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Friday, April 20, 2012

R is for Racist Abolitionists

Slave auction house, Atlanta, 1864. Photo by George N. Barnard

When someone tells me that the Civil War wasn't fought over slavery, but over states rights, I always reply, "The right to do what?"

The answer, of course, is to own slaves, or more specifically to expand slavery into the western territories. You don't have to believe me. Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens said in his Cornerstone Speech early in the war, that the Confederate government's "foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition."

This does not mean that all individual Confederate soldiers were fighting to defend slavery, but their government certainly was. Nor does it mean that all Northern soldiers were abolitionists, or even that all abolitionists were lily-white liberals with 21st century ideas. Reality is rarely so neat and tidy.

Jimmy Rawlins, the teenage Confederate bushwhacker in my Civil War novel, never makes his reasons for fighting explicit. He seems to have just been caught up in the excitement of it all. Union Captain Richard Addison is fighting to preserve the Union, not free the slaves. In fact, in one scene he actually refuses to free some slaves. His sergeant, on the other hand, thinks all slaves should be free. It's not because he really cares about them, rather he thinks it's the best way to defeat the South.

In the sequel (which I'm halfway through writing and still don't have a title for!) we meet Captain Addison's son Allen. He's a typical abolitionist of the mid-nineteenth century. He believes slavery is morally wrong and is fighting the war in large part to end it. He does not, however, think blacks are equal to whites. Far from it. He sees slavery as a "corrupting institution" that steals jobs from whites, makes whites cruel, and tempts them to sleep with black women. These very reasons were often given in abolitionist literature of the era.

. . .and then I throw in Rufus, a runaway slave who everyone realizes they need on their side, and things start to get interesting.

When writing historical fiction you come up against some hard truths about the past. It's best not to gloss them over. Shining light on them makes for much more worthwhile writing.


  1. Just like today, not everyone fighting for a noble cause is fighting for the same reason.

    1. Slavery is never acceptable, nor has it ever been, even in ancient times, etc. Yet it occurred over and over throughout history.

      Cheap labour is the reason most often cited.

  2. Well, now you not only have me wanting to read the first book, but the second book, too...

  3. Hi Sean .. I think most people didn't know what they're fight for .. exactly! and do they today?!

    The value of life was still being worked out - as it is now in other countries and as we are still trying to be equal ..

    We live in an interesting world - the Romans had Africans with them in England ..

    We do what's expected of us mostly and follow the crowd mostly - because that's how we live life ...

    Cheers Hilary

  4. Hi Sean .. actually perhaps this link will prove interesting .. she likened the Afghanistan of today as to Elizabethan England - Shakespeare understood her challenges to live her life ...


    Cheers Hilary


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