A Need To Remember a War To End Slavery

The other day I mentioned that a professor at Rice University used a few of my old posts on black Confederates as a way to focus his students on how Americans remember the war.  I thoroughly enjoyed the thoughtful comments of the students, many of which suggest that proponents of this particular narrative have a broader goal of embracing Confederate history – heritage without having to deal with the tough problems of race and slavery.  I think there is some truth to this, but I wouldn’t propose it as anything approaching a generalization or even as a sufficient condition.

In response to these comments, Professor McDaniel offered the following question and I have to say that I am struggling with it:

Second, many of you suggested that remembering the Civil War in a particular way fills certain needs people have–to absolve themselves or their ancestors of guilt, for example, or distance themselves from racism. This made me wonder (and some of you alluded to this): if remembering the Civil War as a conflict that was not meets certain psychological or cultural needs for the people doing the remembering, how does depicting the Civil War as a conflict that was about slavery, or even a war to end slavery, influence the identities or satisfy the needs of people who remember it that way?

It seems like an appropriate question given the slave auction reenactment that took place this morning on the steps of the Old Courthouse in St. Louis.  Here is a very interesting interview with Angela desilva, who took part in the reenactment.  [Click here for some powerful photographs from the event.] She offers a very personal response to Professor McDaniel’s question, but one that must acknowledge from a distance given my lack of any ancestral connection with slavery.

So, what needs does remembering a war to end slavery satisfy?  That’s a tough question and one that I don’t think I can answer right now.  I am tempted to suggest that it satisfies my need to know what happened and why, but that sounds shallow and could easily be suggested by those who minimize or reject the importance of slavery.  I’m sure others will opine that my radical liberal beliefs have left me feeling guilty or that such an interpretation fits into my view of the United States as fundamentally flawed.  Well, I hate to break it to you, but that’s not it.

Perhaps it relates to my Jewish upbringing.  Although I am no longer a practicing Jew I do believe that my strong belief that we have an obligation to remember flows from my experience in Hebrew School during my formative years.  It goes without saying that the Holocaust looms large in the lives of most Jews.  But this doesn’t fully satisfy either.  After all, I can remember the harsh reality of slavery without focusing on the Civil War.  In other words, I still don’t know what needs of mine are satisfied by remembering a war to end slavery.

What about you?

68 responses... add one

What could be done about those connected with slavery in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the Capitol in Washington? Given the institution’s grip on the country’s formation, few would escape scrutiny – Henry Clay, even Washington himself. But what of those who rebelled against the United States in defense of slavery?

Such memorials include Joseph Wheeler of Alabama, Edmund Kirby Smith of Florida, Alexander Stephens of Georgia, Edward Douglas Wright of Louisiana, Jefferson Davis and James Z. George of Mississippi, Zebulon Baird Vance of North Carolina, Wade Hampton of South Carolina, Robert E. Lee of Virginia, and John E. Kenna of West Virginia. We might also include John C. Calhoun in there as well.

Surely non-rebels can replace these figures. After all, honoring them with a place in the seat of American democracy, liberty and freedom insults those same principles.

I strongly disagree. Our history is our history. Slave holders who were President of the United States deserve just as much recognition as any other President. This nation would not have existed if it were not for the participation of every colony. The New England colonies could never have defeated the British by themselves.

I found David Blight’s book “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory” quite good and thorough.

Hi Arleigh,

Blight’s book is a wonderful place to begin in exploring issues related to historical memory. Glad to hear that you enjoyed it.

I agree with Brooks. The United States of America was as Seymour Martin Lipset called it “The First New Nation”. It was born out of the Enlightenment with its belief in the natural rights of all human beings. It proclaimed that belief in its Declaration of Independence. As Thomas Paine said in “Common Sense” “We have it in our power to begin the world over again” So, with all of that, how could that nation tolerate the continued existence of slavery after it came into being, how could it not find a way to end it peacefully over the next four score and 5 years without a bloodbath that devastated a major part of the country physically and financially? To me, if one attempts to teach the history of the US from its birth to the Civil War without facing those questions, what’s being taught is a polite fiction, not history.

You are exactly right. It was our failure to end slavery between 1776 and 1860 that resulted in the War Between the States. It is important that we remember that we were a slave society. People need to be aware of the fact that among the greivances in the Declaration of Independence are the fact that the British had ended slavery, and the fact that the British was protecting Native American Indians and their right to the land.

