The Sesquicentennial in the North

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.

4 thoughts on “The Sesquicentennial in the North

  1. James F. Epperson January 3, 2011 / 5:34 am

    John Brown is a very complex and complicating character. Some Southerners insist he be denounced as a terrorist and murderer—and while there is little doubt he did things that in today’s world would be called “terrorism,” there is this sticky thing known as “context” or full story, which reminds us of the adage that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter (Menachem Begun, anyone?). When elements of a society are in conflict, this is almost inevitable. I think it is all this complication, along with his conduct at his trial, that makes him so fascinating.

    • Lyle Smith January 3, 2011 / 12:35 pm

      I agree with you about John Brown. He was no doubt a murderer because of his murders in Kansas and for the individuals killed by his group at Harpers Ferry. Common law murder is common law murder. Abraham Lincoln himself denounced John Brown’s actions. Brown did act extra-judicially, and today the same acts would still be punished similarly, although, like you said, with the ahistorical charge of terrorism being thrown at him.

      That said, in hindsight, he probably had the right idea about what it was going to take to end slavery in the United States, i.e. violence. Many of us see where he was coming from because whatever slavery we see around us today, we’d likewise like to see it abolished and violently if need be. So we can excuse his degradations because, well, his violence was on the right side of history, i.e. the abolition of slavery.

      … so I see how he’s a Hero to people. If I was the same person I am today and was around in 1859 I would have been very sympathetic to John Brown. I wouldn’t have been able to stand by slavery either and would have come close to viewing it like Brown did, I think…. and I’m a Southerner with dead Confederates as ancestors; whom I’m proud of.

  2. Sherree January 3, 2011 / 8:04 am

    Thank you for this post, Brooks.

    At the foot of your blog homepage, you explain the title of the blog: “Crossroads: Where history, scholarship, the academic life, and other stuff meet”.

    So far–and I mean you are really up and running fast–I would have to say that your posts are also creating a blog that is itself a crossroads of ideas and history where north and south, east and west meet as well (hopefully)

    A blog entitled “Living with the Consequences of Slavery” explores memory in New York and New England. The moderator of the blog is a descendant of the DeWolf family, which was one of the largest slave trading families in America. Members of this family are very brave in facing their past. Yet, it appears that they do not always garner widespread support from the general public in the north when they indicate that their family history was the history of the region, too. (For instance, Perry relates how a talk in New England that was to focus on the slave trade included references to abolition, and how this deflected attention away from the point that was to be made–ie, that the slave trade and slavery were an integral part of New England’s history. In other words, the point was missed, and missed badly. For readers who are interested in this blog, the link is the following:

    As far as east meeting west (as in east of the Mississippi and west of the same) and how memory, and events, in both the north and south affected that meeting–your friend Waziyatawin has expressed that eloquently.

    You are out there where it all happened, Brooks. The results were devastating for Indigenous men and women, just as the results were devastating for African American men and women in the south, as I am sure you know. So yes, let’s all make this sesquicentennial one in which the truth is finally told on all sides by all sides. You are certainly doing your part, Brooks……as I said, thank you.

    • Mike Musick January 6, 2011 / 8:28 am

      This trenchant post brings to mind the wisdom in Robert Penn Warren’s “The Legacy of the Civil War” (1961), wherein Warren reflected on the pernicious character of the Northern myth of The Treasury of Virtue. The Treasury allowed Northerners to pose as inherently morally superior to their opponents, something that perhaps accounts in part for the comments of someone like Ms. Ward/Chastain. The fallacy of the Treasury is nicely exemplified by one John McMahon, of Hambrook, Bradford County, Pennsylvania, who telegraphed to Abraham Lincoln on August 5, 1864: “Equal Rights & Justice to all white men in the United States forever. White men is in class number one & black men is in class number two & must be governed by white men forever.” Lincoln drafted a reply for the signature of his personal secretary John Hay that read: “The President has received yours of yesterday, and is kindly paying attention to it. As it is my business to assist him whenever I can, I will thank you to inform me, for his use, whether you are either a white man or black one, because in either case, you can not be regarded as an entirely impartial judge. It may be that you belong to a third or fourth class of YELLOW or RED men, in which case the impartiality of your judgment would be more apparent.” (Basler, “Collected Works,” vol. VII, p. 483). No response from Mr. McMahon was apparently forthcoming.

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