The Cold War Before the Civil War: Psychological Battleground

The Civil War raged from 1861-1865; however, did you know there was a 30-year COLD WAR that preceded  it? This fresh perspective on the Civil War is important for both historian and family historian alike. This Cold War ran from 1832-1861 (29 years) according to author Clifford Dowdey in his book “They Land They Fought For: The Story of the South as the Confederacy, 1832-1865.”

What makes Clifford Dowdey’s analysis so powerful is that he delves deep into the psychology of conflicting perspectives on what caused the Civil War. His analogy is of a room full of doctors, each representing common opinion, attempting to examine a patient and offer a cause to his illness. As you can imagine “each doctor finds something that is wrong, but no one can diagnose the fatal disease” (p.4).

I’ve always been a proponent of the fact that the Civil War didn’t just happen in a vacuum. April 1861 didn’t just arrive and, *poof*, there was a war.

“They Land They Fought For: The Story of the South as the Confederacy, 1832-1865” espouses this theory with great alacrity and intelligence. I will outline his thoughts as best I can and give considerable space to quoting text directly as his writing is better read than interpreted.


“Indeed, the causes of the war were so involved that people haven’t agreed yet what the fighting was about … Immediately after the war, both sides acted under a compulsion to fix the ‘war guilt’ on the other. Because the North had the nobler slogans, ‘freedom’ and ‘preserving the Union’ (and also because it won), slavery and union became fairly well fixed, with whatever variations, as the basic causes. From the beginning the slavery part brought indignant denials from the Southerners, who had been taught that their fathers or grandfathers had not fought for slavery.

But, however few Southerners owned slaves – less than ten per cent – the institution was inextricably involved in the long conflict.” (p.3 bold added)


What he is saying is that the victors get to write, or re-write history. The outcome of the Civil War was as much about a sales pitch and indoctrination as it was about actual battles. The 30-year Cold War before the actual Civil War gives us the clues to decipher exactly what the motivations were for the war from both perspectives. It will help us answer the question: “why was the Civil War fought?”


“More recently, the ‘revisionists’ decided that the conflicts need not have been resolved by war at all; the rival sections were driven at each other’s throats by the extremists of both sides … By now a whole secular priesthood has arisen to assume authority for the dogmas of the interpretations of the war. To the confusion of the laity, no group recognizes the authority of the other, and manifestly they cannot all be right. It is more likely that, if no agreement has been reached by now, they all are at least partly wrong.” (p.4 bold added)


Well said! It was a psychological battleground. There are so many parallels to today’s media: spin and disinformation abounds that is consumed en masse by TV and social media audiences. Just look at how our President is being portrayed, it’s bandwagon malarkey. So too were the issues of the day during the Civil War (Heck, Lincoln was almost defeated by the Copperheads who have all but been eradicated from history). For more on “spin” read Edward Bernays’ Propaganda as well as Public Relations.


“As it is, the mass of interpretations over the past ninety years [sic], as well as the popular myths, tend to impose a rationale on the events leading up to the explosion and aftermath. Instead of that, the country was more like the schizoid in a violent cycle, where he is driven by the warring parts, with no guiding intelligence to direct the whole. One illogical act of violence led to others of even less logic and more violence, until the nation was swept along by a concatenation of events which had become a force in themselves.” (p.5)


The important point here is to try and reexamine WHY the Civil War was fought beyond the popular rhetoric. People’s rights and freedom were at stake, yes, we all acknowledge that; however, for the 90 PERCENT of the South that didn’t engage in the ownership of others and were intelligent and industrious farmers we cannot, logically, apply that reasoning.

So what reasoning can we apply? As the author hints in his title, it was THE LAND. The Land They Fought For traces the settlement of the Southern United States from before colonial times up until the Cold War era, vis-à-vis 1832 and 1861, and the social and economic forces that swept the average Southern farmer into this bloody conflict.

Seen through the lens of a family’s land, another facet of interpreting the Civil War becomes possible! As a person with deep Southern roots who has spent the past few years researching my family history, this book has become a hallmark in my education. I will write more as I read more!

  • BIBLIOGRAPHY: Dowdey, Clifford. 1955. The Land They Fought For: The Story of the South as the Confederacy, 1832-1865. New York: Doubleday & Co.

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