A few weeks before Captain George S. James sent the first mortar round arcing through the predawn darkness toward Fort Sumter, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861, Abraham Lincoln cast his Inaugural Address as a last-ditch effort to win back the South. A single thorny issue divided the nation, he declared: "One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute."
It was not a controversial statement at the time. Indeed, Southern leaders were saying similar things during those fateful days. But 150 years later, Americans have lost that clarity about the cause of the Civil War, the most traumatic and transformational event in U.S. history, which left more than 625,000 dead more Americans killed than in both world wars combined.
Shortly before the Fort Sumter anniversary, Harris Interactive polled more than 2,500 adults across the country, asking what the North and South were fighting about. A majority, including two-thirds of white respondents in the 11 states that formed the Confederacy, answered that the South was mainly motivated by "states' rights" rather than the future of slavery.
The question "What caused the Civil War?" returns 20 million Google hits and a wide array of arguments on Internet comment boards and discussion threads. The Civil War was caused by Northern aggressors invading an independent Southern nation. Or it was caused by high tariffs. Or it was caused by blundering statesmen. Or it was caused by the clash of industrial and agrarian cultures. Or it was caused by fanatics. Or it was caused by the Marxist class struggle.
On and on, seemingly endless, sometimes contradictory although not among mainstream historians, who in the past generation have come to view the question much as Lincoln saw it. "Everything stemmed from the slavery issue," says Princeton professor James McPherson, whose book Battle Cry of Freedom is widely judged to be the authoritative one-volume history of the war. Another leading authority, David Blight of Yale, laments, "No matter what we do or the overwhelming consensus among historians, out in the public mind, there is still this need to deny that slavery was the cause of the war."
It's not simply a matter of denial. For most of the first century after the war, historians, novelists and filmmakers worked like hypnotists to soothe the posttraumatic memories of survivors and their descendants. Forgetting was the price of reconciliation, and Americans those whose families were never bought or sold, anyway were happy to pay it.
But denial plays a part, especially in the South. After the war, former Confederates wondered how to hold on to their due pride after a devastating defeat. They had fought long and courageously; that was beyond question. So they reverse-engineered a cause worthy of those heroics. They also sensed, correctly, that the end of slavery would confer a gloss of nobility, and bragging rights, on the North that it did not deserve. As Lincoln suggested in his second Inaugural Address, the entire nation, North and South, profited from slavery and then paid dearly for it.
The process of forgetting, and obscuring, was long and layered. Some of it was benign, but not all. It began with self-justifying memoirs by defeated Confederate leaders and was picked up by war-weary veterans on both sides who wanted to move on. In the devastated South, writers and historians kindled comforting stories of noble cavaliers, brilliant generals and happy slaves, all faithful to a glorious lost cause. In the prosperous North, where cities and factories began filling with freed slaves and their descendants, large audiences were happy to embrace this idea of a time when racial issues were both simple and distant.
History is not just about the past. It also reveals the present. And for generations of Americans after the Civil War, the present did not have room for that radical idea laid bare by the conflict: that all people really are created equal. That was a big bite to chew.
The once obvious truth of the Civil War does not imply that every soldier had slavery on his mind as he marched and fought. Many Southerners fought and died in gray never having owned a slave and never intending to own one. Thousands died in blue with no intention to set one free. But it was slavery that had broken one nation in two and fated its people to fight over whether it would be put back together again. The true story is not a tale of heroes on one side and villains on the other. Few true stories are. But it is a clear and straightforward story, and so is the tale of how that story became so complicated.
History textbooks say the Civil War began with the shelling of Fort Sumter. The fact is, however, that the Founding Fathers saw the whole thing coming. They walked away from the Constitutional Convention fully aware that they had planted a time bomb; they hoped future leaders would find a way to defuse it before it exploded. As the Constitution was being written, James Madison observed, "It seems now to be pretty well understood that the real difference of interests lies not between the large and small but between the Northern and Southern states. The institution of slavery and its consequences form the line."
As long as the disagreement remained purely a matter of North and South, the danger seemed manageable. But then North and South looked to the west. All that land, all those resources the idea that the frontier might be closed off to slavery was unacceptable to the South. It felt like an indictment and an injustice rolled into one. Slave owners were not immune to the expansionary passion of 19th century America. They too needed room to grow, and not just to plant more cotton. Slaves could grow hemp and mine gold and build railroads and sew clothes. The economic engine of slavery was immensely powerful. Slaves were the single largest financial asset in the United States of America, worth over $3.5 billion in 1860 dollars more than the value of America's railroads, banks, factories or ships. Cotton was by far the largest U.S. export. It enriched Wall Street banks and fueled New England textile mills. This economic giant demanded a piece of the Western action.