One of the greatest things my college education gave me was an obsession with the American Civil War. Prior to taking college-level American history (and specifically, classes focused on detangling the myths of American history at large), my knowledge and understanding of the war that shaped the country was laughable. I knew the North fought the South sort of about slavery (at the time I wasn’t sure if slavery was the real cause) and won, freeing enslaved people and solidifying the unity of all the states. Now I’m basically to the point where I’d say Civil War history should be prioritized over most other subjects within US history education. And I’ve decided that I’m not going to stop talking about the Civil War until I see another one.
The war itself was a mess. Not speaking to strategy or specific battles, but overall it was a messy ordeal. Historians talk about the war as being all-encompassing because of the massive number of casualties. Entire male populations from some areas were essentially wiped out in the war effort—on both sides. To this day, it remains the deadliest war in our history and yet, almost immediately after the fact, people started to forget why this happened.
You would think if a country paid such a hefty price for something that it would then do everything in its power to prevent such a thing from happening again. America did not.
From what I can tell, there are a few key factors people seem to misunderstand when it comes to the Civil War. They can mostly be chalked up to the education people are getting about the war, which from my point of view is at best irregular across the country, and at worst, false.
First, the war was about slavery. The Civil War was about slavery. Period. Not state’s rights. Not economic reasons. Just American slavery.
Yes, up until the war the legality of slavery was a state’s right to decide. However, as new states were being admitted into the union without the right to allow slavery, those that would become Confederate states began to secede. Why do people think the war was about anything else? I think that’s broadly the fault of education. I remember learning in middle school that the war was moreso about the economic differences between the regions, with slavery as a factor, but not really coming to the conclusion that slavery was the cause until high school and college.
And that was in New Jersey. In some places in the South, I’ve heard from peers that their textbooks referred to the Civil War as “The War of Northern Aggression” which is plainly false as the Confederacy ultimately fired the first shots. Regardless of what you’ve been taught, this debate prevails, and it undermines the rest of what is important about the war. It makes it difficult to actually grapple with the lessons we desperately needed to take away from the war.
The war was simultaneously divisive and unifying.
This is a bit of a personal thesis I’ve come to through my studies. Obviously, the war was the division of the so-called United States. And the end of the war, as many scholars acknowledge, marked the true beginning of the United States. You may have heard the adage that before the war, people referred to the states in the plural form—“The United States are…”—where after the war it was referred to in the singular—“The United States is…”
My view would say that this change was less a before and after, and more a brackish throughout. While the war drew a clear line between us and them, it also brought us all together in a gruesome fashion. Because of the sheer deadliness of the war, it’s understandable that an immense hunger for peace and reconciliation followed.
Without even thinking about the aftermath of war in today’s terms of PTSD and such, you can imagine how hollow it must have felt to live in this nation and see so much of the population wiped out in bloody battles in your own backyard. We still have buildings scarred with bullet holes from the war. Imagine living up the street from where there’s thousands of men buried in shallow graves.
Yet, this grief period should not have overshadowed the fact that we needed to make critical repairs to a broken system. Generally speaking, it’s a little weird to think we crafted this beautiful Constitution and after half the country threw it in the trash, we thought they’d take it out and respect it again with a couple of amendments. While we were unified in our grief we remained divided by our ideologies. Yes many slaveowners were no longer practicing slavery, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t wishing they could.
Surely the tension between these overwhelming feelings of unity and division was not easily navigated. So in response, the Union focused more or less on the unity, which was a critical mistake.
The value of the Union victory was more or less lost as early as the Reconstruction era.
If I had fought in the war as a Union soldier, I would have marched through the South for years afterward chastising them for their atrocities. True, probably not a better alternative, but the Union effort for Reconstruction was a joke. The technicalities were by no means had easy answers—especially when Lincoln gets taken out of the equation—but the answers the Union came up with were tragic.
Broadly speaking, the Confederacy got off easy. Yes, the crime of slavery was totally American—not limited to the South, and not the fault of one person or region. And as people of the time felt, the Civil War was a punishment that the entire nation received for that crime. But it wasn’t enough because it failed to address the crime of dehumanization which was the real crime of slavery.
The practice of slavery itself, I think is one we have not collectively been able to understand. We think about it in a kind of practical sense, understanding it was a commonly accepted practice globally since the beginning of time that we eventually ended.
But we fail to recognize what it means to keep another human as property for any purpose. We fail to recognize that the institution of slavery relies on the idea that some humans are not equal. And because in ending slavery we only did that—end slavery—we failed to teach basic humanity when it was most critical. A person can go from slaveowner to not slaveowner overnight. A person will not go from thinking an entire race is inferior, or even just different overnight—especially when they are not told to do so.
It’s because of this missing understanding that Reconstruction ultimately failed. Reconstruction focused on moving forward and rectifying the physical losses—cities, populations, economies—when it desperately needed to focus on the moral losses that allowed the war to happen—equality, compassion, humanity. Because of this oversight, the South was able to rebuild itself in its own image maintaining racial subjugation.
From this period we get a lot of the memory we have about the Civil War painted in the beautifully tragic colors. It’s the reason we have all those now-contested Confederate monuments—the South was peddling stories about sacrifice and bravery to paint the war as this great honorable fight not about anything but Americanness. A number of the ways we celebrate American patriotism today comes from the Civil War period as Southerners fought to commemorate the war not as a time when they lost, but a time when we all won.
