Monday, September 5, 2011

Southern Dispatch

This year is the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War—or, as it's sometimes called down where I'm from, The Late Unpleasantness. The anniversary is being observed in a number of ways, most notably in a temporary boom in books on the subject, and also in the New York Times' remarkable Disunion project, which uses contemporary sources to discuss little-known aspects of the conflict and to show how the War appeared to contemporaries as it happened.

The war was the crucible of modern American identity: whatever Rick Perry would have you think, it settled forever the question of whether being a Virginian, a New Yorker, or a Texan trumped being an American. It ended slavery, accelerated American industrialization, and was in some ways a dress rehearsal for the even bloodier wars of the twentieth century.

In spite of the fact that the original declarations of secession were quite clear about the Southern states' reasons for leaving the Union (look here to see the declarations of disunion for South Carolina—the state that started it all— Mississippi, Georgia, and Texas), there are those who still dispute the causes of the war. Many white Southerners and ohter latter-day Confederate sympathizers refuse to acknowledge the war was about slavery. It is true that many Federal soldiers fought simply to save the Union. It is true that Lincoln didn't issue the Emancipation proclamation until two years after the war began. I have no doubt it is also true that many Southern soldiers enlisted and fought simply because their states were being invaded. But that doesn't change the fact that the election as President of a member of the Republican party, a party officially opposed to the expansion of slavery, a party whose members did not hesitate to publicly call slavery "barbaric," provoked the secession of the Southern states.

Last year a history textbook that stated thousands of African Americans fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War was distributed to Virginia school children. Confederate apologists love this idea: by implication, if black people fought for the Confederacy, then the Southern cause must have been about something other than slavery, right? At least one Harvard professor (John Stauffer) is on board with this nonsense. Professor Levine of the University of Illinois effectively demolishes the myth of black Confederate soldiers:

I have two things to say about this. Even if black soldiers did fight for the Confederacy, in whatever numbers (Harvard's Stauffer says even if they were few, they were symbolic), that says nothing about the nature of the Confederate cause. Some Jews collaborated with the Nazis. Does anyone seriously believe that means the Nazi regime wasn't intent on genocide?

Secondly, 96% of all Southern blacks were slaves, and the remaining 4% were in no position to seriously challenge white authority. Whatever assistance Southern blacks provided to the Confederate forces, there's no reason to believe it was done by choice.

It is true that in 1865 the Confederate government offered freedom to any slaves who would enlist in the Confederate Army. This proposal is cited by Confederate sympathizers as proof the war was about states' rights and not about slavery. Considering how out-manned and out-gunned the Confederacy was, the Richmond government took an awfully long time before trying to enlist black manpower. All the proposal proves is that war has a life of its own: the Confederate government was willing to deal a crucial blow to the institution it went to war to protect rather than lose the war itself. I also suspect that by spring 1865 Confederate leaders were more afraid of being put on trial for treason than they were of losing some slaves.

The desire to whitewash the Confederacy springs largely (but not always) from the sense many white Southerners have that the Confederacy is a part of their identity, and that an attack on the Lost Cause is an attack on them. In spite of my family having lived in the South since the seventeenth century, I've never felt that the men in gray had anything to do—or should have anything to do—with who I am.

My first day as a graduate student in English at the University of North Carolina, I was walking across campus with the first other graduate student I met, who was from Ohio. He looked up at the Confederate veterans' monument on Polk Place (the quad in the oldest part of campus). He asked me, "Why are there so many Civil War monuments in the South?"

I sighed: "Because some people don't know how to let things go."

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