The US Civil War as the Ultimate BLM Protest

The American Civil War, wherein over 800,000 civilians and combatants died (more than all other US wars combined), was about black lives and black bodies.  The cause of the conflagration – slavery – was about wresting tremendous profits through the physical and psychological torture of Black Americans.  The movement to free and empower those people – abolitionism – was led and inspired by people of color.  The war itself was determined by the actions of black lives, whether they were freedmen and women demanding action from the federal government, enslaved people seizing freedom, disrupting the Confederate war effort, and undermining the nascent Confederate States of America, or black soldiers in the US Army winning battles and putting to lie centuries of pro-slavery doctrine.  The profound truth that has been hidden by over a century of white supremacy propaganda is that the Civil War was the ultimate BLM protest.

The very existence of the United States was made possible by black lives.  Since the early seventeenth century, the enslavement of people of color had been the most important, lucrative, and influential business in North America, providing the “seed money”[1] for the forging of the Union.  The founding document of the country – the United States Constitution, drafted in 1787 – was largely created by enslavers (along with key Northern allies), and ensured that enslavers, especially those in the Southern states, would dominate the new federal government.  The Three-Fifths Clause, in particular, gave enslavers control of the House of Representatives, the Presidency, and the Supreme Court even before the first elections could be held.  In firm ascendancy, Southern enslavers enacted an aggressive pro-slavery agenda that ensured the spread of human bondage and dramatically increased their political and financial power.  They created a formidable partisan organization in the form of the Democratic Party to achieve their electoral and policy goals at the local, state, and national levels: denying rights to people of color; spreading slavery; mass murder of Indigenous Americans and theft of their land; trade policies that benefitted the slave states; federal legislation guaranteeing the rights of enslavers over their human “property;” and an aggressive foreign policy aimed at a vast Western Hemispheric empire built on bondage.  By 1858, US Senator James Henry Hammond (Democrat, South Carolina) could crow in Congress about the South building “an empire that shall rule the world.”  “We could bring the whole world to our feet,” he boasted with the confidence of a white man whose wealth and influence was built on the suffering and sale of black lives (and who, like many of his ilk, delighted in the rape of enslaved teenage girls).[2] 

The toil and torture endured by black bodies built the United States into an economic powerhouse.  The cotton, rice, and sugar which enriched, fed, and clothed white Americans came from black lives in the fields and swamps.  And the sale and re-sale of those black bodies, too, yielded enormous profits.  Those profits, in turn, led to the rise of modern American capitalism: Mississippi land speculators, New Orleans slave traders, New York insurance companies, Charleston merchant houses, New England textile mills, Cincinnati transportation enterprises, Philadelphia banking and investment firms, all depended upon black bodies and lives. 

Thus, the rise of a united, organized resistance to the exploitation of black lives – abolitionism –  was viewed with deep suspicion by most Northern whites, and plunged enslavers into paroxysm of fear and outrage.  Any attempt to offer security and equality to people of color was considered a direct threat to American capitalism, white supremacy, and “Jacksonian democracy.”  Then, just as today, many whites viewed any attempt to elevate black lives as a diminution of white lives.  White privilege, in short, rested on black oppression.    

The abolitionist movement, itself, was led by people of color, who risked life and limb to challenge the racial status-quo.  David Walker, a black businessman in Boston, wrote, published, and distributed the inflammatory Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, which called for the immediate end to slavery everywhere, and which inspired a new generation of abolitionists and civil rights activists.  Escaped slaves like Harriet Tubman, Harriet Jacobs, and Frederick Douglass were the most powerful weapons of the abolitionist movement, as their terrifying first-hand accounts of bondage, mutilation, and murder jolted Northern whites into action.  Their impassioned, vociferous attacks on racial injustice, slavery, and the “Slave Power” formed a fundamental critique of American history that can still heard by today’s BLM protesters condemning systemic racism and the politics of compromise.  Likewise, when today’s activists repeatedly put themselves in danger to fight oppression and defend the downtrodden, they are following in the footsteps of Douglass, Tubman, and their associates who constantly faced down militant white supremacists, mob violence, racist police, and a hostile federal government to insist black lives mattered.

It was not abolitionists, however, who launched the greatest slaughter in American history, it was the enslavers who could not tolerate even a whiff of racial or political reform.  Just as today, whites enjoying the wealth and power produced by racialized capitalism vilified the protesters and blamed them for jeopardizing the Union, when, in reality, it was they, in the form of armed vigilantes, angry mobs, and militarized police who caused violence, committed acts of injustice, and violated civil liberties.  “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?,” asked English writer Samuel Johnson.[3]  Johnson wrote during the American Revolution, but the question could be asked just the same in 1860 and 2020.

