Congressman Wheeler Speaks in the House on Causes of the War

Wheeler

Major General Joseph Wheeler

Jack Melton, publisher of Civil War News, often talks with me about little-known sources and items in Civil War history. Recently he pointed me to one such: a speech by Joseph Wheeler, later Confederate major general, then U. S. Representative from the 8th Congressional District of Alabama. Wheeler spoke on the House floor, July 13, 1894.

The House was considering a bill concerning a Union veteran. Wheeler, a member of the Committee on Military Affairs, addressed the body in a speech that touched on a number of matters, including the causes of the late civil war. 

Wheeler recalled that at a “Peace Conference” held in February 1861, Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase had told the assembled delegates (not including representatives of the seven seceded states, which boycotted the convention) that the recent presidential election “must be regarded as a triumph of principles cherished in the hearts of the people of the free States.” Wheeler took this to mean that “the Northern States would not, and ought not, to comply with the obligations of the Federal Constitution,” which since 1789 had sanctioned slavery in the Southern states.

Thus Wheeler and other Southerners were justified in believing that Abraham Lincoln and the Black Republicans were out to get them, and would trample the Constitution in order to do so.

In the course of his remarks, the congressman from Alabama reviewed causes of the war. Besides slavery, “the doctrine of State rights, protective tariff [and] internal improvements” all figured as sources of sectional disagreement between North and South. As for slavery, “the New England ship owners amassed fortunes by plying the business of buying negroes in Africa, transporting them to the United States, and selling them for the most part to southern people.” In the Constitutional convention of 1787, it was the South that called for an end of the slave trade in twenty years; Northerners only turned against slavery when they found it unprofitable in their region. Then, in defiance of the Constitution, Northern states enacted laws protecting fugitive slaves. The famed Daniel Webster, speaking in Buffalo in May 1851, had predicted that if the North persisted in violating the Constitution, “the South would no longer be bound to observe the compact” (hinting at secession).

Yet, Wheeler continued, early instances of resistance to federal authority had occurred in the North: Shays’ Rebellion in New York, the whiskey rebellion in Pennsylvania. “The Southern people loved the Union,” he contended, and only with the rise of the Republican Party “they reluctantly succumbed to the conviction that the party about to take control would have no respect for their rights.”

Then, when Lincoln’s election in November 1860 spurred talk of secession, Wheeler pointed to sensible conservative Northerners who understood why. “If the cotton States shall become satisfied that they can do better out of the Union than in it, we insist on letting them go in peace” (Horace Greeley, New York Tribune, November 9–the day after Lincoln’s election). Two weeks later the New York Herald agreed that the South should not be coerced: “A union held together by the bayonet would be nothing better than a military despotism.” In late December, while South Carolinians were in convention, Greeley held forth that “if it (the Declaration of Independence) justifies the secession from the British Empire of three million colonists in 1776, we do not see why it would not justify the secession of five millions of southrons from the Federal Union in 1861.” As late as March 1861, following Lincoln’s inauguration and after seven Southern states had indeed left the Union, the Cincinnati Commercial declared, “We are not in favor of blockading the southern coast. We are not in favor of retaking by force the property of the United States now in possession of the seceders. We would recognize the existence of a government formed of all the slave-holding States, and attempt to cultivate amicable relations with it.” Gen. Gen. Winfield Scott was often quoted as saying, “Wayward sisters, part in peace.”

Obviously, Wheeler concluded, the “wayward sisters” were not allowed to go in peace. As a consequence, “the most stupendous war recorded in modern history” ensued. To illustrate its frightful casualties, Wheeler posited that Grant’s casualties from May 5 to May 12, 1864 in Virginia totaled 9,774 killed, 41,150 wounded and 13,254 missing—a number “greater than the loss in killed and wounded in all the battles of all the wars in this country prior to 1861.”

Thus Wheeler ended his address. He spoke unabashedly “from the standpoint of one whose feelings were and are in entire sympathy with the southern people.” From his remarks we can distinctly see that Southerners viewed the coming of the war from a perspective we don’t often think of today. To understand why three million Americans went to war against each other—and why a fifth of them died—we would do well to turn from time to time to such documentary sources as the Southern Historical Society Papers.

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Reference: Joseph Wheeler, “Causes of the War. Great Speech of Hon. Joseph Wheeler, of Alabama,” Southern Historical Society Papers, vol. 22, (1894), 24-41.