Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Truth About The "Civil War" Is Still Guarded By Modern Gate-Keepers, Most Recently, Veterans Today

From Pragmatic Witness:

Truth about the Civil War still guarded by modern gate-keepers – most recently VETERANS TODAY

Last week I commented on a post which appeared on Veterans Today entitled, Lies About the U.S. Civil War 150 years later, by David Swanson.

As of the next day my comment was not there, obviously, due to the content it contained and the embarrassment it would most likely cause the author since he’s only writing part of the truth.

Below is Mr . Swanson’s article in full for my readers, then following is my comment – areas marked in RED I disagree with Mr. Swanson

Lies About the U.S. Civil War 150 Years Later

April 12, 2011 posted by David Swanson · 7 Comments

By David Swanson

Tuesday marks 150 years since the start of the U.S. Civil War. Newspapers everywhere are proclaiming it the deadliest war in U.S. history, the costliest U.S. war in terms of the loss of human life. That claim, like most things we say about the Civil War, is false.

Most humans, it will surprise our newspapers to learn, are not U.S. citizens. World War II killed 100 times as many people as the U.S. Civil War, with World War I not far behind. U.S. wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq are among those that have killed far more human beings than the Civil War killed.

The South, we’re told, merely wanted independence; slavery had nothing to do with it. Of course, this is nonsense. The South wanted independence to support slavery.

The North, we’re told, merely wanted to free the slaves; power, empire, profit, and politics had nothing to do with it. Of course, this too is nonsense. The war was well underway before Lincoln “freed the slaves.” Actually he did not free those slaves whom he actually could free in the border states, but only those he could not free unless the North won the war.

Grand Army of the Republic

Freeing the slaves, like bringing democracy to Iraq or saving the Jews from Hitler, was a belated justification for a war that had other motivations. Adding that moral mission to the war helped keep European nations from backing the South and helped keep Northerners killing and dying in sufficient numbers.

Regardless of who said what when, the war did end slavery and was therefore justifiable. Or so we’re told. Yet, every other nation that ended slavery did so without a civil war. Similarly, we justify the American war for independence because it brought independence, even though Canada and countless other countries achieved independence without war. If we had used a war to create public schools, we would denounce critics of that war as opponents of education.

To seriously justify a war, however, would need showing that anything it accomplished could not be accomplished without all the killing, wounding, traumatization, and destruction. What if the North had allowed the South to secede and repealed the fugitive slave law? What if an independent North had used trade, diplomacy, and morality to pressure the South to end slavery? Would slavery have lasted longer than the Civil War raged? If so, we are still talking, at best, about a war to hasten the end of slavery.

Even if the war was really launched for national power, to keep states together in a nation for the nation’s sake, we are all better off as a result. Or so we’re taught. But is it true? Most Americans believe that our system of representative government is badly broken, as of course it is. Our politicians, bought and sold, are directed by corporate media outlets, and controlled by two political parties than the citizenry.

One reason it’s difficult to bring public pressure to bear on elected officials is that our nation is too darn big. Most U.S. citizens can’t join a protest in their nation’s capital if they want to. A resistance movement in Wisconsin can’t very well spread to other key cities; they’re all hundreds or thousands of miles away.

In the years that followed the “preservation of the union,” the United States completed its conquest of the continent and began building an overseas empire, driven in large part by pressure from the same interests that had profited from the Civil War.

Secession has as bad a name as socialism, but Wisconsin could secede, ban foreign (U.S.) money from its elections and create government of, by, and for the people by next year. A seceded California could be one of the most pleasant nations to live in on earth. Vermont would have a civilized healthcare system already if not for Washington, D.C. Yes, the North helped end Jim Crow in the South, but the South did most of that on its own, and we all helped end Apartheid in South Africa without being South Africa.

In the absence of practical representative government, we won’t do much else on a national scale that we are proud of. We now, in the United States, imprison more people of African descent than enslaved here at the time of the Civil War, and it is national policies, completely out of the control of the American people, that produce that mass incarceration.

Those who fought in the Civil War, regardless of the politics or results, were heroes. Or so we hear. But most of the men who killed and died were not the generals whose names we know. They were soldiers, lined up like cogs in a machine, killing and dying on command.

The vast majority as with soldiers on both sides of all wars prior to late-20th century conditioning, avoided killing if possible. Many simply reloaded their guns over and over, fetched supplies for others, or lay in the dirt.

Killing human beings does not come easily to most human beings, and many will avoid it — unless properly conditioned to brainless killing — even at risk to their own lives. To be sure, many killed and many who did not kill died or lost their limbs. There was much bravery and sacrifice and even noble intention. But it was all for a tragically pointless exercise in collective stupidity, lunacy, and horror. Reassuring as it is to put a pretty gloss on a tragedy like this, we would be better served by facing the facts and avoiding the next one.

A century and a half after this madness burst forth, the United States has established a permanent military and permanent war-time, with military bases in over 100 other countries, multiple major wars, and numerous small-scale secretive wars underway. Our weapons industry, born out of the Civil War, is our biggest industry, the world’s biggest arms supplier, and the source for the armaments used by many of the nations we fight our modern wars against.

The civil liberties, the right to habeas corpus, everything that Lincoln temporarily stripped away for the War Between the States, also known — quite accurately — as the War of Northern Aggression, has now been stripped away for good-by Justice Department lawyers and prostituted pundits pointing to Lincoln’s example.

The legacy of the Civil War has been death, destruction, erosion of democracy, and the propaganda that produces more of the same. Enough is enough. Let’s get our history right. Let’s glorify those years in our past during which we did not all try to kill each other.

About the writer: David Swanson is the author of “War Is A Lie”


My comment to Veterans Today:

The south had every right to secede according to the Constitution when their very way of life was threatened as does any state today . At this time the south was extremely rich with boundless resources of cotton and immense fields of agricultural profit and the north coveted that wealth and sought control of those resources through any means possible. The only solution was to raise a war and use slavery as the excuse.

Below is an article written by the Webmaster at American Civil War. I’ve read dozens of articles about these very topics then there is a modicum of truth on the nature of the War of Northern Aggression against the South. The deceitful disclosure about the south are untruths to obfuscate the fact that it was Jewish involvement that brought the slaves to America, not to mention, that the North had as many slaves if not more at one time than did the south.

This is not to say that slavery was a good idea or that the institution should have continued, this is a blame game and the south has always been the down trodden. Slavery is a human stain on America that will never be forgotten, however, lets all remember who the cause of this horrible calamity was thereby shifting the blame to those directly responsible.



Was the War Fought Over Slavery

North and South

The war was fought over Southern independence, not over slavery. Lincoln said repeatedly the war was not being fought over slavery. In August 1862, over a year after the war started, Lincoln wrote an open letter to a prominent Republican abolitionist, Horace Greeley, where, he said he did not agree with those who would only “save” the Union if they could destroy slavery at the same time. Lincoln added that if he could “save” the Union without freeing a single slave, he would do so (Letter to Horace Greeley, August 22, 1862, published in the New York Tribune).

In July 1861, after the First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) had been fought, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution, by an overwhelming majority, that declared the war was not being fought to disturb slavery, nor to subjugate the South, but only to “maintain the Union” (i.e., to force the Southern states back into the Union). A few months later, in September, a group of Radicals visited Lincoln to urge him to make compulsory emancipation a war goal. Lincoln declined, telling the Radicals, “We didn’t go into the war to put down slavery, but to put the flag back” (Brodie, Thaddeus Stevens, p. 155; Klingaman, Abraham Lincoln and the Road to Emancipation, pp. 75-76). Later on, about halfway through the war, the Radicals and other Republicans succeeded in making the uncompensated abolition of Southern slavery a secondary goal of the war. However, the primary purpose of the federal invasion was always to destroy Southern independence.

The war itself really had nothing directly to do with slavery. It’s true that issues involving slavery were the most important factors behind the first wave of secession, but secession and the war were two separate events, and four of the Southern states did not secede over slavery. As noted earlier, secession was a peaceful, democratic process. The seceded states posed no threat to the federal government, and they had no intention of trying to overthrow the government. The Confederate states wanted to live in peace with the North and offered to pay their share of the national debt and to pay compensation for all federal forts in the South.

There are not very many photographic images of slaves before the American Civil War. Slave owners were not all that interested in spending money to photograph their slaves. The first large number of slave images comes with the Civil War. This Matthew Brady photograph was od laves on the Aiken s plantation, probably about 1862. Aiken s Landings was on the James River. The Penknsular Campaign was fought here (1862). This woukd have been before the Emacipation Proclamation (1863). We are not sure what the building in the background was. The Aiken s plantation mansion was alarge brick building.

If the Southern states had not seceded, there would have been no war and slavery would have continued. If the Southern states had surrendered when Lincoln issued his call-up for an invasion force, there would have been no war and slavery would have continued. If Jefferson Davis’s first announcement as Confederate president had been that the Confederacy was going to abolish slavery, Lincoln and the Radicals still would have invaded the South. If the Confederacy had informed Lincoln at any point during the war that it was going to start an emancipation program, Lincoln would not have suddenly called off the federal invasion. The issue was Southern independence, not slavery.

The reaction of the Northern abolitionists to the proposal of fellow abolitionist Moncure Conway is further proof the war was not fought over slavery. At least a few of the abolitionists were Republicans, and nearly all of them strongly supported the Radicals. Conway, however, was a pacifist. Yet, at first Conway reluctantly supported the invasion of the South. “But,” notes Jeffrey Hummel, “the increasing bloodshed sickened him.” So, when Conway was in England in 1863, he proposed to a Confederate envoy that if the South freed the slaves the abolitionists would oppose the war. Conway also said he would support continuation of the Confederacy as long as the Confederacy abolished slavery. Strangely enough, leading abolitionists had selected Conway to go to England to convince the British that the war was being fought to free the slaves. However, when Conway’s proposal for Southern independence coupled with abolition became public knowledge, most abolitionists reacted with outrage and withdrew their support from him (Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men, p. 206).

To most Southerners, independence was more important than the continuation of slavery. This is not surprising, since less than 10 percent of Southern citizens actually held title to slaves, and since 69-75 percent of Southern families did not own slaves (John Niven, The Coming of the Civil War: 1837-1861, Arlington Heights, Illinois: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 1990, p. 34; Divine et al, editors, America Past and Present, p. 389; see also the 1860 Census). Early in the war, James Alcorn, a powerful planter-politician from Mississippi, began to talk openly about emancipation. Duncan Kenner, one of the most powerful slaveholders in the South and a chairman in the Confederate Congress, urged that slavery be abolished. Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy’s most famous general, believed slavery was evil and favored gradual emancipation. The Confederate secretary of state, Judah Benjamin, and Governor William Smith of Virginia, also supported ending slavery.

