Sunday, April 11, 2010

Civil War Revisited

With the Virginia Governor seeking to remember a war for States' Rights but omitting what the states sought rights over (slaves), we enter a new round of that fun old American game--re-defining the Civil War as something positive. Let me preface by saying that I am not an expert on the American Civil War (although I do have un-read books on my shelves on this topic that I have been meaning to get to).

The funny thing is that my classes in Lubbock at Texas Tech would be startled and appalled that Serbs would look fondly back 600 years to a battle they lost, but they were blind to the reality that many of them seemed to view the Civil War in a somewhat similar light--as a noble defeat, mostly forgetting about the defeat part.  There are three parts to this issue (well more than that, but three I want to focus on now): the South lost; that the stakes very much included slavery; and that the civil war was incredibly costly.

Perhaps the American Civil War is part of the long tradition of poor loser-ness.  Why did the South lose the war?  Wars are won and lost by a combination of things, including demography, economics, allies and leadership.  In terms of military leadership, the record is fairly clear that the South had far more depth and breadth.  Demography disadvantaged the South since the North had more people and a significant part of the South's population were not going to be reliable fighters since they were enslaved.  Economics favored the North as well since it was in the middle of the industrial revolution, while the South was agrarian/feudal.  Finally, despite much sympathy abroad, the South had a hard time getting significant assistance because of its essential identity--as an aspiring country that sought to keep alive slavery.  So, in many ways, the South was doomed to fail precisely because of its essential core political grievance--the right to perpetuate slavery. 

I am not going to go into the weeds on the role of Slavery as the stakes, but the history is clear on this--there were many differences between north and south, but slavery was at the heart of it.

Finally, the Civil War was no walk in the woods.  Somewhere around 620,000 American soldiers died during the war, representing almost half of all Americans who died in combat in its entire history.  And this does not include civilians who lost their lives along the way. 

So, spare me any notion that the Civil War was a noble war fought for States' Rights.  It was a supreme act of Treason, inflicting tremendous damage upon the South and the rest of the country.  Ironically, the war forced the Union to develop capacities to fight the war, ultimately strengthening the Federal Government at the cost of "state's rights."  We might have had a weaker federal government until the depression or beyond, if the South had not forced Washington, DC to develop more tools, more resources, more ways to intervene in the affairs of states and the lives of citizens. 

If we want to take the "heritage" folks at their word--that it is not about slavery, but about a war for state's rights, then we can still find their "heritage" something that is not worth commemorating.  Celebrating self-inflicting defeat for the sake of a cause that the effort actually undermined?  At least the Serbs can say that they tried to stop an invasion of an alien culture.  All the South did was kill lots of Americans for a cause that was part of the source of its defeat.  

In other words:
We cannot allow the story of the emancipation of a people and the expiation of America’s original sin to become fodder for conservative politicians playing to their right-wing base. [NYT Op-ed]


Chris C. said...

One key point that's often neglected is the divide between the Southern political elite, which supported the formation of the Confederacy, and most of the soldiers who actually fought for the Confederacy. In many of the state referendums on secession, a popular majority voted against secession (or against secessionist delegates), but thanks to the power of the elites the results were either ignored or rigged in a re-vote. That's an important distinction because it shows that very large portions of the South didn't want this "treason," as you put it, but rather joined either out of conscription (a very large number) or because the Union troops were simply down in their state. It's also important to note that a significant number of Southerners did fight with the Union, including as many as 35,000 Tennesseans and 2,500 Alabamians while anti-Confederate activities were quite common in places from Jones County, MS to Northern Arkansas to Northern Alabama to the Wiregrass Region of Alabama to the Appalachian Mountains. So saying that the whole South was "treasonous" is a bit overdoing it, just like those commentators I've seen call them the South the original terrorists (though there were a number of Confederate commanders who pioneered terrorist tactics and committed some horrible atrocities).

The key difficulty in remembering the Civil War is finding a way to acknowledge the fact many
people from the South fought bravely and against fairly overwhelming odds without unduly favoring the unjust cause for which they were ultimately fighting. Read some of the many Confederate (and even Union) soldier narratives out there and you can get an idea of how the soldiers struggled with the reasons for the war. But instead of trying to do that, a lot of Northerners retreat to a stereotypical superiority complex.

