Friday, February 11, 2011

Sesquicentennial of the Civil War - Celebrate or Commemorate?

            One Hundred and Fifty years ago our nation was engaged in its most defining event – a great Civil War. A war that disrupted the country for four years and cost 600,000 lives (by todays population a proportion that would equal ten million), and measureless destruction. This week is the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the Confederacy and the swearing in of Jefferson Davis as provisional President.

            In the early 1960s in the midst of the Civil Rights movement that culminated in 1964/65 with the passage of the Public Accommodations Act and the Voting Rights Act (joined in 1968 with an Anti Discrimination in Housing Law) the nation also celebrated the Centennial of the Civil War.  There were reenactments of every battle (I observed one of a small battle in Georgia) but less attention was paid to the non- military events of the conflict.

            The sesquicentennial of the Civil War has apparently, at least among unreconstructed southerners, triggered a desire to celebrate every event - particularly political.  South Carolinians celebrated the ill-fated secession of that state as if it were something that was both constitutional and successful - it was neither.

            The great debate about what caused the Civil War and why it was fought rages among pseudo-historians.   If one reads the debates of the secession conventions and the broadsides written before secession it is clear to those who will see that slavery caused the Civil War - to be more precise the desire of the southern slavocracy and ruling economic interests to  assure the continuation of their right to own slaves, and their desire to expand the area open to slavery to include the territories acquired from Mexico.(some even dreamed of seizing Cuba and other areas to the south and adding them to the slave portion of the US. This imperialistic desire did not die overnight.  As a youngster visiting in Georgia I read a local newspaper that editorialized upon the admission of Hawaii as a state in 1959 that now it was time to complete Manifest Destiny and acquire Cuba and Central America.)

            Those who initiated secession to assure the continuance of slavery needed somehow to gain the support of the majority of the white population of the south - whites who did not own slaves. And so they wrapped the banner of state’s rights and southern independence around their movement.  While slavery caused the Civil War, it is true that most Southerners thought they fought for their independence.     My great great grandfather fought for the confederacy as did two of my great great great grandfathers.  They did not own slaves nor were they from slave owning families. They lived in northeast Alabama and northwest Georgia - unionist regions of the south. They believed they were fighting for southern independence.

            This belief was supported by the official federal position during the first two years of the war that the North was fighting only to preserve the union. That was Lincoln’s public position.  Not until late 1862 and Jan 1863 did the President declare as the war aim of the North the eradication of slavery.  My great great great grandfather, William Kelly, lived in eastern Tennessee  and he fought in the union forces for the union.

            Americans truly were divided brother against brother - in fact in my own Wilson family brothers fought on different sides.

            So as we enter this four year period of sesquicentennial anniversaries should we be celebrating this cruel war and its 600,000 deaths?  To CELEBRATE is  “publicly honor or praise an important occasion” and implies approval. I suggest that the only thing about the Civil War to celebrate is the abolition of slavery, the great stain upon the American mosaic and the cruel and inhuman practice that once pervaded our country. There is much of our Civil War history that we should COMMEMORATE.  To commemorate is to “act to honor the memory of an event or person”.

            While nostalgic southerners, spurred on by todays conservative Republicans, yearn for the “good old days” and celebrate battles and the events of the lost cause we should commemorate those events in our history that helped build the American nation.  Let us commemorate Lincoln’s two inaugurations; let us remember Antietam and Gettysburg as great battles that saved the Union.  Let us celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation that made whole the promises of the Declaration of Independence
Most of all let us be guided by the words of Abraham Lincoln when he dedicated the national cemetery at Gettysburg and declared that those who died there had died so: that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom … .



  1. Well said, and of course correct.

    But you did miss a couple things.

    1) No study or mention of secession or the Civil War should omit the South's own Ultimatums. Five Ultimatums issued by Southern leaders in Montgomery, and celebrated in Southern newspapers as "The True Issue".

    2) The slave owners did a lot more to fool the non slave owners than just shout "States Rights". For 40 years Southern states had violently suppressed free speech -- even torturing preachers who dared to own the wrong book. So virtually EVERY Southerner spent their entire lives only hearing what the government wanted them to hear.

    Both of these things -- the Southern Ultimatums, and the violent suppression of free speech for 40 years, are central.

    Southern leaders themselves shouted from the rooftops that it was the SPREAD -- S P R E A D-- of slavery that they demanded. Not the protection of it, frankly that was not an issue. They demanded, under promise of WAR, that slavery be spread.

    That is what ALL GIVE Southern Ultimatums were about. And Southern newspapers shouted out with pride about these Ultimatums.

    In fact, Richmond newspapers headlines about the Ultimatums were "THE TRUE ISSUE"

    In every US history text book, North and South, doesnt matter, we should have had on printed in the center pages, one page showing the Southern Ultimatums to spread slavery by violence. The other page Lincoln's Gettysburg address.

    If we had those two documents, announced AT the time, by the leaders themselves, much of the rancor and debate and hatred that still exists, would have been avoided.

