So much has been written about how white southerners will approach the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War that it might be altogether too easy to forget that the conflict was a national event. After all, it takes two to tango, and it was the North’s Civil War, too. Recent newspaper reports informed us that my home state of New York simply wasn’t going to establish a sesquicentennial commission. To be sure, other states outside those who joined the Confederacy have formed commissions (such as Pennsylvania and Ohio), but the fact is that when we think of the sesquicentennial, most of us think first of the South and whether white southerners will find themselves able to bring themselves to wrestle with their region’s history.
That’s a mistake.
White northerners have as much to learn (and unlearn) about the Civil War as anyone else. They need to understand that racism was not simply a southern thing, and that a good number of white northerners opposed emancipation (and, after the war, opposed granting equal political rights for African Americans). They need to understand what fueled the rush to serve in 1861, but they also might reflect on the imposition of a draft, the efforts to resist that draft, and the various incentives used to bolster enlistment or reenlistment, some of which were abused by various white northerners. The war in the North saw debates over civil liberties and defining the line between dissent and disloyalty; it saw violence used to resist enforcing the draft (here the New York City draft riots continue to hold pride of place in the minds of most people), and it saw a population that for several months in the summer of 1864 seemed just about willing to abandon the cause (and an electorate that a few months later gave a fair share of its support to a party that had just declared the war a failure). The absence of the southern states allowed the Republican party to pass an ambitious agenda of programs that helped transform the American polity and helped to establish some of the foundation for the “big government” that many present-day Republicans oppose.
Frankly, it’s always been almost too easy for northern whites to point fingers at the South and make fun of white southerners, although it’s true that sometimes some white southerners are their own worst enemy (and even more true that a good number of those folks don’t even recognize that). However, one could ask troubling questions about white northerners before, during, and after the war. What about the disunionist sentiments of a William Lloyd Garrison or the support shown by some abolitionists for John Brown, who in today’s world would be defined as a terrorist, preaching, planning, and committing violent acts against American political entities and American citizens? What about the fact that it took some time to destroy slavery in the North, and that many states treated blacks as second-class citizens or sought to bar them altogether? And, before one celebrates the war as a crusade to destroy slavery, let’s reflect that after the war most white northerners soon lost whatever enthusiasm they had for black equality, and a good many of them never had shown any interest in it in the first place?
In short, if some folks want to use the sesquicentennial to force white southerners to face their past, they should in all fairness use it to make white northerners face their past as well. That past is a little more complex and a little more troubling than some sanctimonious white northerners, gleefully chortling at the behavior of some white southerners, would have us believe.