The American Civil War, was it really all that great?
Ah, the American Civil War. Yesterday’s post was a book review about a battle in same, and I ended it by making some rather controversial remarks about the American Civil War. There are a couple of topics that tend to be hot button issues for Americans, and the American Civil War is one of them. I’ve wanted to express some of my thinking on same, and yesterday was the perfect time to introduce it. Before I go on though, by hot button issue, I specifically mean an issue where there is strong bipartisan social pressure to adhere to the approved consensus narrative about the same. IE, if you’re not down with Lincoln freeing the slaves being a good thing in America, a lot of people are going to react with anger.
So let’s have a look at the American Civil War. The War Between the States, 1861-1865. The southern states, the Confederacy, withdrew from the Union, and started a war by firing on Fort Sumter. The northern states, the Union, led by the redoubtable Abraham Lincoln, ultimately prevailed, freeing the slaves, and bringing the southern states back into the United States. I mean yeah, everyone grants that it was a terrible war, but the end result was worth it. This is pretty much the standard history, for most Americans, right?
Well, I’d like to make a number of points, hopefully in some sort of coherent order. And this is in the spirit of fostering thoughtful discussion and examining the issues, no offence is meant to anyone. (Um, I may be using incendiary language though, as a rhetorical device.) And this is the first point, why do people get angry if their view of the Civil War is challenged? We’re talking a war that ended over 150 years ago, the people involved are long dead, yet it still emotionally current? There’s a lot that could be going on here, but I think it’s safe to say that the story of the Civil War is a central theme in the American identity, so to question the Civil War is to question people’s core values and identities. Who wouldn’t feel angry or defensive? At the very least, if someone saying “bad things” about the Civil War makes a person mad, I suggest it’s a good moment for some introspection.
Moving right along, let’s try another track, as John Galt’s observation helped clarify my thinking on. OK, dozens of the world’s most modern rapidly industrializing nations, many of them with nascent parliamentary democracies, recognize that slavery is at best an unnecessary and embarrassing anachronism from a pre-industrial age, and at worst a medieval abomination. And these nations, each and every one, manage to peacefully abolish the institution of slavery. Well, all but one. In the most industrialized and arguably the most democratic nation, slavery isn’t abolished until decades later, and requires a war that kills and maims about a million people. The USA was the last modern country to abolish slavery and it took the worst war in American history to do it … how in the name of God is that not an EPIC FAIL? There was a worse way the US could have abolished slavery? They could have waited longer? Had a bigger war?
This leads into another point. The usual claim made by Civil War apologists is that Lincoln had “no choice.” That the South started the war, and his only alternative was to pursue it to the end. Um, if the South had invaded the North, this might be true. Or close to true. The South didn’t. Instead, some local Southern troops fired cannons at a US fort, a fort deep in southern territory that the United States was only trying to hold onto to provoke a war. In fact Lincoln deliberately sent supply ships to Fort Sumter hoping that the Confederates would fire on them. They did him one better and fired on the fort itself (killing no one btw,) giving Lincoln the Casus Beli he craved and seized with both hands. I’m sorry, but if one side is trying to provoke a war, and provokes the other side into firing a few cannons … how in the name of God is that justification for a four year war of conquest? It takes two fools to have a fight, Lincoln was at the very least equally culpable for the war as the Confederates.
And speaking of Lincoln, the man suspended the Bill of Rights and assumed powers far beyond his constitutional authority to promulgate the war on the South. If one believes it was all worth it, I guess. It however set a terrible precedent, and to this day Presidents wrap themselves in the mantle of the Civil War, where anything goes because the USA is a benevolent conqueror! Lincoln didn’t invade the South, no, he liberated it and freed the slaves! And his keeping the Union together prevented endless future wars between the states! Lastly there’s the slaves. I mean, how can anyone have problems with freeing the slaves?
Well. Let’s look at this a bit. To accept the idea that Lincoln freed the slaves … one has to accept the idea that freedom is a commodity or a privilege that can be bestowed upon others. Is that really what freedom is? And doesn’t the idea that whites “bestowed” freedom on blacks imply that whites are the true “owners” of freedom? There’s something more than a little condescending and patronizing about the idea that Lincoln freed the slaves, and I wonder if the parallels with a certain saviour myth are part of the reason Lincoln as saviour is so unquestioned. It’s all especially disturbing in light of what happened afterwards. The now “free” slaves in the south spent the next 100 years being systematically deprived of their civil rights while being terrorized by the Klu Klux Klan and local law enforcement. If the North fought the Civil War to “free” the slaves, they didn’t seem to give a rat’s ass what happened to them afterwards. How noble is that?
In conclusion, I submit that at the very least that it’s debatable just how good and glorious the American Civil War was. Which if we are honest with ourselves, should make us question whether the USA’s “we’re invading them for the noblest of reasons” really holds water. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, these are my opinions. I do hope to stimulate interesting discussion at the very least.
(The above image was created in 1864 by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly, so it is pubic domain under US copyright law. I chose it for reasons I hope my astute readers can discern. Tomorrow, just for fun, I will explore some hypothetical alternatives to the Civil War.)