One-hundred-and-fifty years after it ended, many Americans still don’t understand the main reason the Civil War was fought.
“The greatest myth that people have about the Civil War is that this was not a war about slavery for either side,” says James M. McPherson, an American Civil War historian and a history professor at Princeton University.
“In the case of the South and some of the Confederate heritage groups, you will see it argued that this war was not about the preservation or defense or protection of slavery; it was about the affirmation of states’ rights or state sovereignty or a separate Southern culture.”
McPherson’s remarks come at the start of a History Channel video called “The Civil War’s Greatest Myth.” In the three-minute video, on the cable network’s website, about half a dozen noted Civil War historians all say what the vast majority of academic research confirms: Slavery — an institution at the foundation of Southern society — was the war’s driving cause.
Nonetheless, you’ll find the “Greatest Myth” in plenty of places.
Texas textbooks will begin this fall teaching the “Greatest Myth” to 5 million public school students in what critics have called a whitewashing of history.
A 2011 poll by the Pew Research Center — the same nonpartisan, nonprofit group that released last week’s Confederate flag survey — found that 48 percent of Americans believe states’ rights was Civil War’s main cause, while 38 percent cited slavery and 9 percent a mix of both.
“The whole idea of having this myth created that somehow the South was fighting for an honorable cause — that started after the war as a justification for actions that were taken, in many cases,” Cassandra Newby-Alexander, a history professor at Norfolk State University in Virginia, says in the video. “In many cases, it’s just human nature. You don’t want to think that you fought so hard, that you lost so much, and that you weren’t fighting for something that was honorable.”
One thing that makes historians so certain that slavery was the core issue is that Confederate leaders enshrined it in documents they wrote to justify their secession from the United States. Those documents make it clear that racism, slavery and oppression of blacks were integral to a way of life Confederate states were willing to go to war to defend.
In its constitution, the Confederacy granted its own form of federal protection to the institution of slavery and backed it with enforcement across state borders. Critics of the “Greatest Myth” suggest this is an argument against — not for — states’ rights.
Concerned that Abraham Lincoln’s election as president in 1860 would lead to the demise of their slavery-based way of life, Southern states appointed secession commissioners to craft a response.
Days after it broke from the Union in January 1861, Louisiana secession commissioner George Williamson delivered a speech to Texas officials as they debated whether to do the same. Williamson’s speech mentions slavery at least 11 times. Its references to states’ rights reason that Louisiana and other Southern states had a right to perpetuate slavery.
“Louisiana looks to the formation of a Southern confederacy to preserve the blessings of African slavery,” Williamson’s speech reads. “The people of the slave-holding states are bound together by the same necessity and deter­mination to preserve African slavery.”
Why is this important now? One reason is that it is difficult to have a meaningful public discussion about race or the Confederate flag and what it stands for when so many opinions are based on myth rather than fact.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, the well-known civil rights group based in Montgomery, Ala., offers a more important reason in an essay it published after the 2011 poll exposed how widespread the “Greatest Myth” remains:
“Concealing the role of white supremacy — on both sides of the conflict — makes it harder for students to see white supremacy today.”

Houma (La.) Courier and Thibodaux (La.) Daily Comet executive editor Keith Magill can be reached at keith.magill@houmatoday.com.