That is a fascinating question and I’m not sure I can answer it. As far as I can recall, I have always learned that the Civil War was about slavery, starting long before I learned that there was slave ownership in my family, so I do not believe that my ancestor’s slave ownership affects my beliefs on that at all. (I didn’t learn about slavery in the family until the mid or late 1990s, when I was in college, or just out of it.)

I probably could write several paragraphs on this without coming to an answer so I’ll stop here, but thank you for publishing that question and giving me something else to consider in my mind.

I grew up in the West, so all of this was like foreign history to me. We were taught that the war started to preserve the Union and changed to being about slavery half way through. The things leading up to it were very much about slavery, but when the war came, people did not acknowledge that. Anti-slavery sentiment was not yet strong enough in the North.

I grew up in the west also. I suppose you have to first agree on exactly when the war “started.” The deep south states seceded to protect the institution of slavery. Was that the “start” of the war? The United States government responded to secession as an internal rebellion and went to war to preserve the Union. Was that the “start” of the war? Many people, in fact, did right away acknowledge that slavery was the cause of secession. That is why there were several attempts to find another compromise on the issue of slavery. But, that did not immediately translate into a war to abolish slavery.

I was brought up in Hebrew School, too, and certainly identify with my spirituality and religiosity. I think in relating the story of Moses parting the Red Sea, we see the hand of God as the slaves’ salvation when they could not save themselves. The Civil War is commonly thought of as a reckoning on our nation’s sin of slavery, and it follows, in my opinion, that explaining the war as one to free the otherwise helpless slaves is a way of putting a positive connotation of Divine Providence on the whole thing. We are a Judeo-Christian nation, and Divine Providence is especially essential to our identity, even in our most cherished documents, so projecting this onto the CW is a way to help deal with putting meaning to 600,000 deaths as well as an attempt to avoid talking about our national flaws. And although I hate to say it, blanket statements like “it was about slavery” are also common ways for a war’s victor to create the permanent scapegoat.

I don’t personally ascribe to the notion that the war was all about slavery, nor do I think it became about slavery as a moral question as much as it became about slavery as a political and economic question on a national scale, although I do believe that Lincoln himself saw it as a moral question after not too long. I also don’t think it was all about repelling invasion or controlling tariffs. It was a mix of all of these things and more; if it was only about one thing, we would not study it like we do and be such fanatics as to have so many books, movies, blogs, etc. about the thing. But I do see the hand of the Lord in play, both in the actual freeing of the slaves and in the reuniting of the nation with mutual respect towards each side (remembering that there was much more respect from each side towards the other in the years before the modern Civil Rights movement). Both can be considered miracles, given how vastly different things were only a few short years before.

So where those who say it was not at all about slavery are perhaps trying to get the stigma off, those who say it was only about slavery are perhaps trying to put a higher purpose on such a major calamity; but for those of the slavery-only camp who don’t believe in higher purposes, I have no answer as to how they could ardently believe that such a massive conflict was about one thing, however important and good, unless they enjoy looking down their noses at others, or are simpletons by nature, or never questioned what they were taught.

The comparison between the Jews in Egypt and the slaves in the South has certainly been made before (but not often as eloquently).

But you wrote — about the Jews as slaves, to be sure — that they “could not save themselves” and were otherwise “helpless.” I doubt that was true in Egypt, but it certainly was not true in the South, not universally. Slaves ran away, they performed small acts of sabotage, occasionally rebelled, and as soon as anyone anywhere gave them half a chance, enlisted as soldiers to fight for the Union.

Slaves were not passive victims, is what I’m saying; they were responsible for building much of the wealth of the South, and large numbers of runaway slaves and freedmen were ultimately responsible for fighting for their freedom and thereby the freedom for all.

I am sorry that I do not right now remember the author or the book in which I read this. I might be able to find it later. One book, I think it was on the actions of anti-Confederate Southerners, including slaves, estimated that given an extremely low chance of being caught and returned, approximately 25% of the slaves would “run away” to Union lines.

