Civil War’s Causes: Historians Largely United on Slavery, But Public Divided

On the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War at South Carolina’s Fort Sumter, Judy Woodruff has an excerpt from Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” and discusses the conflict’s legacy with Harvard University’s Drew Gilpin Faust, Howard University’s Edna Medford and the University of South Carolina’s Walter Edgar.

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    Finally tonight, the Civil War 150 years later and its relevance today.

    The anniversary of the war's beginning was commemorated this morning with a re-enactment of the attack on the Union base at Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C.

    Before our discussion, a bit of history. Here's an excerpt of how documentary maker Ken Burns described that moment in his PBS series "The Civil War." It was narrated by historian David McCullough.

  • DAVID MCCULLOUGH, narrator:

    The Civil War began at 4:30 a.m. on the 12th of April, 1861. Gen. Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard ordered his Confederate gunners to open fire on Fort Sumter, at that hour, only a dark shape out in Charleston Harbor.

    Confederate Commander Beauregard was a gunner, so skilled as an artillery student at West Point, that his instructor kept him on as an assistant for another year. That instructor was Maj. Robert Anderson, Union commander inside Fort Sumter.

  • MAN:

    All the pent-up hatred of the past months and years is voiced in the thunder of these cannon, and the people seem almost beside themselves in the exaltation of a freedom they deem already won.


    The signal to fire the first shot was given by a civilian, Edmund Ruffin, a Virginia farmer, an editor who had preached secession for 20 years.

    "Of course," he said, "I was delighted to perform the service."

    Thirty-four hours later, a white flag over the fort ended the bombardment. The only casualty had been a Confederate horse. It was a bloodless opening to the bloodiest war in American history.

  • MAN:

    The first gun that was fired at Fort Sumter sounded a death knell of slavery. They who fired it were the greatest practical abolitionists this nation has produced.


    More now on the history and the legacy of the Civil War.

    And for that, we're joined by three historians who have studied it closely. Drew Gilpin Faust is the president of Harvard University. She's written a number of books about the Civil War. Edna Medford teaches at Howard University. She focuses on the Civil War and African-American history. And Walter Edgar is a professor of history and Southern studies at the University of South Carolina.

    Thank you, all three. We appreciate your being with us.

    I just want to quickly share with our audience two findings from a poll that was done this month by the Pew Research Center. When people were asked their reaction to seeing the Confederate flag displayed, 9 percent said they had a positive reaction, 30 percent a negative reaction, and 58 percent said neither. And when people were asked what do they think the main cause of the Civil War is, 48 percent said mainly about states' rights. Only 38 percent said mainly about slavery. Nine percent said both.

    So, to each of you, what do historians think was the cause of the Civil War? And what do you think?

    Drew Faust?

  • DREW GILPIN FAUST, Harvard University:

    Well, historians are pretty united on the cause of the Civil War being slavery.

    And the kind of research that historians have undertaken, especially in the years since the centennial, when there has been so much interest in this question of the role of race and slavery in the United States, that research has shown pretty decisively that, when the various states announced their plans for secession, they uniformly said that the main motivating factor was to defend slavery.

    So, the kind of percentages that you quote are ones that must necessarily be disturbing to historians, who believe quite differently from the general public.


    Edna Medford, any idea about why that perception is out there, given the pretty common view among historians, which I assume you share?

  • EDNA MEDFORD, Howard University:

    Oh, absolutely. It's all about slavery.

    But I think Americans, unfortunately, don't know our own history, first of all. And, at some point, of course, after the war, the nation sort of came together and decided that it was going to forget what the real cause was, because it was too painful to remember that slavery was what divided the nation.

    And despite all of the books and all of the classroom discussions and all of the television programs, we still have that perception that it was about anything other than slavery. And it's unfortunate.



    Professor Walter Edgar, how do you account for that, the fact that historians are pretty unified in this view, but the public isn't?

    WALTER EDGAR, University of South Carolina: Well, it's — it's — I would agree with Professor Medford that perhaps it's — people don't know their own history.

    And even more disturbing, in that poll, it was mostly younger responders who did the states' rights answer, as opposed to older ones. All I can do in South Carolina is go back to what the 169 men who voted to secede first from the Union said, and in their declaration of causes, that it was — said it was protect slavery and their other domestic institutions.

    And the men of 1860 and 1861 in other Southern states were pretty blunt about what they were doing.


    And, Professor Edgar, is — do you think there persists a different view among — in the South, among Southerners?


    White Southerners and black Southerners, because both black and white are Southerners. I think, among white Southerners, there is — there's disagreement. Some would say states' rights. Some would say slavery. I have even heard the tariff mentioned.

    Very few people talk as much about the election of Lincoln, although that was a defining factor in South Carolina's decision to secede.


    And, Drew Faust, I mean, you have looked at this, and I know you have traveled around the country and spoken a lot about it. How do you see the evolution of people's understanding of the war, the Civil War?


    Evolution over time, since…




    Well, we had a critical moment in the understanding of the Civil War and the nature of engagement with the Civil War that happened around the time of the centennial, 50 years ago, when the centennial and the civil rights movement were occurring pretty much simultaneously.

