“Thank God the North Won”


There is an interesting moment in this talk by Peter Carmichael where he fields a question by a woman, who is apparently concerned that he is being overly critical of the South and the Confederacy.  Unfortunately, it’s difficult to hear the question.  I know a little something about being accused of holding the Confederacy and all things Southern in contempt.  It’s a strange accusation that I will never truly understand.

Anyway, take a listen at 47:30 into the video.  I couldn’t agree more with Pete that it is a mistake to turn the Civil War into a “morality play of saints v. sinners.”  At the same time I also agree that there is nothing necessarily problematic with shouting  at the top of your lungs, “Thank God the North Won.”  I am a fairly well read student of the American Civil War and I have a pretty good grasp of the factors that explained emancipation and Northern victory.  I don’t believe that Lincoln and the North embodied all things good while Davis and the Confederacy were the embodiment of evil.  History is so much more interesting and has a great deal more to teach than the vaguest of generalizations.  I feel bad for folks who get overly emotional about this past, in large part because they almost always show so little understanding of it.

Of course, I am not disinterested when it comes to this moment in our history.  How could anybody be given the issues at stake.  At the same time I don’t believe that such a connection necessarily renders all claims subjective.  There is such a thing as historical knowledge.  I can say that with a straight face even as I exclaim that I am thankful that the United States won the Civil War.  I say it as a someone who is proud to be an American and as someone who abhors slavery.  Isn’t it strange that such a statement needs to be explained at all?

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8 comments… add one

  • Rob Baker Jul 26, 2011

    Excellent comments. I could not agree nor could I add to what you stated. Thumbs up from this Southerner.

  • Al Mackey Jul 26, 2011

    I was standing behind her and was the next questioner. When Pete said, “Thank God the North won,” she said he was “bashing the South.” To tell you the truth, I didn’t know what to make of her at first. She’s a nice lady and seemed to have come to the conference with some preconceived notions. This presentation was the first night of the conference. My impression was that she had altered her viewpoint a bit by the end, realizing that she had a lot to learn.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 26, 2011

      I hear that follow up question and it looked like Will Greene was going to blow a gasket. :-) Glad to hear that she cooled down by the end of the conference. With such an incredible line up of historians it’s unfortunate that she would bring such a narrow and overly simplistic view of the past with her. I guess this is how many people are taught to think about history.

      • Peter Carmichael Jul 26, 2011

        The individual who raised the question lives in New York City but apparently spent some time in the South as a youth. Her inquiry threw me off a little, as I thought she was advancing a Lost Cause agenda at first. But I think she perceived that I was advancing a celebratory narrative of the North, one that failed to account for its many contradictions and failings. So I agree with you Kevin that is seems more than strange why we have such a hard time stating that the right side won the war without people going into a frenzy—although this particular person was very calm in her observations. I was struck by how many people came up to me and said I can’t believe an African American woman would make such a comment. Interesting how we expect blacks to conform to a racial party line when it comes to the Civil War. I was also struck by the reaction of those who said I was being political correct for emphasizing the political action of slaves. A few especially didn’t like my observation that Americans are reluctant to preserve historical landscapes associated with political radicalism—whether it is Blair Mt. in West Virginia or Nat Turner’s Rebellion. We still lack a nationally established site that interprets Reconstruction. Cathy Stanton’s great book on Lowell National Park brilliantly explores how park historians and visitors skirt hard questions about global capitalism and the radicalization of working people. I highly recommend her work and I hope to get her to the CWI in 2013.

        • Al Mackey Jul 26, 2011

          Pete, I thought your comments about visiting sites where radical action was taken was very thought-provoking. It’s something I hadn’t considered before as a goal, though I have been to Harpers Ferry. I took Alice at her word that she had heard some things on TV about the Civil War that surprised her and she wanted to learn more, and by the end of the conference had learned more. I think she was proud of her Southern roots, but like many she conflated the Confederacy with the South.

          • Ken Noe Jul 27, 2011

            Better get to Blair Mountain while you can, fellow Hokie. It’s slated to be strip mined, thanks to coal operators working with active and frankly shameful support from West Virginia, the National Park Service, and the Obama Interior Department. The latest: http://tinyurl.com/3gjotoz

        • Kevin Levin Jul 27, 2011

          I did not notice that the woman was black. I’ve made your point about the difficulty we face when confronting political radicalism numerous times on this blog, but your point also suggests that what many people desire in a “usable past” is one that steers clear of controversy and conforms to more emotional needs.

        • Marianne Davis Jul 27, 2011

          Peter,
          I’m so glad Kevin posted this talk, thanks to both of you. Conflation of the South and the Confederacy are certainly common here in West Virginia. What do you think people are thinking if they object to your assertion that it is good thing the North won? Have they thought this through, would they prefer a slave-based agrarian society with poor whites in a small middle class. or are they reacting out of regionalism?
          As for radicalism, we Americans honor it only at a remove. After well over two centuries, Sam Adams, a right old thug, has his own beer. Perhaps Bill Blizzard will get an ice cream cone. Until that day, we have to remember that we are a nation born of working people, but we no longer like to think of our past in those mines and fields. We sympathize instead with the people we hope one day to be, plutocrats. If that were not true, we might have seen torches and pitchforks on Wall Street instead of complaints about regulation choking off business.

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