The U.S. Civil War and Slavery

By Fahim A. Knight-El


By Fahim A. Knight-El

Thesis Statement: The American Civil War Possessed a Number of Political, Economic and Social Factors and Variables, that impacted the Causation of the Civil War, which has led to a Divergent of historical Opinions, Analysis and Interpretations being rendered by scholars.

This research and analysis, will focus on some of the causes and affects of the American Civil War (1861-1865), which became the bloodiest and deadliest war within the history of United States of America (approximately 540,000 to over 625,000 people lost their lives in this battle)[1] and evaluate and assess some of the historical variables that were germane to those who fought on the side of the Union and Confederate armies, in particular looking at how intertwined Chattel Slavery had become as a major part of the economic fiber of early Southern American life. Historian Kenneth Stampp called it the ‘Peculiar Institution’, he wrote about, the history of slavery in America, and he left little doubt, that the institution of slavery played a major and premiere role in fueling the American Civil War. Slavery (buying and selling of human cargo—for labor) was the free labor force that had created huge sums of wealth for large and small aristocratic plantation owners and property owners (which transitioned into generational wealth).[2] President Abraham Lincoln’s action during this time period and his political stance of attacking slavery was equalvent to devaluing a commodity (slaves and slave labor were considered to be valuable assets). Charles A. Beard who was an economic determinist and authored the book titled, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States in 1913, maintained that the U.S. Constitution was essentially a document inspired to benefit and protect the economic interest of white male property and plantation owners.[3] Also, in order to understand, the complexity of the American Civil War, it was mandated that the writer, briefly review the history of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, as well as concisely survey early American Colonial history but only as historical frameworks with no in depth analysis intended, neither as a central argument of my thesis and research.

It was cotton and other cash crops (rice, tobacco, rum, etc.), but cotton was considered the king of the cash crops, that allowed the South to become economically empowered, and the Elitist (planters class) had deep seated interest in keeping slave labor in tact (for them it was profit motive and capitalism incentive and slavery had become a way of life). Carl N. Degler in his book titled, Out of Our Past: The Forces that Shaped Modern American stated: “For two decades the southern people had been growing in the conviction that their culture, entwined about the institution of Negro slavery, made them a separate nation”. Jefferson Davis and other Confederate leaders knew and understood that the South could not easily relinquish their economic livelihood, and therefore, opposed the United States Government of essentially having no legal jurisdiction over the South and that the issue of slavery should be enforced and determined on the state governments levels without Union intervention.[4]

Historian Merrill Jenson, in his book titled, The New Nation, argued and stated: “The Civil War itself was the bloody climax of a social conflict in which the ultimate nature of the Constitution was argued again and again in seeking support for and arguments against antagonistic programs. But even the Civil War did not finally settle the constitutional issue. The stresses and strains that came with the rise of industrialism and finance capitalism produced demands for social and regulatory legislation. The passage of such legislation by the states involved the interpretation of the nature of the Constitution, for business interests regulated by statement governments denied their authority and appealed to the national courts. Those courts soon denied the power of regulation to state legislatures. The when regulatory laws were passed by the national government, the regulated interests evolved a ‘states right’ theory that limited the power of the central government, and the national courts once more agreed”.[5]

This argument would become one of the main impetuses for the Confederate states to attempt to secede in rebellion against the Union by declaring sovereignty from the United States Government in which other scholars would correctly argue that the various Constitutional Conventions had resolved and defined states rights in 1787 with the founding fathers framing the United States Constitution. David Herbert Donald in his book titled, Why The North Won the Civil War?, layout some possible causations factors and variables, thus, he stated: “For the most part attention {scholarly historiography} has been directed to the question of the causes of the war: was it states rights, was it slavery, was it Yankee abolitionists, or Southern fire-eaters, or was it national neurosis. . . .”[6]

This writer, is of the opinion, that it was perhaps, a combination of all the above historical variables, because some of the historiography that this writer reviewed presented scholarly and empirical data defending the validity for all above said factors, but overwhelmingly historians and social scientist debated slavery as being the main and undeniable cause of the inciting the American Civil War. This writer finds validity and credibility in the slavery arguments put forth by historians Stampp, Beard, Jenson, and Degler as being the central theme of the Civil War. Yet, this writer thinks that the Confederates had a deep conviction to southern patriotism and pride in southern institutions and often these sentiments got overshadowed, because of the evilness and dehumanization affect slavery had on millions of human beings—this writer, thinks many in the Confederate South had internalized their racial politics as being rooted in a culture, which was believed by them to be as being American as baseball and apple pie.

