Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Looking Backwards at the Civil War

Tony Horwitz had an article in The Atlantic last week. I'd recommend it for anyone looking for a quick, entry-level primer into both the Civil War and one of the persistent difficulties of history: reading the past with knowledge of the present, it's easy to use the present to justify the past. In other words, it's easy to break causality when telling a history.
Gary Gallagher, a leading Civil War historian at the University of Virginia, argues that the long-reigning emphasis on slavery and liberation distorts our understanding of the war and of how Americans thought in the 1860s. "There's an Appomattox syndrome--we look at Northern victory and emancipation and read the evidence backward," Gallagher says.
Can a war be called "good" or "bad," judging results alone? In the case of the American Civil War, very few might have predicted that the conflict would end slavery. The casus belli of the ACW was the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter (though some might place the beginning of the war later), a reaction to the stress of a secession brought about by a southern desire to protect the continued expansion of American slavery into new territory. Did contemporary southern whites (and black slaves) believe the ACW was a war to decide the ultimate fate of slavery? Maybe. But northerners did not. The North went to war because it had been attacked, to quell a rebellion, and restore the Union. Emancipation came later, and the abolition of slavery later after that. Shouldn't the "goodness" or "badness" of the war for each belligerent be measured by the quality of their goals versus the potential cost in lives and property value?

Horwitz makes another excellent point at the end of the article.
Looking backwards, and hitting the pause button at the Gettysburg Address or the passage of the 13th amendment, we see a "good" and successful war for freedom. If we focus instead on the run-up to war, when Lincoln pledged to not interfere with slavery in the South, or pan out to include the 1870s, when the nation abandoned Reconstruction, the story of the Civil War isn't quite so uplifting.
Horwitz hints here at the real trouble with most stories about the Civil War: they end when the war does. In truth, the Civil War is somewhere in the middle of larger story about racial justice. The Emancipation Proclamation is a beginning. There are hundreds of historical sites and museums dedicated to the Civil War. Where are the sites and museums for Reconstruction?

A highly recommended article. It's a big topic, but Horwitz manages to cover a lot of ground with few words.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent read, I just passed this onto a colleague who was doing a little research on that. And he actually bought me lunch because I found it for him smile So let me rephrase that.