By late 1864, Jefferson Davis himself prepared to abolish slavery to gain European diplomatic recognition and thus save the Confederacy, which shows that independence was more important to him than preserving slavery.

A Confederate soldier captured early in the war expressed the South’s reason for fighting in simple yet eloquent terms. He wore a ragged homemade uniform, and like most other Southerners he didn’t own any slaves. When his Union captors asked him why he was fighting for the Confederacy, he replied, “I’m fighting because you’re down here” (McPherson, The Battle Cry of Freedom, p. 311, emphasis added).


WW~Notes: We have since learned that a vast majority of southerners did not own slaves. It was the wealthy Jewish plantation owners who had cargos of slaves shipped over on Jewish Dutch owned vessels of filth, over crowding, sickness and depravity.

Yet, lest we NOT forget that it was the African tribal leaders at war with other tribes that sold their own African brothers and sisters into slavery in the first place. Secondly, Jewish slave traders made certain to warn the few goyim white owners that Africans were below even human beings they were animals and treated as such. This is where the stigma began about blacks being inferior to whites on many levels caused by who – THE JEWS!

An excellent film I would recommend everyone to watch is BAND OF ANGELS with Clark Gable, Yvonne DeCarlo and Sidney Poitier. You will not find more truth about what happened in the south after the Civil War than in this film. There was never another one like it made by Hollywood.


Postscript: We all might remember that even today we are still slaves yet it is much more appealing considering the ammenities. Slavery of the human race never ended it just changed position and focus over the last century.

The U.S. [Civil War] [sic] As A Theological War: Confederate Christian Nationalism And The League Of The South

Published in Canadian Review of American Studies - Issue 32:3, 2002

To see more articles and book reviews from this and other journals visit UTPJOURNALS online at UTPJOURNALS.com.

The US Civil War as a Theological War: Confederate Christian Nationalism and the League of the South


Edward H. Sebesta and Euan Hague


Formed in Alabama in 1994, the League of the South is a nationalist organization that advocates secession from the United States of America and the establishment of a fifteen-state Confederate States of America (CSA) – four states more than seceded during the US Civil War (1861–1865), the additional states being Oklahoma, Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland (Southern Patriot). With over ten thousand members, the League professes a commitment to constructing this new CSA based on a reading of Christianity and the Bible that can be identified as “Christian nationalist.” This position is centred upon what we identify as the theological war thesis, an assessment that interprets the nineteenth-century CSA to be an orthodox Christian nation and understands the 1861–1865 US Civil War to have been a theological war over the future of American religiosity fought between devout Confederate and heretical Union states. In turn, this reasoning leads to claims that the “stars and bars” battle flag and other Confederate icons are Christian symbols and the assertion that opposition to them equates to a rejection of Christianity.

The theological war thesis originated in the Southern Presbyterian Church of the mid-nineteenth century, its advocates including Robert Lewis Dabney (1820–1898), professor at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia and Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson’s army chaplain; James Henley Thornwell (1812–1862), President of South Carolina College, later professor at Columbia Theological Seminary; and Benjamin Morgan Palmer (1818–1902), founding editor of the Southern Presbyterian Review, professor at Columbia Theological Seminary, and later pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in New Orleans. Following the Civil War, the Southern Presbyterian Church published biographies of and writings by Dabney, Thornwell, and Palmer. This work remained outside the more mainstream “Lost Cause” apologetics for the Confederacy (see Pollard; Osterweis, Romanticism and Myth; Gallagher and Nolan). Thus, it comprised a marginal body of literature until Southern Agrarian Richard M. Weaver (1910–1963), Christian Reconstructionist Rousas John Rushdoony (1916–2001) and Presbyterian leader C. Gregg Singer (1910–1999) revived interest in these writings after World War II. Subsequently, Sprinkle Publications of Harrisonburg, Virginia, reprinted texts by Southern Presbyterian clergymen dating from the Civil War and postbellum period and academic historians, such as Eugene Genovese, reappraised these works in the 1980s and 1990s.

Utilizing original publications by nineteenth-century Presbyterians and Internet postings by the League of the South as the resources for our analysis, our explication will examine the roots and development of the theological war thesis. We argue that the theological war thesis originated in texts by theologians who between them contended that the Confederacy comprised an orthodox Christian nation, at times intertwining this religious viewpoint with, amongst other things, defences of slavery, denunciations of public education and mass schooling, and proposals to maintain a hierarchical and unequal society. There is not space to examine every publication in this chronology and tradition, although as other authors have pointed out, interpretations of Christianity and its connection to the Civil War and Biblical justifications for slavery are numerous (see inter alia Stanton; H. Smith; Wilson; Webster; Webster and Leib, “Whose South”and “Political Culture” ; Harrill; Genovese, Slavery, “James Thornwell,” Slaveholders’ Dilemma, Southern Tradition, ”Marxism,” “Religion,” “Consuming Fire”; Farmer; Fox-Genovese and Genovese, Religious Ideals, “Divine Sanction,” “Social Thought”; Miller, et al.).

Tracing the theological war thesis from its origins to the turn of the twenty-first century, we show how the belief that the Confederacy was an orthodox Christian nation has gained increasing circulation and acceptance. Once a marginal revisionist reading of the Civil War, we contend that groups as diverse as the Sons of Confederate Veterans heritage organization, Christian Reconstructionist bodies such as the Chalcedon Foundation, and the League of the South now generally accept the theological war thesis. Reaching a broad audience at conferences, through publications and on web sites, one of the League’s founding directors, Steven Wilkins, continues to develop theological interpretations of the Civil War. Operating within this historical trajectory, therefore, the League of the South has utilized the theological war thesis to promote a Christian nationalist commitment to constructing a new Confederate States of America.

Interpretations of Christianity by the far right in the United States are numerous (e.g. Trelease; Chalmers; Wade; Barkun; D.H. Bennett; Bushart et al.), but the Christian nationalism of the neo-Confederate movement in general, and the League of the South in particular, have been little studied. Similarly, recent assessment of Confederate flag disputes has noted the League’s presence but does not examine its wider theoretical, political, and religious worldviews (e.g. Webster; Webster and Leib, “Whose South” and “Political Culture”; Leib, “Heritage versus Hate” and “Teaching Controversial Topics”). Therefore, in this article we explore how the message currently promoted by the League of the South revives mid-nineteenth-century Confederate writings that understood the US Civil War to be a theological war between Northern heresy and Southern orthodox Christianity.

The League of the South

The League of the South was founded on June 25, 1994 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and held its first national convention in Charleston, South Carolina five months later (Sebesta 55–84; “Southern League News”; Hodges). By 2000, the League counted over 9000 members, having ninety-six chapters in twenty states (Southern Poverty Law Center). In March 2000, police estimated between 2000 and 3000 participants at the group’s “Declaration of Cultural Independence” rally in Montgomery, Alabama (Hall and Roston; Reevers). In addition to its “Dixienet” web site (see McPherson), the League supports the political action web sites Free Alabama and Free Mississippi, and administers an Institute for the Study of Southern Culture and History. The League publishes a bimonthly newsletter, Southern Patriot, and distributes numerous video and audio cassettes about the history and development of the United States. Members participate in lectures, conferences, summer schools, and an annual convention. Concisely summarizing some of the organization’s key beliefs on its Dixienet web site, the League’s president since its foundation, Michael Hill, recently stated:

Why do the left-liberals rage against the ‘traitorous’ South and its traditional culture and symbols? The stock answer has been because all that the South stands for – orthodox Christianity, honor, hierarchy, loyalty to place and kin, patriarchy, and respect for the rule of law – represents an obstacle to the left-liberals’ lust for power. This is a correct assessment, but it is only one side of the coin …. The treason of the Left involves such unconstitutional and immoral enormities as globalism – the selling-out of American national sovereignty to international agencies and interests; radical egalitarianism; feminism; sodomite rights; abortion; Third-World immigration; gun control; hate crime legislation (always meant to be used against whites); judicial tyranny; burdensome taxation; multiculturalism and diversity (code words for anti-white, anti-Christian bigotry); the universal rights of man; and other manifestations of a new brand of politically-correct totalitarianism. (Treason n. pag.)

Although not initially defining itself as a religious movement, from the outset the League of the South postulated the idea of an orthodox Christian South. Its manifesto pledges to “Defend the historic Christianity of the South,” advocating the creation of an orthodox Christian nation-state (Hill, “Christian Southerners”; Murphy). In his essay “Christian Southerners,” Michael Hill declares that since its inauguration the League has pushed for “the establishment of a republic based on the Christian principles of our Confederate ancestors” (1). Further, Hill argues that Christianity was as central to the Confederacy during the Civil War as “Lee, Jackson, Stuart, and Davis” (1). Claiming to continue this Confederate tradition, Hill states that his organization represents “true Southerners” who comprise an “Orthodox Christian” people (“Montgomery” 20). The League thus characterizes its present struggle for Southern independence as a confrontation between Southern Christian principles, which they themselves represent, and anti-Christian positions argued to be those of the United States mainstream (Hill, “Montgomery” 20). The League instructs its members that the Civil War was a theological war between the Christian South and the heretical North that resulted from a wider ongoing American national conflict between orthodox Christianity and heresy that continues to this day (see Wilkins, Theology; Woods, Copperheads). Hill identifies Confederate heroes as “uncompromising defenders of the orthodox Christian faith,” and interprets the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of Christianity and Western civilization (“Christian Southerners” 1, “Real Symbolism”). Opposition to the Confederate States of America is thus interpreted as a rejection of Christianity, a stance reiterated by Hill, who explains: “we intend, God willing, to advance the traditions of the Christian South against the secularising and globalising trends of the modern age” (“What a Way” 2). The cause of the Confederacy is both reconfirmed and maintained by the League of the South as a strategy to secure Christianity in the United States against perceived current threats.

The position promoted by the League of the South at the turn of the twenty-first century that the South is a Christian nation under threat is not new. Many of these sentiments originated in the mid-nineteenth century and, in the following section, we review some of these historical precedents.

