10/27/2014 06:44 pm ET Updated Dec 27, 2014

Difficult to Ignore That the Overarching Issue in Civil War Was Slavery


National Public Radio has been featuring a series titled "The Race Card Project." It is an examination of the peculiar phenomenon that maintains an arrested development within the nation's soul.

Recently, host Michele Norris was in Virginia speaking with those who proudly uphold their allegiance to the legacy of the Confederacy. Sarah Smith, whose great-great-grandfather fought for the Confederacy at Gettysburg, explained that her support was based on history, not any reverence for slavery. "I think people need to realize ... it's a history, not a hate, issue," Smith said.

She said that her great-great-grandfather did not own slaves, but he was vehemently against what he saw as undue intrusion by the federal government.

Smith's position is obviously contrasted by the perspective that slavery was indeed the issue. But an over-reliance on both beliefs has a way of oversimplifying the complexities of history.

Few in the 21st century wish to be on the side of supporting slavery. There is also understandable need to believe that those, particularly in South, served for a greater cause.

Furthermore, it becomes too easy for the so-called victors to create a narrative that accentuates its virtues while conveniently minimizing its shortcomings. History is not what one wishes to have happened or what should have occurred.

At its best, history is a dispassionate account of what transpired, informing us of who we were, influencing who we are today. This can only be understood if one accepts that there are competing perspectives on the same event.

Is it possible for one to fight on the side of the Confederacy for a reason other than preserving slavery? Absolutely.

By many accounts, this was the motivation of General Robert E. Lee. Though Lee did not support secession, he would not fight against his native Virginia.

But to offer that many fought for the Confederacy for a moral reason that transcended slavery is equally myopic. It is an attempt, no matter how genuine, to absolve one of their participation to preserve the macabre institution of slavery. This offers that one's culpability must be congruent with one's intent. Intent can be the false refuge to justify what is otherwise indefensible.

If someone stands on another's neck, does it matter if there is no intention to cause pain?

There can be a microreason for fighting on behalf of the Confederacy that has nothing to do with slavery. But it is also true that slavery was the overarching reason for the war.

If one removes slavery from the equation, would the South have succeeded?

Beginning with the Three-Fifths Compromise, slavery was the perpetual thorn in the nation's side. Without the aforementioned compromise, there is little chance there would have been a United States, but rather 13 weak colonies still vulnerable to British takeover.

In his farewell address to the Senate, Jefferson Davis said:

"When our Constitution was formed, the same idea was rendered more palpable; for there we find provision made for that very class of persons as property; they were not put upon the equality of footing with white men -- not even upon that of paupers and convicts ... only to be represented in the numerical proportion of three-fifths."

The Missouri Compromise and the Kansas-Nebraska Act proved to be mere bandages on a gaping wound. Thomas Jefferson trusted that "future generations" would find the solution that he and the other Founders were unable to achieve. But that solution would cost the lives of 600,000 Americans, roughly 2 percent of the population.

The microreasons, though valid, cannot eliminate the macroreality, which was the preservation of slavery. The reason that motivated one to fight for the Confederacy does not eliminate that they were also fighting to preserve the most barbaric chapter in American history.

It is the historic conundrum, to have two competing perspectives on the same issue, unable to cancel out the other, that are forced to live in vexing tension.