    There is simply NO QUESTION that the SPREAD of slaver was the FIRST SECOND THIRD FOURTH demand of the Southern leaders. NO other demands. All demands were about the SPREAD of slavery.

    These demands came FROM the south. Not from the North 50 years later. They came FROM the south at the time!

    In fact, the Southern Ultimatums were a total repudiation of State's rights. The ULtimatums specifically said states had NO RIGHTS to pass ANY laws whatsoever for what happened in their OWN STATES regarding slaves, escaped slaves, and accused escaped slaves.

    The FIrst ULtimatum was that slavery be spread into Kansas (they called it "the territories" AGAINST the will of the people! Kansas people had just voted 98% to 2 % to keep slavery out forever -- yet the FIRST ultimatum was that Kansas must accept and respect slavery. Never mind what the people there wanted. Never mind that the had just fought a four year war to kick slavery out. The South's FIRST ultimatum was that slavery go into there, and stay there, and be "respected"

    Then compare that insantiy -- to Lincoln' Gettysburg address.

  2. I was not aware of the Ultimatums but you make a good point and add some history that is clearly little known - surprising since for fifty years after the Civil War most history was written by New Englanders. There is so much conflict even among the principal actors : Lee, Davis and Stephens the leaders of the South were not, except for Davis, secessionists and even Davis was not considered a fire-eater. And of course Lincoln while clear on the expansion issue rendered that great statement that if he could save the union without freeing one slave he would do so. I think we fail to get that the Civil War was a war among peoples and within people as well. And that God that the right side won even if it took one hundred years for the victory to be completed.

  3. No, the history of antebellum south was NOT written by New Englanders -- where did you get that?

    That is an exammple of an often repeated myth, that has worked it's way into article of faith by most people.

    Show me one book where New Englanders wrote about the antebellum South. Maybe you mean there were more Northern books about the war itself. Probably so, but there were plenty of books by Southerners too.

    But you need to make a distinction between books about the battles, war story type books, and books about antebellum south, and what led to the war. If you are saying Northern writers wrote more books about antebellum South, that's not the case.

    Who would need such a book anyway? There are hundreds of books by Southerners that were actually written at the time, about their issues. Books from 1830-1860 written BY Southerners about their own "current events" which are now histories.

    And ofcourse there are millions of words written by Southern newspapers at the time -- probably the best single place to learn the motivations by the Southern people themselves, as it unfolded.

    We have an advantage --Google books, Google newspapers, and other internet efforts, have uncovered a fantastic amount of writings, books, newspapers, speeches, from the South itself, at the time.

    Until the last few years, when the newspapers from the South were digitized, there really was no way for most people to examine the wealth of writing BY Southerners at the time.

    I can find, in two minutes, newspapers from Richmond, documents from Florida archives, and collections of speeches from Montgomery. I can search all of Jeff Davis books, the statements of his wife, and still be sitting in my robe drinking morning coffee.

  4. You bring up Lincoln's quote, in his letter to Greely

    Some people think you can take one quote, out of context, and have something profound, as if you just discovered the DNA evidence from a crime scene.

    Others realize Lincoln said many things at many times. You could compare this quote to that.

    Or you could be even smarter and realize context matters. If you have someone with a gun to your head, you might say a lot of things they demand you to say. So it does matter what the context was.

    Why would Lincoln emphasize Union?
    Because of reality. Because he wasn't God, he was President. He needed the help of 10-20 million other humans to keep the pressure on, till slavery breathed its last.

    Yet millions of people in the North could care less about blacks, and probably none cared enough to die to end slavery.

    There was no way to get the help of these millions of people, if he was candid about it.

    But if he framed it in terms of Union - of keeping the war going to finish the job of saving the Union- he could have that help. And keeping the Union together MEANT ending slavery, so he was not lying.

    Did you know that there were people in North, Congressmen on the floor of the US HOuse, calling for the arrest and execution of anyone who SAID that the war was about slavery?

    Let me repeat that. Because there is no way you ever heard this before -- there were Northern Congressmen were calling for the arrest and EXECUTION of anyone who said slavery had to end for the war to end. They didn't exlude the president.

    We talk today about one Southern Congressmen who called Obama a liar, at state of the union. As hateful as this was, it's a kiss on the lips compared to the venom Lincoln had to deal with - from the NORTH.

    Do you see what Lincoln was up against yet? There was, in effect, folks with a guns to Lincoln's head. Say this war is about slavery -- and we shoot it, the Northern Congressmen could have said. And did, in a way.

    Unless you realize that, you don't know what was going on.

    So Lincoln had to operate in this environment.

    Lincoln's genius was that he defeated both, SIMLUTANEOUSLY. He defeated the South, AND he defeated those in the North who claimed slavery could not be an issue.

    Shelby Foote calls Lincoln a genius, for this exact reason.

    And how could Licoln "defeat" those in the North who would call for the arrest and excuction of people who said slavery must end?

    With words.

    Which words? The letter to Greely is a perfect example of those words.