The exact number is not of importance to me. What is of importance is that the slaves were not one large mass that would all do exactly what we think they should have done. They were individual men and women. They took actions based up their individual set of beliefs and values. To say that all of them would do this or that simply imposes our set of beliefs and actions upon these individuals. To impose our motivations upon them and say they would have done this because of that takes away their humanity.

The reenactment is important for those African Americans who choose to glorify the confederates and support the myths of Africans willingly fighting for the confederates. It is sad that we need to be reminded of how cruel and inhumane slavery was. It is also important for our children to see and understand their history so that they can take charge of their future and never let it happen again.

To me, the answer is far more “us vs. them” than many of us idealists would like it to be. As historians, it is certainly our job to question the motivations behind people’s actions in the past. Obviously, in the case of the Civil War, these questions have brought about at least two opposing viewpoints: those who assert that the war sought to end slavery, and those who believe that it did not.

I think, though, that the one may be a response to the other. As the “Lost Cause” grew in importance as an intellectual movement, it is more than possible that the opposing set of opinions grew in prominence, especially after the end of the Jim Crow era. So, what “needs” would this memory satisfy? I’d like to think that it presents a more inclusive story that does not shy away from even the darkest aspects of our country’s history. There is a need to properly contextualize the War, with the institution of slavery at the core.

Not that I’m pretending to have the answer. It’s a question that we’ve spent 150 years forming, and it would be quite presumptuous to claim to be able to answer it in 15 minutes at a computer. Simply an observation that I feel helps to begin to formulate a response to Professor McDaniel’s question.

Hi Drew,

I think you make a very good point, but I wonder whether it fully captures the tendency to point to a deep psychological need on the part of certain folks to avoid the issue of slavery and race when commemorating the Confederate experience.

I had accepted that avoidance as a given. I think the point still stands, though. One psychological need, in my opinion, beget the other.

Very insightful (perhaps that only means that since I agree, I think you must be really smart). I have found very little in this life that is simple, and has a yes or no (black or white, male or female) answer. Both sides are right. It is just a question of the exact “mix” of ideas and motivations.

Professor McDaniel’s question is a very good one in that it focuses both on those who deny that the War Between the States was about slavery, and those who insist that it was only about slavery. I am glad you have taken the time to examine your own beliefs. For me there is an excluded middle to the question – what needs of my own does it satisfy to believe that the reality lies somewhere between those two extremes.

I agree that it is an excellent question. Let me be clear that I am not questioning the scholarship of the last few decades that places slavery at the center of mid-nineteenth century American history. What I am inquiring into is the emotional or psychological need that accompanies my personal and our collective memory of the war.

The need to believe in moral good? To believe that your nation took the moral high ground? That seems to be what motivates much of our belief about our countries history. Which side has the moral high ground depends on where you focus your examination, and what your perspective is.

Personally I think many of those who insist that the war – and I mean the actual fighting, not the politics – was only about slavery are just as misguided as the neoconfederates who are obsessed with finding “black confederates.” I’ve read enough from the journals of Union soldiers to realize that very few of them were risking life and limb because they cared anything about slaves one way or the other, much less desired any level of racial harmony. And most of the Confederate journals I’ve read are heavy on hating Yankee invaders and light on protecting slavery. I think the glorification of the “War to End Slavery” is an easy way for the rest of the country to blame racism on the South without looking at their own history, both before an since the 1860s.

Everybody doth protest too much.

Hi Austin,

Thanks for the comment. You make an excellent point. The war is complex, but there is a growing scholarly literature that has dealt with all of these issues. I agree that it is easy to reduce the war to slavery without coming to terms with the complexity of the subject. Historians such as Chandra Manning, Earl Hess, Reid Mitchell, and James McPherson have written extensively about how slavery influenced and shaped both Union and Confederate soldiers. I think the important point here is that we need to learn to ask the right questions. All too often our discussions get reduced to one or the other which leaves us understanding nothing.

On Passover, all Jews are enjoined to remember that “we were slaves unto Pharaoh in Egypt.”
We should also remember that Jews profited from the African slave trade, and there were prominent Jewish Confederates, like Secretary of State Judah P. Benajmin. History is the domain of irony. Abraham Lincoln, who ironically was named for our first patriarch, attempted in his second Inaugural Address to construct a theology to make sense of the Civil War: that it was a divine judgement for the offense of slavery. “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…” To us, embedded in a secular world view, this is, frankly, crazy. To Lincoln’s listeners, steeped in the Bible, it must have made perfect sense. We need to teach about this astonishing speech when we teach the Civil War!

