Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Civil War: Sanctity or Shame?

In Sunday June 30, 2013 Points section of the Dallas Morning News, Civil War historian and author Tony Horwitz. asks "if this bloody conflict was necessary." Horwitz questions whether we should "consecrate a war that killed and maimed more than one million Americans" or should we condemn the war as unjustified by its "appalling costs." Please see Mr. Horwitz's article in the Atlantic titled 150 Years of Misunderstanding the Civil War.

Two points that are often ignored in analyses such as Horwitz's are the prevailing public attitude about the war and the real causes of the conflict.  At the onset of the war, both the Union and Confederate governments and civilians thought that it would be over in three months.  Volunteers flocked to the armies on both sides to get into the action before their friends had dispatched of the enemy.  The public on both sides were convinced that their men were the superior of the enemy and that, as in all wars, God was on their side.  It only took one battle to convince both sides that this conflict would be a brutal, deadly affair. 

The causes of the war are complex but none of them have anything to do with achieving equality of the races.  The South wanted to protect its economic institution that abolition would destroy.  The men who began the war were landowners whose wealth was tied up in agriculture revenue and the value of the slaves who monetized that land.  Perhaps no comment epitomizes this more than "It's a rich man's war and a poor man's fight." 


Freedmen Voting in New
Orleans in 1867
The war certainly achieved mixed results. The North may have won the war, but the South certainly won the peace.  Emancipation did not produce equality, but rather a new set of private and government restrictions that continued de-facto slavery.  Horwitz cites the writing of Dave Goldfield who said "that white supremacy was so entrenched, North and South, that war and Reconstruction could never deliver true racial justice to freed slaves, who soon became subject to economic peonage, Black Codes, Jim Crow, and rampant lynching."

Horwitz then detours his commentary into a discussion of how close the South came to winning the war.  These discussions may serve as wonderful subjects for Civil War Roundtables and forums, but fail to address the primary question of justifying the war.  Numerous battles could have gone the other way, if only this or that did not happen. 

Dead at Gettysburg
The enormity of the death toll, recently revised to 750,000 by J. David Hacker, could not have been imagined by either side after the surrender of Fort Sumter.  Saying that emancipation justified the bloodshed is wrong because other means soon replaced slavery.  Of course, slavery still exists today around the world and even in the United States where a  several outlets in national franchise were found to have enslaved its "employees."  The persistence of slavery as an institution indicates that it would not have faded away in the future.

The real importance and justification of the Civil War is that our country cannot be dismantled by factions that do not like the election of a president or the passage of laws they oppose.  There are policies and procedures that allow changes in elected officials and enaction of new laws. The war was also fought to allow the peaceful expression different opinions on how the country should be run.

Perhaps a bigger question is why we celebrate this national genocide of our young men.  Civil War activities are bigger than those for the Revolutionary War and the nearly forgotten War of 1812. All of which took place on American soil.  Some of the remembrances have their roots in "The Lost Cause." Do we celebrate to honor the bravery and honor of those who fought for their beliefs?  Maybe the reason is more pernicious.  Perhaps these events are a peaceful continuation of a war that really never ended, but has merely taken a new shape?   

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