    And, so, even as many Americans wanted to celebrate the Civil War and engage in kind of a nostalgic connection with it, there was at the same time such a powerful social movement that was asking all Americans to interrogate themselves about, where does race play a role in American life, and what was the real legacy of the war, and have we fulfilled the promise of equality and freedom that was an essential part of the war?

    So, I think that was a transformative time in the kinds of research questions that historians then took up and the way in which the public began to battle and to reinterpret the Civil War.


    And, Edna Medford, are the questions that historians are asking themselves, yourselves, about the war, have those questions changed over time, do you think?


    I think we still are dealing with the same kinds of issues.

    What's wonderful is that there are more of us who are in agreement than there used to be. And I think it's because documentation has become so much more available to us…


    What did it used…


    … because of digitization and so forth.


    And what did it used to be? How would you explain…


    Well — well, certainly, there was that perspective, that Southern perspective about the war: We may have lost the war, but we — it was such a noble cause for which we fought.

    And historians supported that for a number of years. And I think now, to take that position, you're sort of on the fringes of — of historiography. Most trained historians would never come to those conclusions.


    Well, Professor Edgar, how do you see that as somebody who, you were raised in the South and you teach in the South now?


    Well, you know, things clearly have changed since the 1950s, when I was in school.

    And I think one of the things we could look at is the observance, or really the nonobservance, of Confederate Memorial Day throughout the South. Growing up in Mobile, Ala., it was a big deal. On the day closest to Confederate Memorial in Alabama, which was April the 26th, parading through the streets were the private military school. All the politicians were there. The graves were decorated.

    Now, pretty much, it's a nonevent there and most everywhere else. There's — quote — "an observance," but it doesn't draw people to the streets, and certainly not to the Confederate Rest.


    Was there a moment when that stopped happening, or has that just faded away over time?


    It's really been over time.

    But, as Professor Faust said, the 1960s were pretty much a defining moment. And one of the interesting questions I would ask about the Pew poll when they asked about the Confederate flag, which Confederate flag are they discussing? Are they talking about the battle flag, which I suspect they are? Are they talking about the Confederate national flag, which many states, such as Alabama and Georgia, still fly at historic sites?


    Very interesting question. And I don't know the answer to that.

    Does — do you? Does either one of you?


    An important part of this issue of the Confederate flag is that the Confederate battle flag, which is the flag we associate with Dixie today, and the one that is most commonly regarded as having been the Confederate flag, actually was not adopted very widely until late in the war.

    It was not the flag, the official flag of the Confederate nation. And it began to play a big role in American life at the time of the civil rights movement as an expression of protest against the changes in American culture and race and its place in American life.

    So, in many ways, that poll about the Confederate flag is more about, again, the 1960s than it is about the 1860s.


    Another question that was asked in that poll was about how relevant people believe the war is to American political life today. And more than half said they do think it's relevant.

    Professor Medford, what do you believe is relevant today to American life about this war that we fought so long ago?


    You know, I think we spend so much time on the war these days. And it's great that we are, because that war helps us define who we are now, who we were then and who we are now.

    And I think that we have so much difficulty with it, because we all have different views of what America is. And it's such a painful history. It's very hard to look back. And so, when we do look back, we try to do so in a way that's not going to be too harmful to us psychologically, I think.

    The war has tremendous relevance to us today. We have an opportunity to sort of get it right this time with the sesquicentennial. That war put us on the path to true freedom in this country. I don't think we're quite there yet, but we have the opportunity to sort of renew that commitment to true freedom at this point.


    It's interesting you make the point that there's a choice about how we look back…




    … at the war.

    What about you, Professor Edgar? What do you think is relevant to American life today about this war?


    Well, clearly, the nation — the Civil War was a crucial dilemma, crucial point in American history. And it changed us. And it made us one nation.

    And I think the memory issue that Professor Medford talks about, it is very important, because if you look at the physical losses in — by the white South, not just in terms of property, but also in terms of human life, that's part of the picture that is still handed down in many families today.

    In a little state like South Carolina, over 30 percent of the eligible white male population died in the war. That's twice the figure that the European nations lost in World War I, where they supposedly all lost a generation.


    And, Drew Faust, you have written about the human suffering. Your book, "This Republic of Suffering," we all know — we know about.

    How do you see the legacy?


    An important part of the legacy — and I would just like to reinforce what others were talking about with the importance of slavery and race — but another dimension of the legacy is the way in which the Civil War is an important moment in the history of warfare.

    And it's often called the first modern and the last old-fashioned war, because it involved a level and — of carnage and a scale that was a kind of harbinger of things to come in the 20th century. And so, we need to look at the Civil War in that way as well, and to understand the kinds of inhumanity and slaughter that were part of that war, where about 2 percent of the American population died.

    That would be they equivalent of six million Americans today. Those are military deaths, not even including an estimate of civilian deaths. So, there's a kind of understanding of what human beings are able to do to one another that is an essential part of really looking back at the meaning of the Civil War.


    Well, some important insights.

    And we thank you, all three, Drew Gilpin Faust, Edna Medford, and Walter Edgar. We thank you.