Mr. Potok writes:
Freeing the slaves may not have been Lincoln's original intent, but it became a major aim of the war, as any serious student of Civil War history knows. And the right to own slaves was, most certainly, the primary reason the Southern states seceded from the Union.
Nice, neat, simple, and not quite right. I can agree that freeing the slaves became a major aim of the war, but it was not the major aim of the war. And any serious student of what is inaccurately called the "Civil War" * knows from the history of the preceding forty years, the issues were far more complex than just maintaining what one historian has called the "Peculiar Institution."
It is one thing to say that commemorations of Confederate history attract racists. They undoubtedly do. But it is quite another, and very inaccurate, to say that everyone who wishes to commemorate Confederate history is a racist. After all, the South was invaded. Many poor and middle class people (including my great-great-grandfather in Virginia) saw families broken and impoverished, and homes destroyed, by a Union Army practicing the most horrible forms of destruction known up to that time. And Mr. Potok's analysis certainly does not account for the African-Americans who gave their blood to the Confederate cause, as Champion of Liberty H. K. Edgerton reminds us.
It also fails to account for the Peace Democrats ("Copperheads") in New York City and the Midwest who too often were just as racist as the Southerners at whom Mr. Potok points his finger; but who clearly saw that "Lincoln's War" would begin the systematic destruction of the Constitutional order that continues to this day.
The truth is, the war arose from all of these causes; plus the absolute unwillingness by Lincoln and the Northern financiers to arrive at the kind of reasonable compromises that peacefully ended slavery in Britain, France, and Brazil. There were Southerners, including Alexander Stephens (whom Mr. Potok cites unfavorably), who preferred to remain in the Union. If Lincoln had proposed some plan to buy freedom for the slaves, so that the economic cost to the landowners could have been mitigated, the war probably could have been avoided. But this is not what the Northern radicals wanted. So the rest, as they say, is history.
* Technically, a "civil war" is a conflict between two factions seeking control of a national government. The war we are remembering was one between two independent nations (and the Confederacy was in fact independent, even though its independence was never recognized under international law). My Dec. 20 post describes why none of the common names for this war is truly neutral. The most accurate is probably the "War for Southern Independence," but its connotation is strongly pro-Confederate.