From my experience, many people from the North are simply shocked that there are people from the South with any brains. It goes against their stereotypes. As one of my classmates put it, the only time people from the North read about the South is when something bad was happening. Thus, in response, many people from the South look to their unique regional identity (i.e. heritage) for self-affirmation (man, I'm sounding like a constructivist here...weird). The problem is when the identity encompasses parts of the past that should be left behind, but deciding where that line is (shall we ban all Confederate battle flags? ban flags that have components of the battle flag? ban battle re-enactments? destroy all monuments to Confederates? ban any discussion of the Southern homefront in the war? abolish any regional distinctions whatsoever?) is always the question.

McDonnell's proclamation was badly bungled and he left out the crucial slavery aspect. But keep it in perspective: it was one of the many "months" that I've always found to be fairly silly. Acting like McDonnell is deliberately refighting the Civil War and is in the hands of Neo-Confederate Lost Causers is jumping to the same stereotypical conclusions Northerners have long had (in the past with better reason than now) about the South. The dude goofed, in a bad way, and he apologized for it.

From a political science civil war standpoint, the proclamation is actually slightly interesting as it notes that Lee surrendered his troops as a whole instead of sending them out to fight guerilla-style (setting a precedent for other Confederate generals to do the same). This is one of the few parts of the Civil War that is understudied and seems remarkable in hindsight; the Confederates definitely could've made better use of their limited manpower if they had pushed the guerilla fighting more (there was a good amount of it, but nowhere near the potential level).

Steve Saideman said...

You raise some good points. The South was not as united as often advertised. Good to know.

The problem with it all is that perhaps 90% of the efforts to invoke the war have little to do with the heroism of individual conscripts.

And I don't think I called southerners idiots here. Just that politicians pander.

No need to ban anything. Individuals can identify themselves as racists all they want. I don't want local/state governments flying symbols of a racist/treasonous, destructive past. But private actor can do what they want as long as it is not on my lawn.

Bungled? Sure. Let's play to an audience of whites and forget that part that slavery played. Either the guy is really, really stupid or he thought he was just playing to whites. Which is racist and probably stupid.

And yes, the best part of Lee was using his power and influence to end the war then, rather than have an insurgency. Of course, Lee could have used his power earlier to try to end the war. Or he could have not fought for the South at all. But Lost has taught me that redemption should be respected, so all of Lee's other mistakes are redeemed by his actions in 1865.

Chris C. said...

Heh, I didn't mean that Lee "redeemed" himself, I meant that it's fascinating to see practically an entire rebel group surrender as essentially an organized body like that. On the Northern side, there could've been mass reprisals and executions in the South, but there weren't! We had a very, very peculiar Civil War and aftermath.

I suspect a combination of naivete and perhaps undue influence by an aide/donor led McDonnell to making the original proclamation. Try reading the Georgia proclamation; this year it was focused on how many Jews and women supported the Confederacy (I'm not making this up). Both are weird, but I don't see the harm (or really the benefit either) in having the months in general, but slavery definitely should be a component of all of them.

"The problem with it all is that perhaps 90% of the efforts to invoke the war have little to do with the heroism of individual conscripts." I'd disagree with that. Most of the Southerners I know emphasize the regular soldiers while the Lost Causers are more likely to venerate (unduly- he screwed up a lot more than people remember) Lee and other generals (although, amusingly, not generals like Longstreet who turned Republican). It's a tough call deciding what politicians who use those signals are really supporting, but I wouldn't immediately leap to neo-Confederate thoughts. If I were advising a politician though, I would tell 'em stay away from touching anything like that and focusing on less divisive issues.

Bill Ayres said...

The problem with the Civil War and its connection to slavery is that it has tended to obscure another issue: the debate over the role of the states vs. the federal government. Slavery was an unalloyed evil, and its abolishment both a good and a necessary thing. But the war's other effect--the tendency to centralize power in the Federal government, and the abolition of the right of states to secede from the Union for any reason--does not follow from that premise. Slavery and states' rights are two largely separate issues, and because of the former (and politicians who want to pander to various audiences on various spectrums), we have largely lost our ability to consider the latter seriously. That is increasingly problematic in an era of ever-greater Federal (and, in particular, Executive) power.

Steve Saideman said...

Steve Greene has a nice post ( which has the text of Mississippi's secession declaration--slavery is front and center. States' rights my ass.