William Ellery Channing, a prominent Unitarian minister in Boston, slowly began to actively oppose slavery. His response, however, was not to heap coals on Southerners. His congregation contained members who profited from the slave trade. He focused on the ways that the people around him shared a responsibility for slavery.

The emotional need that is satisfied by my beliefs about this, or any subject, is the need to diminish the role of evil in the world. Believing we are good and they are evil is easy. Believing that “the enemy” might have some motivation other then the fact that they are evil might also be a cop out, but it is the one I choose.

Lincoln struck much the same chord when he suggested that had the conditions that shaped his life been different he would have been the driver of slaves.

I cannot tell whether you are trying to condemn the secular view or if you are complicit with it, but, frankly, it’s the exact opposite. Most people fully identify with those words of Lincoln and would not think him crazy at all, which is why I agree that it should be taught more, since more meaning can be gleamed from these words. Only avowed atheists would find the concept you touched on as the war being a reprimand for the sin of slavery as a crazy one, and my bet is that they would still at least understand how faithful people would see it that way. Our society appears more secular today on the politically-correct surface, yes, but I believe that most of America is actually still faithful like they were in Lincoln’s time, and I think that this adds to the need to put a divine meaning and moral high ground on the conflict.

The study of religion in the nineteenth century tends to get the back of our hand, but a close examination of it is absolutely essential to understanding the war and slavery. I highly recommend George Rable’s new book, _God’s Almost Chosen People_ (UNC Press).

“We should also remember that Jews profited from the African slave trade, and there were prominent Jewish Confederates, like Secretary of State Judah P. Benajmin.”
Mike: while we’re making blanket condemnations of particular ethnic groups, would you do me the favor and place your contention in some context, such as providing us numbers on the number of Jewish slave traders, their profits and the numbers of Jewish slave owners, and comparing those percentages to the urban Southern population as a whole? While we are busy remembering, we scholars like to back up our generalizations with some facts.

I certainly hope that nobody here thinks all Jews were Unionists because they inherently abhorred slavery, as that is totally incorrect, and I really really really hope that nobody here is trying to scapegoat Jews as evil Confederate banking profiteers for obvious reasons. Here is an interesting article discussing a book about Jews of both sides (the book is “Jews and the Civil War: A Reader”, which I have not read). The line in the article that stuck out to me was about “widespread Jewish distrust of the abolitionists, whom most Jews saw as self-righteous religious fanatics endangering the Union.” I had not considered that angle until reading the article, or that Jews might feel particularly endangered by a potential fundamentalist Christian takeover of sorts, but I can see it and have no reason to doubt that some or many Jews thought this way as a natural defense against antisemitism. As a faithful Jew in 2011, I feel that our country is empowered by faithful people of all stripes, but I guess the guard was up a little bit more 150 years ago.

The article: http://forward.com/articles/134564/

While I appreciate the comments can we please not turn this thread into one about Jews and the Civil War. That is not the focus of this post.

Ken: I completely agree with you. Unfortunately, you interjected Judaism into the discussion in your original post, thereby inviting Mike’s irresponsible comment. Just as you set an example for all in rejecting the growing myth that blacks supported the Confederacy, it is almost important to reject the growing myth that Jews were somehow disproportionately involved in American slavery.

I would offer this:

(1) It’s just so important to note that the coalition of free and border states fought the war to preserve the Union, not to end slavery. Emancipation was not an inevitable consequence of disunion, or rather, the Union’s efforts to end secession.

When people say “it was a war to end slavery,” I think that does represent an improper glorification of the Union’s intent.

(2) I think it’s important to note that emancipation was a way to enable a virtual and actual coalition of free non-Confederates and negroes, for the purpose of beating the “common foe.” This seems obvious. But remember, at the outset of the war, free blacks were not allowed in the Union army, and slaves were being returned to their masters by Union forces. The details of how this coalition came to be are vital to understanding the state of relations between the Union and the negro, and again, prevent unwarranted glorification.

I would add that, even with the movie Glory and efforts to discuss black agency in the war, the role of African Americans in the conflict still strikes me as being poorly understood among the masses of people.