James Henley Thornwell, Benjamin Morgan Palmer, Robert Lewis Dabney and the Origins of the Theological War Thesis

During and after the US Civil War, several prominent Southern clergymen defined the conflict and political debate with abolitionists as a theological struggle between Christian orthodoxy and anti-Christian forces, the former comprising the Confederacy, the latter referring to the Union. Many clergymen in the South supported secession, delivering sermons and producing pamphlets championing the Confederacy (Snay; Wakelyn; Fox-Genovese and Genovese, “Social Thought”). Within the clergy, however, historians Simkins and Roland argue that it was members of the Presbyterian denomination who were widely considered to be “the intellectual elite among Southern churchmen” (158). Presbyterian chaplains including South Carolina Theological Seminary Professor James Henley Thornwell, New Orleans Presbyterian minister Benjamin Morgan Palmer and Confederate pastor Robert Lewis Dabney engaged in reviews of the Civil War from a theological perspective. Often published by the presses of the Presbyterian Church, a body of literature developed that asserted the Civil War had been an attack on a Christian South by heretical and atheistic forces of the North. Some contemporaries in the Presbyterian Church condemned this position. For example, Robert Livingston Stanton (1810–1885), Professor in the Theological Seminary of the Presbyterian Church at Danville, Kentucky at the time of the Civil War, states Thornwell gave “eloquent voice to the cause of treason” and that Palmer also was articulate in his support for slavery, secession and, thus, “treason” (161, 171). Others, in contrast, supported the stances taken by Presbyterian leaders like Thornwell and Palmer, such as Frederick A. Ross (1796–1883), a Presbyterian minister in Tennessee and Alabama for over fifty years (Ross n.pag.; Rogers 112–124).

Texts by Thornwell and Palmer, many of which have recently regained scholarly attention (see, inter alia, Genovese; Farmer), are amongst those that became key elements in the theorization of a Christian Confederate nation and the theological war thesis. Between 1871 and 1873 the Presbyterian Committee published the complete works of James Henley Thornwell and in 1875 a secular press distributed Benjamin Morgan Palmer’s biography of Thornwell (Thornwell; Palmer). In turn, Johnson’s biography of Palmer reproduced the New Orleans chaplain’s 29 November 1860 Thanksgiving sermon, given in Louisiana three weeks before South Carolina became the first state to secede. Here Palmer argued that slavery “has fashioned our modes of life, and determined all our habits of thought and feeling, and moulded the very type of our civilization” and further explained that it was a religious duty to “defend the cause of God and religion” and, in particular, “to conserve and to perpetuate the institution of domestic slavery” (qtd. in Johnson, Life and Letters of Benjamin Morgan Palmer 209–210). Condemned by Robert Livingston Stanton as being “steeped in sin, guilt, and crime” for its exhortation of secession to maintain slavery, Palmer’s sermon subsequently became a central text of the theological war thesis (169).

Many contemporaries of Thornwell and Palmer sought to assert that the Confederate soldier was more pious than his Union counterpart. For example, Confederate chaplain William W. Bennett explained in 1876 that the Confederate soldiers he observed were Christians and contrasted Bible-reading Confederate troops with card-playing Union soldiers. Further, Bennett noted that the “religious sentiments” of Confederate supporters were “deep and strong” and that amongst the troops, “there have been fewer departures from the great cardinal doctrines of the Scriptures than among any other people in Christendom” (23). Both Bennett and another Confederate chaplain J. William Jones who served under Robert E. Lee, composed catalogues detailing a revival of Christianity throughout the Confederate army. Although these texts do not advocate that theology was the main issue of the war, they became important sources of evidence for subsequent authors to maintain that in contrast to the Union, the Confederate States comprised a nation of Christians.

Arguably the most significant early advocate of a theological perspective of the Civil War was Robert Lewis Dabney, who has been described by Simkins and Roland as a clergyman who, “[f]or three decades after the fall of the Confederacy in lectures and in books … energetically expounded the dogma that … the Civil War was a Christian struggle of a justified South against a wicked North” (405). In 1865 Dabney published The Life and Campaigns of Lieut. Gen. Thomas J. Jackson (Stonewall Jackson), in which he argued for secession, states’ rights and described some Civil War campaigns. The primary purpose of this text was to extol Jackson as a Confederate hero and an extremely pious Presbyterian Christian soldier. Soon after, Dabney wrote on the theological meaning of the Civil War in A Defense of Virginia and Through Her of the South. Utilizing Biblical passages to defend slavery and refute abolitionist arguments, he claimed that slavery was a necessary good for what he called the “depraved” lower classes. Dabney asserted in support for Confederate secession that “it is only the relation of domestic slavery as authorized by God, that we defend” (Defense 99). Further denouncing abolitionism as “infidel” and “anti-scriptural,” Dabney believed that the Bible legitimated slavery, and thus opposition to slavery was tantamount to rejecting Christianity (Defense 22; see also H. Smith).

Shortly before his death in 1898, Dabney’s works were collected into four volumes and published by the Presbyterian Committee of Richmond, Virginia. Throughout his work, the minister condemned human equality and women’s rights as leading to the destruction of the family and, thereafter, of society. Dabney also attacked the immorality of Union soldiers in the Civil War, opposed public schooling (especially of African-Americans) and honoured Confederate leaders, justifying all his positions by Biblical interpretation. In the essays “Geology and the Bible” and “A Caution Against Anti-Christian Science,” for example, Dabney challenged that modern science and development of the theory of evolution were “anti-theological” and that amongst future generations this would result in “a nascent contempt for their father’s Bibles” and irreparably damage the South’s “Christian households” (“Caution” 118, 122). He further contended that governments were legitimate only if they derived from the will of God (“Civic Ethics” 303–305). Dabney wrote prolifically, regularly commenting on philosophical and theological topics and was consistently, and virulently, hostile towards African-Americans. If allowed social equality in the South, Dabney argued, African-Americans would “mix the blood of the heroes of Manassas with this vile stream from the fens of Africa” which would weaken the genealogical purity of Confederate blood and thus reduce the once heroic Virginians to a position of servility (Defense 353). Subject of a biography in 1903 (Johnson), by the end of his life, Simkins and Roland assert, Dabney was afforded “[l]ittle attention” by his contemporaries, being an advocate of archaic conceptualizations of “chivalry and religious conservatism” (7).

Restricted largely to Southern Presbyterian venues, this “theological war” literature was less significant in popular politics than more general Lost Cause apologetics (e.g. Pollard). Yet, since the mid-1960s conservative scholars and activists, at times operating within religious circles, have re-evaluated and republished these marginal writings. Indeed, in a recent preface to Dabney’s The Practical Philosophy, Douglas F. Kelley, Professor of Theology at the Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina, identifies the nineteenth-century theologian as a “prophet [who] foresaw the life and death struggle that would take place between secular totalitarianism and Christian liberty in America in the latter part of the twentieth century” (n. pag.). As the comment by Kelley suggests, a trajectory from Southern Presbyterian conservative authors such as Dabney to others writing in the late twentieth century can be ascertained and it is to this, therefore, that we now turn.

Richard M. Weaver, C. Gregg Singer, Rousas John Rushdoony and the Revival of the Theological Civil War in the 1940s–1960s

Dabney and the other Southern Presbyterians were largely forgotten as the twentieth century progressed and an industrial “New South” developed. Following the 1925 Scopes Trial and the 1929 Wall Street Crash, however, scholars began to question the viability of the South’s cultural and economic position and many looked to alternative models of Southern society. King argues that an “anti-New South spirit” pervaded intellectuals including John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, and Robert Penn Warren who felt that attacks on Southern religiosity during the 1925 trial over the teaching of theories of evolution in public schools were unjustified (53). One result was publication of the symposium I’ll Take My Stand in 1930 by this reactionary group who became known as “Southern Agrarians” (King). In this text, contributors looked back to and defended conservative traditions of the South. Their initial essay, “A Statement of Principles,” argues that “[r]eligion can hardly expect to flourish in an industrial society” because religious faith involves submission to God’s creation of nature and industrialization simplifies nature, turning it into commodities and rendering it artificial (xxiv). To the Southern Agrarians, the regeneration of a religious South mandated a rolling back of the industrialization that occurred in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Although not a contributor to this volume, Richard M. Weaver (1910–1963) is associated with the Southern Agrarians because he espoused a conservative philosophy, anti-Modernism, and was connected to leaders of the movement such as Ransom and Davidson while at Vanderbilt University (Kreyling; Malvasi, Unregenerate South). In particular, Weaver’s posthumously published work focused on the South, constructing it as a pious agrarian region standing in opposition and contradiction to a modern industrial North (e.g. Southern Tradition at Bay, Southern Essays).

In 1943 Weaver outlined his contention that the Civil War was a clash between an orthodox Christian South and a heretical North, asserting that

Southern people reached the eve of the Civil War one of the few religious people left in the Western World. Into the strange personnel of the Confederate Army … poured fighting bishops and prayer-holding generals, and through it swept waves of intense religious enthusiasm long lost to history. (“Older” 248)

Weaver further explained that the Confederate military was a Christian army, claiming that, “Confederate captains not only were conscious of being the standard bearers of chivalry; they also regarded themselves as distinctly a Christian soldiery” (Southern Tradition at Bay 208). Thus establishing that there was a theological dimension to the Civil War, and focusing on the Confederate army and “Southern people” as “distinctly … Christian,” Weaver’s work facilitated a revival of theological examinations of the Civil War and serves as a connection between the modern neo-Confederate movement and the Southern Agrarians of the 1930s (see Genovese, Southern Tradition; Malvasi, Unregenerate; Landess; Bradford, Remembering). Indeed, Kreyling identifies just such a trajectory extending from the Agrarians and Weaver to Michael Hill and the League of the South (178).

