freedom they had won, the liberty of that solitary negro . . . would be cheaply purchased by the universal slaughter of his people and their oppressors.”It is well known that Southerners cited the Bible to justify slavery, but abolitionists cited it as well, in sermons against “man-stealing.” They quoted 1Timothy 1:10-11, which lists “manstealers” along with “manslayers,” “whoremongers,” and “murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers” as among those who must suffer the consequences of the law. They particularly liked Exodus 21:16: “And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death.” Deuteronomy 24:7 also prescribes death for anyone who steals a man. Harriet Beecher Stowe added her voice to this view, writing that “the [Hebrew] legislation commenced making the great and common source of slavery—kidnapping—a capital crime.”

Crazed talk of this kind was unusual, but it got wide circulation in the South. Many slaveholders did not want to live in a country that gave birth to such sentiments.

.James Redpath called for the slaughter of entire populations to liberate even one slave, and called the gallows on which John Brown was hanged “the true cross.”

James Redpath called for the slaughter of entire populations to liberate even one slave, and called the gallows on which John Brown was hanged “the true cross.”

The better known abolitionists were more sober, but still used disturbing language. Senator Charles Sumner said slavery was “blasphemy” and contrary to Biblical principles. Lewis Tappan, who gained prominence in the effort to free the illegally captured slaves found aboard the Amistad, called slavery “morally wrong, wicked and sinful in the sight of God,” likening it to “murder, arson, robbery, theft and assault and battery.”

Biblically founded revulsion for “manstealing” led naturally to what was called the “Rescue Doctrine,” which justified the liberation of slaves. Many Northern states passed “personal liberty laws” that threw up obstacles to the return of escaped slaves by requiring jury trials and habeas corpus hearings. Several states, such as Wisconsin and Massachusetts, became virtual sanctuary states, because it was impossible to persuade a jury to order a Negro returned to bondage.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 should have overturned these local laws and practices, but it did not. In a curious reversal in support of states’ rights, the South looked to federal supremacy over the states to get their property back, while the North claimed broad autonomy under the doctrine of federalism.

In yet another irony, some abolitionists actually urged secession—either the virtuous North’s departure from a tainted Union or the outright expulsion of the South. William Lloyd Garrison famously burned the Constitution calling it a “covenant with death and an agreement with hell.”

Many abolitionists did not bother with the niceties of the law, believing that the Rescue Doctrine justified all means of liberation. Mobs sometime attacked Southerners who had come north to retrieve their slaves, and in one instance actually killed a slave holder. Yet another extension of the Rescue Doctrine was the encouragement of slave insurrections, and exhortations to slaves that they rise up against their masters began to appear in the 1820s. Abolitionist Henry C. Wright proclaimed that “resistance to slaveholders and slavehunters is obedience to God, and a sacred duty to man . . . . [It is] our right and duty . . . to instigate the slaves to insurrection.” The abolitionist orator Wendell Phillips called slave rebellion an expression of divine will: “Under God’s law, insurrection is the tyrant’s check. Let us stand out of the path, and allow the Divine law to have free course.”

Henry Wright said fomenting slave rebellion was duty to God.

Henry Wright said fomenting slave rebellion was duty to God.

David Walker was a black abolitionist who urged slaves not to hold back should they ever rise up: “[I]f you commence, make sure work—do not trifle, for they will not trifle with you . . . . [I]f there is an attempt made by us, kill or be killed. . . . It is no more harm for you to kill a man, who is trying to kill you, than it is for you to take a drink of water when thirsty.”

Calls for the Lord to wreak bloody vengeance on the slaveholders of Dixie reached a peak about the time of the John Brown raid of 1859. He had attended Tappan’s abolition convention in New York in 1855 on his way to Kansas, and received financial support from some of the participants. The next year, he led the Pottawatomie Massacre, in which five pro-slavery Southerners were killed.

The purpose of the raid on the Harper’s Ferry arsenal, of course, was to seize weapons, arm the slaves, and lead them in the massacre of their masters. Within 36 hours, all of Brown’s men had fled, been killed, or were captured. Brown himself was hanged, but his forthright attempt to exterminate slave-holders was a shock to the South and even to the North—at least at first. Some of Brown’s financial supporters panicked. One checked into an insane asylum and others fled the country. They recovered, however, when it became clear that for some Northerners Brown was a martyr for freedom.