(3) Finally, I think the war is an excellent opportunity to show it as an example of Margaret Mead’s statement to “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

The fact is, a small group of actual abolitionists were influential in moving the country toward becoming a free nation. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments would not exist except for the Radical Republicans who had first pushed for abolition, and then, for constitutional protections for freedmen.

Meanwhile, the support of negroes was vital to the Union.

Although emancipation was not an inevitable consequence of the Union’s efforts to end secession; I don’t think it’s fair to say that emancipation was totally contingent on the war. Certainly, the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments were not contingent on the war. Abolitionists were disproportionately responsible for bringing the slavery issue to a head, and for crafting the legal and constitutional changes which would be the basis for today’s race relations (much improved since the time of the Civil War Centennial).

I don’t know if that attention would amount to glorification, but I think it’s vital to our understanding of the war and its aftermath.

I think the problem is in discussing the Civil War as a war to end slavery. That was what in became, in tandem with the preservation of the Union (and if there is one thing that is truly not conveyed well to modern students is how sacred the Union was to many). As Dr. James Robertson and others have said, secession caused the war and the desire of the rebel states to PROTECT and PRESERVE slavery produced secession. Secession began 2 1/2 months BEFORE Lincoln took the oath of office. While Buchanan actually ended up not giving into the secessionists like many feared on such issues as recognition and evacuating Ft. Sumter, no one but no one believed that, except for the ill-fated Star of the West expedition to relieve Ft. Sumter, he was going to do anything aggressive towards secessionists. Even Lincoln was president for nearly a month and a half before he issued the first call to the states for troops pursuant to the Militia Act of 1795 and ONLY after the Confederates fired upon Ft. Sumter and the surrender of the fort’s garrison.

I have to disagree with you. If secession and the war had not occurred, representatives and senators from what became the rebel states would have been in a position to block legislation affecting slavery just as they’d blocked legislaton much desired by the Free Soilers like the Homestead Act prior to the war. The 13th had failed to clear the Senate in the Spring of 1864 and Lincoln took advantage of the fact that many Democrats were individual lame ducks )because of Republican gains in the 1864 Congressional elections) in the lame duck session of Congress that begain in December 1864 to get the 13th passed with more bipartisan support (the lame duck democrats had nothing to lose). Both the 14th and the 15th amendments had everything to do with the Civil War. The 14th provided additional protection for individuals against state government excesses, it reversed Dred Scott and made all blacks born in the US citizens, and it provided for restrictions on former Confederates reentering public life and how that could be lifted, and it dealt with the war debt of both sides. The 15th protected male suffrage regardless of race. Ratification of these amendments were required in order for former rebel states to regain full political participation in the federal government.

Of course blacks, abolitionists of all races, and the Radical Republicans led the charge but, on their own, they couldn’t have produced the votes to close the deal. A complex series of events including the Civil War, the excesses of former Confederates under Andrew Johnson’s presidential reconstruction sealed the deal.

The late, great U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brennan is said to have asked his new clerks every year, “What is the first principle of Constitutional law.” They’d wrack their brains coming up with things they’d learned in Constitutional Law in law school. He’d let them spin their wheels and then tell them, “The first principle of Constitutional law is that it takes 5 votes to get anything done around here.”

“Even Lincoln was president for nearly a month and a half before he issued the first call to the states for troops pursuant to the Militia Act of 1795 and ONLY after the Confederates fired upon Ft. Sumter and the surrender of the fort’s garrison.”

It was actually less than a month, when Lincoln planned to resupply Ft Sumter again – this time with a full military flotilla. You should read the dispatches and letters between Lincoln and Gustavus Fox. Lincoln gave much credit to Fox for getting the South Carolinians to fire first and excuse to invade. As for the Militia Act of 1795, I cannot see where Lincoln had any Constitutional authority to call for 1 militiaman, much less 75,000. I agree with Union state of Virginia Gov Letcher that move was unconstitutional . http://www.constitution.org/mil/mil_act_1792.htm

“If secession and the war had not occurred, representatives and senators from what became the rebel states would have been in a position to block legislation affecting slavery”

The Corwin Amendment began under Pres Buchanan. Had secession not occured, (excepting SC) this most likely would be the law of the land today