Following Weaver, others revisited the interpretation that the Civil War was a theological war. One of these was C. Gregg Singer (1910–1999), a professor at the Atlanta School of Biblical Studies in 1977 and, after 1987, at the Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Singer, Theological; F.J. Smith 65). Writing during the Civil Rights era, Singer explicitly contended that the Civil War was a theological war between a Christian orthodox South and a Unitarian heretical North, stating that the

Southern Presbyterian Church saw [the US Civil War] as a humanistic revolt against Christianity and the world and life view of the Scriptures … Thornwell, Dabney, and their contemporaries … properly read abolitionism as a revolt against the biblical conception of society and a revolt against the doctrine of divine sovereignty in human affairs. (Theological 86–87)

As the leader of Concerned Presbyterians, Inc., a dissident faction that condemned heresy in the Southern Presbyterian Church, Singer played a prominent role in establishing the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) as a distinct denomination in the 1970s. Distancing the PCA from other Presbyterians in the United States, this organization envisaged itself as a successor to the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America (PCCSA), a denomination that had also formed in response to perceived heresy. Positioning itself to be the legitimate inheritor of the PCCSA legacy and that of its leading theologian James Henley Thornwell, whose writing the PCA reprinted, the PCA drew a direct connection between their denomination and the PCCSA stating an intent to “follow the pattern of the Assembly of 1861” (Richards 227; Winter; F. Smith). Singer further claimed that the PCA continued a legacy dating beyond the PCCSA to “Old School” Presbyterian orthodoxy (“Story” 3–6).1

As Singer was working to establish the PCA and its historical connections, another religious leader was arguing for the Christian orthodoxy of the antebellum South. Rousas John Rushdoony (1916–2001), founder of the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965, initiated the Christian Reconstructionist movement in the United States that advocates the establishment of Biblical republics under the rule of God’s law or “theonomy.” The people who would administer these republics would be those whom Christian Reconstructionists considered to have correctly orthodox interpretations of Christianity and would, amongst other things, introduce capital punishment for myriad offences (Clarkson; M.R. Rushdoony). Rushdoony argued that the early American Republic was a decentralized Protestant feudal system and an orthodox Christian nation that was destroyed by the Civil War (Nature 4–6). Union victory, in Rushdoony’s interpretation, was a defeat for Christian orthodoxy and paved the way for the rise of an unorthodox Social Gospel in the postbellum United States. Elsewhere, Rushdoony has condemned public education and contended that the Civil War was not about slavery, but the consolidation and centralization of federal government power (This Independent Republic 71, 111). Rushdoony has also attacked the current US electoral system as giving too much influence to minority groups and argued that US society should have a civic order based on inequality and social division (Nature 13).

By the mid-1960s, therefore, Weaver, Singer, and Rushdoony had to varying degrees reasserted that the Confederate states fought to preserve orthodox Christianity in the face of Union abolitionism and that the Civil War was a theological war over the future direction of the United States. Publishing at the height of the struggle for Civil Rights in the United States, these authors argued that civil rights were anti-Christian, that inequality is God’s intended order, and they drew on Thornwell, Dabney, and their contemporaries to provide a historical and religious justification for this position. The role of these men in wider conservative and Christian Reconstructionist groups resulted in their proposals finding a broad audience amongst the religious right in the United States. Through these networks, advocates of “orthodox” Christianity began to converge with supporters of Confederate nationalism and as leaders of pro-Confederate and “orthodox” Christian organizations likely began to recognize that their mutual aims could unify supporters into larger, more active groups, the thesis of a theological war continued to widen its appeal.

Republishing Southern Presbyterian Confederate Writings in the 1970s

Describing the beginning of his publishing business to Byron Snapp in Southern Partisan, Lloyd Sprinkle explained that in 1975, following a conversation with a Presbyterian pastor who asked him for a copy of Robert Lewis Dabney’s Life and Campaigns of Stonewall Jackson, he decided to reprint titles that were long out of print. Selling 2000 copies of Dabney’s biography of Jackson within a year, and 30,000 by 1994, Sprinkle today continues to receive orders from throughout the United States and has since reprinted numerous other works by Confederate Southern Presbyterians including Thornwell and Palmer. Simultaneously, Banner of Truth Trust based in Edinburgh, Scotland and Carlisle, Pennsylvania also reissued many of these titles (see Appendix). Praising them in reviews, Rousas John Rushdoony recommended these reprinted editions in Chalcedon Foundation publications. For example, Rushdoony applauded Dabney’s defence of slavery and an anonymous reviewer of William W. Bennett’s Great Revival stated in Chalcedon Report that, “What is now needed is a historical study of the Christian efforts at reconstruction which men like Robert E. Lee, and countless other veterans, then began” (“Book Notices” n. pag.).

Rushdoony’s promotion of Sprinkle’s reprints brought them to the attention of the wider Christian Reconstructionist movement in the United States. The republication and promotion of these Southern Presbyterian Confederate works led to their discussion and review in magazine articles, books, audio cassettes, videotape sets, and other pro-Confederate theological and political venues. By the end of the 1970s, therefore, Sprinkle, Rushdoony and others had republished and reinterpreted the historical record and, based on the evidence of a few atypical nineteenth-century texts, claimed the 1861–1865 Confederate army to be populated by theologically driven Christian Reconstructionists fighting to preserve their orthodox Christian nation against heretical Union troops. Subsequently, the higher profile of these nineteenth-century authors, particularly James Henley Thornwell, attracted academic attention.

Towards a Theological Metaphysics of the Confederacy: Academic Writings in the 1980s and 1990s

In a Southern Partisan interview in 1985, the prominent American historian Eugene Genovese announced that his research was increasingly focused on religion in the Old South. Proposing some of the ideas that would occur in subsequent publications, Genovese drew upon conservative scholars such as Weaver to argue, “the Old South should be understood fundamentally as a religious society” in which “the defense of slavery was religiously grounded” (“Partisan Conversation” 37–38). Starting with a reappraisal of Thornwell, Genovese contended that “Thornwell’s defense of slavery may be seen as an extended footnote to his defense of Christian orthodoxy” and thus must be seen as part of a wider theological perspective and understanding of the South and the Civil War (Foreword ix). Presenting Thornwell to readers in a review of “[t]he God-fearing, Bible reading, hymn-singing Confederate army,” Genovese assesses Southern conservative thought in which “a straight line runs from him [Thornwell] to the Agrarians” (“James Thornwell” 17, 21).

Previous academic assessment of Confederate Presbyterian theologians had been sporadic (see, inter alia, Bishop; Rogers; H. Smith), but Genovese’s intervention and James Oscar Farmer’s award-winning re-assessment of Thornwell’s The Metaphysical Confederacy, stimulated further re-examinations of such “formidable southern theologians” (Genovese “Marxism” 91, Slaveholders’ Dilemma, Southern Tradition, and Consuming Fire; Farmer; Freehling).2 Pertinent to these analyses were three major themes: the theological Civil War and contrast between orthodox Christian South and non-orthodox North; re-evaluations of modernity from the perspectives of Thornwell and his contemporaries; and, complaint about the neglect of Southern intellectual history. To give a brief example of each, Genovese asserts the centrality of Christian orthodoxy in the antebellum period, suggesting that the consequence was inevitable political division between Union and Confederacy:

The political ramifications of southern Christian theology were enormous. For at the very moment that the northern churches were embracing theological liberalism and abandoning the Word for a Spirit increasingly reduced to personal subjectivity, the southern churches were holding the line for Christian orthodoxy. (“Marxism” 92)

In turn, Farmer suggests that today’s Americans with their “collective anxieties about the kind of civilization we have created” can admire the Old South (3). Further, for Genovese, Farmer’s assessment of Thornwell, “clears away a great deal of the rubbish that has long distorted the writing of southern history… put[ting] to rest the bias and silliness that declare the intellectual history of the Old South inferior to that of the North” (Foreword vii). Alongside advocating a theological basis for the Civil War, Genovese’s recent analyses imply that this conflict continues to have relevance to late-twentieth-century society (see, for example, “Religion”). Pre-empting criticism of this suggestion as being continued anti-Southern bias in US historical scholarship, Genovese asserts that Presbyterian thinkers such as Thornwell and Palmer who tried to balance demands for progress with orthodox Christianity and a hierarchical social order dominate the Southern intellectual tradition (see Slaveholders’ Dilemma and Southern Tradition). Extending his “straight line” of Southern thought to the late twentieth century, Genovese identifies conservative historians including M.E. Bradford, John Shelton Reed, and Clyde Wilson, a League of the South director, as intellectual inheritors of and successors to “the Southern Tradition,” as are publications Southern Partisan and Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, the latter edited by another League of the South director, Thomas Fleming (see Genovese’s Southern Tradition and Southern Front).

Arguing that Marxism fails to adequately address religious interpretations of history and that Marx misrepresented the Civil War and the South, Genovese becomes more explicit in his acceptance of the theological war thesis, stating that although “it remains commonplace to assume that no honest Christian could be a slaveholder, much less regard slavery as a divinely sanctioned institution,” nineteenth-century Southern slave-owners were Christians who believed slavery was Biblically acceptable and thus the abolitionist declaration that slavery was a sin, “was a call to holy war” (“Religion” 74–75; “Marxism”). As a result of such differing theological interpretations of the sinfulness of slavery, argues Genovese, “southerners and northerners were emerging as separate peoples,” a division that induced the Civil War (“Religion” 75). Genovese proceeds to appraise the theological Civil War thesis, repeating that the North was succumbing to heresy while the South retained orthodox Christianity. Quoting Thornwell’s assertion that rather than abolitionists opposing slaveholders during the Civil War the major division was radicals against Christians, a quotation repeated in Southern Partisan in 1996 (see below), Genovese concludes with a theological interpretation of the Civil War as a “holy war” because “northerners and southerners … disagreed on the essentials of Christian doctrine and morality” and, as a result, “held incompatible visions of … social relations” (“Religion” 84). Indeed, Genovese suggests Thornwell and his contemporaries may have been correct in their interpretation of US society:

The free market, especially the market in labor power, with its radical individualism and rejection of all forms of slavery, provided the northern counterpart to the Abramic household envisioned by proslavery southerners. Soon enough, the Confederacy did in fact face the wrath of God, or at least the wrath of the Yankees, but we may wonder if Thornwell, Palmer, Pierce, and other southerners who pushed for an official Christian Confederacy did not have the last grim laugh. For they had warned that if the Union, based on free labor, the marketplace, and radical democracy, prevailed the ground would be cut from under the churches – that, inexorably, political and social democracy would generate overwhelming pressures for ecclesiastical democracy and, through it, for theological liberalism and eventual unbelief. Southerners insisted that the dissolution of the family, the collapse of social order, and the repudiation of any concept of legitimate authority must inexorably proceed in step with the eclipse of Christian orthodoxy, which could be sustained only by organic social relations. We may breathe a sigh of relief at the defeat of their proslavery cause. But from our vantage point of our own day, can we, in all honesty, pretend that they had not in fact read the sign of the times? (“Religion” 82)

In this and in his other work on the topic, which there is not space here to review fully, Genovese infers the existence of an antebellum orthodox Christian South and seeks to explore how white elites theologically interpreted slavery and defeat of the Confederacy. Futher, Genovese notes that he must “bypass the black religious experience” despite its “considerable impact” on such questions (“Religion” 84). In the past fifteen years, therefore, Genovese and Farmer, amongst others, appraise theological interpretations of Southern history and have arguably rehabilitated proslavery Christian theologians of the mid-nineteenth century. Their central focus on Thornwell is advantageous as, having died in 1862, he did not leave a postbellum legacy of vividly racist writings as Dabney and Palmer did (Haynes). Consequently, we suggest that bringing the ideas of Thornwell and, to a lesser extent, Palmer and Dabney, into mainstream historical venues implies scholarly sanction of the theological war thesis.

