Sunday, July 7, 2013

Civil War Historiography

I was a bit surprised to see the Forbes website wade into the waters of Civil War historical interpretation. One of their writers penned a piece about fundamental historical debate regarding the war. You might be interested in reading it here.

I'm sure I could spool up some pretentious critique of what that writer did, but historians can err on the side of arrogance when they try to assert that they alone have the ability to interpret the past. Besides, my history writing is pretty rusty. Oh, and Carl Becker once quipped that every man is a historian, which any self-respecting history major knows from their methods course. So I applaud Peter Reilly for using space on a finance website to take a stab at one of the more nuanced, charged, and unresolvable questions in U.S. History, Why did we fight the Civil War?

Rather than key in on what Reilly is missing, I'd like to instead offer some additional thoughts on his passage that reads:

You will, however, find Lost Cause enthusiasts “proving” that they are right by showing how racist Northern soldiers were.  My own reading leans me towards concluding that a large portion of the Southern elite was very pro-slavery.  A very small portion of the Northern elite were militant abolitionists.  Regular folks - there is a lot of controversy and a lot of problems with the evidence.  The debates can make you a little crazy.  Maybe most Southern soldiers did not come from slave-holding families – depending on how broadly you define family.  On the other hand, if you are twenty years old and don’t own a car or a house, it does not mean that you would not like to own one.  Clearly, though, to the extent there was an idealistic motivation for most regular folks, it was that bad guys were trying to take their country away.  

One of the great challenges in understanding the Civil War Era is to separate opinions on slavery from modern-day sentiments about human rights and racial justice. I would not just contend that a minority of the nation believed the black man to be the equal of the white man, but that a minority of those opposed to slavery believed the black man to be the equal of the white man. The bulk of those who opposed slavery did so for reasons that ignored what might have necessarily been good for black Americans. In fact, many who opposed slavery harbored sentiments that were stridently racist. It's helpful to keep in mind that the Free Soil Party were antecedents of the Republicans who brought about the end to slavery, and who were willing to fight a war to end it.

That last sentence I offered is problematic: Republicans were willing to fight a war to end slavery. Few white Union soldiers or officers would have overtly acknowledged this as their reason to fight. Lincoln's Second Inaugural best articulates this: one region of the country would rather fight than see slavery ended, the other would rather fight than to see the country divided over slavery. "And so the war came."

And those eloquent words came from a man whose position of slavery evolved over the course of his adult life. At one point, Lincoln was a supporter of the colonization movement, which called for slaves to be freed and then repatriated to Africa, presumably because there could be no peace between the races. This is the man who later said that a "house divided cannot stand." He ran as the presidential candidate for a party in 1860 whose platform said that slavery would not be allowed to extend into the West. And then, a week after his famous letter to Horace Greely, he ended slavery with the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation which, ironically, ended slavery without freeing a single slave. In the last week of his life, he called for the right to vote for black veterans and other respectable black men (which is, in and of itself, a racist position relative to today's politics). The evolution was cut short by an assassin's bullet.

Lincoln's words on slavery and the war are often marked by his Christian faith. The best example of this is in that famous Second Inaugural Address when he suggests that the war might have been God's righteous punishment for the sin of slavery. I wonder to what extent other actors in that era felt the work of God in their times.

I am convinced that the soldiers of the war, and their families and communities who supported them, felt powerfully the role they were playing in shaping the future of the nation. Overtly, their understanding of American traditions of liberty and republican government were at stake. Implicitly, that meant a future with or without slavery. It's impossible for me to not respect the sacrifices soldiers and communities at that time made for the future of their country, though to the sentiments of one born in the 1970s and raised in far different nation are often at odds with their notions of rights and equality.

So, I'm done rambling. Perhaps that fellow at Forbes had it right to create an Idiots' Guide on Civil War Historiography. For history nerds like this, discussing the central questions of that era lead us to write, and write, and write.

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