As to the question at hand, I, as one of those “confederate sympathisers who is a confederate apologist who is a neo confederate with neo confederate sympathising apologies” simply pay homage and honor to my confederate ancestors, as I do for my 3 war Veteran Dad. I do not think about the politics of the day, just that they gave all as any soldier should, under the most horrific conditions ever experinced, and served thier country when it called

. Do we really want to go down this road? Do soldiers of any recent time period state they fought for the institution of abortion? I suppose those who honor Buffalo Soldiers as in reenacting bury thier ancestors genocide of Indians guilt by claiming things like being 1st African Americans such and such, and those Veterans of Desert Shield / Storm hide thier complicity of killing for oil by telling themselves it was to “Free Kuwait” and certainly WW2 Pacific Theatre Air Force Vets had no problem convincing themselves wiping out thousands of innocent women and children with nukes to save American lives.

Which leads me to ask a question of my own – With Lincoln’s full approval of Sherman and Grant’s “Total War” , which started America on such a path, cannot the case be made Lincoln was in fact the beginning of a military policy that ended up at Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Margaret, looking at your post, I don’t see much that I disagree with.

I suspect – guess – that you may be referring to this comment: Although emancipation was not an inevitable consequence of the Union’s efforts to end secession; I don’t think it’s fair to say that emancipation was totally contingent on the war. Certainly, the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments were not contingent on the war. Abolitionists were disproportionately responsible for bringing the slavery issue to a head, and for crafting the legal and constitutional changes which would be the basis for today’s race relations (much improved since the time of the Civil War Centennial).

I do think that’s correct. I think that also, you are absolutely correct that the war created the conditions under which all those amendments were able to be passed. I didn’t mean to imply that the war effort – which was a collective effort of millions of Americans – was not responsible for making it possible for those constitutional changes to take place.

The thing is, though,somebody had to propose those Amendments, and there was some controversy to all of them. The thing I’m stressing, is that the abolitionists and the Radicals were the ones who were pushing for these changes to be made. I don’t believe the masses of people had the conception of a post-war society where the freemen had the rights and citizenship privileges that the Reconstruction amendments afforded. In fact, I think the failure of Reconstruction reflects, in part, that those Amendments made changes that the majority of Americans were not committed to, or at least, Americans were not willing to make the long-term commitment in federal resources that were needed to ensure the intent of the amendments was fully realized.

Basically then, I feel the abolitionists and Radicals pushed the envelope, so to speak, concerning a particular vision of a post-slavery society; a vision that I don’t think all Americans shared. This vision could only have been implemented with the successful efforts of the Union forces, and, the political support of a willing Congress (and sometimes, recalcitrant Southern politicians.) A lot of people get credit, but if the abolitionists and radicals hadn’t pushed the envelope, I don’t know where we’d be today.

Well said. People are individuals with individual needs, values, and beliefs. They are not a group. A group is a separate entity with its own needs, values, and beliefs.

If we accept that the Civil War had a clear right side and a wrong side, then people who identify themselves as Southerners with a connection with the past(heritage) have to come with terms with their ancestors being on the wrong side.

People who identify themselves with the North, have the deliciously easy task of identifying their section, state, ancestors, as being on the right side of history.

It’s not fair. I mean what have I ever done in my entire life that would entitle me to lecture anyone on anything? Doesn’t stop me, through.

You said: “People who identify themselves with the North, have the deliciously easy task of identifying their section, state, ancestors, as being on the right side of history.”

Yes, until they delve into race relations in the North at the turn of the twentieth century and beyond. Thomas J. Sugrue’s book, _Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North_ was a revelation and I highly recommend it.

I think this gets at much of the issue of how the war is framed- how much of the general public goes and searches for works or books like that? So many Americans hear what we hear in school, whether it’s one sided or not, and we go with it. I had a friend from California visit me in SC a year ago and the first thing out of his mouth after “hello” was, “So this is where so many slaves were years ago.” I was pretty shocked that this view of the South was so forceful in his mind that he felt compelled to make such a statement, even though he is far from interested in American history like we are. I grew up in Illinois myself, the Land of Lincoln, and it occurred to me that the only reason I no longer see it my friend’s way is that I have decided to learn about it as a personal interest and read books like the one you mention. If I hadn’t, then I would still see it his way, since that’s what I was also taught in school. Unless there is a massive shift in the way we teach things like this, then I must agree that it’s easy for the victors of any conflict to take the high ground and run with it. What I think is a bit refreshing is to read the comments here and see so many more complex views having been taught than what I experienced myself.

