Why Americans Have To Let The Civil War Die
History is typically written by the victors, who try to claim some moral high ground to justify the evil they did to win.
At a moment so many voices are warning of America’s imminent slide into a weird repeat of the Civil War, it is incredibly dangerous that partisans on both sides are twisting the worst conflict in American history for their own ends.
The lies partisans tell about history don’t come in the form of outright fabrication of events. They do it mostly through elevating certain facts over others in a systematic way, then convincing anyone who will listen their story is the only one.
Trouble with history is that what records are produced and survive are terribly sparse compared to the actual lived experiences of real everyday people. And even when scholars think they are being honest and unbiased, their own cultural beliefs always color their analysis to some degree.
This leaves history open to being deployed as a potent weapon in political fights. In politics people tend to root their arguments about the way the world should be in some particular vision of how it was in the past.
Politics is never impartial, because it’s about deciding who wins and who loses on some level. There are no real rules to the game of politics except winning, and all norms — even critical ones like accepting when you lose an election — are maintained only through consent in the long run.
And so history is rarely if ever totally impartial. People naturally struggle over how to understand the past, and this conflict leads to fights over even seemingly boring, mundane matters like determining what facts may be brought into evidence in a historical debate.
Because of the political power of history and the unique way America’s political coalitions are structured today, the American Civil War has been deliberately abused for over a century to advance political agendas on both sides of the two-party doom loop. What should be remembered solely as a horrific tragedy brought about by political elites who used millions of people as pawns in their struggle for power is recalled day in and day out in today’s America.
The issue is so charged that how you even talk about the Civil War immediately places you on a side in the eyes of most partisans, and both teams do all they can to eviscerate any possibility of nuance or middle ground.
Among Democrats it is an article of faith that the Civil War was entirely about slavery. In their view, a group of states in the South seceded from the Union in order to keep Black people as slaves. The states of the Northern Union fought this Southern Confederacy to free the slaves, a task finally achieved on Juneteenth, when Texas came under Union military occupation after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
Republicans, by contrast, hold that the Civil War was actually about state’s rights. Facing political domination by the more densely populated North which never respected Southern culture or the Southern way of life, the Confederacy was an armed rebellion against the federal government finally put down with extreme violence by invading Union armies who ransacked and burned their way to victory.
Both stories are deliberately selective interpretations of the truth that leave out important context.
In reality, virtually all talk about the Civil War isn’t about the actual conflict itself, but competing romanticized visions of it. These different angles to the story that were each constructed in opposition to the other mostly a century after the fighting had ended in response to political debates underway in the middle of the twentieth century
The truth about the Civil War is that both sides have latched onto a half memory of the thing. The Civil War did involve a conflict over state’s rights — to allow slavery. But this fact alone fails to encapsulate what the broader war was truly about.
Wars between political factions aren’t waged over principles or beliefs. These are justifications used to mobilize their people and motivate them to fight instead of working out a peaceful solution. Once a fight has begun people are more likely to become conservative when it comes to questioning their own side, lest they be associated with the enemy. Conflict short-circuits rational long-term thinking, which is why leaders adore it.
War always boils down to one thing in the end: control over resources. America’s history has been one of unceasing war between factions.
America was founded as a settler colony, with the successful among the first waves of settlers using their power over resources taken from the indigenous peoples to exploit those who came after. The early history of America is totally dominated by the emerging colonial elite class and its desperate need for an ever expanding labor force to work the land so the wealthy could send taxes back to the British crown while getting even richer.
In the North, the landholders mostly relied on indentured servitude, a form of temporary slavery that created perverse incentives for employers to work their bound employees to death. Those who survived needed land to support themselves, so they were sent out to fight the Indians and expand the frontier.
In the South and the Middle colonies around cosmopolitan, trade-oriented Chesapeake Bay, African slaves offered a different source of exploitable labor. These were chattel slaves, made “legally” property under racist European legal codes and traded for tobacco, cotton, sugar, and other labor-intensive crops.
Economically, slavery is a stupid and self-destructive nightmare that always empowers a small elite class at the expense of the rest of society. This didn’t stop the plantation owners from embracing it, making their economic position dependent on being able to make people do simple repetitive work in conditions where a small force of armed guards could maintain control. Better yet if the neighbors could be convinced to report and detain escapees too.
In some circumstances a clever, slave owner aware that maintaining his human capital stock’s health made it more productive over time, would in some visible ways care for their slaves better than they might a poor white neighbor. This was a self-interested move that may have helped assuage their Christian consciences but also helped stoke useful animosity between Black slave and poor white freeholder whose land they had probably taken over.
By contrast, the Northern model that emerged out of indentured servitude, wage labor, is far superior for the capital owner in the long run because the system makes workers complicit in their own subjugation. Give people even a shred of hope and they’ll work hard, pretending they are set to receive their just reward in time — right up until they die a pauper in a ditch somewhere.
