I realized this summer that I knew very little of substance about America’s Civil War. Louis Masur’s The Civil War: A Concise History was a fantastic primer on this part of our country’s history and reading it prompted a number of reflections on my part. (This is Part 2, reflecting on the War itself and its aftermath. See part 1 on some of the causes and background to the war).
Southern lust for war
I’ve heard the Civil War called “the war of northern aggression” but listen to this quote from the same Atlanta newspaper quoted in part 1: “let the consequences be what they may—whether the Potomac is crimsoned in human gore, and Pennsylvania Avenue is paved ten fathoms in depth with mangled bodies… the South will never submit to such humiliation and degradation as the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln” (19). I had forgotten that the South actually fired the first shot of the war — on Fort Sumter. “Confederate Secretary of State Robert Toombs had warned against this action… ‘it puts us in the wrong. It is fatal’” (24). The south was not some innocent, passive victim of invasion. They fully played their own part in the conflict.
An easier way out
I’ve heard southern sympathizers lament that the North waged a war to end slavery that cost hundreds of thousands of lives when slavery could have been ended in some other way. Interestingly, Lincoln repeatedly offered them some other way. In 1862 “Lincoln appealed again to border-state members of Congress to adopt a plan for gradual, compensated emancipation… they had a chance to get something in return for their property.” However, they “rejected his plea” (40). I say their blame rests on their own heads.
We view the emancipation proclamation as a great act by Lincoln. I hadn’t recalled how vehemently the south reacted. Jefferson Davis called it “the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man” (48). This is telling at how deeply distorted southern Christian values were.
Caving in on itself
Part of the southern states’ reason for seceding from the Union was over states’ rights (namely, the right to own slaves). They resented the “tyrannical” federal government telling them what to do. But in order for the confederacy to work together in the war, it needed to have a centralized organized government (what could possibly go wrong?) “States’ rights ideologues, who believed that the reason for secession was to escape a tyrannical centralized government, were increasingly reluctant to comply with the Confederate government’s demands, essential though they were to waging war effectively” (49). You reap what you sow. Eventually the southern governors “resisted Davis’s call for men and material” (63). The separatist impulse that started the war also helped lose the war.
Racial violence in the North
The country was founded on white supremacy, and even at the time of the war the entire country was still white supremacist. The South expressed it through slavery, but the North did it in other ways. I had never heard of the New York City Draft Riots in 1863. People were angry that “they had to compete for jobs with free blacks, whose numbers they believed would only grow with emancipation. The rioters overwhelmed the police and let loose on the black community a wave of horrific racial violence. They burned buildings, including the Colored Orphan Asylum, and lynched more than a dozen blacks, stringing them up from lamp posts” (56). Nearly everyone was white supremacist in the 1850s.
White Supremacy in the Union Army
Black soldiers fought in the Union army, but they suffered at the hands of white supremacy even there. They “suffered the taunts of white soldiers… Prejudice against them meant not only skepticism about their ability to fight but also harsher punishments and unequal treatment. They served in segregated units commanded by white officers and received less pay than white soldiers” (58). One incident reminds me of the of the later plea from the civil rights era: “ain’t I a man?” A soldier wrote directly to the president: “we have done a Soldier’s duty. Why can’t we have a Soldier’s pay?” (58). White supremacy was ubiquitous and systemic.
“But slavery ended 150 years ago”
I’ve heard some people say, “slavery ended so long ago, so why is race still an issue?” Well, it did, and it didn’t. After Lincoln was assassinated, Andrew Johnson became president. Johnson “supported state’s rights generally. A former slaveholder, he also shared in the dominant racial ideology [i.e., white supremacy] of his day” (80). Johnson opposed a measure that would give blacks the right to vote. Southern states passed laws that “forbade blacks from serving on juries, stipulated harsher punishments for crimes than those given to whites, and outlawed interracial marriage” (82). Johnson vetoed a bill that would have continued the Freedman’s Bureau devoted to helping blacks. He also vetoed a civil rights bill passed by Congress. Not just in the south, but in even in northern states like Ohio and Minnesota “black men in the North could not vote any more than freed slaves in the South” (85). Did slavery itself end? Sure, but as one Southern lawyer said, “Blacks have freedom in name, but not in fact” (89).
The problem is that slavery went away, but white supremacy didn’t, and it found other ways of effectively oppressing black people that would linger on far longer, even to this day.