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When I returned to Virginia after my sophomore year of college, I went back to my high school to pose a question to my beloved U.S. history teacher: how, I wanted to know, had I grown up thinking that the Civil War was fought over the tariff? It took exactly one week in a college history class--a week in which I read the South Carolina Declaration of Secession, which makes clear that it was not the tariff but rather the "increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery" that led to the creation of the Confederacy--to realize I had been led astray about the cause of the most important event in American history.
Apparently, I was not alone. At the outset of her terrific first book, Georgetown historian Chandra Manning recounts a conversation she recently had at a wedding. Sitting next to her was a history buff, and soon the conversation turned to the Civil War. The buff held forth, "insisting ... that slavery had nothing to do with the conflict."
The straightforward argument of What This Cruel War Was Over is that soldiers themselves--far from being ignorant patriots or naive dupes--knew that the war was about slavery. Confederate soldiers understood this from the first. In the wake of Fort Sumter, for example, a group of Louisiana men who were studying at the University of North Carolina gathered to declare their commitment to defending "that …