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If the American civil war is about liberating the slaves, then it might make sense to expect the war to be fought between slaves and masters. In theory, the slaves should be the ones fighting for their own freedom. However, both sides of the warring parties were primarily non-slaves.

Why couldn't slaves do more for themselves? And why did the non-slaves fight so hard for the slaves' freedom?

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I don't know if your assumption that all white people would be for slavery should depress me, insult me or both. In any case it's deeply ignorant. – Lennart Regebro Sep 28 '13 at 16:17
You got the wrong impression absolutely. I don't know where in my question gave you that impression. I think most white Americans are against slavery because they are decent people. But if you ask these decent people to lay down their lives to fight for the freedom of other people, that is a different matter. – curious Sep 28 '13 at 17:06
@LennartRegebro It's a valid question. Stop picking at bones, looking for something to be offended at. If you don't like the exact wording of the question, edit it. – American Luke Sep 28 '13 at 17:51
Your question makes no sense, it tries to rewrite history into the civil war being a race war. – jwenting Sep 28 '13 at 18:36
@user1709088 I wasn't offended by your question. I voted to close it because it didn't seem like you've done any research on your own before you asked it. A quick look at the related wikipedia article would have sufficed, and if you've read it you would have known that slavery wasn't the only reason for the war, or even the main one (as with any war, money was the main reason). In the future, please take some time to research your questions before you ask them. 10-15 minutes browsing wikipedia would be enough to get a basic idea of the topic. – Yannis Sep 29 '13 at 13:56
up vote 17 down vote accepted

First off, the Civil War went a lot deeper than slavery. Ever since the foundation of the United States of America, there was enmity between the North and the South. The two regions had radically different cultures, which made it hard for them to get along. The South had a much smaller population, fewer large cities, and was overall rural. The North was full of harbors with large cities, industrialization, and dense urban areas. This caused tension from the very beginning.

The South wanted very low tariffs because of their agricultural economy while the North wanted high tariffs to protect their products from cheaper European products. The South generally did not want to get rid of slavery, while the North quickly abolished it. In fact, if the Constitution had disallowed slavery, it is extremely unlikely that the South would have joined. One of the first acts of all of the Northern states after the ratification of the Constitution was to abolish slavery. They planned to slowly wean the South off of slavery, first by abolishing the importation of slaves after 1807. However, the South was unwilling to abolish slavery because that was the lifeblood of its economy.

Until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the war was primarily over taxation. The South believed they were being treated unfairly and decided to get out of the Union and form their own Confederacy. Of course, the North didn't want that.

Why didn't blacks fight? Well, first off they were slaves. They had no weapons or communication systems. They couldn't just say, "everyone take over your plantation on March 18 at midnight". John Brown wanted to create an uprising of slaves like that, but it failed and he was hung.

So, the war wasn't really completely about slavery. It was over the deep cultural differences of the North and the South. Although the focus was turned to slavery later in the war, the slaves had very little chance to fight (especially because blacks weren't even allowed to fight in the Union for the first part of the war).

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+1 - Excellent answer. Further, in the early part of the war, the Union was not faring all that well. Lincoln used the Emancipation Proclamation and the issue of slavery as political tools to rally the Union to the cause of the war, which, as you explained, was about not really about slavery per-se. The issue of slavey was simply the most prominent and politically polarizing factor that highlighted the profound differences between North and South, as you aptly explained, and the point on which the South felt most vulnerable because of the impact its abolishment would have on their economy. – user2590 Sep 28 '13 at 16:54
in fact slavery was a very minor factor for the south, only blown out of all proportion by the union after the war to justify their actions. The south seceded because of the unfair taxes on their products leveraged by the north (hmm, remember the revolutionary war...). – jwenting Sep 28 '13 at 18:34
@jwenting I suggest you read the US Declaration of Independence. There were many more reasons for independence from Britain besides taxation without representation (26 to exact). Taxation without representation as a cause for independence is blown way out of proportion just like slavery was blown way out of proportion as a cause for the Civil War. Taxation without representation was only number 13 on the list (IIRC). – American Luke Sep 28 '13 at 19:02
There were Black Union soldiers at the Battle of Gettysburg — and the ones who fell are buried in a segregated cemetery. The North abolished slavery first not because they were less racist, but because their higher immigration rates and lack of labor-intensive crops like cotton or tobacco reduced the "need" for slaves. – dan04 Sep 28 '13 at 20:49
@AmericanLuke and racial reasons were similarly only a very minor part (and an even smaller part) of the reasons for the civil war. Overtaxation was what drove people to revolution against Britain, it might not have been the main ideological reason but that's the one the potential recruits felts in their pockets, far more important to most of them than some fuzzy thing about "wanting self determination". – jwenting Sep 29 '13 at 2:45

There are two great myths of the Civil War.

The Southern myth is that it was a matter of State's right i.e. not allowing a distant part of the country control another. In Europe, it was be like Finland making all the important decisions for Spain.

Sounds good on the surface but Southern Slavarchy would trample all over the right of other states when they wished. Pennsylvania effectively outlawed slavery in 1780, 12 years prior to the constitution but in the eyes of the Slavarchy that meant nothing whereas the fact that slavery predated the constitution by two centuries did. The Fugitive Slave act and the Dredd Scott decision basically imposed slavery on all states in law and only mob violence and the lynching of the odd slave catcher held it back.

But really the purest expression is found in the Constitution of the Confederation itself

Article IV Section 3(3) The Confederate States may acquire new territory; and Congress shall have power to legislate and provide governments for the inhabitants of all territory belonging to the Confederate States, lying without the limits of the several states; and may permit them, at such times, and in such manner as it may by law provide, to form states to be admitted into the Confederacy. 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 by the territorial government: and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories, shall have the right to take to such territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the states or territories of the Confederate states.[32]

No State of the Confederacy could ever choose forbid slavery. So, much for state's rights. This would mutate into the "Myth of the Lost Cause" shortly after the war.

