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The Causes Of The War

(from July 1893 Confederate Veteran)

An address by Col. Richard Henry Lee, of Virginia, at the dedication of the Confederate monument at Old Chapel, in Clarke County, is given herewith. The facts set forth will give comfort to many a veteran who fought even more wisely than he knew. It demonstrates that the war was maintained by the defense upon principle, and that the sagacious leaders were not "fire-eaters," as has been basely represented, but patriots who exercised patient intelligence until compelled to use sword and bayonet:

We are met in this place to look for the first time on a monument erected by loving hearts in honor, first, of the Confederate dead from this county, whose names adorn yon monument; second , of all Confederate dead, no matter who they are, who have been committed in this county to the keeping of their mother earth. No more appropriate place for a Confederate monument could have been selected within the valley of Virginia. Situated in one of the most beautiful of the counties of Virginia, one that, in proportion to her population and ability, contributed as much of men and means as any other within her confines to the Confederate cause; whose sons attested their valor from Manassas to Appomattox; which during four years of strife, was the marching ground of friends and foes, and which witnessed "grim visaged war" in all of its glory and in all of its shame. It was in this county too, that the great rebel of America, George Washington, developed into young manhood. Over her hills and valleys Daniel Morgan, of our Revolution, strove and roamed. Within this cemetery repose the remains of Edmund Randolph, one of the authors and defenders of the Constitution of the United States, in defense of which those in whose memory yon monument has been erected, died. Within the chapel in this enclosure that great man, Christian and bishop, William Meade, who loved his State, and all that was true, lovely and honest, and who taught our Robert E. Lee his catechism, reasoned of righteousness, temperance and judgement to come. Around us are the graves of pious fathers and mothers, of idolized wives, devoted brothers and sisters, and precious children, over which have been placed the monuments of love and sorrow. Many of those dead were with us in heart and soul in our conflict, praying for us as we marched through the cold of winter, the heat of summer, and engaged in the strife of battle, and who, when we returned after these four years of struggle, without banners and with crushed hearts by reason of the prostration of the hopes in which we trusted, and the loss of the cause we loved, kept us true to the belief that the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth, and doeth all things well, and taught us to look upward and onward. The soldiers in whose honor yon monument was erected were chiefly Virginians, but not all. Some were from the Old North State, some from our sister, Tennessee, and some from the land of the cotton plant. Some were dear friends, with whom we of the Second Virginia Infantry and the Clarke Cavalry marched and fought. Mothers, some of them were your sons, Daughters, some of them were your brothers. Comrades, all of them were your fellow soldiers. No matter where they were born they were with you in heart and soul, and marched under the flag you and they loved. Twenty-eight years have passed since the close of our civil war. Since then  a majority of the adults living in those years have been called home, and almost a new generation has taken their places on the farm and plantation, and in the counting room, shop and office. Time, I trust, has healed the wounds of war, but with the revolving years the causes and events of that terrible struggle seem to be forgotten, considered as unimportant events of history. And even the history of those events, and the causes that led to that struggle, are not set forth fairly and truthfully. It is stated in books and papers that Southern children read and study that all the blood-shedding and destruction of property of that conflict was because the South rebelled without cause against the best government the world ever saw; that although the Southern soldiers were heroes in the field, skillfully massed and led, they and their leaders were rebels and traitors, who fought to overthrow the Union, and to preserve human slavery, and that their defeat was necessary for free government and the welfare of the human family. As a Confederate soldier and as a citizen of Virginia I deny the charge, and denounce it as a calumny. We were not rebels; we did not fight to perpetuate human slavery, but for our rights and privileges under a government established over us by our fathers and in defense of our homes. The South loved the Union. Her interests were identified with it. Her statesmen had aided in its creation and development. Her warriors had fought under its flag, by sea and by land, and shed their blood in its defense. To the South, the Union was a temple dedicated to American constitutional liberty, to the principles of a liberty approved by great thinkers and consecrated by the blood of martyrs; a liberty that was designed to protect the individual man in all that was right, and to prohibit him from doing that which was wrong. Not a liberty for one class of people or section of country to prey on any other people or other section. Not a liberty for the majority to invade the rights of the minority, and to use the powers of the government to the aggrandizement of the former and the injury of the latter, but a liberty guaranteeing equality of right and privileges to each section and each State. But when the priests that ministered at the altars of this temple sought to teach new theories of liberty, such as had not been taught by the fathers, and which were destructive of the principles of the Constitution, and fatally injurious to the rights of the States, and especially to the Southern States, then the cotton and sugar Southern States determined to abandon the temple and erect one, where they could worship according to what they understood to be the faith delivered by the fathers, who in the belief of man's capacity for self-government, and in prayer to God, had built our political temple.