I think, as much as I appreciated Donald’s interpretation about the validity of all the above stated causation factors, that he attributed to the Civil War, but in my opinion, what possibly led to the Confederate downfall was that the North had just to much man power and economic resources and tactically and strategically used the question of slavery as a social and political disruption in order have the Southern Confederates distracted on two fronts. I think Davis and Lee thought that sense they were of the South and controlled the cotton commodity economy that this alone would have enticed, perhaps the British and French to intervene on the side of Confederate against the Union; however, this did not happen and U.S. imposed naval blockades all along the Eastern Seaboard, which furthered crippled the war efforts of the Confederates.

Also, the rise of the abolitionist movement such as the Quakers of Pennsylvania, John Brown (1800-1859) and Fredrick Douglas (1818-1895) who brought attention to the question of slavery as a moral and ethical contradiction (August 10, 1863 - The president meets with abolitionist Frederick Douglass). Their activism was impacting the Union or the United States Government to be more politically and if necessary militarily proactive in ending Chattel Slavery and it was their pressure that led to the inevitable, which was the gradual dismantling the system of Chattel slavery. Also slave rebellions and slave insurrections were becoming heightened throughout the South. The U.S. Courts would play a huge role in defining slaves (free slaves, runaway slaves and free territory (Missouri Compromise in 1850 and the Dred Scott Decision in 1857).[7]

Brief Pre Civil War Background and the African Connection

The American Civil War (1861-1865) has to be viewed and interpreted from various historical events and proceedings, and must be placed in its proper historical context relative to the African slave labor correlation and dilemma, it would be remised to overlook how this came about. This writer, will briefly addressed the African slave trade in order to give a succinct understanding of how and why the black labor force became to be so important within the Confederate and Southern economy. With the advent of Chattel slavery, which predated the bloodiest war in American history by two hundred forty-two years (242) and it did not come to an end until 1865. Most historians have traced the beginning of the African Slave Trade to about the 1440s where the Portuguese ventured into West Africa and brought twenty Africans back to Lisbon, Portugal who served as indentured servants. This would eventually lead to the Spanish, Portuguese and the Catholic Church (Pope Alexander VI and Bishop Bartholomew Las Casas who played major religious roles by sanctioning slavery) and later other European powers ventured into African Slave Trade, which eventually initiated the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Middle Passage.[8]

It was in1619 that the British brought 20 Africans slaves (or Indentured Servants) to Jamestown, Virginia, which led to the inception of Chattel Slavery being introduced in the so-called “New World” as it pertained to the British colonies.[9] The Spanish and the Portuguese had signed various agreements relative to dividing the world up between two European nations pursuant to the signing of the Papal Bull of Demarcation and the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 in which Spain would take most of lands in the New World with the exception of Brazil given to Portugal. This would eventually lead to ten to fifty million Africans being brought to the New World as slaves.[10]

Claud Anderson in his book titled, Black Labor, White Wealth stated: “Black slavery was, purely and simply, racial and economic exploitation, that caused economic revolutions and entrenched disparities between blacks and whites. Economically poor, non-industrialized nations of Europe, like Spain, Portugal, Germany, and England, commercialized human exploitation and suffering for the primary purpose of looting gold, silver and precious commodities in Africa and the New World. Old forms of mercantilism were converted to new capitalism. Banking, currency, and marketing reforms were created. Africa became a warren for the commercial hunting of strong ebony bodies. Subsequently, skin color became a sign of degradation for its wearer and a sign of wealth for its owner”.[11]
European Settlers Enter the New World

