Meeting of July 27, 2010

Dr. Libra Hilde on “Cultural, Social, and Political Trends and Events That Led up to the Civil War”

Dr. Libra Hilde, Assistant Professor, Dept. of History, San Jose State University, discussed the cultural, social, and political trends and events that led up to the Civil War. Her exceptional presentation covered a wide variety of issues and generated numerous questions from her enthusiastic audience. Her overall theme dealt with Southern masculinity and the militaristic culture that helped propel the South into a war it could not win.

Lincoln was not an abolitionist and initially maintained a moderate position on the issue of slavery. He was not, however, in favor of expanding the institution into new states and territories. The Republican Party had been founded to limit the expansion of slavery and Southerners feared Lincoln’s election moved the Washington power base from the South to the North. Both sides had fragmented into a number of opposing parties and positions, which allowed events, fueled by emotions, to quickly take over. There was no ability to compromise. The Secessionists, who were better organized and feared Federal intervention, took advantage of the passions of the elections to act, but there was by no means uniformity or consensus among the seceding Southern states.

Slavery itself was not the primary issue at the start of the war, but all of the tensions that led to the rebellion evolved around the institution of slavery and its possible expansion into new territories. Slavery had created a unique Southern cultural pyramid and mind set. While slave holding families represented only 25% of the Southern population, the poorest white farmer could always aspire to move up into the landed aristocracy. It had also created a massive slave population which needed an outlet—ideally into new states. Southerners, who were a majority fighting in the Mexican War, felt they had a right to these territories. All Southerners lived in fear of slave uprisings and had created numerous local and state militias to patrol areas and to capture runaway slaves. From the militias to the wealthy families, the military was an integral part of their way of life. Southerners outnumbered Northerners at West Point and those unable to get in went to the numerous Military Academies established in the South. Masculinity and chivalry in the South were tied to the military. Southerners had no doubt they could easily defeat the effete Northern city boys. They could not be beaten.

The War created a Southern Nationalism that not only squelched any Southern opposition to slavery but created a militant defense of slavery as a moral good. Both sides used Federalism and states rights when they were convenient. Ironically, the issue of states rights handicapped the Southern Confederacy as a number of seceding states refused to relinquish their State Militias to the Confederacy or to cooperate fully with the Confederate government.

The post Civil War South that we know today was created by the Civil War.

Newsletter July 2010