No less a person than Ralph Waldo Emerson said that Brown “will make the gallows glorious like the cross.” James Redpath, who was prepared to see nations dismembered to save even one slave, managed to get a piece of Brown’s scaffold, which he called “the true cross.” Wendell Phillips wrote that “John Brown is the impersonation of God’s order and God’s law, molding a better future.” William Lloyd Garrison, who was officially a pacifist, made a speech in Boston on the day Brown was hanged, in which he said, “[W]henever commenced, I cannot but wish success to all slave insurrections.”

Henry David Thoreau was another alleged pacifist who set aside his scruples against violence, calling Brown “an angel of light.” He wrote that he agreed with Brown’s doctrine that “a man has a perfect right to interfere by force with the slaveholder, in order to rescue the slave.” He added that although he disdained the use of weapons, he wrote that in the case of Brown’s raid, “I think that for once the Sharps rifles and the revolvers were employed in a righteous cause.”

John Brown, hero to pacifist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

John Brown, hero to pacifist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In the South, the fact that so many Northerners praised Brown rather than condemn him caused, if anything, more shock than the raid itself.

There are many even today who heap praise on a man better considered a terrorist. Brown biographer Richard Owen Boyer calls him “an American who gave his life so that millions of other Americans might be free.” Another biographer, Stephen B. Oates, calls him “one of the most perceptive human beings of his generation.” Historian and Brown scholar Louis Ruchames wrote: “Brown’s action was one of great idealism and placed him in the company of the great liberators of mankind.” Perhaps we should not be surprised to learn that when someone once asked Malcolm X if there had ever been “any good white people,” he proposed John Brown.

The raid did not reduce support for Republicans in the elections of November—something Southerners noted with dismay. With the collapse of the Whigs under the pressure of the slavery issue, Southerners felt increasingly marginalized and even singled out as deserving capital punishment.

Republicans also promoted a sharp criticism of slavery called The Impending Crisis of the South, written by a Southerner named Hinton Rowan Helper. Sixty-nine Republican Congressmen endorsed the book, which became an official party tract—the Republican party distributed an estimated 100,000 copies. Helper, who was vilified in his native North Carolina, was blunt:

Our own banner is inscribed: “No co-operation with slaveholders in politics; no fellowship with them in religion; no affiliation with them in society; no recognition of pro-slavery men, except as ruffians, outlaws and criminals.”

He also wrote: “It is our honest conviction that all the pro-slavery slaveholders deserve at once to be reduced to a parallel with the basest criminals that lie fettered within the cells of our public prisons.” His book called for the election of Republicans so that slavery could be abolished. (Although Helper opposed slavery, like many abolitionists, he was even more opposed to the presence of free blacks. He proposed that slaveholders be taxed to raise the money to ship all blacks outside the country.)

Lincoln was elected with only 39 percent of the popular vote in a four-way race. He did not call for abolition, but refrained from public assurances that might have allayed the fears of Southerners. In any case, the stances his party had taken, along with the blood-curdling talk of John Brown’s admirers left many in the South with the conviction that their section had no future in the Union.

Agreement, North and South

The quotations cited above that so disturbed the South represented a minority view. Most Yankees fought to preserve the Union. They did not want slavery in their states, but they did not want free blacks either. They had little desire to abolish slavery in the South but were manipulated by an increasingly abolitionist administration that took advantage of the war to emancipate the slaves.


It was basic agreement—North and South—on the undesirability of living on terms of equality with blacks that led the North to give the South home rule on racial matters when Reconstruction collapsed after the war. Although they were no longer slaves, Southern blacks enjoyed only a brief period of legal equality before being reduced to second-class citizenship. The North would never have permitted this had there not been a broad, long-standing agreement across the sections about the need for racial distinctions.

This agreement dated back to the founders, who did not consider non-whites to be Americans. At the time of the Declaration of Independence all the colonies recognized slavery. In 1786, New Jersey discouraged free blacks from moving into the state, noting that “sound public policy requires that importation be prohibited in order that white labour be protected.”

Homogeneity, not diversity, was America’s greatest strength. In 1787, in the second of The Federalist Papers, John Jay wrote that “Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country, to one united people; a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs.”

It is well known that the first American citizenship law, passed on March 26, 1790, limited naturalization to “free white persons,” and thus left out indentured servants, slaves, free blacks, Indians, and Asians.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 barred slavery in the territories, but the first three General Assemblies of the territory also discouraged the immigration of free blacks by voting a head tax on every black over the age of 21. Nor could blacks serve as witnesses against whites.