The other myth is that the North fought primarily for abolition. In fact, abolitions were in the main a small radical group of Northern European Protestant cultural supremacist. They were violently anti-Catholic and ferociously in favor of Manifest Destiny and forced relocation of the First American Peoples. Many people at the time, including Lincoln, pointed out that they seemed driven by hatred and envy of the southern class, than out of concern of those enslaved. Abolition seemed almost a side effect.

They arguably triggered the war early and certainly made it more protracted by out and out lying about John Brown and his intentions to foster a mass slave revolt at Harper's Ferry, instead turning into a "Raid." This made it easy for the radical southerners to convince many that the north intended to destroy the south in a race war that would result in the deaths of millions. It triggered the arming of the South, without which the war would have at least been briefer.

They were mistrust prior to the war and as the war advanced, they became actively hated, especially by the soldiery (there were notable exceptions Lawrence Chamberlain for example.) They constantly interfered with military operations being responsible for the loss of the First Battle of Bull Run/Manassas as well as disaster at Battle of Fredericksburg.

Many working class Northern's feared economic competition from freed slaves and the vast majority of Northern whites including Lincoln were dubious that whites and blacks could live together as equals.

In truth, what the North fought for was to preserve the Union of the States. One of the consequences of the Civil War was so seal the Union in blood that later generations forgot that the fear of disunion was a major and ongoing concern right up to the Civil War. The first attempt at secession was in Connecticut during war of 1812 and South Caroline threatened to do so in 1836.

Without an inviolate Union, Democracy was impossible if everyone just stalked off when they didn't get their way. It's telling that the Gettysburg address, considered by most the greatest American political speech, does not mention slavery.

The Emancipation Proclamation set off wide spread dissension in the Union ranks and increased desertions.

But in hindsight, they were right to prioritize maintaining American Democracy even if as Lincoln once said it meant keeping slavery. American in 1860 was the last true Democracy left standing. The counter-reaction to the French Revolution had locked Europe into Aristocracy. Even England was facing a rollback of franchise in its plutocracy. Many in the North viewed the primary threat in the South before the war as a rising hereditary aristocracy instead of slavery.

If the South had won, its possible that succession in America would have been the norm, the country would have flown apart North and South and popular Democracy would have died world wide for half a century or more. Certainly, many elites in Europe were routing for just that outcome.

It was only a good 20-30 years later, that idea that North fought primarily for Abolition took hold. Most likely it did so because at a time of American's rise to the Greatest Nation status, the idea of the entire United States flying apart and popular Democracy dying by then seemed almost silly, so they needed another mythos.

As to why the slaves did not rebel either before or during the war:

The Southern whites were terrified of slave revolts as the majority of them in history simply became slaughters of the slave owners. The history of Haiti and the extermination of the white population there after Napoleon's treachery, haunted them in particular. The South was essentially a police state keeping slaves isolated and unable to coordinate.

During the war, some slaves feared an overkill reaction if they rose up behind the lines. In the past, just the men had been executed after trials. This time they feared extermination. But such fears were very rare. As well, as part of Lincoln's attempt at reconciliation, Union Armies were under orders to prevent uprising.

But perhaps more importantly, the Civil War had an odd sense of propriety running through it. (Although we shouldn't romanticize it.) But, for example, when Sherman marched through Georgia and South Carolina, the southern white males that remained would flee to the hills with their slaves and other chattel while leaving their women folk at home to deal with the Union Army. It's odd war in which one side feels confident enough in the other sides morality that the first side leaves their women unprotected against the other.

That same sense of propriety lead slaves who wished to fight for their freedom to runaway to the Union lines and become uniformed soldiers, instead of murdering their masters or fighting as guerrillas (something still frowned on.)

Telling, in the last two years of the war nearly entire counties lost their military age white male population which was defined very broadly. In many cases, farms and plantations were being run by a handful of white women and dozens and sometimes hundreds of slaves. Yet, virtually none of the women came to harm and in at least one case, a group of slaves lynched another that had tried to sexually assault his white mistress. Ironically, the same sense of propriety prevented the male slaves from revolting when their only targets were women and girls.

In sum,

  1. Pre-war slave revolts were prevented by the police state.
  2. Northern's didn't fight to end slavery as much as to preserve American democracy. (Although, no Democracy, no chance of freedom for slaves.)
  3. Slaves that fought for their freedom did so formally as part of the Union Army, in the hundreds of thousands.
  4. Slave revolt during the war was doubly dangerous and would be suppressed by both the Southern and Northern forces
  5. Every far behind the lines, slaves seemed unwilling to do harm to women, girls, boys and old men. Especially, as it became clear the South would lose.
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Slaves were unable to fight for themselves because they were denied an education, and forbidden to learn how to use firearms. The ones that violated these laws or otherwise rebelled, were severely punished. And slaves had no way of organizing, or even communicating, between themselves to start a "whole" civil war.

One exception to the rule was Nat Turner who started a (small) slave uprising among his fellow blacks. It was quickly suppressed and Turner was captured and hanged.

Non-slaves started the Civil War because the notion of slavery offended important non-slave groups. One such group was women. The Battle Hymn of the Republic was written by Julia Ward Howe. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a novel, "Uncle Tom's Cabin," condemning slavery. And Northern laborers enlisted in the Union army because they feared that "cheap" slave labor would undercut their wages and standard of living.

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explain that to the regiments of slaves in the confederation army... And he didn't ask about slaves vs. free but blacks vs. whites, iow a general race war. Which is even more ludicrous. – jwenting Sep 28 '13 at 18:35

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