When debating the reasons for secession in the South, many Lost Cause myth defenders often reference the large number of southerners who never owned slaves — so how, they ask, could these poor, forlorn white folks possibly be going to war to defend slavery? Whine, whine, whine. They suggest these men went to war to defend their property and “country” (their state, etc).
While there might be anecdotal evidence for some of this, it’s more likely they were fighting to preserve their white masculinity and to maintain their status as being superior to blacks. Historian Nina Silber writes:
Men go to war for all kinds of reasons — glory, money, peer pressure — and that was clearly true in the Civil War South. Yet the speeches, newspapers and writings from the time indicate that white masculine identity mattered a great deal, particularly for those Southerners who had little else that guaranteed their social status. As long as slaves were legally below them, they were secure. The belief that Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party would end that distinction drove them to a near panic — a fear that secession leaders were all too happy to exploit. Those who did not support the cause of separation, secession leaders said, would themselves become slaves. “On the fourth of March, 1861,” explained one Georgia orator in reference to Lincoln’s inauguration, “we are either slaves in the Union or freemen out of it.” For the new Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, the question was “will you be slaves or will you be independent?”
Given the crazy-eyed demagoguery of the immigration issue — say nothing of Muslims, or even our first African American president — does this sound familiar? It’s the great-grandfather of the modern day Republican Southern Strategy. Other than Michael Steele, the GOP makes no apologies for carrying on this legacy.