In determining to separate, those States thought they were sustained by the teachings of the Declaration of Independence, which declared in immortal words that “all governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed,” that when any form of government becomes destructive of these ends it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundations on such principles, and organizing its powers as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. They also thought that the powers granted to the general government, by virtue of which it alone controlled the States, were delegated powers, which could be revoked at any time by the party delegating. They read in the resolutions of some of the States adopting the Constitution of the United States an express reservation of this power. Our own State, (Virginia), especially when she adopted the Constitution of the United States, declared that the powers granted to the United States could be resumed when perverted to her injury or oppression. Those Southern States believed that the powers granted to the Federal government had been used to their injury and oppression, and therefore they decided to abandon the Union. In taking this step, SLAVERY WAS NOT THE CAUSE, but the occasion of the separation.

It might as well be said that tea was the cause of our separation from the government of Great Britain in 1776. The government of Great Britain, prior to that date, claimed the power to tax the colonies, although they were not represented in the parliament. That power the colonies denied; they claimed they were British citizens, and as such were entitled to all the rights of every other citizen of that kingdom; that because separated from the island that contained the capital, they were not less citizens of that kingdom; that it was a principle dear to a Briton that no money should be taken from him in the form of taxes except by consent of his representatives, and as they were not represented in parliament, England had no right to tax America. Notwithstanding the protests of the people of this country, England taxed America by putting a tax on tea. Hence the Boston Tea Party, the War of the Revolution of 1776 and its results.

The Southern States claimed they had exactly the same rights in the Union as the Northern States; that her soldiers had fought in the War for Independence, 1812, the Indian Wars, and in the Mexican War; that her statesmen had contributed to the adoption of the Constitution of the United States, the development of American institutions and the enlargement of the territory of the Union; that the common government should be administered for the benefit of all the people, and not to develop one section to the injury of others; not to tend the social and moral views of one part of the country to the disadvantage of another part of it. They claimed that when the Union was formed, slavery existed in all of the States; that it was recognized in the Constitution of the United States, and because it had become unprofitable in one portion of a common country, and therefore had ceased to exist in that section, the slaves of the North having been sold South, the powers of the general government should not be used to the injury of the South. I would not do justice if I did not state here that there was a section of people at the South and at the North that in the early days of the republic and since opposed to slavery on moral and economic grounds.

At our Revolutionary period the anti-slavery sentiment was stronger in Virginia than in New England. Massachusetts was at that time engaged in the slave trade, deriving profit from the use of her ships in that traffic. It was not until the great differences of opinion between the statesmen of the country as to the powers of the general government that the sectional differences on the subject of slavery became so decided and marked. With the increase of this difference of sentiment as to governmental powers grew the difference on the subject of slavery. In this State, (Virginia), about 1832, there was a most powerful anti-slavery party, headed by such men as James McDowell, one of the most eloquent and cultured of our Governors, and by Charles J. Faulkner, father of the distinguished United States Senator of that name from West Virginia. But it was not until the failure of those who claimed large powers for the general government on the subject of a national bank, international improvements and a protective tariff, to obtain control of the government, that the anti-slavery party assumed any considerable importance. A combination was made in the North and Northwest by those who claimed the aforementioned powers for the general government with the anti-slavery men. The combination claimed for the general government, on the subject of slavery- 1.) Power to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. 2.) Under the power to regulate commerce, the power to prohibit the carrying of slaves from one slave State to another slave State. 3.) the right to prohibit slavery in the territory of the United States.

