Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Anniversary of the big war

Today is the 150th anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter, that event which obviously brought our country full force into the Civil War.  I've mentioned to folks that, ironically, despite my love for history, I have spent little time studying the Civil War.  I'm only vaguely aware of the dates in which it was fought (1861-1865). Perhaps the reason is, when I was growing up, almost all of history was, well, the Civil War.  That's what everyone was talking about.  From Roots, to the Blue and the Gray, TV was obsessed with it.  It was the defining historical subject at that time.

Eras I preferred, such as Medieval studies, the Colonial and Revolutionary periods, and the Napoleonic era were mostly on the back burners at best.  World War II was largely forgotten, replaced by a growing sense of the importance of Vietnam - Word War II being that archaic time that Mr. Roper and Archie Bunker types reminisced about.  So perhaps it was because of this that neither Vietnam, nor the Civil War, hold much appeal to me.

Also, there is the strange twisting and turning that is historical studies.  History, as they say, reflects more the modern historian than the historical subject at hand.  As I grew up in the 70s and 80s, especially in our Post-Roots culture, the growing emphasis on America's Sins was overtaking any all American studies.  Racism was quickly becoming the go-to sin of our nation.  Everything was racism.  And America - all of it -was Racist.  To combat the objections some might have about such a sweeping generalization, we were assured that no blue blooded American boy ever cared one lick for a minority.  How then to explain the Civil War, where tens of thousands of Northerners appeared to have died for the cause?  Easy.  The Civil War, or so I was told, was not about Slavery at all.  Oh, that may have been the spark that ignited the fuse.  But it was ever and always about States Rights and preserving the Union.  That was it.  Slavery, as folks of the day loved to point out, was no big deal for most of the war.  In fact, it was an afterthought. 

And this fit well, as we were moving to tear down any and all positive references to America's past.  Lincoln, long immortalized as one of our greatest - if not the greatest - presidents, had to be brought down.  His flaws, failings, and sins were focused upon.  Gone was the crusading idealist, and in came the closet racist, caring nothing for the actual slaves themselves, seeking only to expand federal power and impose totalitarian-like control of the nation.  Or so the popular portrayals and scholarship of the day seemed to suggest.

Funny thing is, that apparently took hold and became assumed knowledge.  As I've said before, nothing works like mass propaganda.  And so a generation or more of Americans came to see the Civil War as a giant geopolitical conflict only vaguely concerned with the issue of slavery, and not concerned at all with the slaves.  In many media portrayals of the time, in fact, abolitionists were shown to be fanatics, zealots, and the epitome of intolerance compared to the more level headed players of the day. 

Fast forward twenty years.  As our nation moves toward a Post-American identity, where any and all celebrations of America's past must be squelched due to sensitivities involving its heinous sins, we have a problem.  If the Civil War was merely about state's rights and the union, with the North almost coming across as the aggressor and the imperial power, then why not celebrate those brave young Southerners who stood firm against such typical American lust for power?  Why not have 'Hurray for the Confederacy Day?'  After all, as we were told over and over and over again when I was growing up, not all Southerners wanted slavery, supported it, or endorsed it.  Some even struggled because of it. 

Well now, that just won't do.  And so in recent years, veritable battles have been fought over any notion that the Confederacy should in any way be celebrated.  All of it - All Of It - was nothing  other than an American Nazism, a plague needing cleansed from our memory.  Why?  Because apparently the Civil War was all about slavery, and the horrible, racist, white south's insistence on preserving this most evil of institutions.  That was it.  That was the purpose for the war.  Time and again during these debates, I've heard activists, politicians, scholars and historians insist that we remember the Civil War was first and foremost a struggle against the racist south and the evil of slavery.  Just how this speaks to the heroism and valor of the Northerners is yet to be flushed out. 

Just how this will look another thirty years from now is anyone's guess.  It will depend, like all historical reflections do, on just what the latest, hippest agendas and controversies of the day happen to be.  As usual, the truth will most likely be found by taking the traditional history, adding the various latest theories, and dividing by two.   


  1. nice article.
    Missed you being on here.

  2. Call me crazy, but my theory is both sides were racist; the North did practice segregation for a century after the war, whatever other complications were involved.

    That said, I think the problem is seeing the war in terms of only one layer. It was about secession. Which was about the place of Federal authority. Which was at the time leaning towards interfering in slavery. Which was immoral (with the possible exception of those slaves that were educated and then freed, which was probably the exception rather than the rule, if it ever did happen and isn't just a modern legend), but which I don't think the federal government was supposed to be stepping in to stop or was authorized Constitutionally to step in and stop. And I think there was a reason for that, specifically avoiding the sort of modern situation where the law is used as a bludgeon one way or the other on issues that really require cultural change. And I think that racism as a whole would probably not be as resilient today if cultural forces had engaged each other directly; yes, slavery would have continued longer, but you wouldn't today have people thinking blacks are devils' spawn simply because some bureaucrats burnt down half the country over it -- they'd still have other reasons, perhaps, but they'd have one less reason. So at the end of the day, I feel about the same way over it as I do about the vigilante who blows up abortion clinics: yeah, you're saving lives immediately, but at what long-term cost to your or society's integrity? Let's save lives and free slaves within the rule of law, not abandon the rule of law to play hero.

    If, on the other hand, one wants to argue for a monarchy or other morally authoritative government, that can be argued; what can't be argued is that a constitutional republic should behave like a morally authoritative and/or absolute monarchy, since that deprives the republic of its advantages over demagoguery.


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