In my experience with other, more, ahem, freewheeling, forums, people identifying themselves as Southern fall into three categories.

1. They have come to terms with slavery.

2. They emphasis the reconciliation themes of mutual respect(Chamberlain’s troops salute Gordon’s surrendering men), and the valor and endurance of the Confederate soldier.

3. They have a cobbled together a libertarian narrative of black confederates, northern economic conspirators, and nazi Lincoln

NOrtherners have the comfortable task of extolling their role in history. But they don’t, as a rule. The Civil War doesn’t hold the same cultural place, or space in the white North as the white South. But if you going to celebrate the victory of the forces of liberty and freedom over the minions of tyranny, you have to leave a lot of stuff out, and leads to some apologists for some Union actions.

Again, I’m not considering this, like an historian, but from the viewpoint of a citizen attending a reenactment of a slave auction, reading a website on the net, or glancing over a story in the media about some spat on the Confederate flag, or watching a parade, or visiting a national battlefield park(why did all those battles take place in national parks?).

By the way, I think Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural was a cold slap at his own voters. Let me rewrite it for you:

“Our armies are moving from victory to victory. Every other politician in the history of the world would dwell on this. Not me.

The war was caused by slavery. We all know that. American slavery. That’s right. We all either practiced it, profited from it, or at least tolerated it. We rode that mule as far as we could, until we couldn’t ride it no more. We got backed into a war, we didn’t envision would be so long and so bloody. All that blood was a blood debt. We paid, for all the wealth slavery created, and for all the compromises we made along the way that allowed slavery to flourish.

So think about the dead, the widows, and crippled and the orphans. I’ll save that “Mission Accomplished” shit for a more callow and juvenile age.”

I’ve always been interested in the American Civil War since I first saw The Red Badge of Courage, and I’ve always regarded the Union as the right side, to the point of identifying with the cause. I’m not American, so this is an interesting question for me. I’ve tried to think of some reasons:
(1) The overwhelming importance of WWII in European history, with the absolute moral superiority of the Allies to the Axis perhaps predisposes British people to see a great war as morally significant. No one thinks that about WWI, tho.
(2) I am inclined to see history as progress, so predisposed to accept that the Union victory “helped the world along”.
(3) British racists and reactionaries tend to be pro-Confederate.

I don’t understand why White Southerners need to defend their ancestors. I wouldn’t care if my great-great-grandfather was Jack the Ripper. Also, some of them must be mistaken in assuming their ancestors were confederates and not Southern Unionists.

I understand that the South seceded not just to preserve slavery, but to be able to extend it to the unsettled land to the west of the southern states.

A question about Jewish attitudes. If it’s true that Jews have been not without influence in Hollywood, why have films until recently been generally pro-Confederate? Did they all take their cue from Birth of a Nation? I don’t just mean GWTW, but it’s noticeable in very many westerns.


Slavery as it was wasn’t in need of ‘preserving’ where it was. Lincoln himself stated as much. It was allowing the territories to decide for themselves free or not. In some wierd warped irony, Nevada TERRITORY wasn’t allowed to consider the slavery issue, so when they became a STATE, they agreed to accept prostitution.

As much as the Republicans and Lincoln in particular tried to assure Southerners that he would not interfere with slavery where it was, Southern slaveholders weren’t buyin’ it. Calhoun had been telling them for years that if they couldn’t take their slaves anywhere they wanted then they were being insulted. And they believed that if slavery were contained it would die out. Sometimes, perception is as important as reality.

“Also, some of them must be mistaken in assuming their ancestors were confederates and not Southern Unionists.”

This is probably the case for very many people. Secessionists probably managed to get just enough folks on their side. In Tennessee they never managed to get a majority. The fact that someone served in the Confederate Army does not mean they were not a unionist. Vocal unionists in Confederate units are mentioned in a few memoirs about the war experience. The war-time governor of North Carolina served briefly as a Colonel of a Confederate Army regiment, but he was strongly Anti-Confederate, or at least Anti-Davis. There was also a large contingent of people who were for secession, but adamantly opposed to joining the Confederacy.

