|William Palmer as a young Union colonel|
Some of us still debate whether the Civil War was about slavery. If a pollster had asked Stoneman's raiders why they were fighting, I doubt that many of them would have cited an emancipation provocation. Even some who condemned slavery as an institution displayed little concern for the welfare of the freedmen.
Before the war, Palmer been involved in abolitionist rallies. Afterwards, he became a major supporter of Hampton Institute to educate the children of freed slaves.
After fighting for four years to free the slaves (and earning the Medal of Honor along the way), Palmer was appalled to hear reports that the new president, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, might "phase in" emancipation, delaying the end of slavery in order to help heal the wounds of secession. Even while he was commanding the last days of Stoneman's Raid and leading the pursuit of Jefferson Davis in Georgia, Palmer took time to write this eloquent letter to an influential friend in Philadelphia, urging President Johnson to never compromise on the abolition of slavery.
May 6, 1865
Mr. Samuel C. Morton
I have no right to communicate directly with the President of the United States, being forbidden by the position I hold in the army, but as I have had peculiar and extraordinary opportunities of becoming acquainted with the phases of public sentiment among the most intelligent men of North and South Carolina and Georgia since the surrender of Lee’s army, I have a strong desire that President Johnson should become acquainted with one or two points that I shall mention in this letter.
Of course, everybody has abandoned the cause, and the most intelligent and influential men everywhere have candidly acknowledged to me that they are entirely in the power of the United States Government, and will have to submit to any terms that may be imposed. Not one of them has the slightest expectation of any continued resistance in the Trans-Mississippi Department—nor do they wish it. I am satisfied from the inquiries made of me by leading men in all three States, that a strong united effort will be made throughout the South to influence Northern sentiment to grant the gradual abolition of slavery. This is the utmost they hope for.
Now I hope most sincerely that those who have the settlement of this matter will not be influenced (by any fear of a sullen resistance to the authority of the Government or any desire to pacify the Southern people and make them give a cheerful submission to what is so unpalatable) to yield this point. They should consent to nothing but an immediate and unconditional abolition of slavery. I have told these people everywhere that no matter what else is done, this is inevitable; that as they evidently expected universal confiscation, subjugation, and in some case annihilation, they should deem the other mild terms; that as their labor system has to be reorganized on a compensatory basis, the soon it is begun the sooner they will have a stable system—and that they have more to fear from insurrection and disturbances among the negroes if their emancipation is procrastinated than if it were immediate, especially since the whites have been disarmed and so many of the blacks made soldiers.
Some of their leading people have partially admitted the force of these arguments, but all would, I am convinced, cheerfully submit to these terms if they found that this was the best and the worst, and that no general confiscation would ensue.
If slavery is not immediately got rid of, pacification will be indefinitely delayed, and political parties in the North will before long be based on this issue.
I would be glad to see even the leaders of the rebellion or most of them pardoned, and not a dollar’s worth of other than slave property confiscated, in order to gain this point, and it might be done in a way to ensure the influence of these leaders to make the main point (immediate abolition) palatable to the Southern people.
The crime of rebellion is so great that any punishment of these concerned seems trifling and insignificant. And the value of the property that might be confiscated to the United States Government is absurdly small compared to the mere pecuniary advantages it would derive from the increase of taxable property in the South, in a very few years under a free labor system.
But let us have freedom everywhere—the whites of the South expect it, the negroes are longing for it, and civilization and peace demand it.
With kind regards to yourself, I am, Sir,
Yours very respectfully,
WM. J. PALMER
Brev. Brig. Genl.
(Commanding Stoneman’s Cavalry)
Rebels explain why they seceded
So was the Civil War really about slavery? Or states' rights? Or northern agression?After 150 years of spin, we all have our opinions.
I suggest we all take a deep breath and listen to the statements of those who voted to leave the Union. Six of the 11 states expressly mentioned slavery either in their ordinances of secession or in the supporting declarations of cause.
For example, this is what Mississippi said in its Declaration of Cause:
In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.Texas went even further, declaring that the government was established by and for the white race:
We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.This is not to say that there were not noble reasons for Southerners to fight, especially when their homelands were invaded by hordes of Yankees. Most rebels did not own slaves. Most of them probably would not have voted to secede. (North Carolina actually held a referendum, and the voters rejected secession.)
But their leaders did, and did.
Read their words, and then tell me what you think.