Roots of the War? Historians say slavery; others say states' rights

Eric Emerson, the director of the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, displays the Ordinance of Secession that was signed in Charleston on Dec. 20, 1860. With the ordinance, South Carolina became the first state to leave the Union.

At South Carolina's Secession Gala, men in frock coats and militia uniforms and women in hoopskirts will sip mint juleps as a band called Unreconstructed plays "Dixie." In Georgia, they will re-enact the state's 1861 secession convention. And Alabama will hold a mock swearing-in of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Across the South, preparations are under way for the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. And while many organizations are working to incorporate the black and the white experience, there are complaints that some events will glorify the Old South and the Lost Cause while overlooking the fundamental reason for the war -- slavery.

"It's almost like celebrating the Holocaust," said Benard Simelton, president of the Alabama conference of the NAACP. "Our rights were taken away and we were treated as less than human beings. To relive that in a celebratory way I don't think is right."

Mark Simpson, commander of the South Carolina Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, acknowledged that an event such as the Dec. 20 Secession Gala in Charleston is seen by some Americans as politically incorrect. But "to us it's part of our nature and our culture and our heritage."

"Slavery was a very big issue. Anyone who denies that has his head in a hole somewhere," said Simpson, a Spartanburg businessman. "But slavery was not the single nor primary cause, and that's where the line gets drawn."

Simpson said the primary cause was states' rights, the purported right of states to nullify federal laws and freely leave the Union they voluntarily joined.

Many historians would disagree, and strongly.

"Slavery was the principal cause of the Civil War, period," said Bob Sutton, chief historian for the National Park Service. "Yes, politics was important. Yes, economics were important. Yes, social issues were important. But when you get to the core of why all these things were important, it was slavery."

A few weeks before the first shots of the war were fired at Fort Sumter, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens called slavery "the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution."

As the war progressed, the Confederate government shifted its rationale to states' rights, because Davis knew neither England nor other third powers would support the South in a war to preserve slavery, Sutton said.

And after the war, writers and historians who were part of what became known as the Lost Cause movement contended that it was fought not over slavery, which they characterized as a benign institution, but over states' rights.

"The interesting thing about the Civil War, unlike almost any other war, is generally the victor is the one who controls the story," Sutton said. "The Civil War is different in that the Lost Cause really was the message about the Civil War well into the 20th century."

That interpretation lingered through the Civil War centennial in the 1960s, during the height of the civil rights movement. The 100th anniversary commemorations tended to focus on the military genius of the South's generals and the valor of its troops in battle. Slavery was largely ignored.

"The centennial was very popular in the South, in part because Southerners saw that as a real opportunity to dull the civil rights movement," Sutton said.

For the 150th anniversary, some commemorations are being conducted under state auspices, while others are being privately organized, such as the mock swearing-in in Alabama and the $100-a-head Charleston gala, which will mark the day South Carolina became the first state to secede, on Dec. 20, 1860.

The state's NAACP chapter plans a protest march and vigil outside the city-owned auditorium where the party will be held.

"I don't care how they try to dress it up -- that term 'putting lipstick on a pig, it's still a pig' -- they are going to be hard-pressed to find a mixed audience for what they are putting on," Joe McGill, a black historian from Charleston, said of the Secession Gala.

McGill sees the 150th anniversary as an opportunity to tell stories that weren't told 50 years ago, those of blacks and the black units who fought for the Union.