Will the Civil War ever be over?

November 15, 2010

I grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in a time when oysters and blue crabs were plentiful and the waters of the Chesapeake so clean that you could still see the bottom of the Bay in many places when out on the water.  Life was much slower in those days - the Bay Bridge linking the Eastern Shore to its western counterpart where I was born was only completed a year after my birth - and folks on the Shore lived in a culture that was insular because of its physical isolation.  It was a place at once brimming with what is rightly called southern hospitality and yet wary of outsiders.  Back then many Shore natives referred to the Civil War as "the war of Northern aggression."  They weren't just kidding when they said this; the look and intonation was that of seriousness.

So perhaps it isn't surprising that an otherwise undistinguished town on the Shore - Cambridge - should have become a lightening rod for the civil rights struggle when, in 1963, and then again in 1967, its black populace rioted to end long-standing segregation policies.

Back then, the Civil War had been over for just 100 years.  Now it is 50 years later, and I wonder if we have learned anything at all from the greatest and most traumatic event in this nation's history.

In the waning days of December 1860, a short month since Abraham Lincoln had been elected the 16th president of the United States, South Carolina seceded from the Union and shortly thereafter seized a number of federal forts in Charleston Harbor.  Although the remaining outpost, Fort Sumter, was not fired upon until April the following year, the American Civil War, for all intents and purposes, had begun.

Over the course of the next 4 years more than 600,000 Americans died in the bloodiest conflict in which our nation has ever been engaged.

In the end, the cause of the Confederacy was decisively defeated, and so it would seem that 150 years since the onset of this great civil war there should exist as decisive an agreement on its causes and lessons.  That, however, is not the case.

This was brought home forcefully this past April when the Governor of Virginia, Robert McDonnell, declared that month to be Confederate History Month, honoring Confederate veterans in Virginia but neglecting to mention anything about that peculiar southern institution - slavery - which many thought had something to do with the great war.  To his credit, he realized quickly that he had stepped upon a land mine of his own making, and in an about face, rescinded his proclamation of Confederate History Month.

Far from extinguishing the controversy, however, McDonnell's recantation provided nothing but high-octane fuel to a long-smoldering fire over what the Confederacy stood for and why the Civil War was fought at all.

Representative of condemnations of McDonnell for bowing down to the forces of political correctness was an opinion piece in the Washington Post, authored by Richard T. Hines, who is identified as commander of the Jefferson Davis Camp No. 305 Sons of the Confederate Veterans, Virginia Division.

Entitled "Running scared on Confederate history," Hines accuses McDonnell of caving in and says:

"We've been arguing over the causes of our great war between brothers for 150 years, and no doubt we'll go on arguing for another 150.  But today one group - the one that insists that the war was fought over slavery alone - tolerates no disagreement.  Confederate chapels, history months and monuments, they say, should be banished, and the history books rewritten to exclude other points of view.  Anyone who dares disagree gets called a racist."

On his view, we should agree to disagree about the causes of the Civil War, which means that we should continue (at least in the South) to celebrate the cause of the Confederacy without having to be bothered by those who are inclined to link the Confederate cause to slavery.  Indeed, Hines says this explicity: "It is quite easy to revere Confederate history without being pro-slavery."

But this conclusion is simply false, because Confederate history is a commitment to the historical institution of slavery.

The Civil War was about slavery, and all the other usual suspects recited – that it was about states’ rights, tariffs, the existence of a central bank, etc. – are ultimately derivative from this: Should slavery as an economic institution continue or be forced to wither away?1

This issue, which had nearly aborted the ratification of the Constitution, remained the pre-eminent undercurrent in American politics from our nation’s founding up to the Civil War. 

It would not go away, because as our nation continued its westward expansion, southern congressmen were prescient enough to understand that if the institution was not allowed to expand into new territories, eventually non-slave-holding states would outnumber slave-holdings ones, with the result that congressional representation would be great enough to legally abolish this "peculiar institution."

Those same southern representatives also likely understood then what later economic historians of the period have repeatedly noted:  that without the institution of slavery, states such as South Carolina lacked enough free white labor to sustain their own economies.  In other words, they knew at the time that their economic survival depended on slavery.

Over twenty years before Lincoln’s election as President, then-president Andrew Jackson threatened to send nearly three thousand federal troops into South Carolina which, fearing the imminent abolition of slavery, was declaring its intention to secede from the Union under a doctrine of states’ rights called "nullification."  Jackson was a Carolinian himself, and no northern sympathizer.  But he was determined that that we would continue as one republic.

So the seeds of the Civil War were sown well before Lincoln’s election and the firing on Fort Sumter by South Carolina troops.

Slavery made the Civil War all but inevitable.  To relegate it to one of many so-called legitimate grievances the South had, and conclude, with Hines, that one can salute the Confederacy and its cause without saluting the institution of slavery, is to honor the Confederacy without understanding it.

As Lincoln, who understood full-well the Confederacy by the time of his second inauguration expressed the struggle:

“Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether’.”

The Washington Post's culture critic, Philip Kennicott, recently wrote that the "painful" lesson of the Civil War is that it legitimized "the right to be wrong, the right to resist the progress of freedom, the right to say "no thank you" to modernity, to leave the fences in disrepair and retreat into a world of private conviction...."

That may be so.  But it does not alter the ugly fact that 150 years ago we, as a nation, fought a great war that at base was over the question whether some inhabitants of the United States could legitimately be the property of other inhabitants: a war initiated by those who answered in the affirmative.

What is truly "painful" about the Civil War is not that it legitimized the right to be wrong but that it allowed us to refuse to learn any lesson at all.  And so today, 150 years after it began, we still treat its causes as a matter of opinion on which reasonable people can disagree.  And this refusal to learn from our own history has had continuing tragic consequences.   Looking outward to foreign affairs, Vietnam is the most prominent, though not the most recent, outcome of this legacy. 

In the history of nations, our own experiment is extraordinary in so many ways.  And yet what is exceptional about the United States remains distorted and clouded to our own eyes by our ongoing debate over history's judgment on its most decisive conflict.

On the 150th anniversary of the War Between the States, let us find what is right in our heritage to justly celebrate.  Let us find the courage to admit where we have fallen short of our own ideals.  And let us, at last, end that war.


1As for states' rights, these amounted to two arguments: 1- that persons should be able to travel with their property, i.e., slaves, into non-slave holding states without fear of being dispossessed of their property, and 2- that in the event the aforementioned condition was not met, states should be free to 'nullify' their relationship with the federal republic. 

Tariffs is a straw dog, southern legislators in Congress having succeeded in rolling them back years prior to the Civil War, as is the issue of a central bank, which President Andrew Jackson suceeded in abolishing in 1837 (there was no central bank in the U.S. thereafter until  1863).

In the end, slavery cannot be ignored or downsized to one of many equal causes.