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The Civil War and a Legacy of Slavery: Perception and Relativism and Political Opportunism

This week marks the beginning of the American Civil War Sesquicentennial, so Ken Burns was on the news this morning discussing  his Civil War  documentary. And as I listened to the discussion, I started thinking, too, about my own changing perceptions around arguably the seminal event in our nation’s history.

I grew up in the North. Well, the northern and middle parts of the Midwest, really, but what was most definitely part of the North in “North and South.” I went to integrated schools, grew up learning the speeches of our greatest hero, Abraham Lincoln, and I knew that the right side won and the wrong side lost the Civil War. I had never been to the South, I didn’t know anyone from the South, I had only a vague idea of what the South was. Truth be told, my perception of the region was almost entirely based on pictures of the Civil Rights-era South I’d seen in my schoolbooks. Black bodies hanging from trees. The National Guard at the door of the school. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking to the striking sanitation workers in Selma the day before he was assassinated, 43 years past yesterday. Twisted faces, screaming faces, faces in pain from the rope, the firehoses, the fires. Everything, everything burning.

This is also not to say that I thought people were bad, or evil, in the South. I didn’t. I just understood that South was a place where bad things happened to you if you were a black person, a place that had bad ideas about what should happen to black people, and that that is why they lost the war.

Then I grew up, and learned more. I learned that our Founding Fathers owned slaves, and that some of them even fathered children with those slaves. I learned that many Southerners did not own slaves, and that they fought for other reasons, like their brothers or their fathers or their cousins or their friends were fighting, or that they didn’t like the North telling them what to do, or that they were made to fight by the people they worked for. I learned that some Northerners could have cared less about the slavery issue, and that they were fighting because their brothers or fathers or etc, or to save the Union, or because a rich guy who didn’t want to fight paid them to go in his place.

I learned that the South was not what I pictured, though sometimes, occasionally, parts could be still be shockingly close, and that a city in the North could be as much a bastion of racism in many ways as a rural town in the South. I learned that there are different ways of being racist, different ways to oppress people and keep them down.

I moved to DC, which is not the South but is filled with and surrounded by Southerners. I was astounded to find a highway called Jefferson Davis Highway. I was astounded to find some people who thought the wrong side won the Civil War, who sometimes even called it something else, like the War of Northern Aggression. I was flabbergasted to learn that Abraham Lincoln isn’t a hero everywhere. In my head, I kept thinking, get over it! But of course, I hadn’t grown up in a place famous for or so familiar with defeat. I hadn’t grown up in an area which still has largely not recovered from the total devastation of its economy and its way of life. I don’t even have ancestors that fought in the Civil War, because they were still back in Ireland and Sweden and England. No one in my family ever owned slaves, nor was a slave. (Though my Irish ancestors may have been close.) I have no idea what it’s like to grow up with all that dark history, how much it gets into your head and screws with you even though you had nothing to do with it. I think a lot about the Civil War (I’m a history buff, as most of you probably know by now, so I really, honestly do) and about my own perceptions, how the winner writes the history books, and how far cultural memory can be bent, or twisted, to fit what you think you already know.

However. Cultural relativism only goes so far. And I’m worried that the Tea Partiers and others are going to try to politically hijack a time that should be about solemn reflection and conversation about race relations then and now, and try to make it be about states’ rights. To tie in the perceived “Northern Aggression” to Barack Obama and Big Government. You already hear some of that now, from some lawmakers. People arguing that the Civil War was not about slavery, it was about states’ rights. And not  just Southerners, either. Michele Bachmann, you probably remember, recently applauded our Founding Fathers for working “tirelessly until slavery was no more.” And she’s from Minnesota!

Why I am concerned? Why do I care? Because to say that the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery isn’t true, and to say it marginalizes the conflict at the heart of the bloodiest war in American history. To say it makes it sound like so many Americans gave up their lives for something petty, something purely theoretical and partisan, for the same kind of bitter political battles we’re fighting today. To say it makes the tragic scope of the War less tragic, less meaningful, and to say it means we lose the perspective that we gained at the cost of so much lost life. To say it means to downplay the entire history of race relations in this country, which has been shaped almost entirely by slavery, the Civil War, and its aftermath. To say it is to pretend there is no context for those pictures of those black bodies hanging on trees. To pretend the South was burning for no reason at all.

Some people did fight for states’ rights, sure, and states’ rights had been at the heart of many issues since the founding of the union. But states’ rights to do what, exactly? In the case of the Civil War, it was the RIGHT TO OWN SLAVES.  For some it was an economic question, for some, a moral question, but the Civil War would not have been fought if it weren’t for the issue of slavery. You would find very few historians who’d say otherwise.

Some historians question Lincoln’s concern for slaves as a central issue, and this seems to be an open question. Fair enough. But his first concern was for keeping the Union together, and why was the Union splitting apart? Why did the South secede? Because an anti-slavery, pro-abolition president was elected. Because of slavery. So you can argue that Lee didn’t want to secede but did because of duty, or that Lincoln didn’t give a shit about slaves (which I personally don’t believe) but either way it doesn’t matter because slavery was the great bloody stain on our nation and represented the great conflict in the American collective soul. The shadow of slavery darkened our young nation’s claims of freedom for all, and begged for, had in fact been begging for resolution since Thomas Jefferson first wrote that “all men are created equal” then went home and had sex with his slave. As Ken Burns noted this morning, Four million Americans were owned by other Americans. PEOPLE OWNED MILLIONS OF OTHER PEOPLE. This could not go on. The dam was going to burst.

Last year, my husband and I visited Gettysburg. We drove around the memorials honoring the dead from various regiments from states across the country, and we stopped in a way that is very unlike us to snap pictures of the memorial for the fallen Minnesota soldiers. We were incredibly moved at the idea of these young men, probably farm kids who’d never been away from home, traveling halfway across the country to die in a strange place, among strangers, for an idea. We felt an incredible sense of pity for the Confederate soldiers massacred as they advanced as part of Pickett’s Charge, and for the families who saw their loved ones’ names on the long, long death rolls afterwards. We walked the graveyards where the veterans and victims of many wars are buried. We stood on the spot where Lincoln delivered his  Gettysburg address. We felt the grey mood, the awful loss of life hang heavy over the battlefields still, even on a green and sunny spring day. And we did not feel some sort of anger at the Confederates, or a rage against the South. We did not think, Oh, they were wrong and we were right. How could you, in a place like that? We did not think of the dead as anything but the dead, the dreadful price paid for keeping our young nation together.

I hope our nation’s most terrible conflict will not become the means for some of trying to divide that nation once more. I hope we can all think about our preconceived notions, about our inherited memory and our nation’s greatest guilt. I hope we can remember this terrible tragedy in a useful way that does not heap greater shame on us all.  I hope we can understand that while there were good guys and bad guys on both sides, the right cause won. And that’s something we can all be glad of. Because when then-Candidate Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” he was more than right. He saw the house would fall and hoped that he would see it rise again. We could not have survived half-slave and half-free.  The Civil War, whatever else you think of it, must be the necessary war.  It was necessary for slavery to die. It was necessary for true freedom to rise, and our nation to live.

  • Amber Sparks's work has been featured or is forthcoming in various places, including New York Tyrant, Unsaid, Gargoyle, Annalemma and PANK. She is also the fiction editor at Emprise Review, and lives in Washington, DC with a husband and two beasts.

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