Past and Present: The Question of Tragedy

Over at Civil War Memory Kevin Levin’s raised some interesting questions about my commentary on several recent columns that have been circulating through the blogosphere.  Fresh from a reading of Gary Gallagher’s The Union War, Kevin wonders whether Americans at the time would have viewed a war that preserved the Union without destroying slavery as tragic, as well as what people at the time thought was tragic.

I couldn’t be more pleased to see that I’ve provoked this discussion.

As for what Americans thought at the time: it really depends on which Americans we are discussing.  Black Americans would have seen a war that preserved the Union without destroying slavery as more than a tragedy, given their concerns.  Confederates certainly would not have seen it as a success.  Nor would radical Republicans and abolitionists have seen it as a good thing.  All of these groups would have seen it as best a tragedy if not worse.  And, given that we’ve spent so much time talking about how the main threat to Union was slavery, would a war to preserve the Union that did not destroy slavery really be worth it?  Oh, I know what Lincoln said in 1862, but by 1863 and 1864 Lincoln and Grant were very, very clear that they saw the destruction of slavery as essential to the preservation of the Union.  In short, if we want to answer this question according to what the people at the time would have thought, well, the answers are neither simple nor obvious, and they certainly don’t apply across the board.  The people who would have been most overjoyed with reunion with slavery would have been northern Democrats.

That said, while one should pay proper and due respect to the notion that we should evaluate the past in context (especially when it comes to looking at attitudes and behavior), the entire obsession with Civil War memory is about how subsequent generations view the past.  One would think this would be so obvious that I need not point it out.  After all, if that’s not true, then I don’t think I need to read another single word on black Confederates.  Each of us may have a different sense of whether the Civil War was tragic, or in what way was it tragic, and I for one really don’t care if someone doesn’t share my belief that what happened during Reconstruction wasn’t truly tragic, or counters that by saying that Klansmen, for example, would disagree.

I happen to think that the enslavement of millions of human beings was both a tragedy and an evil.  It was counter to the espoused principles upon which this nation claimed it was founded.  Lincoln himself understood that we should never try to deny slavery’s fundamental immorality, even as he confessed (prior to the war) that he did not know what to do about it.  Not everyone agreed with Lincoln (say, the “slavery as positive good” crowd), and we’ve spend a lot of time and energy on the fundamental importance of slavery in the sectional conflict over American national destiny.   But just because some people at the time did not see it as a tragedy does not mean that it was not a tragedy (one could say the same for the treatment of Native Americans), and it certainly does not meant that it wasn’t a tragedy for other people at the time.

I do happen to think that it was an American tragedy that white Americans could not resolve the issue of ending slavery without going to war.  They certainly could have preserved the Union all along if they had agreed not to touch slavery.  Now, if you don’t think that would have been a tragedy … well, you are entitled to your own opinion.  And so am I.

Constructing the Other’s Sense of History

One of the things I find most interesting about discussions about Civil War history is the tendency of some participants to construct accounts of what they believe “the other side” thinks.  This exercise in strawman architecture often serves as a prelude to the speaker’s decision to reveal truth.  It’s essential for the flow of the argument that claims must be made about what “the other side” believes in order to knock it down.  It helps if one either neglects evidence altogether or is extremely selective in crafting an account of what ‘the other side” believes.

This practice is not limited to discussions on various forums, although those forums usually see the most simplistic renderings of the practice.  One of my favorites is the claim that certain people believe the North fought the Civil War to free the slaves.  Any time you hear this claim, you can expect a response that shows that such was not the case.  Historians often do the same thing in setting up their own books by presenting a simplified version of the present state of scholarship, a presentation designed to show that there’s a problem which only this new study can address and resolve.  And sometimes people go a little to far in setting up these strawmen.  I recall reviewing a book about the Mugwumps in which the author singled me out, claiming that I so despised Henry Adams that I had called him a “pompous little ass”; I reminded the author in the published review that it was Henry’s own brother, Charles Jr., who so characterized his brother.


It is with this in mind that I offer to you the following claim and solicit your reaction.

America may well be the only country in the world to have experienced full-scale modern warfare upon its territory but then, as a matter of national identity, to have failed to establish a coherent narrative explanation.

In my opinion, this is flat wrong. There is a “coherent narrative“.

Here is the dominant “coherent narrative“.

The story of the American nation is the story of a struggle between the True America and the Evil Other (the South).