The Theological War in the 1990s: Steven Wilkins and the League of the South

In the last quarter of the twentieth century the theological war thesis and its associated advocacy of a Confederate Christian Southern nationalism found its appeal growing not only within academic discussion, but also in Confederate heritage venues such as Southern Partisan magazine and conservative religious publications such as Chalcedon Report. Since its interview with Genovese and publication of his interpretations of Thornwell’s thought in the mid-1980s, Southern Partisan regularly outlined the theological Civil War and orthodox Christian South theses. For example, a 1991 essay by the prominent conservative historian and pioneer of the current neo-Confederate movement, M.E. Bradford, portrayed the Confederate military as a Christian army and their enemies as heretics. Bradford explained: “in defeat and in the bondage of enemy occupation, Southerners could think of themselves as people called out to a special witness, a righteous nation surviving in the midst of modernity, sealed forever in its covenant by defeat and freedom from the besetting ambitions of the victorious, progressive North” (Theology 25). Indeed, such became the prominence of theological interpretations of the Civil War within neo-Confederate circles that League of the South member and professor of History at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, Mark Malvasi recently argued that the contention that the antebellum South was an orthodox Christian nation is “axiomatic,” before proceeding to maintain that current US society is failing due to a lack of Christian faith (Christianity 30).

Replicating these arguments, Christian Reconstructionist authors such as Joseph C. Morecraft, have drawn upon nineteenth-century Southern Presbyterian sources and others reviewed above, particularly Dabney and Weaver, to promote the theological war thesis and maintain that during the Civil War a heretical North attacked a Christian South (Morecraft “Maddest,” “Dabney”). Such an opinion marks a significant shift in the editorial position of the Chalcedon Report. In a 1996 issue devoted to the Civil War, the Chalcedon Foundation balanced articles that promoted neo-Confederate viewpoints, including comment by League of the South director Steven Wilkins, with those opposing them. Five years later, following a series of articles solely supportive of neo-Confederate perspectives, Steven Wilkins castigated Barry Anderson, a dissenter who criticized the presence of neo-Confederate essays in Chalcedon Report. Wilkins joked that Anderson was unable to think clearly, perhaps after “being trapped in a mob of half-crazed females at the shopping mall” (Anderson and Wilkins 26). Recent support by the Chalcedon Foundation for the League of the South’s Christian nationalism is also evident in the fact that it recently posted the League’s March 2000 “Declaration of Southern Cultural Independence” on its web site. In this Declaration, Steven Wilkins and his colleagues state:

The national culture of the United States is violent and profane, coarse and rude, cynical and deviant, and repugnant to the Southern people and to every people with authentic Christian sensibilities.… they have called good evil and evil good; they have everywhere substituted the opinions of men for the decrees of God. (4)

Collaboration between the Christian Reconstructionist movement and the League of the South has also increased, evidencing a growing overlap in the historical, political and theological perspectives of participants in both organizations. This indicates a conflation of conservative, neo-Confederate and Christian nationalisms into a potent reinterpretation of United States history, one centred upon the thesis that the Confederate states were a bastion of orthodox Christianity standing in the face of the heretical Union states. For example, Otto Scott, a regular contributor to both Chalcedon Report and Southern Partisan, has argued that civil rights and anti-apartheid activists detrimentally re-enact abolitionist policies and that nineteenth-century Transcendentalism was a heretical philosophy followed by the Union during the Civil War (see “Transcendentalism,” “Heresy,” Lifeboat, Secret). Such opinions enabled Scott to speak at the League of the South’s second annual National Conference (held 2–3 June 1995) and co-produce video sets outlining neo-Confederate political, theological and historical interpretations of the Civil War with League of the South directors Steven Wilkins and Clyde Wilson.

In addition to his role as a director of the League of the South, Steven Wilkins is arguably the most prominent member of the current neo-Confederate clergy. A member of the PCA, and resident instructor at the R.L. Dabney Center for Theological Studies based in Monroe, Louisiana, Wilkins writes for almost all the religious publications and groups that advance neo-Confederate and Christian nationalist ideas, interpreting the historical development of the United States as following a heretical trajectory that culminated in the defeat of the Christian Confederate states in the Civil War. Wilkins asserts, in a manner reminiscent of Genovese’s assessment, that the cause of the Civil War was theological incompatibility between North and South, the former having “rejected Biblical Calvinism” (Wilkins, America 142). “[T]he War Between the States,” Wilkins contends, was “a true revolution. The foundations of western culture were being broken up and overthrown … Their purpose was not merely to destroy slavery … but to destroy Southern culture” (“Southern Culture” pt. I, 11). Wilkins continues, claiming, “There was radical hatred of Scripture and the old theology [and] Northern radicals were trying to throw off this Biblical culture and turn the country in a different direction” (“Southern Culture” pt. I, 11). The ultimate result of the Civil War, concludes Wilkins, was a Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution (ratified 1868) that trampled States’ rights and created an overly powerful and unconstitutional Federal government because it gave citizenship to freed slaves and guaranteed that Federal rather than State government protected the rights of all citizens (America 150). Elsewhere, Wilkins has defended slavery and the discriminatory Reconstruction era “Black Codes” of Southern states (e.g., America 136–137, 148). Writing with Douglas Wilson, Wilkins has claimed that “the Word of God” and Biblical Christian orthodoxy are currently threatened by feminism, gay and lesbian rights, and legalized abortion (11). To shield Christianity from these perceived threats, Wilkins and Wilson utilize a theological analysis that leads them to simultaneously build an argument that defends slavery as Biblically justified. In turn, Wilkins has maintained that, “The War Between the States was a war between two different world views: The old way of Biblical Constitutionalism and the ‘new’ way of Humanistic Centralism” and, therefore, slavery was a mere “pretext” used by the Union to force the South into “political subjugation and economic destruction” (America 138).

Wilkins also writes for the Chalcedon Presbyterian Church, recently reassessing Dabney’s works, arguing that Confederate leaders are ideal role models of Christian masculinity, and reiterating the theological war thesis (e.g. “Dabney’s ‘Defense of Virginia’”and Character). Lamenting that the modern Southerner is failing the South and Christianity because “things which once marked the South are no longer present,” Wilkins decries:

[t]he erosion of Biblical Christianity that has occurred over the last century has left the South a bare shadow of its former self. Many Southerners are now realizing what has been lost in cultural terms but fail to realize the true cause for this loss. It has not been caused by the opposition of the liberals … It has been caused by the rejection of the historic Christian Faith of the Reformation. (Christianity 13)

The solution to this lack of orthodox Christian faith, for Wilkins, is that residents of the South recover their religious tradition and reinstate this in a revived Confederate States of America. Indeed, Wilkins is optimistic about this proposal, perhaps signaling the growing popularity and power of neo-Confederate and Christian orthodox movements at the end of the twentieth century:

Until only a few years ago, it looked as if the vision of the fathers of this nation had died out completely and the legacy of reconstruction would be our nation’s epitaph. Today, there are hopeful signs that God’s people are waking up to the call of restoring true liberty in Christ to this nation and all its institutions. (America 150)

In the 1990s, therefore, through increased collaboration between Confederate heritage and Christian Reconstructionist groups, many of which counted the same people as members, the theological war thesis became a standard position in the mainstream Confederate nationalist movement which centred upon the League of the South following its formation in 1994. Consequently, the League of the South became active in debates over the locations of Confederate flags in the late 1990s. One of the bitterest contests occurred at the South Carolina Capitol (Webster and Leib 271–299). On 11 December 1996 at a South Carolina meeting of Christian ministers, Baptist Bobby Eubank spoke in support of the Confederate flag’s position above the state’s Capitol (“Baptist Convention” 5). Subsequently published as a paper titled, “The Moral Defense of the Confederate Flag: A Special Message for South Carolina Christians,” the oration was distributed at religious meetings (Gaulden A1; Young B1). It was also reprinted in Southern Partisan where the authors were described as “Fifteen Ministers” – a deliberate evocation of the 1863 address by ninety-six ministers of the Confederate States giving their reasons for supporting the Confederacy and titled, “An Address to Christians throughout the World” (see Fifteen Ministers; and Stanton).3 Southern Partisan heralded the opinions of the Fifteen Ministers as a call “for a return to orthodoxy and an understanding of the cause for which Confederate Christians fought,” urging readers to, “find out how you can help in this crusade” (1).

The Fifteen Ministers summarize the major points of the theological war thesis, arguing for a Confederate Christian nation. They identify nineteenth-century Confederate leaders and troops as being Christian leaders and a Christian army, before asserting that the culture of Bible belt and religious conservatism in the South stem directly from the Christianity of the Confederate army. The Fifteen Ministers also demand that the Confederate battle flag be recognized as a Christian symbol, namely the Cross of St. Andrew (see also Slimp 12; Jennings). Quoting James Henley Thornwell, the Fifteen Ministers reassert that the Civil War was between Confederate Christianity, namely “the friends of order and regulated freedom” and Union “atheists, socialists, communists, red republicans, Jacobins” (qtd. in Fifteen Ministers 18). Soon after, League of the South member Thomas E. Woods published a detailed account of the theological Civil War argument in Southern Partisan. He asserted that the theological conflict is continuing today and that struggles against liberalism, big government and the New World Order comprise “Christendom’s Last Stand” (26).

