The Civil War is back in the news again, with reports that the New Orleans City Council voted to dismantle statues of Jefferson Davis, P.G.T. Beauregard, and Robert E. Lee along with a memorial to the 1874 anti-Reconstruction Battle of Liberty Place.
My wife and I went through a bit of a Civil War kick recently, showing Glory and Lincoln to our kids and then watching Ken Burns’ 1990 documentary series, listening to the audiobook of Team of Rivals, and (in my case) reading Jim McPherson’s very short recent biography of Lincoln (highly recommended) and bits and pieces of his long 1988 Civil War history Battle Cry of Freedom and the endless watering holes of Civil War-related speeches, essays, Wikipedia articles, and photographs you can find online. The American Civil War is almost a national pasttime, and you can spend weeks immersed in this fairly short period in the mid-19th century practically without coming up for air. In my own mental time, the 2012 election, or the 2011 Libya intervention seem like just yesterday, while the periods from Lincoln’s 1860 election or the raid on Harper’s Ferry to Appomattox and the end of the War seem much longer. No doubt they seemed long to the people involved at the time.
The Civil War is obviously engaging in part because there is so much material available- you couldn’t make an equivalent documentary to Ken Burns about the Napoleonic Wars because there aren’t the endless photographs of soldiers and politicians and dead bodies, that create the sense of intimacy with people who lived such different lives than our own, quite aside from all the love letters and newspaper clippings and battleside memoirs that give the era its literary romance. But also, as the New Orleans issue shows, or as any of the many Civil War and slavery-related controversies at colleges over the last several years suggest, the Civil War is still unarguably central to being American and to arguments over what America is, was, and should be.
I have, and had, and came away from more reading about the Civil War with fairly conventional views: it was about slavery, and not states’ rights, but the North not only didn’t go into it with any expectation of abolition, abolition was to a large extent the result of Northern failure rather than success. Southern slavery was more profitable than any comparable system in the world, and the Southern ruling class was for this reason sincerely committed to its extension, and the expansion of slavery across new territory, and a kind of nationalism around the slaveholding way of life; the success of the Mexican War had suggested that a new Latin American empire of slavery was a real possibility. As Lincoln wrote to his friend Alexander Stephens, soon to be the Vice-President of the Confederacy, in late 1860:
Do the people of the South really entertain fears that a Republican administration would, directly, or indirectly, interfere with their slaves, or with them, about their slaves? If they do, I wish to assure you, as once a friend, and still, I hope, not an enemy, that there is no cause for such fears.
The South would be in no more danger in this respect, than it was in the days of Washington. I suppose, however, this does not meet the case. You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us.*
But the election of Lincoln on an anti-slavery (albeit not at all abolitionist) platform was enough to push the South into secession. And the brilliance of Confederate commanders and the incompetence of Northern political hacks was enough to extend what was expected to be a short war into a total war, with rifled barrels and trench warfare, rapid-fire carbines and mechanized warfare on land and sea, the devastation of Southern civilian infrastructure, the mobilization of the greater part of the young male populace and the industrial might of the North, and over 600,000 dead. It was also enough to end slavery, and to turn enough Northern politicians into abolitionists to pass the 13th Amendment, and then to pass the 14th and 15th after the war. Even Lincoln himself had argued over and over against equal Negro citizenship in his anti-slavery speeches before the war, but a few days before his death he called for the vote for literate freedmen and for black Union veterans. (John Wilkes Booth was in the audience for this speech, and it evidently made up his mind about assassinating the president.) The War changed Lincoln, too.
As McPherson writes in his short biography:
Lincoln did not live to see the final ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. Yet the future shape of a disenthralled United States was clear enough by November 19, 1863, for Lincoln to proclaim “a new birth of freedom” in the address he delivered at the commemoration of a cemetery at Gettysburg for Union soldiers killed in the battle there. The most famous speech in American history, it was only 272 words in length and took two minutes to deliver. This elegant prose poem is constructed of three parallel sets of three images each that are intricately interwoven: past, present, future; continent, nation, battlefield; and birth, death, rebirth. Four score and seven years in the past our fathers conceived and brought forth on this continent a nation that stood for something important in the world: the proposition that all men are created equal. Now, our generation faces a great war testing whether such a nation standing for such an ideal can survive. In dedicating the cemetery on this battlefield, the living must take inspiration to finish the task that those who lie buried here nobly advanced by giving the last full measure of their devotion. Life and death in this passage have a paradoxical relationship: men died that the nation might live, yet the old Union also died, and with it must die the institution of slavery. After these deaths, the nation must have a “new birth of freedom” so that government of, by, and for the people that our fathers conceived and brought forth in the past “shall not perish from the earth” but be preserved as a legacy for the future…
I had a pretty clear picture of Lincoln in my head before the last few months- who doesn’t?- but I hadn’t thought much about William Tecumseh Sherman before watching Ken Burns’s documentary series. If Lincoln provided the rhetorical framing for what the rebuilt country might look like, Sherman showed that ultimately, like any country in a Hobbesian dog-eat-dog world, America’s power rested on its capacity for violence- in Sherman’s case, ruthless, unrelenting violence and destructive capacity. We are so used to America’s ability to dominate the world militarily that it’s easy to forget it started somewhere, and hard not to think it came in large part from the mobilization of the North and the willingness of Sherman (and other 1863-1865 Northern generals like Phil Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley) to salt the earth of the South rather than let secession take root again. “I was satisfied and have been all the time, that the problem of war consists in the awful fact that the present class of men who rule the south must be killed outright than in conquest of territory,” he wrote to Sheridan. “War is cruelty,” he said to a Confederate woman. “There is no use trying to reform it; the crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.” Both observations strike me as correct.
American power, wrapped in our successive layers of democratizing rhetoric, often appears to operate “not by the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals,” as Obama stated in his Grant Park acceptance speech in 2008, but Obama was wrong. American power might be buttressed by shared belief in democratic legitimacy, it might be that the world is more peaceful because the United Nations and the rest of the American-founded international relations establishment appear to act in not entirely capricious ways, because diplomacy has more ways of trying and failing than it did before, but ultimately the United States is the most powerful country in the world and most sensible countries are reluctant to get in our way or disobey the American-led “international community” because we obliterated Dresden and Hiroshima and could do it ten times tomorrow before breakfast. This might appear to endorse American interventionism, but it actually does the reverse: if America wins by fighting total wars of immense destruction then when we try to fight a limited, democratizing, liberating war, we should expect to lose. War is Hell, as Sherman told West Point cadets several years after the war.
What does this have to do with tearing down Confederate monuments? If it’s not clear, I don’t have much trouble being on the Northern “side” of the conflict. But there’s a sense in which choosing a side, or at least sensing that there were once sides to be chosen, is a great privilege of being an American interrogating the past. I’d much rather see museums to slavery and memorials to slavery’s victims put up all over the South than all the Robert E. Lees toppled down, and I’d much rather that someone walking through Harvard or Princeton learns about slavery as the central political question of the long American 19th century, resolved (partially, incompletely, failingly) through strife and strain and sacrifice, than as a dirty secret exposed only to condemn the past. The truth, as Sherman might remind us, is that one side won and that sympathy with the losers is sympathy with traitorous madmen. But Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston showed up at Sherman’s funeral. “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it,” Sherman told Atlanta’s mayor in 1864. “But when peace does come, you may call on me for anything. Then I will share with you the last cracker.”
Perhaps the hardest thing to share, even in peace, however, is the past.