The Civil War: Losing the War, Winning the History

One hundred and fifty years ago today, April 12, 1861, Edmund Ruffin proudly fired a shot at Fort Sumter, the Federal military installation in the Charleston, South Carolina, harbor.  Almost ceremonially it began the Civil War.  Four years and more than 600,000 dead Americans later, Ruffin fired what has been called the last shot of the war when he killed himself, so distressed was he that his beloved Confederacy had lost.

History is written by the winners, the old adage goes.  But in the case of the American Civil War that hasn't been quite true.  In the decades after the war, the interpretation of it by Southerners and Southern sympathizers dominated our historical understanding.  Those writers couldn't turn defeat into military victory on the page, of course, so instead they recast the meaning of the war, transforming it from a war over slavery into a principled defense of "states rights" and a noble "lost cause."
Make no mistake: the war was fought over the question of slavery.  President Abraham Lincoln may have taken a couple of years before acknowledging that the abolition of slavery lay at the heart of the conflict, but Southerners understood this from the outset.
When Texans decided to secede from the Union, for example, they did so, according to their official Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union, because "the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding States."
Likewise, the Confederate Constitution, the document establishing the nation Southerners fought to create, makes the centrality of slavery clear:  "No bill of attainder, ex-post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed." For Confederates, first and foremost, this was a war to perpetuate slavery.
The end of the war did indeed bring the end of slavery, just as Confederates had feared.  They responded in the years that followed by rewriting the history of slavery and thus the primary reason they fought the war.
By the fiftieth anniversary of the war, Southern historians and writers had substituted states rights for slavery as the reason the South went to war.  Southerners had fought to uphold a Constitutional principle, they insisted, and to defend Southern "honor."
Besides, they went on, slavery was not really all that bad.  Historians such as Ulrich B. Phillips argued that American slavery was benign and was probably a worse deal for slaveholders than for the slaves, because slave owners continued to care for their slaves long after they were able to work. Writers like these were the Holocaust deniers of their day.
And this was a thoroughly mainstream view in the early twentieth century.  American slavery, to quote one prominent historian, "did more for the negro in 250 years than African freedom had done since the building of the pyramids."  Woodrow Wilson was the author of that opinion.
Seventy-five years after the war, historians argued that it had all been an avoidable tragedy, precipitated by a few "radicals." James Truslow Adams, among the most popular historians of the 1930s, believed that northerners wanted to destroy the South.  In his 1934 history of the Civil War, Adams blamed the war on northern politicians such as Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner and Pennsylvania Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, whom he called "professional negrophiles" who "seemed to care only to raise the blacks and ruin the whites of the Confederacy."
No coincidence, surely, that the most popular novel of the 1930s was Gone with the Wind.  That book and the movie version that came out in 1939 sealed in the American imagination an image of the plantation South as one of "moonlight and magnolias," not bondage and brutality.
By the time the centennial of the Civil War rolled around, professional historians had begun to destroy these Southern myths about slavery, the war, and the Reconstruction period that followed it.
At that moment, however, many white Southerners were engaged in a full-scale Confederate revival, defending their system of racial segregation. Without any sense of irony, those Southerners claimed that they were protecting the South from the intrusion of an overreaching federal government, not protecting their particular system of racial apartheid.
Sadly, 150 years after Edmund Ruffin fired on Fort Sumter, large numbers of Americans remain in the thrall of a romanticized Confederacy.  At Civil War reenactments far more people show up dressed as Johnny Reb than as Billy Yank.  The fact that it is acceptable to put a Confederate flag on a car bumper and to portray Confederates as brave and gallant defenders of states' rights rather than as traitors and defenders of slavery is a testament to 150 years of history written by the losers.

Steven Conn is Professor of History and Director of Public History at the Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio.