Last Tuesday, April 12, was the “official” start of our four-year Sesquicentennial remembrance of the American Civil War. That’s the date in 1861 when the federal Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor, was attacked.
Looking ahead, over the next four years, America has a great opportunity for productive self-examination and conversation across all racial and sectional boundaries. My purpose for today’s column is twofold:
First, I want to ask for help and encourage those of you interested in arguing, agreeing, disagreeing, or otherwise discussing this single most important flashpoint in U.S. history to send me your thoughts and suggestions (firstname.lastname@example.org). Here are some questions to get us started:
Was slavery the primary cause of the Civil War? Yes, and all other issues related to the war grew directly from our national original sin of slavery. But others will insist that “states rights” and economic inequities, discriminatory tariffs, or simply the election of “Black Republican” Abraham Lincoln, left the South no choice but to secede. Furthermore, many proponents of this alternative theory will also argue that the seceding states were within their legal rights under the Constitution to leave the Union.
Was there an acceptable compromise available to avoid the Civil War? No. The Union was determined to maintain itself and to not allow the expansion of slavery into the territories, and key leaders in the South were determined to pursue independence. Others will argue that Lincoln was unreasonably insistent on the “no expansion of slavery” point, and that the majority of the South would have preferred to remain part of the United States.
Which side started the Civil War? I equivocate here. If forced to answer North or South, I have to answer “South.” After all, seven states seceded from the Union, rebel forces fired on a federal fort, then four more states seceded, and they were certainly not coming back into the Union willingly. Others will argue that Abraham Lincoln forced the outbreak of war when he publicly called for troops to protect federal property located in the seceding states, which would necessitate an armed invasion of those states. By contrast, the Confederacy was hoping for a peaceful negotiation to form a separate nation. However, a better line of inquiry is to return to the beginnings of our nation. From there we can look critically at our flawed constitutional beginnings, and at the subsequent repeated attempts to “kick the can down the road,” so to speak, by postponing a definitive decision on the future of slavery in our nation.
Would slavery have eventually died a “natural death” without the Civil War? This is a “false question,” but not one I dreamed up. For the sake of discussion, let’s try to answer it. I say no. In fact, there were express designs by proponents of secession to expand slavery, both to the western territories and into Central and possibly South America. Others will simply disagree, or alternatively suggest that slavery was already of declining importance to the economies of Southern states, and therefore destined for extinction.
Which side won the Civil War? I suppose there’s consensus that the Union won the Civil War, since the seceding states failed to form and sustain a separate nation. But again, I think we’re asking the wrong question. Instead, we should ask why the Union abandoned Reconstruction in 1877.
The second purpose for today’s column is to suggest that an adequate understanding of our Civil War heritage requires deeper knowledge than can be acquired by simply watching Ken Burns’ excellent but insufficient documentary on the Civil War.
Burns authored a column in the April 12 New York Times titled “A Conflict’s Acoustic Shadows.” He used the term “acoustic shadow” in reference to a meteorological phenomenon which somehow prevented people located near a battle, for example, from hearing the cannon and gunfire which would ordinarily have been unmistakable (kind of like Get Smart’s Cone of Silence, I suppose).
“Acoustic shadow” in his New York Times column is meant to draw comparison to those factors that obstruct accurate understanding and learning from our Civil War experience. It’s an apt metaphor. Ironically, Burns’ own program is a part of the “acoustic shadow” over our Civil War history.
For example, how many of us remember from Burns’ Civil War, the “warm and fuzzy,” “feel good” pictures of really old white guys (surviving Civil War veterans from both sides) hobbling around at 20th century Civil War reunions, trying to re-enact battles at Gettysburg, and instead choosing to shake hands or hug one another in a long overdue show of unity? I know that my own eyes welled up with tears and patriotic pride while looking for those iconic images of a unified nation emerging from the horror of the war.
In defense of Ken Burns’ documentary, he did in fact include other key information, such as the Confederate at Appomattox who said to Union hero Lawrence Chamberlain, something like, “We won’t be re-united. We hate you, sir,” and reference to President Rutherford Hayes’ and Congress’ abandonment of Reconstruction.
In his column this week, Burns mentions a book titled Battle Cry of Freedom, by James McPherson (1988, Oxford Press). As I’ve said more than once in this column, that particular book is the single best and most readable source for a better understanding of the Civil War and it’s historical context.
I look forward to continuing this discussion, so let me know your thoughts. As I currently travel around to various Civil War battlefield sites in Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia, and elsewhere, I’m encouraged that “spirited dialogue” does not necessarily prevent us from actually listening to and learning from each other.
Patrick Teegarden, our resident historical expert on the Civil War, filed this week’s column from his road trip through historical sites of the Civil War in the south.