Warped Civil War Memory

I came across this editorial during my daily perusal of some of my favorite blogs. It’s from the North South Traders’ Civil War magazine. I don’t know much about the editorial staff, but this brief essay is truly bizarre.

When I was a youngster during the Centennial, much of Kantor’s vision eluded me, but given the sense of nationalism that pervaded in the Centennial era, I recall being somewhat conflicted about his conclusion about a peaceful postwar disunion.  I just couldn’t imagine the North and the South being two separate nations. As one nation, we had saved the world—twice.  We were united by a new highway system that made nationwide travel accessible and appealing.  Television was making us all laugh and cry and applaud the same things from Maine to southern California.  We were about to conquer space.  America ruled the universe and everyone knew it.

Fifty years later I find myself utterly amazed that the cohesiveness and national pride of that era is gone.  A half century of assaults, both within and without, by those seeking a bigger slice of the pie for themselves or someone they believed deserved it has brought us to our knees.

Unlike the schism of 1860, today’s isn’t a geographic separation but wholly ideological ones.  America today seems as divided as it was in 1860—or worse.  At least in 1860, Americans were united by a common sense of national pride, an adherence to traditional values, and a common moral compass.   We were separated primarily by politics and the economies of different geographic areas. Today, it seems we have less in common than we did 150 years ago.  Sure, we’re still separated by politics and economics, but were are also splintered into scores of factions of self-descriptions and self-interest: poor, rich, young, old, gay, straight, pretty, ugly, smart, stupid, fat, anorexic, believers in God, athiests, and those who simply hate everyone.

I guess it’s understandable in this time of apparent political and cultural division to imagine a time in the recent and/or distant past that was defined by a consensus of shared values. Unfortunately, that time never existed. Are we really any more divided today than in the 1790s or 1850s?

What I find truly bizarre, however, is the assertion that we may be more divided as a nation today than in the 1860. The divide in 1860 led to a bloody civil war that left much of this country devastated. This writer seems completely oblivious to the fact that the political and economic differences rested on a regional divide between slaveholding and non-slaveholding.

Do we “have less in common than we did 150 years ago”? How’s this for starters. Americans today no longer believe that other people ought to be treated as property. That’s something we now have in common that Americans in 1860 did not.

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This really sounds a lot like generic old-fart grousing, about how much better things were back in the old days, projected onto a CW sesquicentennial frame.

Yep.

While this is an interesting observation, I also find it alarming that this author is so distressed over the diversity of our nation and treats it as a negative thing. From a political standpoint, factions and divided interests do indeed make it more difficult to accomplish much in a timely manner, but when did we stop priding ourselves on being the melting pot nation that accepted everybody? The thing is, considering the origin of America as it is today, we don’t have much of a united background and we can never expect to.
This piece almost feels to me like it was written decades ago. And I’m pretty sure “poor, rich, young, old, gay, straight, pretty, ugly, smart, stupid, fat, anorexic, believers in God, athiests, and those who simply hate everyone” aren’t new to the twenty-first century.

The concept of “the melting pot” that served this nation well for a long time was, sadly, first dismissed by many toward the end of the last century. From their perspective, even though all manner of ethnicity, culture, values, etc. went into the pot, what came out the other end was now viewed as little more than “white mainstream” culture. As one online article notes, this was deemed threatening in that ethnic groups might be unable to preserve their cultures due to the heretofore expected assimilation. At one time, becoming an “American” through such assimilation was viewed as the ideal but no longer. Thus, the “melting pot” concept was replaced by the “salad bowl” metaphor, where all items going in retain their distinctness, with the end creation supposedly being greater than the sum of its parts. Rightly or wrongly, the belief by many that our country now lacks an overarching, unifying culture is what many find disturbing.

Oh, things were just glorious during the Centenial years of 1961-1965….so long as you were a white male.

Funny how that perspective is totally lost.

And to look back to 1950s & 1960s as a Golden Age is to totally have your head in the sand.

And our divisions today are the bitter remainders trying to hold on to those imagined great times.

America as a society has continued to adapt and grow as we have matured. Here’s hoping that continues.

18-year-old white males in 1964 – 1971 were sent to Vietnam. It was not so great. When they came back citizens called them baby-killers and spat on them. Meanwhile 18-year-old while females during the era avoided all that and gained sympathy from everyone by burning bras and portraying themselves as victims.

