Depending on where they live and how “Christian” the teaching is at their schools, children in the United States are raised with a perception of the Civil War as being either (a) the nation’s great purifying struggle that purged it of its original sin or (b) the “War of Northern Aggression” which saw the South’s pastoral bliss exploded by an industrial dictatorship. Two thousand fifteen marked 150 years since the end of that sanguinary contest, the bloodiest in U.S. history on casualties alone, and there were a number of commemorations in honor of the occasion, as well as renewed hostilities over the meaning of Confederate flags and their display. Many Southerners — too many, in fact — were and still are pretending that the flags symbolize a struggle for states’ rights. But after a 21-year-old aspiring neo-Nazi named Dylan Roof shot down nine black worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston that June, nationwide calls fell on Governor Nikki Haley to remove the Confederate battle flag from the steps of the South Carolina State House. It came down the next month in a much too solemn ceremony and was sent to a museum a few blocks away, where it always belonged.
Despite what the Bubbas and Cletuses want you to believe, “what this cruel war was over,” as Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote for the Atlantic, was slavery — the right for one person to not only own another person but also their lover, their children, their parents, their grandparents, and to trade them around faster than baseball cards. What’s often forgotten is what the Southern plantation owners envisioned as the future of their “peculiar institution.” Slavery, in order to thrive, needed land; lots of it. It’s nonetheless unsettling when Du Bois, in his masterpiece on the war and its aftermath, describes how the planters attempted to maintain their economic power — and, thus, their political power, too — in the face of a burgeoning bourgeois powerhouse to the north:
One method called for more land and the other for more slaves. Both meant not only increased crops but increased political power. …
[The first method meant finding] continual increments of new, rich land upon which ordinary slave labor would bring adequate return. This land the South sought in the Southeast; then beyond the Mississippi in Louisiana and Texas, then in Mexico, and finally, it turned its face in two directions: toward the Northwestern territories of the United States and toward the West Indian islands and South America. The South was drawn toward the West by two motives: first the possibility that slavery in Kansas, Colorado, Utah and Nevada would be at least as profitable as in Missouri, and secondly to prevent the expansion of free labor there and its threat to slavery. This challenge was a counsel of despair in the face of modern industrial development and probably the radical South expected defeat in the West and hoped the consequent resentment among the slaveholders would set the South toward a great slave empire in the Caribbean.
In fact, the South had already put this plan into action long before the first canon fired on Fort Sumter. The Southern states had won a number of concessions from Washington which lengthened slavery’s existence in the Union and expanded its potential boundaries. The South “demanded a fugitive slave law as strong as words could make it,” Du Bois writes, “and it was offered constitutional guarantees which would have made it impossible for the North to meddle with the organization of the slave empire”:
The South was assured of all the territory southwest of Missouri and as far as California. It might even have extended its imperialistic sway toward the Caribbean without effective opposition from the North or Europe. The South had conquered Mexico without help and beyond lay the rest of Mexico, the West Indies and South America, open to Southern imperialistic enterprise. … [T]he possibility of a long war or any war at all Southerners discounted, and they looked confidently forward to being either an independent section of the United States or an independent country with a stable economic foundation which could dictate its terms to the modern world on the basis of a monopoly of cotton, and a large production of other essential raw materials.
Few people realize how close the world came to seeing Southern slave masters extend their brutality across Mexico and beyond. In the 1850s a Nashville doctor named William Walker made a few failed attempts to establish slave republics in Mexico and Central America, even managing to make himself president of Nicaragua for nearly a year. When the war finally came, England and France tentatively supported the Southern cause in the name of free trade (read: cheap cotton), and they anxiously awaited a decisive Southern victory on the battlefield that would allow them to comfortably declare for the Confederacy and possibly even lend a hand.
In the meantime Spain and Britain sent ships to the Gulf of Mexico to support Napoleon III’s invasion of the Segunda República. Seven days after Lee’s invasion of the North was stopped at Gettysburg in July 1863, and with President Juárez at the head of a government-in-exile in Chihuahua, victorious French forces proclaimed the Second Mexican Empire, offering the crown once worn by Agustín de Iturbide to the younger brother of the Austrian emperor. But by then the tide of the war had turned, the Army of Northern Virginia was on its heels, and Britain and France decided to keep out of it. In the end, while Mexico and the rest of Latin America may have avoided becoming one huge plantation for Southern slavers, the region would be forced into the wage-slavery of Northern capitalists.
But the Global South will rise again!
Featured image: koishki