There was a proposal to allow slavery at the Illinois constitutional convention of 1824, but it was defeated 57 to 43 percent. Much of the “nay” vote reflected the desire to have no blacks in the state, slave or free. Free blacks were required to have a “Certificate of Freedom” in order to move into the state, and to post a $1,000 bond to settle in a particular county (Ohio required only $500). Anyone without a certificate could be seized, and bound over for indenture.

Certificate of freedom for the mulatto Harriet Bolling.

Certificate of freedom for the mulatto Harriet Bolling.

There were similar explicitly anti-black laws in Indiana, Michigan, and Iowa, and even in the West. Blacks were barred from moving into the state of Oregon, and those who were already there were barred from owning real estate, making contracts, or bringing law suits. Many states, including Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, Iowa and even California banned testimony by blacks in any case in which a white was a party.

In 1829, the whites of Cincinnati, Ohio, tried to expel their resident blacks, and half went to Canada. The whites found, however, that they had driven out the “sober, industrious and useful portion of the colored population,” and that those who stayed were the “idle and indolent, as well as the profligate.” When Tocqueville wrote in Of Democracy in America(published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840) that American whites disliked blacks, he was describing a reality that was plain to anyone.

In May 1856, the Supreme Court of Indiana ruled against a black man who sought to bring a black woman into the state in order to marry her. The decision was blunt: “The policy of the state is thus clearly evolved. It is to exclude any further ingress of negroes, and to remove those already among us as speedily as possible.”


The famed Dred Scott decision of 1857 established that black people were not citizens of the United States. The 7 to 2 decision held that although they could be citizens of states, they were not citizens of the United States and therefore lacked the right to sue in federal court.

Justice Peter V. Daniel joined with the majority, explaining that emancipation had no bearing on federal citizenship. Drawing on Roman law, he argued that the relationship between master and slave was a private one while the relationship between the citizen and the state was public. A master could change his private relationship with a slave by freeing him, but only government could grant citizenship.

Roger Taney, the chief justice who wrote the majority decision, added that slavery arose out of an ancient conviction that Negroes were “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the White race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior that they had no rights which a White man was bound to respect.”

The New York City draft riots of July 1863, were a vivid indicator of how ordinary Northerners felt about blacks. Most of the 50,000 to 70,000 rioters were working-class men who were angry that rich men could buy their way out of the draft. However, Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation earlier that year, and many whites were furious at the thought of being forced to fight for emancipation.

When Union General Godfrey Weitzel captured “several hundred wagon-loads of Niggers,” a Northern cartoonist compared his dilemma to that of a man who won a raffle for an elephant: “What am I to do with the creature?”

When Union General Godfrey Weitzel captured “several hundred wagon-loads of Niggers,” a Northern cartoonist compared his dilemma to that of a man who won a raffle for an elephant: “What am I to do with the creature?”

Rioters quickly focused their anger on blacks, lynching at least 11 and burning down the Colored Orphan Asylum, home to 200 black children. “Kill the damned nigger!” was the mobs refrain. It took 20,000 federal troops and three batteries of artillery to calm what was clearly a vicious outpouring of mob hatred against blacks.

In 1865, at the end of the war, the people of Wisconsin took part in a ballot on whether blacks should be given the franchise; only 46 percent voted in favor. In that year 19 of 24 northern states barred blacks from the polls. Only after the adoption of the 14th Amendment in 1868 were blacks considered citizens of the United States. Indians did not become citizens until the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, and the “white persons” clause in the citizenship law barred some Asians from naturalization until 1952.

A strong case can therefore be made that North and South were united in their basic view of blacks, and that it was only the differing circumstances in the sections that caused friction. Both regions set up a system of race control because white Americans did not envision social or political equality with a group they considered inferior. In the North, blacks were held at a distance, and in some areas simply forced out. The South controlled blacks through slavery, in a system that often did not allow even for the idea of free blacks. Many slave states forced blacks to leave if they were emancipated.

Conflicting policies arose because of historical and economic differences in the regions. Because slave labor was more profitable in the South, the region contained vastly more blacks. At the time of the 1850 census, it was 37.3 percent black. The Northeast—the hotbed of abolitionism—was only 1.7 percent black. In the Midwest, even including the slave state of Missouri with a population that was 13 percent black, blacks were still only 2.5 percent of the population.

