IT IS GENERALLY accepted that the Civil War was the most important event in American history. Yet, as two recent controversies remind us, we disagree on what that war was about.
The question of whether the nation should make a formal apology for slavery has brought forth from such authorities as former history professor Newt Gingrich and columnist George F. Will the declaration that we fought the war to end slavery.
Meanwhile, across the South, where battles continue over the display of Confederate flags and related symbols, white defenders of their "heritage" argue that the Civil War was not about slavery but about states' rights and "Southern independence."
Orlando Sentinel columnist Charley Reese has gone so far as to assert that the Confederacy was fighting for "liberty."
All of these beliefs are based on misreadings of history, and, taken together, they have the reality exactly backward. The Civil War was not fought to end slavery; it was fought to defend slavery.
The confusion stems from the failure to realize that the two sides in a war need not be fighting over the same issue.
The objective of the North was not to end slavery but to preserve the Union. What the South sought was not to end the Union but to preserve slavery.
Few major historical events can properly be attributed to a single cause. But it is accurate to say that slavery was the cause of the Civil War.
There would have been no secession, no Confederacy and no war had the South not been intent on maintaining its "peculiar institution." Slavery was the raison d'etre of the Confederacy. The "liberty" the Confederacy sought to preserve was the liberty to own human beings.
The question that must be asked of those who believe that the Confederacy's purpose was to defend states' rights is this: Just which rights of the states were so important that they were worth splitting the nation in two and fighting a terrible war over, at the cost of 600,000 lives?
Can anyone seriously contend that the tariff or any other matter of disagreement between the states and the federal government, besides slavery, would have produced majority sentiment for secession anywhere, save possibly South Carolina?
The only "right" that Southern states were sufficiently intent on perpetuating that they would destroy the Union and fight a war over was the "right" to hold people as property - and that is in no sense a right.
The Confederate flag never has been a symbol of states' rights. The state powers it has represented during and since the Civil War - slavery, segregation, lynching, racism - are all states' wrongs.
Many whites, particularly young whites in the South, say that they should not be blamed for what their ancestors did. Fair enough. But if they want to be emancipated from that legacy, they must reject it.
The first symbolic step for the younger generation in separating itself from the wrongs of its forebears is not to apologize for slavery but to stop venerating a heritage that was centered on slavery and a flag that came into existence to represent the defense of slavery.
It is time for white Southerners finally and unequivocally to accept the obvious truth:
The Lost Cause was a bad cause.
It also is time for other white Americans to recognize that, although the cause for which so many Northern soldiers died was a good one (preservation of the Union), it wasn't about ending slavery.
Leaving aside the question of whether a national apology for slavery at this late date would be wise or meaningless, this much can safely be said:
The Southern cause in the Civil War is part of what the nation would be apologizing for, but the Northern cause in that war did not constitute such an apology.
Robert S. McElvaine teaches history at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss. He wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.
Pub Date: 8/31/97