The new European settlers who arrived in the 15th century to the New World and landed on the eastern seaboard had many challenges relative to making adjustments to a new and unfamiliar geographical territory and landscape. They were concerned about survival as it pertained to their quest for food, clothing and shelter (in observance of the first law of survival, which is self-preservation, this became their main priority).[12] Some historians maintained that the Native Americans had arrived to North America some 16,000 years before the European Settlers arrival. The Europeans initially tried to enslave the Native Americans, but it was very difficult, because the Natives knew the land and territories, which gave them strategic and tactical advantages over the Europeans enslavers relative to exploiting escape routes.[13]

Also, they were not accustomed to working long unbearable hours under the hot sun and many Native Americans died from sickness and diseases from being in contact with the Europeans. Nevertheless, if it were not for the alliances and treaties that took place between the Native Americans and the European Settlers, which allowed for the early Settlers to survive; because of their keen knowledge of agriculture and agrarian society —planting, cropping and taught them how to grow food and which crops to plant based on the planting season, the gathering of food was essential to the early settlers survival. The Native Americans taught them about how important it was to rotate crops and if were not for these early alliances with the Native Americans such as the Creeks, Yamasees, Seminoles, etc., that attributed to the early settlers’ survival. [14]

Some historians maintain that the early settlers’ alliances with the Native Americans was pragmatic and beneficial to their ultimate survival in the ‘New Word’ and some even believe that the Lost Colony that was sent by Sir Walter Raleigh to Roanoke Island (now part of North Carolina) in 1587 who disappeared either died due to starvation and/or were massacred by warring Native American tribes. The geography of the eastern seaboard and the landscape were very dense with woods and forest (possessing hot summers and mild winters). However, the British had economic interest relative to seeking valuable natural resources (initially the fur trade was lucrative because of the abundance North American animal skins) and to further empowering the financial coffers of King James of England and Queen Elizabeth of England. The venturing into the so-called New World was motivated by the economic projections that there were possibility of gold and silver to be found and this was most the important variable to the Europeans explorers and colonists motivations throughout the Americas—from Vasco Núñez de Balboa, Ponce Da Leon, Amerigo Vespucci, Magellan, Desoto, etc., the European explorations were rooted in economic interest.[15]
The settlers were motivated to create a homestead and this would involve clearing off land in order to pursue agriculture and farming and develop these territories into livable homesteads. Slavery would play a huge role in the development of America from clearing off land, agriculture, to building railroads, etc. and creating infrastructure.
The Advent of Chattel Slavery

Some historians argue that the first African slaves arrived to North America on a Slave Ship piloted my Sir John Hawkins of Lubeke in 1555 and it was this event, which led to chattel slavery, but most historians agree that the first slaves arrived to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619 (some argue that they were initially viewed as indentured servants). Nevertheless, the exploitation of black human labor made its way on the scene in North America. W.E.B Dubois in his book titled, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade 1638-1870, maintained that anywhere from 10-20 millions Africans where brought to America as slaves and millions died in Africa and crossing the Atlantic Ocean and on the plantations.[16] Slavery flourished throughout America, in particular in Southern agriculture states and in the white plantation owners mind they had one main and essential interest, which was maintaining slavery—the foundation of the Confederate Southern economy. The Civil War

James McPherson in an article titled: “A Brief Overview of the American Civil War: A Defining Time In Our Nation’s History” stated: “The event that triggered war came at Fort Sumter in Charleston Bay on April 12, 1861. Claiming this United States Fort as their own, the Confederate army on that day opened fire on the federal garrison and forced it to lower the American flag in surrender. Lincoln called out the militia to suppress this ‘insurrection’. Four more slave states seceded and joined the Confederacy. By the end of 1861 nearly a million armed men confronted each other along a line stretching 1200 miles from Virginia to Missouri. Several Battles had already taken place—near Manassas Junction in Virginia, in the mountains of western Virginia where Union victories’ paved the way for the new state of West Virginia, at Wilson’s Creek in Missouri, at Cape Hatteras in North Carolina, and Port Royal in South Carolina where the Union navy established a base for a blockade to shut off the Confederacy’s access to the outside world”.[17]

