November 30, 2010 – Did you know that the U.S. Civil War (1861-65) was fought over the question of the correct color of cheese? Seems that Northerners wanted to dye their cheddar with annatto, while Southerners preferred their traditional white fromage. Despite multiple compromises being worked out over the decades leading up to 1860, the election of Abraham Lincoln, who was a devoted orange cheddar man, and the crisis over the North’s orange cheese supply at Fort Sumter, forced the two sides into the bloody conflict.
Absurd? Yes, and as absurd as the notion that the Civil War was not primarily about slavery. Yet the fanciful notions of “states rights” and “sovereignty” persist in the minds of many as explications of the reasons for secession.
In today’s New York Times, there are described a number of upcoming “celebrations” in Southern states of the sesquicentennial of secession events … without acknowledging the central part slavery had in the secessionist movement. The commander-in-chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans organization is quoted in the piece, saying, “While there were many causes of the war, our people were only fighting to protect themselves from an invasion and for their independence.”
Granted, once the war had begun and Union forces were marching into Virginia, loyal Southerners stood up to fight (although many poor Southern men were essentially coerced into fighting by pro-slavery firebrands). But the reason the Southern states attempted to leave the Union in the first place , and I’ll put this very simply so you can quote me, was to protect the institution of slavery. Period.
This fact is patently clear when you peruse documents from the pre-secession period of late 1860. South Carolina’s “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union” sums up the history of slavery in the U.S. and the essential role it (and opposition to it) had played up to the moment of secession. Here is an excerpt:
We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.
This statement, like other secession documents, affirms throughout the right to hold slaves and argues against the right of the North to prevent it. Note, too, that herein “property” = slaves.
So, again, and please quote me on this, the U.S. Civil War was fundamentally about slavery. The reasons why Southern men and women supported secession—or not—or fought in butternut/gray—or Union blue—are numerous and interesting. But if someone tries to tell you that Southern secession and the Civil War occurred for reasons primarily other than slavery, then you might as well just turn the conversation to the color of cheese, because that might turn out to be a more interesting conversation.
Fred Dews, 2010