A War of Liberation and Empire

One of my favorite books of 2013 was Ari Kelman’s A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek. Kelman’s analysis of the history and memory of the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864 serves to remind us that the western boundary of the Civil War took place far west of the Mississippi River. For me, the book’s importance comes down to how it challenges a relatively recent and popular memory that places liberation at the center of the narrative. But what happens when we frame the war years around the federal government’s policies on the frontier before during and after the war? 

Here is a short excerpt from Ari Kelman’s essay at Common-place, which I highly recommend.

Popular culture, much more even than scholarship, now typically frames the Civil War exclusively as a war of liberation. The recent film Lincoln, for example, might best be understood as answering a question Stephen Spielberg posed at the end of another of his war epics, Saving Private Ryan. Painting the earlier film’s final scene against a perfect commemorative canvas, the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, Spielberg places an aging James Ryan amidst a forest of gleaming white crosses. After kneeling before the gravesite of the man who saved his life during the war, Ryan, a synecdoche for citizen soldiers, asks his wife if he has led a good life and if he is a good man. She replies that he has and that he is. With that, Spielberg, as close to a national narrator as the United States has, reassures moviegoers that World War II was a good war. The music rises, Ryan salutes his fallen comrade, the scene fades to a backlit American flag stiff in the breeze, and then to black.

Lincoln recapitulates the same queries and repurposes similar tropes. Forgetting that the war exploded not just out of the sectional conflict over slavery, but also out of the fight between the North and the South to control a growing Anglo-American empire in the West, Spielberg ignores that region and also the war itself, confining himself to a detailed recounting of the Thirteenth Amendment’s passage. In doing so, he suggests that President Lincoln died so that the United States might live and that the nation, because it destroyed the institution of slavery during the war, redeemed itself in blood. Lincoln provides an object lesson in catharsis through suffering, as Spielberg transfigures tragedy, the death of more than 600,000 soldiers, into triumph, and violence into virtue. Was the Civil War a good war? Has the United States lived a good life in the years since? Yes and yes, the filmmaker reassures his vast audience. And so, by viewing the war through a narrow lens and a crimped regional perspective, Spielberg shades collective memory into teleology. With Lincoln, he reads the past backward, obscuring as much as he reveals.

But no matter how it is portrayed in cinema, cast in monographs, or understood in the popular consciousness, the Civil War was rooted, from its beginning to its end, in the far West. Long after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, long after President Lincoln’s assassination, long after the Thirteenth Amendment’s ratification, the nation continued to focus on how best to settle the land beyond the 100th meridian, on how best to secure an empire that stretched from the Atlantic coast to the shores of the Pacific and beyond. And even after the war boasted a moment of redemption, a day of jubilee, for many Americans, it also featured episodes of terrible subjugation, days of dispossession, for others. Which is to say, even after the Civil War evolved into a war of liberation, it remained one of empire. For people who hope to understand this disjuncture, the experiences of Native Americans during the war, including at Sand Creek in 1864, may help.

Click here for the rest of the essay.

6 comments… add one

  • Patrick Young Feb 12, 2014

    This is certainly an aspect of current understanding of the war as “liberation” that I have found troubling. The war and immediate post-war period had impacts on Native Americans. A generation later, the consolidated United States would play a largely negative role in Latin America beginning during the administration of the last “Civil War” president, William McKinley. The rise of American nationalism and imperialism were fostered by the war.

    • M.D. Blough Feb 12, 2014

      Patrick-I’m not sure that I buy that. Manifest Destiny was well in place as a doctrine before the Civil War. The Mexican War was blatantly imperialistic and the settlement of the war a successful shakedown of Mexico. We came perilously close to another war with the UK over the location of the US-Canadian border. Plus there was the support of filibustering expeditions to Cuba and Nicaragua. Both sides had designs on the western territories during the Civil War. Maybe the increase in military size helped in the post-war western expansion but the elements were already there.

      • freedmenspatrol Feb 12, 2014

        Maybe it’s just that I’ve been a bit obsessed with the topic lately, but I’m half-convinced that if not for the Kansas-Nebraska debates blowing up at the same time the Pierce administration would have at very least given official sanction to a filibustering expedition against Cuba and might have gone the whole way to war in the spring of 1854. It was the kind of thing he saw himself as elected to do, if his inaugural is any indication.

      • Patrick Young Feb 12, 2014

        Prior to the Civil War there had been substantial sectional resistance to certain forms of expansionism. That dissipated after the war.

        The war also produced a generation of men used to killing in massive numbers to achieve political ends. The moral restraints on the use of force gave way to the notion of killing as an expression of individual and national virility given voice in the younger generation by Teddy Roosevelt.

  • London John Feb 12, 2014

    May I make 4 points:
    (1)I think it’s a bit unfair to blame Spielberg for sticking to his subject in Lincoln. He’d already made the TV series Into the West, which dealt largely with the treatment of the Indians, including the Sand Creek massacre. Personally I think it would have been even better with an episode about the Army of the Frontier in the Civil War, but you can’t have everything.
    (2)If I’ve understood Macpherson correctly, he says the issue leading to the CW was whether the western lands to be taken from the indigenous people were to be settled by free settlers or with slave plantations.
    (3)But I think the essential point is to recognise that in history a person, a movement or even a nation may be a hero in one context and a villain in another. Even Colonel Chivington of the Sand Creek Massacre was apparently a brave and outspoken abolitionist before the war, and fought at Gloriete Pass. There are many examples outside the ACW.
    (4)I wonder if the Civil War contributed to the enthusiasm of the US officer corps for the Indian wars. Perhaps veterans wanted to recapture the glory (and brevet ranks) the had achieved, while younger officers wanted to make up for having missed the real war. There were no significant Indian wars in Canada (apart from the Metis Rebellion), but most of the land ended up in the hands of White settlers just the same.

  • Brendan Bossard Feb 12, 2014

    I’m with London John regarding the critique of “Lincoln.” The Western wars had nothing to do with its subject.

    As for the wars against the Indians, and war in general: war brutalizes people. Indians were not innocent. They were as prone to massacre as their opponents. In WWII, the war in Western Europe and the Mediterranean was much different than in the Pacific. There was a chance for mercy against the Germans. Against the Japanese? Forget it! But even in the age of modern warfare, guerrilla wars typically are much more brutal than conventional wars when measured according to the numbers of antagonists involved. The wars against the Indians were guerrilla wars.

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