The True Nation had to compromise with the Evil Other in order to establish American independence at all.  Finally the Evil Other became so hateful and aggressive that the True Nation had to defend itself in the Civil War.  If it had not, popular self-government would have disappeared entirely from the earth.  

The True Nation won, but out of a misguided mercy, failed adequately to force the Evil Other to convert to True Americanism during the Reconstruction after the Civil War.

Nevertheless True America was strong enough afterwards to control the US national institutions.

The unregenerate Evil Other South, however, has never given up its perversity, and continues to live out its Nazi-like ways.

That’s it. It’s pretty close to the way Lincoln described the war …


What (and Who) Should We Celebrate? Why?

During the last several days two commentaries struck me as offering an interesting juxtaposition of perspectives on the American Civil War.  In the Washington Post, Richard Cohen called upon readers to reconsider celebrating Robert E. Lee.  After all, look at what Lee fought to preserve … slavery.  How can we admire that?  How can we admire him?

Meanwhile, over at The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates offered two commentaries (here followed by here, followed by more commentary here) on why he dissented from viewing the Civil War as regrettable.  After all, the war destroyed slavery, and that’s a good thing, right?  Certainly one can’t see the destruction of slavery as a bad thing, especially as slavery was a Bad Thing.

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Someone’s Missing …

I’m sure many of you have seen the following commercial, celebrating the leadership of the United States Army:

Note who’s not there.

If memory is as much about forgetting as it is about remembering, it is also as much about excluding as it is about including.  So where’s Ulysses S. Grant?  Where’s William T. Sherman?  Where’s Joshua L. Chamberlain?

Okay, when it comes to Chamberlain, I jest … although one could argue that as a citizen soldier, he stands there with Theodore Roosevelt.

Look, I can accept that perhaps a picture of Winfield Scott would not cut it given the message, and viewers would not even know who Zachary Taylor or John J. Pershing might be.  But it was under Ulysses S. Grant that the United States Army first raised Regular Army units that recruited black soldiers on a deliberate basis, and I would place Grant above MacArthur when it comes to embodying how we believe the military should function in American society.

Oh, I’m pretty sure I know why the US Army is tiptoeing around its Civil War heritage.  However, let’s remember this: Ulysses S. Grant was general in chief of the armies of the United States, and the nation’s first four-star general (at a time when people have retroactively awarded additional rank, it would seem that Grant might be awarded another star).  Why doesn’t the US Army want to cite him as a leader of whom it could be proud?

Black Confederates and Birthers

If you’ve glanced at today’s headlines, you’ll notice that President Barack Obama has released documentation that would seem to put to rest, once and for all, the question of where he was born (and thus his constitutional eligibility to hold the office he occupies).  At a time when it would seem incumbent on all responsible political leaders to address the challenges confronting the United States, the resurgence of chatter about the president’s place of birth from some folks who do not always impress me as serious about political discussion or the state of the nation threatened once more to serve as an irritating distraction, a nuisance to the president, and not necessarily welcome news to those Republicans who realize how poorly the birther claim plays among voters that the Grand Old Party must attract in order to mount a serious challenge to Obama’s reelection bid.

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Narrative, Contingency, Interpretation, and Assessment

Every spring the attention of the Simpson family turns to the Stanley Cup playoffs, which to our mind remains the best postseason in professional sports.  Two nights ago, the Vancouver Canucks faced off against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in Chicago, with Vancouver holding on to a 3-2 series lead after taking the first three games and dropping the next two.  The story line of the series from the Vancouver point of view was whether this talented team of skaters and their goalie, Roberto Luongo, would finally be able to realize their promise and make a serious bid for the Stanley Cup (this same narrative holds true for the San Jose Sharks).  Canucks coach Alain Vigneault decided to shake things up for Game Six, naming backup goalie Cory Schneider to start in net.  This was a controversial decision, drawing differing commentary from various broadcasters and analysts.

By the second period the tone had changed.  Continue reading

Republicans and the Fifteenth Amendment

A few weeks ago I posted several entries having to do with the Republicans, black rights, and northern racism.  Basically, I’m arguing that a solid majority of Republicans came to advocate equal rights for African Americans both in the South and in the North, but that they discovered that basing their appeal on equality before the law did not fare well with the northern electorate.  The vast majority of Democrats opposed black equality, and so did some conservative Republicans, many of whom were slowly finding their way back into Democratic ranks with the conclusion of the Civil War.

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