150 years ago word was spreading that on April 12 Confederate traitors attacked the United States by firing upon Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. By this time on April 13, 1861 folks had just learned or were about to learn that the war had come and that the future of America and its experiment with democracy was on the line. It was a time to decide what side you were on. Ulysses S. Grant spelled out the choice in a letter written a few days later:
We are now in the midst of trying times when every one must be for or against his country, and show his colors too, by his every act. [snip]
Whatever may have been my political opinions before, I have but one sentiment now. That is, we have a Government, and laws and a flag, and they must all be sustained. There are but two parties now, traitors and patriots and I want hereafter to be ranked with the latter, and I trust, the stronger party.
Of course, the traitors had a different view, and so the war came.
What the people who lived through 1861 actually felt and did is very different from our understanding of why they acted. Earlier today on Fresh Air, Terry Gross interviewed historian Adam Goodheart about his new book, 1861: The Civil War Awakening. Goodheart made the uncertainty of the people who lived through 1861 the focus of his research. The interview is well worth a listen and I’ve put the book on my list.
People in 1861 confronting the news of Fort Sumter understood why the war had come. In the South, it was all about protecting the institution of slavery and notions of white supremacy. For abolitionists and African Americans it was about freedom and ending slavery. And for most Northerners (and quite a few Southerners in different communities throughout the CSA), it was about preserving the union–which was a very real thing and a cause that more than 360,000 (mostly volunteers) were willing to die to defend.
Today we all know how the War ended. It is history and popular culture. And yet, most of what we know about the Civil War has been filtered through narratives that grew up long after the war ended.
The strongest and wrongest of these narratives is the “Lost Cause” narrative–the idea that Confederate traitors were honorable and fighting for a noble cause that was lost because the damn Yankees did not play fair and overwhelmed Confederates with their greed, hired hands and willingness to butcher folks without care.
Only slightly different than the “Lost Cause” bullshit, is the “Reconciliation” narrative. This filter makes North and South equal in honor and courage. In this spin we fought a four-year war where around 620,000 people died, but the reasons why we fought no longer matter. Nobody was to blame–shit just happened. We was just high or something, but now we are all good and cool and stuff. As the 1800s turned into the 1900s the thing that was reconciled between the North and the South was racism–the idea of white supremacy. That is at the heart of the “Reconciliation” narrative and why in many ways it is more odious than the “Lost Cause” nonsense.
It is tragic that the dominant filters for the Civil War are the “Lost Cause” and “Reconciliation” narratives, as these narratives suck all nobility, meaning, value and honor out of the Civil War. Both are mostly haphazard justifications for white supremacy and that is a cause that is always without honor. In their control of our popular cultural narrative of the Civil War from Birth of a Nation to the Ken Burns Civil War PBS series to the upcoming Robert Redford film, The Conspirator, these narratives obscure, twist and erase from history why so many Americans were willing to die for their Country when they learned that traitors had attack the Nation of April 12, 1861.
The Emancipation narrative is pretty much the only noble Civil War narrative that is still remembered from time to time. This casts the struggle as a conflict to end slavery and free African Americans from bondage. There was truth to this narrative in 1861 and there still is today. This was why many folks–especially 200,000 plus black Union troops–took up arms. The Emancipation Proclamation made this a clear goal of the War and casting the stuggle as a fight to end slavery ennobled America, but only to a point. The glory of ending slavery gave way to the all too brief Reconstruction period that was followed by over 100 years of domestic state-sponsored terrorism directed at former slaves and their decedents. Only now is a century and a half of post Civil War racism winding down–and this toxic sludge is by no means out of the American political system (the Birther shit is just one fresh example).
In 1861 there was another noble narrative for the Civil War, but today it has been dismissed, discounted and all but forgotten. When word of the attack on Fort Sumter reached most Americans they reacted like U. S. Grant–they resolved to fight to preserve the Union. Yeah, I know, everybody has heard that phrase before and “preserve the Union” has lost all meaning, but in April 1961 it was something worth dying for. It mattered.
The world 150 years ago was not like the world today. Back then almost every effort of citizens–all around the world–to establish a democratic government had failed. Many have compared the recent push for Democracy in Arab states to what happened in Europe in 1848. There was a series of revolutions–like the revolution of 1776–to put the people in charge of their government. It was exciting, but by 1861 virtually all those efforts had failed and Nation after Nation was governed by either re-established Royalty or a small group of oligarchs who seized power and now controlled everything.
The American notion of Constitutional Democracy was a rarity in the world. It was fragile and in 1861 the Confederate traitors threatened to destroy what Lincoln rightly called “the last best hope of earth”. For many in the loyal States and territories it was clear that Confederate slave owners wanted to establish a Government based on oligarchical power and the kind of rigid economic cast system that existed all around the world. By 1861, America was the place where people came to escape despotic governments and now the Confederates sought to snuff out that beacon of hope. Preserving the Union was worth fighting for and thankfully millions of Americans in the 1860s thought like Grant.
Later this month another Civil War book will come out. It is The Union War by historian Gary W. Gallagher. Professor Gallagher has been researching why the narrative of Preserving the Union has been lost in our understanding of the Civil War. You can watch some recent lectures by him here, here and here. He is quite good and I’m looking forward to this effort to reclaim our understanding of the Civil War from the toxic sludge of the “Lost Cause” and “Reconciliation” narratives. It can’t come too soon IMHO.
What is interesting about the Union narrative of the Civil War is how important the experiment in our Constitutional Democracy was to people in 1861. It was a serious matter and the transgression of the Confederates was their refusal to respect the Constitution. By 1861 the slave owners had been making demands of the rest of the Nation for decades–since the Founding of the Nation really. And every demand was met with compromise from 1776 to 1860. And each time a compromise was met, the slavers demanded more. And each demand of more was met with another effort to compromise. But when they lost an election in 1860 the Confederates decided that they would rather blow the whole American experiment up if they could not get their way. And so the War came.
Today, the descendants of the Confederate Party ironically control Lincoln’s old Party. And once again they respond to set-backs with tantrums and threats to destroy the Nation if they do not get their way. Once again we face a choice between Confederates who seek to end the American experiment and establish oligarchical rule vs those who want to preserve the Union. And once again the future of America and its experiment with democracy is on the line. As Ulysses S. Grant did 150 years ago, it is time to decide what side you are on and to remember his advice:
We are now in the midst of trying times when every one must be for or against his country, and show his colors too, by his every act.
Grant’s call to arms from April of 1861 rings true again today and should be remembered as the neo-Confederates try to convert America from a Constitutional Democracy to a Galtian fantasyland run by “worthy” and “serious” elites.