These essays in the widely distributed magazine Southern Partisan mark a general acceptance of the theological war thesis amongst the Confederate heritage community. Indeed, such is the current prominence of the orthodox Christian Confederacy argument that the once less outspoken Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) recently reprised the theological war thesis in their publication, Confederate Veteran. Alister C. Anderson, SCV Chaplain-in-Chief, wrote a series of essays forwarding these ideas, arguing that defending Confederate symbols is akin to fighting the Devil and that “the Sons of Confederate Veterans … will not succeed in defending our Southern heritage until we as individuals submit to God’s authority and offer Him ourselves, our souls and bodies as living sacrifices for His providential plans” (“Chaplain’s Comments” vol. 4, 60).4 Continuing in a subsequent issue, Anderson further stated: “My brother compatriots I ask you to remember that we are soldiers in the Army of God and are organized along the military lines of our soldier ancestors” (“Chaplain’s Comments” vol. 6, 60). Succeeding Anderson as SCV Chaplain-in-Chief, John Weaver made national headlines when recounting his view that slavery is Biblically justified; also, his column in Confederate Veteran, quoting both Thornwell and Singer, has upheld the theological Civil War thesis and recently argued that “the Confederate flag represents biblical government” ( J. Weaver “Chaplain’s Comments” vol. 6, 64 and vol. 5; Firestone A14).

Conclusion: Confederate Christian Nationalist Theology and the League of the South

In this paper we have argued that the neo-Confederate nationalist organization the League of the South advocates a Christian nationalist position and proposes a revived Confederate States of America. Examining the League of the South’s rhetoric, in particular that by its president Michael Hill and director, Steven Wilkins, we have shown that this is founded upon the theological war thesis, an interpretation of the 1861–1865 US Civil War that understands the conflict to have been a struggle between the orthodox Christians of the Confederacy and the heretics of the Union. This belief originated within sections of the Presbyterian Church during the Civil War and the immediate postbellum period amongst some of its prominent clergymen including James Henley Thornwell, Benjamin Morgan Palmer and Robert Lewis Dabney. Largely marginalized, these ideas advocated that slavery was God-ordained and that opposition to slavery comprised, therefore, opposition to God.

Although some support for the theological war thesis was evident amongst Southern Agrarians such as Richard Weaver, it was during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s that C. Gregg Singer and Rousas John Rushdoony drew upon nineteenth-century Presbyterian precedents to again argue that the Civil War was a religious struggle. Academic reappraisal of the Presbyterian theologians, in particular Thornwell, followed in the 1980s and 1990s with the work of Eugene Genovese and James Oscar Farmer, Jr. With the theological war thesis gaining attention in both academic and Christian Reconstructionist venues, some proponents began to engage with those interested in Confederate heritage. One such individual was Steven Wilkins who restated the theological interpretation of the Civil War in numerous publications in the late 1980s and 1990s and became a founding director of the League of the South when the organization was inaugurated in 1994. By the turn of the twenty-first century, therefore, this once peripheral interpretation of the Civil War as a theological struggle between orthodox Christian Confederate states and heretical Union states has gained credibility and adherents, becoming intertwined with wider Confederate heritage and conservative Christian opinion. Consequently, groups as diverse as the Chalcedon Foundation, Sons of Confederate Veterans and, as we have concentrated upon here, the League of the South, now advocate that the US Civil War was a theological war.


We would like to thank Carrie Breitbach and the anonymous referees for their advice and comments.

1 The Presbyterian Church split in 1837 into “Old School” and “New School,” the more conservative and doctrinal “Old School” becoming most prominent in the South (see, inter alia, Genovese, “Religion”; F.J. Smith; Richards).

2 David Brion Davis’s 1995 review of Genovese’s recent assessments of the South in the New York Review of Books elicited a strong response from Genovese (see Kreyling). Farmer’s book about Thornwell won the Brewer Prize of the American Society of Church History.

3 Writing during the Civil War, Stanton states this “Address” was signed by ninety-six ministers. The Fifteen Ministers, writing in 1996, state that ninety-eight ministers signed the 1863 “Address.”

4 Confederate Veteran publishes six issues each year. Each issue is listed as a volume (1–6). Thus the magazine currently numbers its editions vol. 4, 1999; vol. 6, 1999, etc. No months are given as publication dates.

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Original publication date Author Title Date of Initial Reprint Publisher

1860 Benjamin Morgan Palmer The Theology of Prayer 1980 Sprinkle Publications

1875 Benjamin Morgan Palmer The Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell 1974 Banner of Truth Trust

1876 Benjamin Morgan Palmer & J. W. Alexander The Family in its Civil and Churchly Aspects 1981 Sprinkle Publications

1875 James Henley Thornwell The Collected Works of James Henley Thornwell (4 vols.) 1974 Banner of Truth Trust

1876 William W. Bennett A Narrative of the Great Revival which Prevailed in the Southern Armies 1989 Sprinkle Publications

1887 J. William Jones The Memorial Volume of Jefferson Davis 1993 Sprinkle Publications

1887 J. William Jones Christ in the Camp or Religion in the Confederate Army 1986 Sprinkle Publications

1906 J. William Jones The Life and Letters of Gen. Robert E. Lee 1986 Sprinkle Publications

1866 Robert Lewis Dabney The Life and Campaigns of Lieut.-Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson 1975 Sprinkle Publications

1867 Robert Lewis Dabney A Defense of Virginia and through her of the South 1991 Sprinkle Publications

1870 Robert Lewis Dabney Evangelical Eloquence: A Course of Lectures on Preaching 1999 Banner of Truth Trust

1871 Robert Lewis Dabney Systematic Theology 1996 Banner of Truth Trust

1890 Robert Lewis Dabney Discussions Vol. 1 Theological and Evangelical 1982 Sprinkle Publications

1890 Robert Lewis Dabney Discussions Vol. 1 Theological and Evangelical 1967 Banner of Truth Trust

1891 Robert Lewis Dabney Discussions Vol. 2 Evangelical 1982 Sprinkle Publications

1891 Robert Lewis Dabney Discussions Vol. 2 Evangelical 1982 Banner of Truth Trust

1892 Robert Lewis Dabney Discussions

Vol. 3 Philosophical 1996 Sprinkle Publications

1892 Robert Lewis Dabney Discussions

Vol. 3 Philosophical 1982 Banner of Truth Trust

1897 Robert Lewis Dabney Discussions Vol. 4

Secular 1994 Sprinkle Publications

1897 Robert Lewis Dabney The Practical Philosophy 1984 Sprinkle Publications

1999 Robert Lewis Dabney Discussions

Vol. 5 Miscellaneous 1999 Sprinkle Publications

1898 Robert Lewis Dabney Christ Our Penal Substitute 1985 Sprinkle Publications

1898 Robert Lewis Dabney & Jonathan Dickinson The Five Points of Calvinism 1992 Sprinkle Publications

1903 Thomas Cary Johnson The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney 1977 Banner of Truth Trust

1906 Thomas Cary Johnson The Life and Letters of Benjamin Morgan Palmer 1987 Banner of Truth Trust

1867 Judith B. McGuire Diary of a Southern Refugee During the War 1996 Sprinkle Publications

1868 Alexander Stephens A Constitutional View of the War Between the States, its Causes, Character, Conduct and Results 1994 Sprinkle Publications

1888 Thomas Nelson Page Two Little Confederates 1994 Sprinkle Publications

1891 Thomas Nelson Page Among the Camps 1995 Sprinkle Publications

1891 Mary Anna Jackson The Life and Letters of Stonewall Jackson 1995 Sprinkle Publications

1893 Susan Pendleton Lee Memoirs of William Nelson Pendleton, Rector of Latimer Parish, Lexington, Virginia; Brigadier-General C.S.A., Chief of Artillery 1991 Sprinkle Publications

1895 Mary L. Williamson A Confederate Trilogy for Young Readers 1989 Sprinkle Publications

1895 Joseph T. Derry Story of the Confederate States 1996 Sprinkle Publications

1901 Charles L. C. Minor The Real Lincoln: From the Testimony of his Contemporaries 1992 Sprinkle Publications

1910 Randolph H. McKim A Soldier's Recollections: Leaves from the Diary of a Young Confederate 1996 Sprinkle Publications

1911 Henry Alexander White Southern Presbyterian Leaders 2000 Banner of Truth Trust

Why Non-Slaveholding Southerners Fought

From Civil War Trust:

Why Non-Slaveholding Southerners Fought

Address to the Charleston Library Society, January 25, 2011


This year initiates the commemoration of the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War. This is an occasion for serious reflection on a war that killed some 600,000 of our citizens and left many hundreds of thousands emotionally and physically scarred. Translated into today’s terms – our country is ten times more populous than it was then -- the dead would number some 6 million, with tens of millions more wounded, maimed, and psychologically damaged. The price was indeed catastrophic.

As a Southerner with ancestors who fought for the Confederacy, I have been intrigued with the question of why my ancestors felt compelled to leave the United States and set up their own country. What brought the American experiment to that extreme juncture?

The short answer, of course, is Abraham Lincoln’s election as president of the United States. What concerned Southerners most about Lincoln’s election was his opposition to the expansion of slavery into the territories; Southern politicians were clear about that. If new states could not be slave states, went the argument, then it was only a matter of time before the south’s clout in Congress would fade, abolitionists would be ascendant, and the South’s “peculiar institution” – the right to own human beings as property – would be in peril.

It is easy to understand why slave owners would be concerned about the threat, real or imagined, that Lincoln posed to slavery. But what about those Southerners who did not own slaves? Why would they risk their livelihoods by leaving the United States and pledging allegiance to a new nation grounded in the proposition that all men are not created equal, a nation established to preserve a type of property that they did not own?

In order to find an answer to this question, please travel back with me to the South of 1860. Let’s put ourselves into the skin of Southerners who lived there then. That’s what being an historian is about: putting yourself into the minds of people who lived in another time to understand things from their perspective, from their point of view. Let’s set aside what people said and wrote later, after the dust had settled. Let’s wipe the historic slate clean and visit the South of 150 years ago through the documents that survive from that time. What were Southerners saying to other Southerners about why they had to secede?

There is, of course, a historical backdrop that formed the foundation of experience for Southerners in 1860. More than 4 million enslaved human beings lived in the south, and they touched every aspect of the region’s social, political, and economic life. Slaves did not just work on plantations. In cities such as Charleston, they cleaned the streets, toiled as bricklayers, carpenters, blacksmiths, bakers, and laborers. They worked as dockhands and stevedores, grew and sold produce, purchased goods and carted them back to their masters’ homes where they cooked the meals, cleaned, raised the children, and tended to the daily chores. “Charleston looks more like a Negro country than a country settled by white people,” a visitor remarked.