You will observe, first, that all of these matters related to slavery, but the principle, under all this claim for power, like that in regard to the taxation of tea, was far deeper than appeared on the surface. It involved the integrity of the Constitution of the U.S. and the equality of the people of the Southern States. The District of Columbia contained the capital of the United States. Southern members of Congress came to Washington to discharge their duties, bringing with them their wives and children, and if by hostile legislation their servants, the maids of their wives and the nurses of their children, were to be liberated by act of Congress as soon as they trod the soil of the District, that city was no place for Southern Senators and Representatives. As to the commerce between the States, as stated before, slaves were recognized as property when the Constitution was adopted. The Constitution of the United States contained a provision for their rendition when they escaped from one State to another; also, for the continuance of the slave trade until 1808. To interdict the selling of slaves from one State to another would have been, in effect, to deprive the citizens of our Southern States of the right to migrate to another. Also to deprive him of the use of what had been considered property from the foundation of the government. To prohibit slavery in the territory of the United States would virtually exclude the Southern citizen of the United States from the common territory.

The territory of the United States, about the settlement of which this controversy culminated, was obtained as a result of the war with Mexico, and to exclude the citizen with his slaves was, in fact, to deliver the territory purchased by the money and by the blood of all, to one section of the country, to be organized into such political form as to give political power to one section of the country, and thereby give effect in legislation to all the views of the North on the subject of governmental powers. The South claimed an equality of right in all the territories, in the District of Columbia, and in the trade and commerce of the country, and to deny her rights was practically to make her people “hewers of wood and drawers of water,” to the more prosperous and populous section. Notwithstanding the objections and even protests of her statesmen and people, the territory acquired from Mexico was organized so as to exclude slavery, and therefore the South from settlement therein. Not only was this done, but a sectional President was elected by a sectional majority on a sectional platform of party principles.

The South then seceded, not in body, but separately. The Constitution of the United States had been adopted by States, each State acting by itself and for itself. Our own State, Virginia, seceded in April, 1861. I would like to tell about the action of the Gulf States, and of the views of their great thinkers and statesmen, but I have not time to do so. I am sure, however, you will indulge me for a short time, while I recall some things about Virginia, even if I repeat myself, connected with the part she took in the transactions of that period, and in those of our Revolutionary days and since, which will present her to you as the grandest figure of any State in the records of time.

In every period in her history, Virginia has stood up for the right, as she understood it, against her seeming interest and against power.  Settled by English speaking people, she inherited from them the love of truth and liberty, and devotion to right, that has distinguished the inhabitants of Great Britain from the days of her Alfred to our Revolution.  When the clash of opinion arose as to the rights of the British colonies in America, Virginia, against the seeming interest of her people -certainly against that of her leaders - took the side of the weak in favor of the right, and against the strong and wrong. 

Her Patrick Henry, by his Demosthenean eloquence, moved the hearts of his countrymen to resistance, as the storm moves the sea. 

Her George Mason, amid the throes of revolution, gave to his State and the world Virginia’s great bill of rights and her first constitution – the first written constitution the world ever saw. 

Her Jefferson, with his pen, recorded in memorable words, the rights of a free people and the wrongs of America.

Her Washington led the armies of the rebellious colonies to victory, peace and independence.

The war over, the colonies that had been united in defense against Great Britain formed a Union, under what are known as the Articles of Confederation.  Then, in order to strengthen that Confederation and promote the common welfare, Virginia ceded to the Confederacy all of her magnificent territory northwest of the Ohio River, now the abode of a great population and the center of wealth and political power.

The Articles of Confederation proving inadequate, a convention of the States was called, and that body gave to the world the Constitution of the United States. That instrument was largely the work of Virginia.  The convention that formed it was called chiefly through Washington.  Her Madison and Edmund Randolph and Henry Lee, its chief defenders in Virginia, against the opposition of such men as Patrick Henry, George Mason, Thomas Nelson, Jr., and Richard Henry Lee, who opposed its adoption by their State without amendment, for reasons which, had they been heeded then, would in all probability have averted our civil war.  Some of the writings and utterances of these distinguished objectors, in the light of recent events, seem to be as prophetic as the words of the great Hebrew prophet, Isaiah.  The Constitution was adopted, George Washington was made the President of the United States.  He put the Federal government in operation, organized the great departments of the government, recommended and approved appropriate legislation, and laid the foundation upon which has been built this great republic. 