Billy Ross, just a few points:
1. Black, Latino, Asian American and Native American males were also sent to Vietnam.
2. The notion that any large number of returning Vietnam Vets were spat upon has been largely debunked:
http://www.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2005/04/30/debunking_a_spitting_image/
3. Feminists did not burn bras as a standard form of protest. That depiction of “bra burning” was invented by the New York Post in 1968. Women in the early 1960s were barred de facto or de jure from many universities, jobs, and honors. Women who were raped or otherwise sexually abused found their complaints ignored by the police. You may not consider them “victims” of discrimination, but even as a ten year old, I knew this was wrong.
4. I you were alive in 1964 and black, you would not have been allowed to buy a home in most neighborhoods in my native Long Island. You would have been stopped by the police if you walked through a white neighborhood and asked why you didn’t stay in the few blocks of town reserved for blacks.
5. Existence is never easy for anyone. A White homeless man was certainly no better off than a black man with a job in 1964. However, overall, the structures of society severely retarded the participation of women and non-whites participating in the civic and economic life of this country at that time.

I agree the article is foolish. I do see some parallels between the divisions in 1860 and the divisions today, but I’d say today is an echo, rather than a repeat.

While I do think the editorial suffered from a bit of hyperbole and certainly from selective memory, I wouldn’t categorize it as “bizarre” by any means.

In 1960, we were not by any stretch of the imagination so politically divided as we are now. When Nixon conceded the election to JFK, there was no “we are going to spend the next four years obstructing everything he does,” (I’m paraphrasing); there was no torrent of lies and obstruction poisoning the political climate. Back then, whichever side won an elections, the LOYAL opposition would accept the results. There was no talk of nullification, secession or rebellion–as there is now. There was no holding the entire government hostage and threatening default just because you didn’t get your way legislatively.

Granted, in 1960 we were at the edge of the turbulent 1960′s, and the Civil Rights struggles were just around the corner; but that was in the future. But in 1960 the United States was one nation; extreme political factions were on the lunatic fringe and not considered part of the mainstream. It was by no means “the good old days” and certainly there was a lot simmering below the surface in 1960, but overall the country was not divided into ideological compartments that we see now.

Abraham Lincoln did not run, and was not elected, on the promise of abolishing slavery. He merely wished to restrict its future expansion. Abolitionists, although vocal and at times fanatical, were a small minority. Lincoln would never have gotten most northerners to suppress the rebellion if he had gone to war to abolish slavery; rather it was the issue of preserving of the Union that allowed Lincoln to unify the north behind him.

The South was in the thrall of a small but powerful group of fanatics, true, who managed to succeed in dragging the majority of the South into seceding. How many in the South truly wanted to go to war, however, is I think still a subject that needs further investigation. I keep coming across evidence that there were strong pockets of Unionism in many parts of the South. Some slave owners rightly foresaw that war would inevitably lead to the abolition of slavery and resisted it, if briefly. The road to secession was long and complex series of events; the election of 1860 was the end of that process.

The analogy between 1860 and 2013 is indeed imperfect, but the extremism which the editor of North South Trader sees in our current political climate has not been so severe at any time since 1860, and in that regard I think he is on target. Don’t underestimate the power of a well organized well funded fanatical faction to wreck political chaos. It happened in 1860; it may happen again.

Really, the political climate has not been so severe at any time since 1860? Is it even that severe today? I mean, look, in the 1960s some people were killed because of their politics. Where are their like minded killings today in the United States? And that’s far from being the only political violence between the Civil War and racial integration.

I agree with what Kevin is saying on this.

“Granted, in 1960 we were at the edge of the turbulent 1960′s, and the Civil Rights struggles were just around the corner; but that was in the future. But in 1960 the United States was one nation;
extreme political factions were on
the lunatic fringe and not
considered part of overall the
country was not divided into
ideological compartments that we
see now.”

The struggle over Civil Rights was several years old by 1960–it was not an issue for the future. To characterize the politics of yesteryear as blissfully free of bitter bipartisanship is to ignore McCarthyism or the battle over segregation, to cite two obvious examples.

People seem determined to pine for the good old days despite all of the evidence to the contrary.

Some years ago during one of the national eletions,my teen age son asked me ” has the nation ever been so divided” I replied “yes,during our Civil War”.The reality doesn’t matter,it’s the perception.

That Kantor thought the USA and CSA could live in peace is the incredible part. There was still too much of the continent left to carve up and spheres of influence to capture. Would the South bear their slaves escaping North (or other parts) without prattling on about their (property) rights? The possibilities for future conflict were innumerable.

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