December 28, 2010

The ongoing American Civil War

Next year is the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War. Which is all fine and good. But this war seems to have never ended. I am sure all of you have heard that South Carolina southerners are already trying to sell the good old Lost Cause before the celebrations begin.

For those unfamiliar, the Lost Cause began right after the war ended. It goes essentially as follows: 1) the war wasn't over slavery. In fact, in the earliest tellings of the Lost Cause, the slaves actually preferred to be slaves and were deeply protective of their masters. Most today don't suggest that. They say that slavery was wrong, but that the south didn't fight over slavery. Or at least, over slavery alone. 2) Built on that last point, Southerners fought for honor and family, not for slavery. After all, most who took up arms for the Confederacy didn't own slaves. 3) They never had a chance to actually win. They were always out-manned and out-gunned, and it was a miracle that they accomplished what they did.

One other key point of this mythology is that Confederates saw themselves as fighting in the same spirit as the American Revolution. They were fighting for their "freedom."

I am no military historian, but I am not convinced that the South couldn't win. They came damn close. They certainly had some of the best trained generals Americans had at the time--many of whom learned their brutality and skill in the Mexican war (which included massacres of Mexican soldiers fleeing battle).

But I am as convinced as I can be that the South fought over slavery. Their secession documents say it explicitly. They scream that they are leaving the union because the North wants to take away slavery. They say that Thomas Jefferson was wrong--as were any critics of slavery. They affirm absolutely the morality of slavery and their right to do that. That was their freedom.

I kind of get those guys. They were immersed in a culture of white supremacy mixed with an underlying fear of slave rebellion. You can see that in the responses to any kind of uprising. It is total warfare and total destruction. Those slaves who dare to rebel are killed and burned and dismembered. There is fear and rage there. South Carolina, where most of this stuff comes from, was a majority black state.

So I get those guys. The very idea that slavery could be wrong would make them monstors. But I don't get the modern defenders. Or I have a hard time with it. I tire of the "south as victim" lament. Enough. The south was more wedded to their slaves than they were the American Revolution, and the North knew it. They could not make slavery an issue in the 1760s or the South would side with England. Think of that the next time you hear a Southerner waving the flag. Either one.

One clue to this stance came last week during a very thoughtful conversation with a friend about how good people can do bad things. This friend noted an ex who had cheated in their relationship, but could never accept responsibility. It violated, according to my friend, how the ex saw themselves and their morality. Cheating simply didn't match their view of themselves.

Sullivan notes a reader's response on the Haley Barbour story that goes right in hand with that, arguing that it is a tribal instinct to not see your tribe as capable of that kind of evil.

What saddens me at both the personal and the national level is that this kind of psychological denial simply keeps people from health. It keeps the cheating spouse from ever coming to grips with their moral failing and moving beyond it. And it keeps so many in our nation from ever coming to grips with the evil of our past. It doesn't have to be that way. Acknowledging the past fully without "but" is a good way to make the past relevant only to historians and buffs.


Smitty said...

I am currently slogging my way through Team of Rivals. Of the many things he book - and historians - is clear about, it is abundantly clear that secession was about slavery. It is in their documents of secession and is laced throughout diary entries, speeches and the like.

It was partly economic, for sure. Without slaves, the South would be outpaced by the North. The truth is that it already *was* outpaced by the North, and the North essentially said "look, drop this whole slave thing and let it die out, OK?" And the South, clear that slavery was their right and a necessity (and a support for their meaningless "genteel" society built on slavery), tried to push it even in the opening western territories.

Was it the North's fault that the South never let go of their agrarian slave-based economy? No. The North did just fine without it. ANd the South wanted to betray the union and leave because of it. ANd to this day, the Haley Barbours of the world are still traitors.

gblackwell said...

Have you been following the NYT's Disunion blog? It's been fascinating for me. Just about to catch up today.

gblackwell said...

This entry (I'm a bit behind) is particularly interesting in relation to your post today. I was born in South Carolina. Sometimes I don't want to admit it.

Streak said...

Thanks fornthe NYT blog and that great bit on dancing around history. Spot on, and highlights how slaveowners used the threat of emancipation to cow non-slave holding whites.

leighton said...

People tend to think of things in black and white terms; either things are completely good and praiseworthy, or they are worthless. I think this accounts for a lot of the attempts to rehabilitate the nastier parts of the South's heritage (here's another blatant one in Virginia, btw). All-or-nothing thinking isn't just a conservative problem, incidentally; I know plenty of liberals who are happy to assume anyone born south of the Mason-Dixon line is a bigoted yokel.

It would be a lot easier to improve things if people gave up thinking they had to either completely endorse or completely oppose something as complicated as a heritage. I think I've mentioned before that on my dad's side of the family, we are descended from the son Henry VIII fathered with 14-year-old Agnes Blewitt. I think it's fair for me to be grateful that my family exists, and still be wholly opposed to child rape.