Outside the South, there was strong sentiment to keep the region white. The Free Soil movement was designed to reserve the newly opened Western lands for white men. The Wilmot Proviso, which would have banned slavery from any territory acquired after the Mexican-American War, was also meant to keep out free blacks. David Wilmot called his measure “the white man’s proviso.”

The large population of blacks in the South dictated very different policies. Early support for manumission was coupled with plans for repatriation, but both the expense and the loss of human capital meant colonization was never tried seriously. Some estimates put the value of slaves at 20 percent of the gross wealth of the antebellum South. Southerners therefore tried to promote the “positive good” defense of slavery—which never convinced anyone outside the South—and sought to maintain a political balance by expanding slavery.

In other slave societies, it was common to move from chains to liberty. Romans, for example, viewed Greek slaves as fit tutors for their children, and acknowledged that Greek culture had much to teach them. This made it easy for a freed Greek slave to become a Roman citizen. Probably no one in the antebellum North or South considered blacks to be fit tutors for their children or sought to learn the philosophy of Africans. The racial divide was simply too great. Southerners therefore had no choice: either maintain slavery or live with free blacks in conditions that no whites, Northern or Southern, would have considered acceptable.

A slave doing calculations for his Roman master.

A slave doing calculations for his Roman master.

Hatred of slavery in the North and violent talk of abolition pushed the South out of Union. The North fought to preserve the Union. The war, with all its tragic consequences, came despite basic agreement about race.

It was this basic agreement that led the mass of northern whites to recognize that Reconstruction forced onto Southerners a kind of racial equality Northerners would not have accepted for themselves. It was a shared dislike of blacks that largely explains why, after war fever declined, the majority of Northerners lost interest in forcing Reconstruction onto the South. As soon as Southern whites regained some measure of home rule, they reinstituted a two-tiered society that reflected the pre-war agreement between North and South that blacks were not really part of America.

The freedoms of whites

It is not well known that before the war, the Southern states limited the liberties of whites in order to protect slavery. In the minds of slaveholders, the abusive and sometimes violent language of the radical abolitionists was criminal sedition that had to be stopped. The South therefore curtailed free speech and the right to petition for redress of grievance, both of which are fundamental rights guaranteed by the First Amendment (though at the time it applied only to the federal government). Abolitionist agitation was outlawed, and anti-slavery tracts were kept out of the US Mail.

Why would the South take such oppressive measures? Simply put, Southerners feared that slavery rested on too precarious a foundation to permit certain liberties. The rare slave revolts in the United States and the blood bath of the Haitian revolt convinced Southerners that their race-control system must be preserved—even at the cost of basic freedoms. There were forms of criticism that could not be tolerated in a biracial America.

Today, in multiracial America, we find that the intellectual descendants of the abolitionists have adopted the tactics of the slave holders of the 19th century. Although they do not say so explicitly, they recognize that multiracial America is too fragile to permit the full exercise of the liberties envisioned by the founders. Liberals believe that frank discussion of race is not merely insensitive or rude—though that would be enough for them to ban it; they believe it could lead to mass murder. Offenders face government or private sanction, and sometimes both.

Liberty of expression and freedom of inquiry simply cannot be permitted in a multiracial state. The multiracial state is therefore a slave state, in which its residents have the task of forging their own mental fetters.Certain views are banned in America, just as arguments for abolition were banned in the South. Newspapers often refuse to print certain opinions and even certain facts. Internet sites censor heretical views, and some servers block objectionable websites. Private filtering programs treat race realism as if it were pornography. Institutions that claim to be of higher learning enforce speech codes and stop unfashionable inquiry. The European Union has gone further, and punishes the expression of certain opinions with fines and jail time.

Liberals and egalitarians appear to believe that whatever Nature has ordained, the races can be made equal. All it takes is more set-asides, affirmative action, Head Start, and forced integration. Today’s racial conversation is therefore not about facts, but a series of assertions about how the world should be. The neo-Abolitionists have imposed far more uniformity than any “gag rule” of the 1830s, with the result that public debate about race is more constrained than even in the antebellum South.

Today, the words of Leo Tolstoy could not be more relevant:

I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.

[Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the January 2012 issue of American Renaissance.]

Topics: , , ,

Share This

Martin K. O'Toole
Mr. O’Toole holds degrees in history and law.
We welcome comments that add information or perspective, and we encourage polite debate. If you log in with a social media account, your comment should appear immediately. If you prefer to remain anonymous, you may comment as a guest, using a name and an e-mail address of convenience. Your comment will be moderated.