It was in 1860 that the Electoral College elected the first anti-slavery president, Abraham Lincoln.  Though, like the nation’s first black president, Lincoln was no radical crusader for racial justice.  Lincoln vowed repeatedly to protect the “peculiar institution” and enforce heinous pro-slavery laws.  Nevertheless, he was intolerable to enslavers, who subsequently led a revolt against the United States.  If the federal government would no longer guarantee the unrestricted expansion of slavery and the building of a hemispheric slave empire (two issues on which Lincoln drew the line), then enslavers wanted nothing more from the USA.  The very notion, in fact, of a union with anti-slavery Northerners, was anathema.  American ideals of human equality enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, announced enslaver Alexander Stephens, vice president of the infant Confederate States of America, “were fundamentally wrong.”  “Our new government,” he explained, in reference to the Confederate Constitution, “is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone 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 normal condition.”[4]  Lest you think white politics have advanced considerably since Stephens uttered those words in 1861, conservative organizer William F. Buckley, Jr. in 1955 appealed to whites suspicious of the renewed civil rights movement by describing the “White community” as “the advanced race.”[5]  Whether justifying slavery or opposing racial equality, white leaders have employed explicit racism to achieve the continued oppression, abuse, and exploitation of black lives.        

Black lives were also at the heart of the Civil War.  As soon as Confederates attacked the United States at Fort Sumter in April 1861, Black Americans took swift action to ensure both the destruction of slavery and the defeat of the Confederacy.  The enslaved seized opportunities to resist, rebel, and free themselves, regardless of formal US policy.  While Congress and President Lincoln dithered over the desirability, legality, and process of emancipation, Black Americans acted decisively.  They rose-up against their oppressors, obstructed production, sabotaged communication and transportation, fled to US lines, and served as spies to US forces until, ultimately, they donned the blue and took up the rifle as legitimate soldiers.  “The negroes are getting free pretty fast,” observed US General John Logan.  “It is not done by the army, but they are freeing themselves; and if this war continues long, not a slave will be left in the whole South.”[6]

Many historians now see the Civil War as the world’s largest slave rebellion.  The real story of the war was not the Blue and the Grey on the battlefield, but the Blacks on the plantations, in the swamps, on the rivers, in the woods, seizing freedom, aiding US forces, and compelling white Americans North and South to acknowledge that black lives mattered. 

It was the courageous actions and self-sacrifice of Black Americans that shifted Northern public opinion toward formal emancipation, that obliged Congress to pass the First (1861) and Second (1862) Confiscation Acts (which permitted the seizure of rebel property, including enslaved people), and which inspired a reluctant President Lincoln to publicly embrace abolitionism.  Black lives were the cause, conduct, and consequence of the Civil War.  The Civil War was fundamentally a Black Lives Matter event.

Yet whites have labored to hide these epic truths of American history.  To displace black lives at the center of the American narrative, whites in the wake of the Civil War concocted a version of events that focused entirely on themselves.  Instead of slavery, the cause of the war became whites arguing about “states’ rights,” or inept white politicians (the “blundering generation” theory) mucking-up a perfectly good federal system; instead of Black actions driving events, it was great white men, like Lincoln and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, entirely in control; instead of Black Americans undermining the Confederacy from within, it was white soldiers dying on the battlefield; instead the enslaved freeing themselves, it was white politicians granting freedom and white soldiers bringing freedom; instead of a story about heroic Black courage, community, and sacrifice, it’s a story about white families torn apart, white brother versus white brother.

White Americans are most comfortable with a version of history that excises racism, minimizes (or excludes entirely) black lives, and gives whites credit for anything good that may or may not have happened.  The Civil War as a BLM action is a terrifying prospect for many whites today, because it challenges their very understanding of the world and calls into question the entire history of the nation.  It is easier to dismiss or ignore the latest stage in the centuries-old struggle for racial equality happening in the streets today if people have only been exposed to a literal and figurative white-washed past.  How can whites today accept that “black lives matter” if they were taught that they never mattered before?


[1] Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power, 156.

[2] James Henry Hammond, “The Mudsill Speech” in Finkelman, Defending Slavery, 82-83; Levine, The Fall of the House of Dixie, 14.

[3] https://glc.yale.edu/outreach/teacher-programs/citizens-all-african-americans-connecticut-1700-1850/connecticut-stories-5

[4] Alexander Stephens, “The Cornerstone Speech” in Finkelman, Defending Slavery, 91.

[5] William F. Buckley, Jr., “Why the South Must Prevail” in The Rise of American Conservatism, 1945-2000, 53.

[6] Williams, I Freed Myself, 5.

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