Back on Monday, on the anniversary of South Carolina’s secession proclamation, John Hoptak posted one of the best, and certainly among the most compelling I’ve read, discussion of the reasons that the state’s leaders took the first steps towards war. If you have not done so, I encourage you to read it through.
Really, please read it through. I won’t steal John’s thunder, but this part stands out – “The leaders of the South Carolina secession movement made it known the reasons for secession and it had everything to do with slavery.”
In all my years studying war from ancient times up to modern, there are some constants I’ve seen that transcend any strategy, tactics, or technology.
First, as with the collective activities of any collective group, the leaders of any society must provide their people some reasons to start a war. Leaders address those reasons to society, be that in the form of a speech, proclamation, or painting on a cave wall. As such, so long as the historian can cite the relative document, the reasons for war are traceable to a high degree of specificity. In this case, I agree with John’s (and most other scholar’s) conclusion – the reason for South Carolina’s and other states’ secession in 1860-61, which precipitated the Civil War, was the preservation of slavery. The documents don’t lie.
Second, there is a thing called motivation. Once a society’s leaders have offered the reasons for an action, individuals have personal motivations to follow those leaders. Those motivations vary from person to person. Historians may capture some of these looking through sources, but much of an individual’s motivation remains within the mind of said individual. I would submit, in all due respect for “soldier studies” and the like, that historians will sooner count all the stars in the sky before finding the true, deep motivation of a solider going to war.
Lastly, wars end when one side or the other is able to impose all, or at least the most important, war aims on the other side. These are results of war, or you may say the outcome of war. Of all aspects war, perhaps these are the most quantifiable. We can review treaty provisions, surrender terms, or similar arrangements with a degree of precision. We can cite square miles, overtaken resources, population displacement, or other state changes in numbers. In short we can enumerate what one side gain and the other side lost.
For South Carolina, the proclamation of December 20, 1860 put the state on a path that lead to war – no matter how we want to categorize Lincoln’s actions or who we might blame for the first shots. Entering the war, according to the 1860 census, the state had a population of 703,708, including 291,300 whites, 9914 free blacks, 402,406 slaves, and 88 native Americans. Yes, fifty-seven percent of the state’s population was in bondage.
Ten years later the state population recorded in the 1870 census was 705,606. By race, South Carolinians numbered 289,667 whites, 415,814 blacks, 124 native Americans, and 1 “Chinese”. AND NO SLAVES.
The 1870s census provided some other indicators which are derivative examples of the war’s results. Overall property value in the state dropped from an assessed value of about $489 million to about $183 million in 1870. Wasn’t the land value. As aggregate real estate value in South Carolina dropped only about $10 million (in spite of the fact that average value of farm acreage dropped by 50% in those same ten years). No, the decline was mostly within personal property – from $359 million to $64 million.
While some would like to discuss the liberal use of matches by blue coated soldiers, I would point out that by 1870 the state had five years to recover from a few months of activity by Sherman’s bummers. Is there not a more logical reason for the decline in personal property? Consider $259 million (difference in value between 1860 and 1870). Divide that by the 402,406 slaves. That works out to about $733 per slave.
Consult your sources or browse around the internet for the value of a slave in the antebellum South. The Economic History Association offers some on their web site.
Price of Male Slave by Age in 1850
Is $733 a reasonable figure for the average value of a slave in South Carolina circa 1860? Would, by extension, $259 million be a good figure for the total value of just over 400,000 slaves in South Carolina in 1860? (And I am not suggesting that the slaves accounted for all the difference in personal property values but rather a significant portion.)
There’s a lot of ways to run the numbers. And I’m sure someone intimately familiar with the census numbers could point out a step or two I’ve skipped, or even dismiss the figures outright.
Yet, I offer there is an undeniable cause and effect. In December 1860, leaders in South Carolina gave the defense of slavery as the reason to secede from the Union. That secession lead to a war. The major, measurable result of the war was the freedom of the slaves in South Carolina.
Thanks, John, for the inspiration for this post.