Fear of a slave rebellion was palpable. The establishment of a black republic in Haiti and the insurrections, threatened and real, of Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey, and Nat Turner stoked the fires. John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry sent shock waves through the south. Throughout the decades leading up to 1860, slavery was a burning national issue, and political battles raged over the admission of new states as slave or free. Compromises were struck – the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850 – but the controversy could not be laid to rest.

The South felt increasingly beleaguered as the North increased its criticism of slavery. Abolitionist societies sprang up, Northern publications demanded the immediate end of slavery, politicians waxed shrill about the immorality of human bondage, and overseas, the British parliament terminated slavery in the British West Indies. A prominent historian accurately noted that “by the late 1850’s most white Southerners viewed themselves as prisoners in their own country, condemned by what they saw as a hysterical abolition movement.”

As Southerners became increasingly isolated, they reacted by becoming more strident in defending slavery. The institution was not just a necessary evil: it was a positive good, a practical and moral necessity. Controlling the slave population was a matter of concern for all Whites, whether they owned slaves or not. Curfews governed the movement of slaves at night, and vigilante committees patrolled the roads, dispensing summary justice to wayward slaves and whites suspected of harboring abolitionist views. Laws were passed against the dissemination of abolitionist literature, and the South increasingly resembled a police state. A prominent Charleston lawyer described the city’s citizens as living under a “reign of terror.”


With that backdrop, let’s take our trip back in time to hear what Southerners were hearing. What were they being told by their pastors, by their politicians, and their community leaders about slavery, Lincoln, and secession?

Churches were the center of social and intellectual life in the south. That was where people congregated, where they learned about the world and their place in it, and where they received moral guidance. The clergy comprised the community’s cultural leaders and educators and carried tremendous influence with slaveholders and non-slaveholders alike. What were Southern pastors, preachers, and religious leaders telling their flock?

Southern clergy defended the morality of slavery through an elaborate scriptural defense built on the infallibility of the Bible, which they held up as the universal and objective standard for moral issues. Religious messages from pulpit and from a growing religious press accounted in large part for the extreme, uncompromising, ideological atmosphere of the time.

As Northern opposition to slavery grew, the three major protestant churches split into northern and southern factions. The Presbyterians divided in1837, the Methodists in 1844, and the Baptists in 1845. The segregation of the clergy into Northern and Southern camps was profound. It spelt an end to meaningful dialogue, leaving Southern preachers to talk to Southern audiences without contradiction.

What were their arguments? The Presbyterian theologian Robert Lewis Dabney reminded his fellow Southern clergymen that the Bible was the best way to explain slavery to the masses. “We must go before the nation with the Bible as the text, and ‘thus sayeth the lord’ as the answer,” he wrote. “We know that on the Bible argument the abolition party will be driven to unveil their true infidel tendencies. The Bible being bound to stand on our side, they have to come out and array themselves against the Bible.”

Reverend Furman of South Carolina insisted that the right to hold slaves was clearly sanctioned by the Holy Scriptures. He emphasized a practical side as well, warning that if Lincoln were elected, “every Negro in South Carolina and every other Southern state will be his own master; nay, more than that, will be the equal of every one of you. If you are tame enough to submit, abolition preachers will be at hand to consummate the marriage of your daughters to black husbands.”

A fellow reverend from Virginia agreed that on no other subject “are [the Bible’s] instructions more explicit, or their salutary tendency and influence more thoroughly tested and corroborated by experience than on the subject of slavery.” The Methodist Episcopal Church, South, asserted that slavery “has received the sanction of Jehova.” As a South Carolina Presbyterian concluded: “If the scriptures do not justify slavery, I know not what they do justify.”

The Biblical argument started with Noah’s curse on Ham, the father of Canaan, which was used to demonstrate that God had ordained slavery and had expressly applied it to Blacks. Commonly cited were passages in Leviticus that authorized the buying, selling, holding and bequeathing of slaves as property. Methodist Samuel Dunwody from South Carolina documented that Abraham, Jacob, Isaac, and Job owned slaves, arguing that “some of the most eminent of the Old Testament saints were slave holders.” The Methodist Quarterly Review noted further that “the teachings of the new testament in regard to bodily servitude accord with the old.” While slavery was not expressly sanctioned in the New Testament, Southern clergymen argued that the absence of condemnation signified approval. They cited Paul’s return of a runaway slave to his master as Biblical authority for the Fugitive Slave Act, which required the return of runaway slaves.

As Pastor Dunwody of South Carolina summed up the case: “Thus, God, as he is infinitely wise, just and holy, never could authorize the practice of a moral evil. But god has authorized the practice of slavery, not only by the bare permission of his Providence, but the express provision of his word. Therefore, slavery is not a moral evil.” Since the Bible was the source for moral authority, the case was closed. “Man may err,” said the southern theologian James Thornwell, “but God can never lie.”

It was a corollary that to attack slavery was to attack the Bible and the word of God. If the Bible expressly ordained slave holding, to oppose the practice was a sin and an insult to God’s word. As the Baptist minister and author Thornton Stringfellow noted in his influential Biblical Defense of Slavery, “men from the north” demonstrated “palpable ignorance of the divine will.”

The Southern Presbyterian of S.C observed that there was a “religious character to the present struggle. Anti-slavery is essentially infidel. It wars upon the Bible, on the Church of Christ, on the truth of God, on the souls of men.” A Georgia preacher denounced abolitionists as “diametrically opposed to the letter and spirit of the Bible, and as subversive of all sound morality, as the worst ravings of infidelity.” The prominent South Carolina Presbyterian theologian James Henley Thornwell did not mince his words. “The parties in the conflict are not merely abolitionists and slaveholders. They are atheists, socialists, communists, red republicans, Jacobins on the one side, and friends of order and regulated freedom on the other. In one word, the world is the battleground – Christianity and Atheism the combatants; and the progress of humanity at stake.”

During the 1850’s, pro-slavery arguments from the pulpit became especially strident. A preacher in Richmond exalted slavery as “the most blessed and beautiful form of social government known; the only one that solves the problem, how rich and poor may dwell together; a beneficent patriarchate.” The Central Presbyterian affirmed that slavery was “a relation essential to the existence of civilized society.” By 1860, Southern preachers felt comfortable advising their parishioners that “both Christianity and Slavery are from heaven; both are blessings to humanity; both are to be perpetuated to the end of time.”

By 1860, Southern churches were denouncing the North as decadent and sinful because it had turned from God and rejected the Bible. Since the North was sinful and degenerate, went their reasoning, the South must purify itself by seceding. As a South Carolina preacher noted on the eve of secession, “We cannot coalesce with men whose society will eventually corrupt our own, and bring down upon us the awful doom which awaits them.” The consequence was a pointedly religious bent to rising Southern nationalism. As the Southern Presbyterian wrote, “It would be a glorious sight to see this Southern Confederacy of ours stepping forth amid the nations of the world animated with a Christian spirit, guided by Christian principles, administered by Christian men, and adhering faithfully to Christian precepts,” ie., the slavery of fellow human beings.

Shortly after Lincoln’s election, Presbyterian minister Benjamin Morgan Palmer, originally from Charleston, gave a sermon entitled, “The South Her Peril and Her Duty.” He announced that the election had brought to the forefront one issue – slavery – that required him to speak out. Slavery, he explained, was a question of morals and religion, and was now the central question in the crisis of the Union. The South, he went on, had a “providential trust to conserve and to perpetuate the institution of slavery as now existing.” The South was defined by slavery, he observed. “It has fashioned our modes of life, and determined all of our habits of thought and feeling, and molded the very type of our civilization.” Abolition, said Palmer, was “undeniably atheistic.” The South “defended the cause of God and religion,” and nothing “is now left but secession.” Some 90,000 copies of a pamphlet incorporating the sermon were distributed.

Preachers were prominent at ceremonies held as troops marched off to war. In Petersburg, Virginia for example, Methodist minister R. N. Sledd railed against Northerners, an “infidel and fanatical foe” who embodied “the barbarity of an Atilla more than the civilization of the 19th Century” and who showed “contempt for virtue and religion according to their savage purpose.” Northerners, he warned, wanted to “undermine the authority of my Bible. You go to contribute to the salvation of your country from such a curse,” he told the departing soldiers. “You go to aid in the glorious enterprise of rearing in our sunny south a temple to constitutional liberty and Bible Christianity. You go to fight for your people and for the cities of your God.”


What were the South’s politicians saying? In late 1860 and early 1861, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and Louisiana appointed commissioners to travel to the other slave states and persuade them to secede. The commissioners addressed state legislatures, conventions, made public addresses, and wrote letters. Their speeches were printed in newspapers and pamphlets. These contemporaneous documents make fascinating reading and have recently been collected in a book by the historian Charles Dew.

William Harris, Mississippi’s commissioner to Georgia, explained that Lincoln’s election had made the North more defiant than ever. “They have demanded, and now demand equality between the white and negro races, under our constitution; equality in representation, equality in right of suffrage, equality in the honors and emoluments of office, equality in the social circle, equality in the rights of matrimony,” he cautioned, adding that the new administration wanted “freedom to the slave, but eternal degradation for you and me.”

As Harris saw things, “Our fathers made this a government for the white man, rejecting the negro as an ignorant, inferior, barbarian race, incapable of self-government, and not, therefore, entitled to be associated with the white man upon terms of civil, political, or social equality.” Lincoln and his followers, he stated, aimed to “overturn and strike down this great feature of our union and to substitute in its stead their new theory of the universal equality of the black and white races.” For Harris, the choice was clear. Mississippi would “rather see the last of her race, men, women, and children, immolated in one common funeral pyre than see them subjugated to the degradation of civil, political and social equality with the negro race.” The Georgia legislature ordered the printing of a thousand copies of his speech.

Two days before South Carolina seceded, Judge Alexander Hamilton Handy, Mississippi’s commissioner to Maryland, warned that “the first act of the black republican party will be to exclude slavery from all the territories, from the District of Columbia, the arsenals and the forts, by the action of the general government. That would be a recognition that slavery is a sin, and confine the institution to its present limits. The moment that slavery is pronounced a moral evil – a sin – by the general government, that moment the safety of the rights of the south will be entirely gone.”

The next day, two commissioners addressed the North Carolina legislature and warned that Lincoln’s election meant “utter ruin and degradation” for the south. “The white children now born will be compelled to flee from the land of their birth, and from the slaves their parents have toiled to acquire as an inheritance for them, or to submit to the degradation of being reduced to an equality with them, and all its attendant horrors.”

