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11 • 1 • “The Question of Slavery” Confederate Soldiers and the Southern Cause, 1861–1862 By April 1862, most of the men who served in the Confederate army had already enlisted. Others joined later, and still more found themselves drafted, but examining men’s words in the first year of the war allows us to understand why they fought for the South. When it came to the “question of slavery,” Rebel soldiers expressed proslavery views that included fears of abolitionism and slave revolt, and worries that the North sought to eradicate white Southerners’ political power. Men often spoke vaguely of defending their “rights,” but they understood that the right to own slaves was one of the most important. White Southerners had argued with Northerners for decades about slavery’s future in the United States. Secession and war were the Confederacy’s answer to the “question of slavery.” South Carolinians were the first Southerners to find themselves part of a new slaveholding republic. On 20 December 1860, South Carolina’s secession convention—in a climax to the state’s history as the most radical Southern state—voted unanimously to leave the Union.1 In what was now the Republic of South Carolina, Confederate soldiers knew how important slavery was. William Grimball, who came from a slaveholding family and served in the First South Carolina Artillery, spoke plainly about why his people chose secession. He said property holders were “united with few exceptions in the belief that now a stand must be made for African slavery or it is forever lost.” Grimball was equally clear about the stresses that secession placed on his state. He warned his sister that when she returned home, she would find “your father with a loaded pistol, your brothers with loaded pistols.” People were armed to “protect themselves and their families from dishonor and death,” as well as against the United States sending “incendiaries to stir up the slaves to poison & murder us.”2 marching masters 12 South Carolinians knew that they could not defeat the United States alone. Once South Carolina had become a “sovereign state,” wrote John L. Agurs—who served in the Sixth South Carolina Infantry—“evry other slaveholding state should do as S.C. has done.” South Carolinians, he believed , had seceded rather than submit to a “Black Republican” president .3 South Carolina would soon gain allies, but the other cotton states did not secede all at once. And despite Agurs’s wish, not every slave state joined the Confederacy. Nevertheless, by the time Lincoln gave his inauguration address, seven states had seceded. In February 1861, in Montgomery , Alabama, the Confederate States drew up a constitution, which gave slavery permanent sanction within its borders and guaranteed slavery ’s legality in any future state or territory. Although the Confederate Constitution banned the foreign slave trade, the South’s blueprint for government laid out a strong, proslavery state apparatus.4 Confederates were constructing a new nation that reflected their proslavery principles. For Louisianan William Henry King, secession was a rejection of Northerners’ view of the Constitution and what he felt was misguided antislavery feeling. King would have been content with the Constitution and the Union his ancestors had lived under, but, he noted, “our Northern brethren . . . ​ were not content with them, claiming, when the subject of African servitude as it existed in the Southern States, was under consideration, there was a ‘higher law than the Constitution—the law of conscience.’”5 Not all Confederates, however, even those from the Deep South, accepted secession unthinkingly or unconditionally. In March 1861, South Carolinian Samuel Elias Mays asked: “What are we fighting for? Why should I take up arms against the Union?” His family’s ties to the Union were strong. His father had served in the Indian wars of the 1830s and his grandfather in the Revolution and War of 1812. He came from a slave-owning family, but he was not enthusiastic about disunion. Nevertheless , along with hundreds of thousands of Southerners, he joined the Confederate army.6 Even if Mays was hesitant about secession, he had direct ties to slavery, ties which undoubtedly affected his decision to join the army. In 1860 in the South, 384,000 people, roughly 5 percent of the population , owned at least one slave. In the seven original Confederate States, 36.7 percent of households owned slaves, as did 25 percent of households in the states that joined in the spring and summer of 1861.7 When compared to non-slaveholders...


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