Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

The American Civil War, was it really all that great?

with 10 comments

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.)

Written by unitedcats

November 30, 2011 at 3:47 pm

10 Responses

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  1. Doug,

    I just wanted to share with you that my 7th grade son and I just read this post and we were both fascinated by your views. He was so perplexed and excited to hear your viewpoints that he is going to write his history report (with some of his own research) on the points that you made. Thank you so much for opening my eyes and my son’s with your view of the American Civil War. He couldn’t believe how different this view was compared to what’s he’s currently learning in his Social Studies class.

    Your posts make a difference,

    Tim

    Tim

    November 30, 2011 at 4:00 pm

  2. Saying ‘Lincoln freed the slaves’ does not necessarily imply that anyone thinks that freedom is a commodity being bestowed by whites on blacks. I suppose you could say ‘Lincoln removed the legal obstacles to slaves being free’, but that’s cumbersome, and ‘free’ as a transitive verb is entirely acceptable for ’cause to become free’ (used there as the adjective). I think that bit is a bit more sensitive than you need to be.

    I myself am leery of the precedent set by wars of conquest specifically to prevent anyone from leaving your jurisdiction, no matter the flowery rhetoric, but this post seems rather contaminated by the sort of gratuitously cynical problem-seeking that we don’t really need. (More than enough problems already.)

    Tom Dickson-Hunt

    November 30, 2011 at 4:24 pm

  3. Whatever Lincoln felt he had to do to end slavery is all right by me.
    At least the Civil War was a start. We might still have slavery today, had there been no Civil War Doug ?

  4. Not to mention that Lincoln would have done the whole thing and never freed a single slave if it would have held his Federal authority together.
    That said, he did get it right on one thing, and the bankers murdered him for it.

    jeff

    November 30, 2011 at 4:59 pm

    • Doug, thank you for bringing up a different perspective to what has become a slam-dunk one track idea.

      S K Brown

      November 30, 2011 at 5:39 pm

  5. Maybe it would have been better if usa had split up.

    Rik

    December 7, 2011 at 7:49 am

    • it would definitely be best if it did so, now.

      jeff

      December 14, 2011 at 5:50 am

  6. I was nodding along with the first 2/3 of this article, Doug. While I’m not a fan of Lincoln or those singing his praises today, and I agree that the Civil War has been rewoven into a fantasy tale that leaves out SO many important details. Focusing our attention on the freeing of slaves makes the war appear justified and even merciful, but that story says nothing of the economic division occurring in the 19th century with American Industrialism taking off. The story we’re told in grade school is mute about how those same freed slaves were used as extremely cheap and disposable labor in the Industrial North.

    My views, colored by being born a southerner (now living in the midwest), aren’t too popular with the masses either. People get irate when I say that slavery never ended, it just changed forms. When you break it down economically–suspending emotions for a moment–and compare the agrarian South and its slave economics against the industrializing North with its reliance on cheap labor, we can see why Industry won out. Think about it — under the slavery system, the “owners” were responsible for feeding, clothing, and providing shelter for their slave workers. Industry comes with no such responsibility; the worker is paid an amount, however inadequate, and is expected to figure out how to care for him or herself. What a change, but also what a continuation of a nightmare! You’re free to used and abused outright by businesses instead of by private individuals.

    People get upset by that idea, understandably I guess. Seems like a lot of work, a lot of prayers, lot of pain to go through and still not be out of the woods yet. People say that at least now we have freedom to choose, to determine our own way in life, but do we really? How many of us sell out on our values and bend principles in order to earn a living? Work for a bank or an insurance company and you don’t feel slavish? Millions of people are taking pills in order to keep their sanity in the business-dominant society we’ve got today. Look at how much time we Americans devote to companies, whether through work, leisure or other necessity. We’re not laboring as hard these days because there are more machines to do that in place of humans. Plus, most of the manufacturing jobs were outsourced to China, where poor work conditions are apparently tolerated by their government. Regardless, we are working for peanuts compared against CEO salaries. But we gotta take what we can get, right?

    It’s hard to get by these days without kissing up to some wealthy institution or business. Some of us manage to be self-employed — the trade-off often being that we lack access to affordable insurance and healthcare. And then there’s the black market, which provides tons of jobs to law enforcement agencies and the growing prison market (rapidly being privatized btw — a new way to usher BACK in old-fashioned slavery? There are obvious racial disparities among inmate populations, suggesting racism remains alive and well nationwide).

    I haven’t forgotten the original topic, just sayin’. Slavery hasn’t ended, it’s just changed shape. Or been outsourced to places where we consumers can’t see the reality we help create. The Civil War was, first and foremost, about economics and the clash experienced as industrialism came onto the scene. Were black people freed from slavery for their own benefit, or for the benefit of industrialists wishing to tap into a cheap labor pool? What turns people into cheap labor? Desperation. What is a slave? Someone used by another to serve as a means to the other’s end. Freedom means being able to live to serve your own end, free from exploitation by others. Has that happened? I don’t think so. People might be free from physical shackles, but haven’t they been traded for psychological shackles? There’s a whole other topic to explore.

    wakemenow

    December 13, 2011 at 11:06 pm

    • brilliant.
      correct.
      and obviously too close to the truth to be understood by the anesthetized masses.

      jeff

      December 14, 2011 at 5:49 am

  7. “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” — George Orwell

    wakemenow

    December 13, 2011 at 11:16 pm


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