Closely related to Myth #2, the idea that the vast majority of Confederate soldiers were men of modest means rather than large plantation owners is usually used to reinforce the contention that the South wouldn’t have gone to war to protect slavery. The 1860 census shows that in the states that would soon secede from the Union, an average of more than 32 percent of white families owned slaves. Some states had far more slave owners (46 percent in South Carolina, 49 percent in Mississippi) while some had far less (20 percent in Arkansas).
Myth #4: The Union went to war to end slavery.
On the Northern side, the rose-colored myth of the Civil War is that the blue-clad Union soldiers and their brave, doomed leader, Abraham Lincoln, were fighting to free the slaves. They weren’t, at least not initially; they were fighting to hold the nation together. Lincoln was known to personally oppose slavery (which is why the South seceded after his election in 1860), but his chief goal was preserving the Union. In August 1862, he famously wrote to the New York Tribune: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.”
The slaves themselves helped make the case for emancipation as a military aim, fleeing in droves beyond the lines of approaching Union armies. Early in the conflict, some of Lincoln’s generals helped the president understand that sending these men and women back to bondage could only help the Confederate cause. By the fall of 1862, Lincoln had become convinced that acting to end slavery was a necessary step. A month after his letter to Greeley, Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, which would take effect in January 1863. More a practical wartime measure than a true liberation, it proclaimed free all slaves in the rebel states, but not those in the border slavery states, which Lincoln needed to remain loyal to the Union.
Myth #5: Black soldiers—slave and free—fought for the Confederacy.
This argument, a staple among those seeking to redefine the conflict as an abstract battle over states’ rights rather than a fight to preserve slavery, does not hold up. White officers in the Confederacy did indeed bring slaves to the front during the Civil War, where they cooked, cleaned and performed other labors for the officers and their regiments. But there’s no evidence to suggest that significant numbers of black soldiers fought under the Confederate banner against Union soldiers.
In fact, until March 1865, Confederate Army policy specifically prohibited blacks from serving as soldiers. Some Confederate officers wanted to enlist slaves earlier: Gen. Patrick Cleburne proposed enlisting African-American soldiers early in 1864, but Jefferson Davis rejected the suggestion and ordered it never to be discussed again. Finally, in the last weeks of the conflict, the Confederate government gave in to Gen. Robert E. Lee’s desperate plea for more men, allowing slaves to enlist in exchange for some kind of post-war freedom. A small number signed up for training, but there’s no evidence they saw action before the war’s end.
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