Former South Carolina Congressman John McQueen was crystal clear about where things stood when he wrote to a group of Richmond civic leaders. Lincoln’s program was based upon the “single idea that the African is equal to the Anglo-Saxon, and with the purpose of placing our slaves on a position of equality with ourselves and our friends of every condition. We, of South Carolina, hope soon to greet you in a Southern Confederacy, where white men shall rule our destinies, and from which we may transmit to our posterity the rights, privileges, and honor left us by our ancestors.”

Typical of the commissioner letters is that written by Stephen Hale, an Alabama commissioner, to the Governor of Kentucky, in December 1860. Lincoln’s election, he observed, was “nothing less than an open declaration of war, for the triumph of this new theory of government destroys the property of the south, lays waste her fields, and inaugurates all the horrors of a San Domingo servile insurrection, consigning her citizens to assassinations and her wives and daughters to pollution and violation to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans. The slave holder and non-slaveholder must ultimately share the same fate; all be degraded to a position of equality with free negroes, stand side by side with them at the polls, and fraternize in all the social relations of life, or else there will be an eternal war of races, desolating the land with blood, and utterly wasting all the resources of the country.”

What Southerner, Hale asked, “can without indignation and horror contemplate the triumph of negro equality, and see his own sons and daughters in the not distant future associating with free negroes upon terms of political and social equality?” Abolition would surely mean that “the two races would be continually pressing together,” and “amalgamation or the extermination of the one or the other would be inevitable.” Secession, argued Hale, was the only means by which the “heaven ordained superiority of the white over the black race” could be sustained. The abolition of slavery would either plunge the South into a race war or so stain the blood of the white race that it would be contaminated for all time.” Could southern men “submit to such degradation and ruin,” he asked, and responded to his own question, “God forbid that they should.”

Henry Benning

Congressman Curry, another of Alabama’s commissioner’s, similarly warned his fellow Alabamans that “the subjugation of the south to an abolition dynasty would result in a saturnalia of blood.” Emancipation meant “the abhorrent degradation of social and political equality, the probability of a war of extermination between the races or the necessity of flying the country to avoid the association.” Typical also was the message from Henry Benning of Georgia – later one of General Lee’s most talented brigade commanders – to the Virginia legislature. “If things are allowed to go on as they are, it is certain that slavery is to be abolished,” he predicted. “By the time the north shall have attained the power, the black race will be in a large majority, and then we will have black governors, black legislatures, black juries, black everything. Is it to be supposed that the white race will stand for that? It is not a supposable case.”

What did Benning predict would happen? “War will break out everywhere like hidden fire from the earth. We will be overpowered and our men will be compelled to wander like vagabonds all over the earth, and as for our women, the horrors of their state we cannot contemplate in imagination. We will be completely exterminated,” he announced, “and the land will be left in the possession of the blacks, and then it will go back to a wilderness and become another Africa or Saint Domingo.”

“Join the north and what will become of you” he asked. “They will hate you and your institutions as much as they do now, and treat you accordingly. Suppose they elevate Charles Sumner to the presidency? Suppose they elevate Frederick Douglas, your escaped slave, to the presidency? What would be your position in such an event? I say give me pestilence and famine sooner than that.”

In sum, the commissioners described one apocalyptic vision after another – emancipation, race war, miscegenation. The collapse of white supremacy would be so cataclysmic that no self-respecting Southerner could fail to rally to the secessionist cause, they argued. Secession was necessary to preserve the purity and survival of the white race. This was the unvarnished, near universal message of southern political leaders to their constituencies.


Southerners heard the identical message from their community leaders. In the fall of 1860, John Townsend, owner of a cotton plantation on Edisto Island, authored a pamphlet delineating the consequences of Lincoln’s elevation to presidency. The abolition of slavery would be inevitable, he warned, which would mean “the annihilation and end of all Negro labor (agricultural especially) over the whole South. It means a loss to the planters of the South of, at least, FOUR BILLION dollars, by having this labor taken from them; and a loss, in addition, of FIVE BILLION dollars more, in lands, mills, machinery, and other great interests, which will be rendered valueless by the want of slave labor to cultivate the lands, and the loss of the crops which give to those interests life and prosperity.”

More to the point, he noted, abolition meant “the turning loose upon society, without the salutary restraints to which they are now accustomed, more than four millions of a very poor and ignorant population, to ramble in idleness over the country until their wants should drive most of them, first to petty thefts, and afterwards to the bolder crimes of robbery and murder.” The planter and his family would “not only to be reduced to poverty and want, by the robbery of his property, but to complete the refinement of the indignity, they are to be degraded to the level of an inferior race, be jostled by them in their paths, and intruded upon, and insulted over by rude and vulgar upstarts. Who can describe the loathsomeness of such an intercourse;—the constrained intercourse between refinement reduced to poverty, and swaggering vulgarity suddenly elevated to a position which it is not prepared for?”

Non-slaveholders, he predicted, were also in danger. “It will be to the non-slaveholder, equally with the largest slaveholder, the obliteration of caste and the deprivation of important privileges,” he cautioned. “The color of the white man is now, in the South, a title of nobility in his relations as to the negro,” he reminded his readers. “In the Southern slaveholding States, where menial and degrading offices are turned over to be per formed exclusively by the Negro slave, the status and color of the black race becomes the badge of inferiority, and the poorest non-slaveholder may rejoice with the richest of his brethren of the white race, in the distinction of his color. He may be poor, it is true; but there is no point upon which he is so justly proud and sensitive as his privilege of caste; and there is nothing which he would resent with more fierce indignation than the attempt of the Abolitionist to emancipate the slaves and elevate the Negroes to an equality with himself and his family.”


There you have it. The reasons that Southerners gave their fellow Southerners for Secession – from the pulpit, from their political and community leaders, in their reading material. There was much more – I haven’t discussed newspapers yet -- but the message was the same. Secession was required to preserve slavery. Why should non-slaveholders care? Because slavery was the will of God, and those who opposed the institution – the abolitionists – were by definition anti-God. More to the point, secession was necessary to preserve white supremacy, to avoid a race war, and to prevent racial amalgamation. For Southerners to remain in the Union, be they slave-owners or non-slave-owners, meant losing their property, their social standing, and the “sacred purity of our daughters.” Tariffs appear nowhere in these sermons and speeches, and “states’ rights” are mentioned only in the context of the rights of states to decide whether some of their inhabitants can own other humans. The central message was to play on the fear of African barbarians at the gate.

The preachers and politicians delivered on their promise. The Confederate States were established explicitly to preserve and expand the institution of slavery. Alexander Stephens, the Confederacy’s vice president, said so himself in 1861, in unambiguous terms. “The Confederacy’s foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man,” he announced: “that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based on this great physical, philosophical and moral truth.”

The new nation’s constitution sealed the deal. In most respects it was identical to the United States Constitution. The big change regarded slavery. Article I, Section 9, Paragraph 4, provided that "No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed." And Article IV, Section 3, Paragraph 3, stated that "The Confederate States may acquire new territory . . . In all such territory, the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress and the territorial government."

Thus, while the rest of the western world followed an historic trajectory dedicated to abolishing slavery and bringing an expanded meaning to the concepts of human rights and participatory democracy, the South marched off in an opposite direction. The Confederacy was a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are not created equal, and that the Government’s job is to preserve and ensure that inequality.

Later, after the war, when Southern preachers and politicians felt moved to explain their actions to the world and to their progeny, they told a very different story. In 1881, former President Jefferson Davis claimed that slavery was an abstract matter only incidental to the conflict. The South, he proclaimed, had fought only for the noblest of principles, such as constitutional government, the supremacy of law, and the “natural rights of man.” And what about Alexander Stevens, he of the cornerstone speech, what did he have to say when he began to write about the past in 1868? The war, he assured his readers, had not been about slavery; it had been a grand struggle of principle between “the friends of constitutional liberty” on the one hand, and the “demon of centralism, absolutism, and despotism” on the other.

So where does this leave us. Unlike present-day South Africa, the South had no truth-and-reconciliation commission. Our ancestors did not have to come to grips with their own history at a time when honesty might have carried the day. Instead, we are left with the post-war fantastical tall-tales of men like Stephens and Davis that race and slavery had nothing to do with the South’s drive for independence, tall tales that have become grist for the mill of neo-confederates and their present day partisans. Those tall-tales and after-the-fact justifications, however, can survive only if we ignore what the South’s leaders actually said as they urged their countrymen to action. Those words are preserved in repositories such as the Charleston Library Society. They are here for the world to read. So long as libraries across the country preserve these original speeches, pamphlets, and sermons, the message remains loud and clear: You can run from the truth, but you cannot hide from it.

It is no accident that Confederate symbols have been the mainstay of white supremacist organizations, from the Ku Klux Klan to the skinheads. They did not appropriate the Confederate battle flag simply because it was pretty. They picked it because it was the flag of a nation dedicated to their ideals, i.e., “that the negro is not equal to the white man.” The Confederate flag, we are told, represents heritage, not hate. But why should we celebrate a heritage grounded in hate, a heritage whose self-avowed reason for existence was the exploitation and debasement of a sizeable segment of its population?

As a Southerner, a historian, and a descendant of former slave-owners, I sincerely hope that we use the opportunity of the Sesquicentennial to open a frank and civil dialogue about what happened 150 years ago. Our ancestors were unapologetic about why they wanted to secede; it is up to us to take them at their word and to dispassionately form our own judgments about their actions. It is time for Southerners to squarely face this era in our history so that we can finally understand it for what it was and move on.

Note: For those interested in further exploring this topic, I recommend Charles B. Dew, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War; George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War; and Mitchell Snay, Gospel of Disunion.

About Gordon Rhea

Gordon Rhea is one of the foremost authorities on Grant’s 1864 Overland Campaign, and is the author of The Battle of the Wilderness: May 5-6, 1864, To The North Anna River: Grant and Lee, May 13-25, 1864 and Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26-June 3, 1864, among others. Rhea has given scores of lectures and sits on the board of directors at the Civil War Library and Museum in Philadelphia and North and South magazine.

Rhea graduated summa cum laude from Indiana University with a B.A. in History, and received his Masters from Harvard University as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow. Rhea went into law –earning his degree from Stanford University -- and was a Federal Attorney for a number of years.

Rhea currently works with the firm of Richardson, Patrick, Westbrook and Brickman, who pursue environmental justice. He is a major supporter of the Civil War Trust.