The third President was Thomas Jefferson.  Under his administration we obtained from the great Napoleon, for 15 million dollars, title to the territory known as Louisiana, which comprised not only the State of Louisiana, but Missouri, Arkansas, Iowa, and parts of Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, and the Indian Territory.  Jefferson was succeeded by another Virginian, James Madison.  Under his administration war was declared against Great Britain, which brought that power to respect our flag and the rights of our sailors.  To another Virginia President, John Tyler, we are chiefly indebted for the State of Texas. Although it was annexed during the administration of James K. Polk, yet the credit of its acquisition is due to John Tyler’s administration.  After this came another war, in which our Winfield Scott planted the flag of the United States on the halls of the Montezumas, in the city of Mexico, and thereby obtained peace between this country and Mexico; and as a result of that peace, all the territory of the United States, bounded by the Mexican frontier on the south, and the Louisiana Purchase on the east, north, and northwest, and by the Pacific on the west, was added to this country.  In the Mexican battles, Virginia and the South bore their full part. 

No sooner was the territory acquired than the controversy arose as to its settlement between the sections of our country; one claiming that it should be kept open and free to the people of all the country, whether the North or the South; the other that it should be dedicated to freedom; that the national soil should be like the enchanted ground of an Eastern story, upon which all that entered, no matter how clad, were immediately arrayed in garments of light and beauty – so every slave, soon as he trod the national soil with his master, should stand clothed in the robes of freedom.  Apparently this seemed like the earnest protest of the lovers of freedom against slavery, but in reality it was but a scheme to exclude the South from the occupancy of the newly acquired territory.  The student of the political history of the period will discover that it was not so much the opposition, in the decade of 1850-60, to slavery, as the desire to get political control of the country, in order that the vast power of the general government might be yielded to aggrandize one section at the expense of the other.  In the furtherance of that scheme it was important to exclude from the newly acquired territory, Southern men and their influence in order that the views of the opposite school might take root and obtain power and control.  No more effectual method than the exclusion of slavery, and thereby the Southern slaveholder, could have been devised.  The Southerner was accustomed to slavery and slave institutions in his home and on his farm and plantation, and if prevented by law from taking his slaves to the territory of the United States, he therefore was virtually excluded.  He would either have to forego the advantages of purchasing cheap lands or leave his labor and his domestic habits behind him.  Therefore, this scheme, however fair to the eye, was in effect a denial to the Southern slaveholder of any participation in the common territory, and was equal to a deed of cession of all that territory to the Northern States.  It was the determination of the Northern States to adhere to that policy, by the election of a President pledged to such views, that caused, as heretofore stated, the separation of the Gulf States from the Union.