There were a number of key battles that was fought between1861-1865 pitting the Confederates and Union troops against each other, although, this research will not focused primarily on that aspect of the Civil War, nevertheless these conflicts cannot be entirely omitted. For example, First Battle of Bull Run in Virginia, between Washington, D.C., and Richmond (July 21, 1861); the Battle of Shiloh (April 1962); the Battle of Antietam (September 7, 1862), the Siege of Vicksburg (May 18 – July 4, 1863) etc. And there were many more Civil War battles fought between the Union troops and the Confederate troops. But this research was geared towards giving attention to, why did the United States Civil War break out in 1861?

So this writer believes that the Civil War (1861-1865) was inevitable and it was going to happen whether, it was Lincoln or some other social or political phenomenon (the quest for black freedom was starting to rise as a social antagonistic contradiction inside of America). However, Lincoln was extremely intelligent, he knew that, if he so-called freed slaves in the South, this would serve, as a strategic and tactical political maneuver employed, as an objective of weakening the South (he knew and understood this was a serious point of contention). Although, the South in theory had already succeeded from the Union and Lincoln had no jurisdiction and/or power or authority over the governance of the South—yet, both sides, the North and South used the black slave as a political football. President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1963 stated: “all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of the State, the people whereof shall be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free”.[18]

Lincoln's motive was to cripple the South economically and simultaneously incite blacks to become disrupted, which would ultimately affect an agriculture based economy that functioned and prospered off slave labor. The aristocratic white property owners incited poor white Confederates by imparting a false sense of white pride, which was rooted in the ideology of white supremacy and that they had a mandate from God to ensure that Black slaves would forever remain their property who were considered unequal to whites according to the language written in the U.S. Constitution, blacks were considered 3/5 of a human being. The Confederates built a racist patriotic theme of why they were going to war—to so-called defend their sovereignty from Union infringement on the southern institution of slavery and this gave them the right to secede from the Union, which was based on their interpretation of states right.[19]

But beneath this argument and rationale, was their effort of maintaining slavery, which was rooted in racism and economics. The Confederates in the South felt that the Civil War was the only route left to challenging the federal government and their centralization of authority and control over Southern slave states, and the North simultaneously would use the Civil War to keep the United States from becoming potentially twenty independent and splintered nations. The North fought the war to rein the Southern states back into the Union and the question of slavery was a mere secondary causation factor (the first being preserving the Union) but would have primary implications on why both sides had a vested interest in the question of slavery.

Jefferson Davis and Robert Lee, the faces of the Confederate South had declared that the South would secede from the Union before they would capitulate and give up slavery. The South viewed slavery strictly as an economic necessity (many revisionist scholars have always questioned the moral ineptness of this evil institution) and these wealthy white plantation owners were not willing to cripple their profitable economic enterprise by giving up their labor force without a fight. Some African Americans view Abraham Lincoln as a national hero, because he so-called freed the slaves on September 22, 1962 with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation (but actually it would ultimately be the Thirteen Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1865 that truly abolished slavery); however the slaves that Lincoln freed in the Confederate South, he had no jurisdiction over those slaves (this was the social and political dichotomy his decision rendered).

