If you haven’t read Brooks Simpson’s most recent post over at Civil Warriors than do so before reading further. I can’t think of a better way to highlight our collective bias in reference to how we think about our Civil War than by reflecting on Brooks’s series of questions. It is clear that most of us would agree with the first three statements and disagree with the last three: "I raise these issues to ask whether there are the meaningful differences between these two sets of propositions, what they might be, and the implications one draws from that discussion. We owe it to ourselves to engage in that sort of discussion every once in a while rather than simply rehash the same old controversies."
I think it is safe to say that most of us would agree with the factual claims set forth in all six propositions. That said, we would not draw the same moral lessons between the two. Most of us would start from a broad moral assumption that we (Allies) were right and they were wrong; in other words there was a clear difference between the good guys and the bad guys. From there it is a much easier step to question and analyze where these statement fall short in their assessment of the German/Nazi experience. For example, we can agree that there was antisemitism in both the United States and Germany but in the case of the latter it manifested itself in the horrors of the Nazi death camps. That is a relevant historical distinction that would be lost if we settled with the vague outlines of the original proposition. We may be less likely to draw a moral distinction between the Germans in the regular army and those who served in SS units or who volunteered for political positions in the Nazi Party. And we may also be less willing to distinguish between the moral responsibilities of the average German citizen for what transpired during the war compared with those in direct command. In the case of the final statement about German soldiers we may agree that they did not take part in the Holocaust but we would be comfortable pointing out a causal connection between their actions on the battlefield which led to the extension of the war and the possibility of exterminating that many more innocents.
What I like about this little exercise is that it demonstrates that we can disagree on how to interpret the propositions about World War II without having to consider the individual making the claim. In other words, we can have a debate without worrying about the motivation behind the particular position. I think that it is safe to say that is much more difficult to explore the first set of statements about the Civil War. We don’t have the comfort of psychological distance when thinking about Germany; more importantly, the statements are typically used to stop discussion or exploration rather than to encourage it. Those who push the envelope are under immediate suspicion. Consider the second proposition that acknowledges the presence of racism in the North as well as the South. It is historically true and no one will deny it; in fact I think parts of the North were much more racist at different times compared with the South. The missing piece, however, is that slavery in the South persisted much longer and even expanded significantly in a number of ways as the North gradually abolished it. I assume that all of us agree with that statement and yet some of you out there can’t help but think that the statement is being made as a moral indictment of the South and all Southerners.
We are much too defensive about our Civil War and much too wedded to a sanitized interpretation that tolerates little moral thought. It is much safer to track the movements of soldiers rather than deal with complexity. The minute someone brings up emancipation as somehow connected to Union policy beginning in 1863 we hear that Lincoln was a racist and most Federal soldiers were fighting to preserve the union. Yes, by our 21st century standards Lincoln would probably strike us as holding racist views. However, he still believed that slavery was immoral and he did in fact sign the Emancipation Proclamation and never compromised in a way that threatened its basic provisions. And most Federal soldiers were fighting for union and yet their marching orders starting in January 1863 turned the armies into armies of liberation whether they agreed or not – just ask William T. Sherman.
I find the final proposition re: the ownership of slaves to be the most interesting. That statement is typically used to divorce the common Confederate soldier from the argument that he fought to protect slavery. I like to think that I understand why that claim is so popular especially when used by those with ancestors who fought in the Confederate ranks. I assume that I would be inclined to use it if in a similar position. The argument comes in handy as a way to distinguish between the reasons individual men fought and the stated goal of the Confederate government which was to protect the institution of slavery. What happens when we draw an analogy with American soldiers during Vietnam before the draft? I assume that many men who volunteered did so for a range of reasons that had little to do with foreign policy concerns about the "Domino Theory." Of course, the fact that some soldiers joined for reasons having little to do with this does not force us to rethink the role of the assumptions of the Domino Theory in understanding why the United States went to war in Vietnam.
So, what are the implications surrounding the way we handle these two sets of propositions? I think Brooks is right in pointing to the fact that we still have a great deal of difficulty talking about the moral dimensions of our Civil War. Notice that we have little paitience sticking to a set of propositions that reduces or eliminates important historical/moral questions in the context of World War II; again the propositions may be factually correct, but fail to account for the complexity of what transpired during that war. It is no doubt much more comfortable, however, to think about our Civil War as a contest of brave soldiers that fought over a mere difference in constitutional principles. We resist the move to question those propositions that reside at the surface of a much richer and challenging set of questions about race and slavery in American history. To do so is to give up the entertainment value of our preferred narratives and the tendency to see our national narrative as leading inevitably to greater freedom and equality.
Thanks Brooks for such a thought-provoking post.