The clock on the fireplace mantel along the far wall still ticks away the seconds. On May 10, 1863, that same clock, in that same place, ticked away the last few hours of Stonewall Jackson’s life. When he died, at 3:15 p.m., many said that the last hopes of Confederate independence died with him. No less an authority than David Lloyd George, former British Prime Minister, said, “That old house witnessed the downfall of the Southern Confederacy. No doubt the history of America would have to be rewritten had ‘Stonewall’ Jackson lived.”
It’s a couple days before Independence Day, and I’m working at the Stonewall Jackson Shrine, a historic site run by the National Park Service within the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. The Shrine provides a contemplative environment, but several disparate elements converge today that give me something unexpected to mull over.
If people associate the Civil War with the Fourth of July, they typically think of the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863, and the fall of Vicksburg, Mississippi on the following day, July 4. Northerners called it “The most glorious Fourth” because of the double victories.
Otherwise, the Fourth of July gets typically reserved for the Founders: Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Adams—all striking classical poses and wearing funny clothes.
But when I’m feeling particularly inflammatory, I’ll blame Jefferson for the Civil War. After all, he’s the one who wrote the words “All men are created equal.” As a prose stylist, he understood the hyperbolic flourish of those words; as a Virginia slaveholder, he knew their inherent fallacy.
His later political opponents would be quick to point out Jefferson’s hypocrisy, but Jefferson himself chose to deflect the issue entirely. He cast slavery as a challenge for the next generation because his had already done its great deed: it had founded the country. He claimed to have no more energy for great political struggle. “We have the wolf by the ears,” he said, “and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.”
Jefferson recognized the potentially catastrophic implications, predicting that slavery would be “the rock upon which the old Union would split.”
And indeed, it did.
However, 150 years of historical revisionism has tried to argue that slavery was NOT the cause of the war.
I hear competing views that cite states’ rights, defense of the homeland, taxes and tariffs, Northern aggression, economic imbalances, industrial society versus agricultural society, and a bunch of other stuff. Those are all, indeed, factors that contributed to war—but each factor ties back, in some way, to slavery. For instance, what was the specific right the states were arguing over? The right to own slaves. A colleague sums it up it best: “There are a number of causes to the Civil War, and they’re all slavery.”
The historical revisionism started as soon as the war ended. This afternoon, I stumble on an unexpected example. During slow spells at the Shrine, I’ll pluck something from the shelf to read. One of the books I happen to pull this afternoon is a volume called Confederate Cause and Conduct in the War Between the States, co-authored by judge George L. Christian and Dr. Hunter Holmes McGuire. McGuire, who eventually went on to help found the American Medical Association, served as Stonewall Jackson’s surgeon. Confederate Cause and Conduct contains a reminiscence by McGuire about Jackson, as well as McGuire’s account of Jackson’s last days, which is why it’s on the bookshelf here.
I’ve always respected McGuire and found him to be an intelligent, reasonable man, so I’m a little shocked when I find, inside the book, an essay he wrote titled “Slavery is Not the Cause of the War.” It’s one of a dozen essays in the book—many of which are quick to point out that they use “primarily Northern sources”—written for and presented to a Confederate veterans group that try to take slavery off the table.
The essays were part of a larger trend nationally to recast the conflict as a war of oppression, not a war about freedom. Southerners could better play the role of victims if they’d been oppressed; their fight could be better cast as noble if they’d been defending their homes.
For individual soldiers, those things were absolutely true—but for the Southern government, everything still boiled down to slavery.
“The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution,” said Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens. “African slavery, as it exists amongst us, is the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this… He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact.”
I run across Stephens’ comments in another book I read today, Slavery: Cause and Catalyst of the Civil War, a booklet issued by the National Park Service to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the war.
Stephens, in fact, defined the Confederacy in relation to slavery: “[I]ts foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the [N]egro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—submission to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
But I’m quick to remember, again, that the things motivating governments are not necessarily the things motivating soldiers. For them—for soldiers North and South—the war was not necessarily about slavery. In fact, even in the North, when President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in areas of rebellion, many Union soldiers complained bitterly. “If emancipation is to be the policy of the war,” wrote one Indiana soldier, “I do not care how quick the country goes to pot.” A New Yorker said that if the war became “an abolition war…I for one shall be sorry that I ever lent a hand to it.”
I have all this cooking in my head as I sit at the office desk: Jefferson, Jackson, George, McGuire, Stephens, Lincoln, and a dozen others. What does independence mean, really? How does that relate to freedom? Can a nation demand its independence while denying independence to others? Can a people rail against oppression when they, in turn, are oppressors?
Cast in those terms, the answers perhaps seem simple, but the Founders themselves could not agree on the answers. It would take the bloodshed of 620,000 Americans before we’d start to settle the issue—and it would still take marches across bridges in Selma, Alabama, and sit-ins at lunch counters in Greensboro, North Carolina, and dreams on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to move that discussion out of the dark ages. That discussion still continues.
If the Confederacy’s last hopes of independence died at the Jackson Shrine, I can’t be too sad about it. There’s even a small closeted part of me that’s a Lost Causer, but that Confederate vision of independence—freedom for some but not others—just doesn’t jive with me.
In the room where Jackson died, the clock chimes.
There’s still time. The conversation continues.
The views expressed here are my own and do not represent the official views of the NPS. Research assistance from Caity Stuart and Rebecca Oakes.