Chattel slavery, by contrast, offers no way out, no hope of betterment, and breeds a police state beset by constant rebellion and resistance. Slaves remain humans with intrinsic rights no matter what any law says, and can recognize their common plight and organize to resist it whenever out of the sight of their tormentors. And such opportunities always emerge— repression always leaves gaps because, frankly, it’s boring and dehumanizing work to oversee and beat other people. That’s how slaves found gaps to escape all the time, often setting up free communities in hidden places.
To keep a slaver society going in the long run the plantation elites had to perpetually accomplish two core objectives:
- Create a repressive social infrastructure effective at keeping Blacks down and poor whites angry at them
- Eliminate the possibility of safe places for escapees
Shifting economic and social trends were making this more difficult throughout the nineteenth century. Abolitionism was on the rise in the North and industrializing Europe, leading to a ban on slave imports from Africa backed by military patrols to interdict slavers. Slavery was dooming itself as an institution, partly because of its brutal inefficiencies and also because growing plantations kept lands out of the hands of more productive freeholders who resented the plantation owners’ power.
Political conflict was, as you might expect, rising in intensity both within and between states throughout the decade prior to the Civil War. In the North, the wealthy elites who relied on exploited wage labor had a great thing going and knew it — the economy of the North and Middle states was industrializing and booming. The South was stuck in the past, yet its elites knew their continued political power absolutely depended on there being as many Slave as Free states to keep the Senate divided.
The Presidential Election of 1860 was simply the breaking point, the overdue collapse of a system that being ripped apart by its own internal contradictions. Lincoln was not, in fact, an abolitionist — but his election depended on the support of millions of people who would not accept the continued existence of slavery.
Southern elites and their pet politicians had forced through federal laws requiring people in the North to take actions they felt were morally abhorrent, like having to report escaped slaves. The Confederacy formed from a core of states that were, in effect, trying to use the federal government, the Union, to bully the rest. Abolitionists in the north had themselves actually begun to oppose the Union for this very reason.
However, the Confederacy’s growth in the months after Lincoln’s inauguration was not preordained, but a result of understandable yet consequential actions taken by the Union. Today, the history of the Civil War seems inevitable — but that is a function of the explicit politicization of it’s memory.
A vital truth about the Civil War neither side likes to talk about is the plain simple fact that there were not two distinct sides at the outset — America was always more complex than that. Possibilities for a more peaceful resolution to the conflict and the abolition of slavery were destroyed by missteps on the part of both sides.
When Lincoln was elected, the core plantation states of the South seceded to form the Confederacy. These did not include the most important state to eventually join the South, Virginia, heart of the Confederate war effort in the years to come.
That only came about after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, which led Lincoln to call up tens of thousands of soldiers to retake federal property in the rebelling states.
That was the point Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas joined the Confederacy, dramatically increasing its power. Though slave states, their leaders could only make the jump to join the secessionists once open violent war had become inevitable, reducing the possibilities to either a Union dominated by fast growing Northern cities and the wealthy industrial elites who dominated them or the slavery-obsessed Confederacy.
Did they make the moral choice? No. But the fact of the matter is the choices were not as clear then as they seem today, when the outcome is known and many hoped for alternative ways to get rid of slavery and keep the Union working that didn’t involve violence. Few wanted the Civil War and both the Union and Confederacy came close to collapsing because of it — a far worse history than the already bad one America experienced could have been.
In any case, Lincoln’s aggressive military response to the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter is interesting when you consider the claim made by many that the Union fought the war to end slavery. Lincoln did not send in federal forces at any point to protect slaves themselves, and indeed this objective only emerged during the course of the long, bloody, bitter conflict.
That slavery was finally abolished in America is a function of the Union’s final victory — there no doubting that.
What should be questioned is the modern-day Democratic Party’s implicit claim to be continuing the heritage of a Union that sacrificed hundreds of thousands of lives on a moral crusade. It simply isn’t true, and the Democratic Party pushes this myth because it serves their interests, creating a bond with Black voters they have long relied on to win elections even when they don’t do that much for their constituents once elected, always having their Republican foil to count on to prevent any real change.
Truth is that Abraham Lincoln, as President of an oligarchic Republic built in overt imitation of Rome that didn’t even let women vote, was as beholden to powerful elites as he was the 40% of Americans who voted for him. The Confederate assault on Fort Sumter shocked wealthy Northern elites into supporting a military conflict to preserve the Union and their own power, not liberate Black slaves.
Now the Confederacy is obviously far from guiltless, as for all its latter-day Republican apologists’ insistence that it was defending itself against Union domination the Confederacy was the first to engage in violence. Invading the Union and working to install friendly governments in border states were also fairly egregious acts of war.
My point is that there is always a critical distinction between political elites and the people they lead. Many people in the South opposed the Confederacy. They had little choice about what side they were on once war broke out — some left for the north, but not all had that option.