David Herbert Donald in his book titled, Why The North Won the Civil War stated: “was the political system of the South to blame, as so many historians persuasively argue? What was the germ of death planted in the Confederacy at birth? Was it possible to create a nation on the basis of states rights, to fight a war, which required centralization of authority, on the basis of particularism? Well, the United States has been created on the basis—at least so Southern thought (and so the Articles of Confederation asserted)—and had managed to win independence nonetheless. Was it perhaps slavery the cause not only of the war, but of Southern defeat? There is a seductive poetic appeal about such an explanation. Perhaps slavery was the Achilles’ heel of the South. Slavery prevented foreign recognition; slavery gave the North a new goal and a new ideal; slavery encouraged states rights; slavery in the end weakened the economy and military effort more that it strengthened them.’[20]
The South loses the Civil War

The South lost the Civil War and most reasonable historians would agree that slavery was the central theme of the Civil War (1861-1865) conflict, because it was the economic driving force of the nation at that time and perhaps the most value commodity in the history of America; but one should not be mistaken, because both the North and the South benefited from slave labor. This writer recently read a piece authored by Donald W. Livingston titled, “Why the War Was Not About Slavery” Livingston stated: “We think of slavery as an alien and "un-American" practice confined to the South in the 19th century. But an honest look at American history reveals a quite different picture. Slavery was woven into the economic, political, and cultural fabric of the Northern states from the beginning. The first African slaves were brought to New England in 1638 in exchange for enslaved Indians. Boston began importing slaves from Africa in 1644. For 164 years New Englanders sold slaves throughout the Western Hemisphere”.[21]

Civil War Historiography: Contradictory Historical Thoughts

Lastly, the historiography, was vast and contradictory on the history of the Civil War relative to the cause and effect and there were a wide range of diverse historical interpretations and opinions. Harry Steels Commager in his book titled, The Defeat of the Confederacy: A Documentary , he maintained that North had better resources monetarily and militarily (better armament, equipment and more human resources) and this gave the North a clear advantage over the South during Civil War and he also points out the South having ‘lost of nerve’.[22] Commager argument does stands to have some validity based other historians also pointed out similar contentions relative to the reasons for the North’s successful victory over the South and were equally critical in blaming some level of intellectual and military incompetency relative to the mindset of the Confederate leadership and poor military infrastructure (reference: scholars such as David Potter, Norman Graebner, T. Harry Williams and Harry Steels Commager, etc.).[23]

The North as this writer stated above had a distinct economic advantage, because almost all of the nation’s factories were been located in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states (industrialism was evident—machinery and mechanized armament). Students of military history such as T. Harry Williams, J.F. Fuller, B.H. Liddell Hart and Kenneth P. Williams agrees that the North had superior availability to assets and resources and this placed the Southern Confederate at a distinct disadvantage,[24] and also the African American Historian Charles H. Wesley in his book titled Collapse of the Confederacy, agrees with above historians, as well. The Union also had nearly twice the South’s population and thus, a larger pool of young available men to pull from and to serve in the Union arm forces. However, the South defeated the Union1861 in South Carolina when they attacked Fort Sumter, thus the Confederacy defeating Union troops at the First Battle of Bull Run in spite of the stated factors—initially this win spoke volumes of the Confederate preparedness and readiness to fight.

Now, furthering, the question of slavery, historian Ulrich B. Phillips in his seminar work titled, Life and Labor in the Old South he wrote as a sympathizer and as an apologist of Southern Confederate slave states in which he interpreted, the institution of Chattel Slavery as being benevolent and good for the African slaves. Phillips’ scholarship was no doubt in defense of the white Elite planters class, he stated: “The bulk of the black personnel was notoriously primitive, uncouth, improvident and inconstant, merely because they were Negroes of the time and by their slave status they were relieved from the pressure of want and debarred from any full-force incentive of gain”.[25]

But it was this type of racist reactionary scholarship that gave way to the work of John Blassingame in a book titled, Slave Community who challenged this contention that the slaves were happy loyal and docile and were content with being a slave on the plantation in which he pointed to three distinct personalities that evolved from plantation life, but often in American slave literature, it is always the ‘Sambo’ character that gets the most attention and the defiant slave personality that the slave plantation also created was often overlooked.[26] Phillips’ scholarship was an attempt to justify slavery and bring credibility and justification to white slave plantation owners and protect their economic interest and define their place in American history as a dubious and justifiable evil.

