(this post originally appeared in Civil Warriors, February 4, 2007)
One of the more troubling aspects of Civil War history lies in going beyond the tales of battles and leaders and tightly-focused military studies to ask broader and more probing questions about issues of causes and motivations. Such queries are sensitive in part because some people see a characterization of motivation or cause as passing judgment on one’s own ancestors and perhaps on oneself. There’s something deeply personal about these queries, and simply to explore the topic is a risky proposition. Nevertheless, we make moral judgments all the time about the past, whether we admit it or not.
I find challenging the following propositions about the American Civil War:
“Both sides fought for what they believed in.”
“There was racism in the North as well as in the South.”
“Most Confederate soldiers did not own slaves.”
All three of these statements are grounded upon a factual basis. But that doesn’t mean we can’t discuss their implications (and we do). If we posed similar propositions about a more recent conflict, would we draw the same implications?
“Both American and German soldiers fought for what they believed in during World War II.”
“There was antisemitism in the United States as well as in Nazi Germany.”
“Most German soldiers did not take part in the Holocaust.”
One can raise these questions without necessarily equating the Confederacy with Nazi Germany (and I would not). Moreover, one should be able to raise these questions without being labeled a Yankee apologist who renders the Civil War in simple and stark moral contrasts of Union good, Confederate bad, Union pure, Confederate sullied. In fact, for someone to raise that objection is an intellectually feeble evasion of the import of the exercise. Simply questioning the motivation of the questioner (an all too frequent practice in such discussions, which are full of “you, too” fingerpointing) is an admission that one does not want to answer the question. I’d ask, why not?
I raise these issues to ask whether there are the meaningful differences between these two sets of propositions, what they might be, and the implications one draws from that discussion. We owe it to ourselves to engage in that sort of discussion every once in a while rather than simply rehash the same old controversies.