The Civil War was not a clean split between North and South, Union and Confederacy. These were the two largest and most coherent factions, with supporters on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, and splinter factions were present in many states. Who was in charge in each state capitol determined what side it would come down on.
It is easy to forget that in those days Americans identified much more strongly with their individual states than they do today. Americans today have grown up in an era where the federal government seemed omnipresent —partly because it is possible to travel to the federal capitol from anywhere in the United States in a matter of hours and Presidents can appear on screens right in front of us.
This offers the illusion of proximity to power that politicians exploit to get support. That closeness is why people pay thousands of dollars for a plate at a donor dinner — this is a way of translating wealth into political power.
So when people today look back and make moral judgements about the regular people caught up in the nightmare — well, whatever side they’re on I sincerely wish they would shut the hell up. Particularly when they’re talking about soldiers.
Hate on the generals of the day as much as you like, but never forget that most of the people who wound up fighting didn’t have much choice in the matter.
In the South, men were hounded into service by allegations of cowardice or simply conscripted, leaving their families behind — about 40% of them forever. In the North, rich men paid to avoid service while immigrants from Ireland were yanked off the docks and sent straight into the Army. More soldiers died of disease than enemy contact so pitiful was the state of battlefield medicine — a function of the fact there were always more poor men to feed into the grinder, until for the Confederacy there weren’t.
Union and Confederate soldiers both served under mostly inept, glory-hungry generals who sent wave after wave to die in pointless pitched battles. The high casualties in the fighting are evidence of the astonishing incompetence of American generalship on both sides. In the Civil War you can plainly see the origins of America’s willingness to send the poor to be slaughtered on behalf of their wealthy masters.
The Civil War was a nightmare that millions endured because two groups of elites couldn’t play nice. One was engaged in abhorrent practices that had to be stopped, absolutely. But the Union’s elites didn’t press the war to its conclusion out of concern for anybody’s rights.
The Union fought the Civil War solely to maintain the Union — Abolition came because enough people in the Union demanded it. Had the 1860 election gone a different way and a group of Northern states seceded to form an Abolitionist Confederation the story of the conflict would have been much the same.
Had the end of slavery been the true objective of the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation would not have freed only slaves in Confederate states Washington D.C. had no active control over. This proclamation was a tactic used in service of the conflict, an attempt to destabilize the economic base of the South through fomenting slave rebellions and escapes.
That isn’t to say it was bad, just that its purpose was not as noble as later historians have made it out to be. There are no heroes in politics, not even Abe Lincoln.
This practical purpose is why the Border states that still allowed slavery but were under Union control were not covered. The slaves there — many fewer than in the South, to be sure, but not nobody— had to wait for the end of the war and the Fourteenth Amendment.
And though this ended slavery, it did nothing to guarantee Black people could have the full freedoms due to all peoples everywhere. They were never even given the forty acres and a mule vital to establishing themselves in a property-obsessed settler-colony like America.
Instead, they were forced to join the general wage labor pool where they competed with poor white families, many of whom had lost some or all of their men to the war and were fighting to survive in a country wrecked by the war. The surviving elites of the Confederacy weaponized that tension to reinforce the South’s old caste system, preserving their power until they could get on with the the program of adopting the industrialized state capitalism of the North.
Black people were left fighting their neighbors, former oppressors, and negligence of a federal government that, once its precious unity was restored, swiftly went back to the business of Manifest Destiny and indigenous genocide. Jim Crow created a new legal foundation for repression, and the Northern elite tolerated it because so long as the federal government remained supreme, all was well.
Only the constant resistance of Black Americans from their enslavement to today has ever altered their material condition in America. Black soldiers in segregated units in World War Two returned with the organizational skills and knowledge they were equal to or better than any white man, which sparked the Civil Rights movement that finally — partially — undid Jim Crow, not white liberal democrats who have forgotten the party used to stand for slavery, not abolition.
America’s myths about the Civil War are bad enough, but to see them resurrected and weaponized as they are today is gut wrenching. Instead of the tragedy it, like all violent conflicts, should be remembered as, each side is glorifying it in their own ways.
Doing so they denigrate and dishonor the memories of the slain, who I suspect if given the chance would beg of us:
Don’t do this again. Don’t let them make you fight for them.
Never, ever again.
You want to push back against the hatred and bigotry threatening life in America? Reject America’s national elites, North and South, Red and Blue— their stories, their culture, their beliefs. Ignore any and all efforts to convince you to fear your neighbors.
Under the surface of history is a deep truth: ideologies come and go, but people endure. And their stories, hidden from the eyes of the powerful, are what really drive the world.
The American Civil War is a more complex and tragic beast than Americans are taught. The only good guys in this sad story are the slaves, whose stolen blood gives their descendants the right to all those lands held by the oppressors.
Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses Grant, Robert Lee — destroy their statues, eviscerate their memories. They failed, and people died. Let them all be forgotten, and justice done to their victims.