Seeing the war as a collective movement not only undermines the whole slavery problem but also falsely characterizes the South as graceful losers. Not to say they fought tooth and nail to the end—they didn’t. Confederate soldiers were literally deserting the war long before Appomattox, and obviously, the war ended with Lee’s surrender. But beyond that, viewing the war as this disagreement that ended in agreement is false. The South, defeated, went home and started planning for how to find other ways to keep their (white) power. And the North patted themselves on the back for winning and just went home.
To unlearn these narratives, you have to understand the truth that invalidates them. Of course, that means more than just getting the facts straight—you also need to understand why the facts matter.
The mischaracterization of the cause of the war undermines the entire history of race relations in the United States. It is fair to see the Civil War as a turning point and thus to see history in two parts: pre-war and post-war. But if you take out the slavery cause you throw those parts into disarray because it leaves you asking what did the war change?
As mentioned, we collectively still struggle to understand exactly what the practice of slavery meant. I think it’s one of those things that gets taught to you almost every year (probably in February) you are in school to the point that it has lost its meaning. Maybe I’m projecting too much of my own experience, but my feelings about slavery until college were very basic—it was a bad thing that happened. What I now urge others to understand is that it was a bad system that existed and still has huge ramifications today.
It’s a common debate now as lawmakers discuss reparations to bring up the fact that slavery existed not too long ago. And while, yes that it meaningful, that fact pales in comparison to the fact that we’re still using the same ideas to create new systems that are more or less other forms of slavery.
The entire basis of slavery rests on the idea that there is a human on the planet who is unequal to any other human. And while we said in our Declaration of Independence—that foundation for the nation—that all men are equal, we still collectively refuse to believe it. And because of that, we failed to establish comprehensive civil rights immediately after the Civil War, and thus had to do it all over again a hundred years later.
When I think about the unity that was supposed to come following the Civil War, I often compare it to the Black Lives Matter movement. Almost immediately after organizers and protesters started shouting “Black Lives Matter,” people came out of the woodworks to assert that in fact, “All Lives Matter.” This did not and still does not go over well, as many of you know.
Reconstruction worked similarly in that if we pretend that the Union was in fact fighting to end slavery, they were the ones saying “Black Lives Matter.” The Confederacy started the war with “Black lives matter to my plantation,” and ended with “All Lives Matter” in the sense that they wanted everyone to forget about that little slip-up of slavery, and recognize the fact that we’re all here now and we should just move on.
They, along with the current “all lives matter” troupe would be correct if they themselves took that view from the beginning. Black Lives Matter needed to be said in 2015 and henceforth because black Americans understood that their lives were not being seen as something that mattered in the eyes of police and many other institutions. Had the colonizers, the slave owners, and everyone who continues to uphold institutions founded on inequality said all lives matter BEFORE they were putting people in cages, chains, and whipping posts, then yes it would still be fine to say all lives matter in 2019.
The fact of the matter is, some person at some point in history decided that another person was not the same as them. Thus all of civilization has been able to get away with that idea and use at their discretion. Racism, sexism, nationalism, homophobia, xenophobia, religious intolerance—every form of discrimination is based on the idea that there are two humans on the planet that are somehow unequal, and thus one of them is deserving of less.
The Civil War was an opportunity to see this problem and its effects and actually do something about it. We failed.
Shoulda Coulda Woulda
Do I think the Union could have eradicated racism in America in the aftermath of the Civil War? Not necessarily. There will always be bad apples. There will always be outliers. But it’s the cycle of “progress” that we keep repeating that makes me wish they at least gave it a shot.
I feel very helpless at working towards national moral agreement now because we’re too big. We may have been too big then, but especially now: how would you go about trying to teach every person in this country that everybody is equal? How do you unteach generations of ingrained ideology when it’s so widespread? I don’t know.
But I do know that we had a much better shot in 1865 than we do in 2019. There were around 3 generations where we could have at least tried to prevent the passing on of this disease that is inequality, but the North decided to go the amicable route and let the South continue to undermine black Americans.
We are here in Trump’s America at this time of tangible tension because we failed to nip the Confederacy in the bud. By failing to set up actual protections for formerly enslaved citizens and black citizens broadly, the South was able to continue subjugating black Americans through bureaucratic institutions which at best looked like sharecropping and at worst looked like lynch laws.
What Do I Want
I don’t want to see another literal civil war. Practically speaking, they managed to kill and wound over a million Americans with the time-intensive and shoddy weapons they had back then, it would just be total and instant obliteration with today’s cache.
In reality, though the last few years have felt eerily war-like. The phrase “in today’s political climate” instantly triggers feelings of tension, divisiveness, and disagreement for many along with feelings of fear, helplessness, and anger all similar to those of the Civil War era. If we just referenced certain events of the past few years differently you could almost imagine them sequenced in a future textbook: The Battle of Ferguson, The March on Charlottesville, The Charleston and El Paso Massacres, to name a few. We may not all be wearing matching uniforms, but there are conflicts happening all around us trying to prove a point.
My point is the arguments have all been made. Every moment that we spend still debating the significance of the Civil War is another moment that proves we have not learned from it at all. We assert broadly that history repeats itself but we ignore the caveat that this only happens if we fail to learn from it. The first step is getting on the same page about what that history actually is and what it means.