The Southern wealthy white property owners financed and used poor white Confederate soldiers as mere cannon fodder and would literally do almost anything to maintain and protect their economic interest—slavery had not only become a way of life in America, it was big business. The passing of 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution ended slavery and freed the slaves in 1865 and it was not the Emancipation Proclamation, as many have come to accept. I think one must come to the realization that slavery was wrong and evil; it was justified based on economics, theology and the American jurisprudence system (law and God). There was no other way to look at the ‘peculiar institution’ other than being morally wrong; moreover, it was this compromised labor force that propelled the United States and the South, in particular into the Civil War (the bloodiest battle in American history). It was extremely economically prosperous to the Elitist plantation and property owners or Bourgeoisie class, but worked to the detriment of the African slaves who were victims of systematic brutality due to their enslavement and cause massive social disruption to African societies. Slavery gave the United States as a nation a 300 year economic advantage and made them into a world superpower nation, but no retribution has ever been made to the ex-slaves (not even the forty-acres and mule that were promised).

Fahim A. Knight-El Chief Researcher for KEEPING IT REAL THINK TANK located in Durham, NC; our mission is to inform African Americans and all people of goodwill, of the pending dangers that lie ahead; as well as decode the symbolism and reinterpreted the hidden meanings behind those who operate as invisible forces, but covertly rules the world. We are of the belief that an enlightened world will be better prepared to throw off the shackles of ignorance and not be willing participants for the slaughter. Our MOTTO is speaking truth to power. Fahim A. Knight-El can be reached at

Stay Awake Until We Meet Again

Fahim A. Knight-El


[1]Samuel Eliot Morrison, The Oxford History of the American People. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965) 624.

[2] Kenneth Stampp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South. (New York: Random House, 1956) 398-400.

[3] Charles A. Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the United States Constitution. (New York: Mcmillan and company, 1913) 6, 17-18.

[4] Carl N. Degler, Out of Our Past: The Forces That Shaped Modern America, (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1959) 205.

[5] Merrill Jensen, The New Nation: A History of the United States. (New York Vintage Books, 1950) ix.

[6] David Herbert Donald, Why the North Won the Civil War. (New York: Touchstone, 1960), 14.

[7] Paul Finkelman, Slavery in the Court Room: An Annotated Bibliography of American Cases. (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1949) 43-54.

[8] Richard Roscoe Miller, Slavery and Catholicism. (Durham, NC: North State Publishers, 1957) 22-69.

[9] Lerone Bennett, Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America. (New York: Penguin Books, 1962) 28-29.

[10] Ibid. Miller, 40-69.

[11] Claud Anderson, Black Labor, White Wealth: the Search for Power and Economic Justice. (Edgewood, MD: Duncan and Duncan, Inc., Publishers, 1994) 68.

[12]Henry Bamford Parkes, The United States of America: A History. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963) 23-24.

[13]John Hope Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans; 5TH Ed.. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980) 13-14.

[14] Samuel Eliot Morison, The Oxford History of the American People. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965) 3-15.

[15] John Henrik Clarke, Christopher Columbus and the Afrikan Holocaust. (New York: A& B Books Publishers, 1992) 57-58.

[16] W.E. B. Dubois, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade 1638-1870. (New York: Kraus-Thomson organization Limited, 1973).

[17]James McPherson, “A Brief Overview of the American Civil War: A Defining Time in Our Nation’s History” Internet medium: (

[18]John Hope Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans; 5TH Ed.. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980) 214.

[19] Ida Hakim, Dorothy Blake Farden, Jamil Hakeem,& amp; Len Moritz, Reparations: The Cure for America’s Race Problem. (Hampton, Virginia: U.B. & U.S. Communications Systems, 1994) 121.

[20]David Herbert Donald, Why The North Won the Civil War .(New York: Touchstone, 1960)

[21] Donald W. Livingston, Internet medium. “Why the War Was Not About Slavery”
[22] Ibid., Commager. pp.10.

[23] Ibid., pp. 10.

[24] Ibid., pp. 9.

[25] Ulrich B. Phillips, Life and Labor in the Old South. (South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1929) XIX.

[26] John W. Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972) 141-144.