By Southern Unionists I meant men who served in Union regiments of Southern States. I believe Gov. Vance of NC (along with Gov Brown of Georgia) invented the doctrine that States’ Rights was part of the Southern cause to justify defying Davis.

Yes, there were many all white Union regiments from Confederate states. I believe that Tennessee had the most. There were also staunch Unionists who served at least briefly in Confederate units.

Late to the discussion because I was traveling, but I think the slave auction — no matter what anachronisms — can teach us a lot about the pain of slavery and the experience as a national one, from St. Louis to Charleston, from Boston to California, in different times and manners.

Adam Arenson
The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War
See reviews, book events, and more at http://adamarenson.com

Thanks for the thoughtful response to my question, Kevin. While composing it, the essay that I had in the back of my mind was Edward Ayers’s “Worrying about the Civil War.” I also wanted to pose the question because I think it is usually easier to impute self-interested or ideological motives to people whose narratives of the past we know to be deeply flawed; it’s harder to unpack our motives for holding our own views about the past, especially since it is easy–and certainly not wholly inaccurate–to appeal to our commitment to evidence as the only motive in play.

What I didn’t mean to do, by posing the question, was to imply that there is one answer. Like you, I’d resist totalizing generalizations in either direction. I think your post and the ensuing comments offer much food for thought. I also think you are absolutely right that the question of what actually did cause the Civil War and the question of what people want or need to believe about the causes of the war are separable questions–however slippery and overlapping the edges of those questions may be. That means we can’t resolve historical questions simply by asserting that we know the real reasons why our interlocutors hold the opinions they do. That assertion is a kind of simplistic Bulverism that unfortunately sometimes pops up in discussions about the Civil War.

Hi Caleb,

Nice to hear from you. I purchased that collection of essays over the summer and specifically for the Ayers piece. Unfortunately, I sort of forgot about it until I read your comment. Thanks for reminding me that I need to get to it. I do hope that your site wasn’t bombarded by some of my “friends” who love to share their passion for the black Confederate narrative.

As to your question I am still struggling to come to terms with it. And I agree that this question does not admit of one or a simple answer. It was interesting to watch readers immediately move to one position or another, which suggests that we have a deep need to justify or explain our own emotional/psychological needs in connection with the past. Best of luck with the class.

That’s an interesting question, and a difficult one for someone professionally trained in history to grapple with. I don’t often engage history from that kind of emotional standpoint. I’ll say this, though. I’m not much of a nationalist, though I’m thankful on many levels to have been born and bred Amerrikin. I’ve never been satisfied by “the Union” as a rationale for the war. If, say, Vermont or South Carolina decided today that it no longer wanted to be part of the U.S. and a few other states followed, I can’t say that I’d be all that exercised about it (other than a general sense that the residents had lost their heads). Certainly, I can’t say I’d be all that supportive of violent efforts to ensure their remaining in the union. Unless, of course, there was some moral corruption at the root of the proposed secession. To bring the point home (finally, you say), making the war about slavery, and not the tariff or some other nonsense cause, brings in this moral dimension. Otherwise, I have trouble seeing the point of all that bloodshed.

Does the national memory also remember that at the time of the Civil War the United States was the world’s only democracy? I believe Lincoln said a few words on the subject.

Hello Kevin: I am not so sure inserting the comment about your Jewish upbringing is relevant. alan levin

What a pleasant surprise. I believe it is very relevant because I vividly remember many discussions about the importance of not forgetting. I suspect that this early exposure to the moral issues surrounding our need to remember the past came to shape my interest in history.

You are right son………..I wanted to respond with something so as to sound intelligent. What are your reader’s feelings about the Huck Finn controversy……start that issue up

It’s enough that my own father finally managed to figure out how to leave a blog comment. I couldn’t be prouder. :) Perhaps I will take up the Huck Finn controversy in a future post.

lol….This is beautiful….Have a good day, Kevin…Nice to “meet” your father…He sounds more than intelligent enough for some discussions that take place here and elsewhere (my own comments not only included, but foremost)

The students at Rice are absolutely brilliant. I enjoyed reading what they had to say about what we, your readers, said. A nice inter-generational exercise.

Huck Finn is one of many great books written by one of the greatest writers of this continent. It accurately portrays many aspects of life along the Mississippi in Northern Missouri.

Join the Conversation