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Modern Voices
William Scarborough on the Civil War and emancipation
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Q: What does Lincoln's election mean to Southerners?
William Scarborough

A: The election of Lincoln came at the end of a 25-year onslaught, increasing in crescendo against the South by outsiders, directed first against slavery, then against slaveholders, then against the South generally. And in every bit of correspondence that I have examined, there is resentment...against the North because of what they perceive as an unfair attack upon their civilization.

The election of Lincoln certainly came as no surprise to many people. I mean, if you looked objectively at the lineup in 1860, it was fairly clear he was going to win. What it means, though, is that you have a sectional President, a person who did not receive a single popular vote in any slave state except Virginia, who is committed to blocking the expansion of slavery. And it is the general belief that he's committed to more than that -- erroneously, as we know. We know that Lincoln was not an abolitionist, at least not at first. But that was the general [view]. "The black Republican President", "the black Republican Party" -- that's the phraseology used in the correspondence and newspaper editorials and so on, of the time.

Southerners had compromised in 1850, when the first crisis occurred. And at that time they had said, "We're going to compromise this time, but this is it. We're not going to yield again if this onslaught against slavery continues." Well, it continued and culminated in the election of a sectional President in 1860. And that was the fact that brought on the Civil War. There's no doubt about that. Southerners don't like to admit today that slavery was the cause of secession, which led in turn to the Civil War. White southerners do not like to admit that. You go to Sons of Confederate Veterans meetings and so on, and they talk about states' rights and economic differences and all that. But that's nonsense. Every scintilla of evidence that can be adduced from the correspondence and the editorials, that's what the issue is: slavery. And that caused secession. That does not mean, however, that Confederate soldiers thought they were fighting for the defense of slavery. Only one white family in four in the South owned slaves; three-fourths of the white families owned no slaves. And the bulk of the Confederate Army is made up of these non-slaveholders. And they're fighting for home and family and country and honor and the same things that soldiers fought for from time immemorial and still fight for, not for slavery. But that's the cause of the war. That's what triggered secession. Secession triggered the war. No doubt about it.
William Scarborough
Professor of History
University of Southern Mississippi at Hattiesburg

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