Our peculiar Southern institutions are now of the past, but those who lived under them can point with pride to the men and women that have been developed by them.  Viewed from a material stand-point, the South was far inferior to its successful rival.  No vast accumulation of material capital in corporate or individual hands appears in her statistics.  No great monuments of human art or human labor adorn her scenery.  Her rivers, great and small, were allowed to flow in comparative peace to the ocean, and the solitude of her mountains has generally been undisturbed save by the woodsman’s axe, the rifle of the hunter, the voice of the herdsman and the peaceful shepherd.  And yet, notwithstanding all this comparative indifference to material development, she has produced, men, women, and maidens, the peers of the greatest descendants of Adam, in the Senate, on the field or in the home circle.  This statement as to her children is not to be confined to any period of the history of the South.  It was illustrated in the war of the Revolution and since, and especially during our late civil war. In the late war the Confederate generals achieved great reputation, but in front of them were brave soldiers, supported and encouraged by the counsel, the prayers, sacrifices and example of self-denying mothers, wives and sisters.  It was the character, the courage and devotion to their flag of the soldiers of the armies of the South that enabled our generals to work such wonders.  The names of these brave private soldiers are not mentioned in history, but they are embalmed in the hearts of their surviving comrades and friends.  It was the men so educated, sustained and encouraged that followed Jackson from Manassas to Chancellorsville; that stormed under Early the forts and works of Winchester; that stormed the heights of Gettysburg; that fought and died at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse and Cold Harbor; that kept the hosts of Grant out of Petersburg from June, 1864, to April, 1865; that followed Albert Sidney Johnston from Kentucky to Shiloh; that fought under Bragg at Chickamauga; that fronted the armies of Sherman, and that stood with their faces to the foe, often without food or shoes, and did not surrender the sword until it fell from their sides. But neither patriotism nor courage availed.  The cause we loved was lost. My friends, it was not lost because our quarrel was not just; not because our leaders were not skillful and our soldiers brave; but because he who rules above deemed it best it should fail.  Said the gifted and eloquent W. C. P. Breckenridge: “He who has striven to discover the true secret of human history is often confused by the martyrdoms that seem to be in vain.  Human hearts lie thickly strewn along the pathway of time, and brutal heels stain themselves with richest blood as they stride unfeelingly to power.  The scaffold and the dungeon, the rack and the stake, the battlefield and the hospital confuse the earnest student who loves God, and he cannot unravel the riddle why such costly sacrifices should be in vain. The mockings, and the scourgings, the bonds and imprisonment, the hidings in dens and caves, the beheadings and burnings with which our human annals are tarnished, and yet glorified, are the mysteries of God’s dealings with men.  But this we know, that the loftiest of mankind, the most divine of mortals, have been the martyrs whose blood has enriched the world, and from whose graves the most precious harvest has been gathered, and that the seed sown with tears shall be reaped with rejoicing.”  Beautiful and sad, but true words.  My friends, as I look upon the graves around me, and yon monument, the most comforting thought to me is this: ‘The Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.”  God is in history—in all history; was in our history during our war, and although the final result was not according to our desires and hopes, sure am I that the time will come when we will acknowledge that he in mercy and not in wrath afflicted us.  I do not know when or how this will appear.  Who knows but that the devotion of the South to the true principles of the Constitution may not in the future cause the fructification of those principles and their growth throughout the land?  Who knows but that the example of courage and devotion to duty of our leaders and soldiers, our mothers, wives and sisters, may not hereafter influence the leaders of our whole people to put duty and honor before power and place, and to do and think only of the things that are true, honest and of good report?  Who knows but that as a result of the knowledge which each section of our people acquired by the war, of the pluck of the other, and devotion to what each thought was duty, our whole people may be more closely bound together than at any former period of our history, and that hereafter Ephraim will not vex Judah, nor Judah Ephraim?  Human institutions have their uses and their limitations.  They are the scaffolding to the building, a means to an end.  Although African slavery was not the cause, it was the occasion of our war.  It was useful and valuable in its day.  It lifted a people who, in the land of their nativity, were savages, out of barbarism and animalism to such a plane of Christian civilization as to qualify them, in the judgement of the conquerors of the South, to participate in the government of the great republic.  What a tribute to the much abused South!  What a monument to Southern Christian men and women!  Match me if you can, out of the record of missions subsequent to the days of the Apostles and the early teachers of Christianity, any work among the heathen that can compare with it in results, when viewed from the standpoint of those who have given the African the ballot.  But in the plan of the Great Ruler, doubtless the time had arrived for African slavery to pass away.  So far as we can see, it could not have been gotten rid of in this country except by the means used.  Mr. Lincoln did not by his war proclamation intend to destroy slavery in the States. Its destruction was an evolution of the war—a war measure, consequent upon the events and results of war.  Moses, the world’s great law-giver, commanded his people to teach the laws he had been directed to give them, unto their children, in the house and by the wayside, to bind them as a sign upon their hands, and as frontlets between their eyes.  May we not, in imitation of the great law-giver, tell our fathers, mothers, daughters and teachers to teach the children committed to their care and instruction, the principles of American liberty, State and national, not as taught by the precept and example of the multitude, but as delivered by the fathers of the republic, and for which our comrades died that fell in battle.  To tell and teach them that the dead, in honor of whom this monument has been erected, were not traitors, but true citizens, who gave their lives in defense of the truth, as they understood it, and of their altars and their homes; that Lee, Jackson, Stuart, Ashby and Hill, and their soldiers, were not rebels, nor traitors, but patriots, loving God and their fellow-men, and that they did their duty to their country.  Teach them also to look upward to the Great Ruler of all things, truth and untruth, and forward to the duties in life that may be before them; to do their duty as our brave soldiers did; to do it under all circumstances—to themselves, to their country, and their God—and then come what may, success or failure, they will receive the plaudits of good men, the approval of their own consciences and the approbation of their God.