In December 2005 I was sitting in my office at ASU, minding my own business, tying up loose ends from the fall semester, when the phone rang. It was a reporter from the Christian Science Monitor. He wanted to discuss with me the findings of a recent inquiry into the Wilmington (NC) Race Riots of 1898. A historian working for the state had just completed a report that cast light upon the origins of the riot, which might be better termed a coup d’etat in which white Democrats conspired to overthrow a biracial Republican municipal government.
(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.