I initially wrote this piece as a wave of Civil War anniversaries unfolded in mid-2012. My own feeling is that one of the strengths of American discourse is the importance in it of history; unfortunately this is also one of its weaknesses: there is a real tendency for it to become what Paul Cohen called “History as Myth”; and in particular a prefiguration of whatever debates happen to be current at the time of writing. This, I think, does a disservice to the men and women caught up in the actual event, and this piece was a reaction against that tendency.
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In 2011 the long 150th anniversary of the Civil War began to unfold. This year alone commemorates the inauguration of Jefferson Davis as President of the Confederacy, the Battle of Shiloh, and the appointment of Robert E. Lee to command of the Army of Northern Virginia.
But along with the lists of battles and elections, movements and proclamations, the coming of the long anniversary is an chance to rethink the war itself.
The War’s history includes a seemingly unresolveable debate. Was it all or chiefly about slavery (as Professor James Loewen argues)? Was it a crusade against self government below the Mason-Dixon line (as the League of the South would have it). Both perspectives not only miss the mark, but misrepresent it. One can argue that the causes of the war, and the incentives that perpetuated it, are fundamentally unknowable.
Why unknowable? Because motivations are almost always unknowable and unfixed. Granted, the Confederacy’s legislatures and secession conventions made declarations of reasons for withdrawing from the Union. But how far did those declarations reflect the true aspirations of the members. Did a particular delegate actually endorse states rights? Was another motivated by slavery? Was a third trying to perpetuate the legacy of the Revolution? Did others want only to stay on what appeared the right side of history?
The same question arises about what kept the conflict going. Let’s assume that the young recruit in the 14th Maine Infantry enlisted to stamp out slavery. Did he keep that passion beyond a few weeks? Did he stay through the campaigns in Louisiana and Virginia simply out of loyalty to his friends or for the prospect of pay? The letters and diaries of famous and obscure participants offer a window into their thinking and motivations from time to time. There always remains, though, the tantalising prospect of more precisely knowing how these shifted day to day and year to year.
Rethinking the war this way draws into focus a more finely woven picture of its causes and drivers. But its merit goes further. It spares the long-dead participants from the stilling of their stories and songs and experiences. It prevents the present from too-readily putting its own words and thoughts in their mouths. Making the war “all about preserving slavery” converts every lowly member of the 51st Georgia Infantry into a collaborator in a vast atrocity. Seeing it as a crusade against a too-free people forces every young adventurer of the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers to goosestep into a Dixie Poland.
The Civil War need not, and perhaps should not, be treated as a battle of ideas and abstractions with contemporary relevance. Compassion says that it should also be treated as a conflict of people with virtues and follies and complexities. Reconceiving it this way spares its participants from unwittingly articulating virtues they may not have held and ideas for which they may not have died. And it may save a fascinating historical event from being eternally a stage on which to play out the debates of the present.