Tuesday, October 20, 2009

American Civil Wars

Photograph by Alexander Gardner, "The Harvest of Death" showing the recovery of Union dead after the battle of Cold Harbor, 1865

I do not share the popular nostalgia for the Civil War, especially among Southerners. I see it as a long drawn out catastrophe that destroyed a generation of young men in the United States. It very nearly destroyed the United States. Countries like Britain and France, whose industries depended on Southern cotton, were all too willing to intervene on the side of the planters and slave-holders, perhaps breaking the Union naval blockade, sending arms and supplies, and perhaps even sending troops to ensure Southern independence. Abraham Lincoln (and Karl Marx) rightly saw such an outcome as the end of the American Revolution in failure. Only the hard won Union victory at Antietam and the Emancipation Proclamation prevented that from happening. An independent slave-holding Confederacy would have meant a radically different world from the one we live in now; a world with no United States and a large segregated, and perhaps still slave-holding, nation in the Americas determined to expand.

I hear the yearnings for a new civil war from extremists in this country with horrified alarm. How could anyone in their right mind wish that upon their own country and their own people?
And yet, there are times when I think that the truly amazing thing about the United States is that it had only one civil war. This has always been a deeply and bitterly divided country along lines of race, class, region, religion, gender, you name it.
The central problem of American history from the beginning of the republic is who gets to be included in that opening phrase of the Constitution, "We the people of the United States..."? How do we reconcile a very egalitarian constitution with a deeply anti-egalitarian society? Those questions remain unsettled. The old question debated famously by Daniel Webster and John Calhoun over whether we are citizens first of our states or of the nation was settled in the Civil War and the 14th Amendment. Only the very far right wants to reopen that discussion.

If this country broke apart again, it would be into probably 4 or 5 separate countries, not 2. It would hardly be a clean break either since factions are no longer quite so confined to geographic areas. But then, the first break up in 1861 was hardly as tidy as the historical maps would lead us to believe. There were large populations in the North that were very sympathetic to the Southern cause, especially in border states like Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland, but also among the business classes of major cities like New York (whose mayor Fernando Wood entertained the idea of seceding from the Union and throwing in with the South). There were also large populations of Union sympathizers in the South, especially in western Virginia (which split with Virginia over secession and became West Virginia), in Texas, and even in deep South states like Mississippi and Alabama.

I look at the corruption and dysfunction in our political system, a rapacious corporate plutocracy plundering the public treasury and the national economy, the rising anger and frustration of a squeezed and shrinking middle class, the expanding and ever more desperate ranks of the poor, the prospect of a global climate with no Arctic ice cap and rising sea levels, and a clueless and tone deaf mandarin class explaining it all to the rest of us, and I am not optimistic for the future. To those who would see the opportunity for revolution in all of this, I would say that the radicals in the best position now to exploit a crisis are those on the very far right. Their vision is one of militarism and supremacy, endless wars around the world and punitive social and political policies at home.

I fear that these words spoken by Abraham Lincoln in 1838 may turn out to be prophetic:

From whence shall we expect the approach of danger? Shall some trans-Atlantic military giant step the earth and crush us at a blow? Never. All the armies of Europe and Asia...could not by force take a drink from the Ohio River or make a track on the Blue Ridge in the trial of a thousand years. No, if destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men we will live forever or die by suicide.


June Butler said...

I do not share the popular nostalgia for the Civil War, especially among Southerners.

I don't now, and I never did. I'm not nostalgic about any war.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

My father's family had a cotton mill (with child labour until 1890). This suffered during the Civil War. Today we are happy about it.