John Day Smith on Slavery as the Cause of the War

by Brett Schulte on September 1, 2011 · 0 comments

I’ve been sifting through Union and Confederate regimental histories for my Siege of Petersburg Online site, and I came across this candid observation, in 1909, from John Day Smith of the 19th Maine1:

The Confederates had begun their preparations for arming the negroes in February and March, 1865. It was a measure adopted in their extremity and as a last resort. It was with them a serious question how extensively or how willingly their slaves would engage in a war, the express object of which was to continue them and their children in everlasting bondage. The war closed so soon that this problem was never solved.

There has been a concerted effort in the South, during the last few decades, to demonstrate that slavery was not the cause of the war. The reflection that a wicked and causeless war was precipitated upon the country and the fair Southland was made desolate and her sons given a sacrifice for the perpetuation of human slavery, does not leave a good taste in the mouth. After President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had been issued, Jefferson Davis, in a message to the Confederate Congress spoke of that proclamation as “the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man.” There is chiselled into the granite monument that marks the grave of Mr. Davis in Richmond, the recital that he was the “Defender of the Constitution.” This, in itself, would be amusing, were it not for the fact that there are a few people left who believe the inscription to be true.

I thought it interesting that a Union veteran at least was aware of concerted “Lost Cause” propaganda at a relatively early date and made time in a regimental history to comment on it.  I wonder what Smith would think if he could see today that more than a few people still believe and are extremely vocal about this belief.

  1. Smith, John D. The History of the Nineteenth Regiment of Maine Volunteer Infantry, 1862-1865 (Great Western Printing Company, 1909). p. 271.

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