Why You Need To Understand The American Civil War


Let’s talk about the Civil War for a minute.

I’ve always intended to do a really long post about this but for now, let’s just talk. And if we like where it goes it can become a series. Because it matters. (And for those who want some specific, deeper reading after this, check out the books at the bottom). You can also get more reading recommendations here.

The Civil War is one of those things that when you’re first told about it, you’re given a very simplified explanation: “It was the war to free the slaves!” Then you grow older and start to experience and hear more, it starts to feel very complicated: “States Rights! War of Aggression! Lincoln was a racist too!” But then after study, reading and contemplation, it somehow becomes simple again: It really was about slavery.

In fact, I’ll come out and give you the simplest explanation I can of the American Civil War: In 1860, a southern oligarchy of slaveholders attempted an armed rebellion against the democratic state exclusively in order to perpetuate one of the least defensible and least effective economic systems in history (the forced labor and ownership of other human beings).

As in, because they lost an election—having won the vast majority of Presidencies up until this point—they attempted to subvert and steal what was collectively by the American people because they wished to protect their personal wealth which was tied up in slavery.

Secession by the original colonies may or may not be a thing, but Louisiana, which the United States purchased from France, was certainly not entitled to that. Neither was Texas or Florida. And after stealing these properties and raiding federal stockpiles of weapons and supplies, the South passed itself a constitution essentially indistinguishable from the original with the exception of its specific endorsement of slavery. Then they fired unprovoked on the soldiers stuck in the island of Fort Sumter shortly after Lincoln assumed office.

This is it. This is it at its core. It doesn’t feel good to look at it, to have to accept this. To think that certain people in the past, sincerely believed and took up arms in support of something awful. It must be weird to be from Germany today, knowing what your country did in the recent past. Well, this is not that different.

But at the same time, there is nothing to be defensive about. It does not say anything about you. It is not political.

It simply is.

It is disturbing. It is sobering. It is scary. It’s scary that people could be so wrong, and then with a different role of the genetic and historical dice, we could have ourselves ended up on many different sides of it.

So, I may have been a slaveholder. You may have been a slave. Or I could have been a conscripted immigrant, forced to fight for the Union even though I didn’t believe in it. You could have been a “decent” slave owner, or you could have been a vicious trader, rapist and murderer. Any of us could have been mixed race, or we could have sat back and pretended we were above it all, meanwhile tacitly benefiting from this systemic exploitation.

This is what we must wrestle with. It makes us better people to think about it. It forces us to grapple with the darkness inside the human race. The military strategy of the war is fascinating and I urge people to study and understand that for different reasons. But this—the deep discomforting political, social, and personal realities of the Civil War—is a mirror you must glance at.

Unfortunately, it is incredibly difficult to look back on the Civil War and wrap your head around it, mostly because of everything that has happened since. At the time, it was much clearer: It was called The War of Rebellion. Prisoner exchanges broke down because of the Southern policy of executing captured black soldiers. Lincoln himself, in his second inaugural address, argued that the terrible blood spilled thus far in the war was literally a payment for all that had been unjustly drawn by the whips of slaveowners out of the backs of their slaves.

Yes, there were certainly some complications that were apparent even at the time. Much of the Union wasn’t fighting against slavery so much as they were fighting to preserve the antebellum status quo (which is what you do in response to a sudden rebellion). There were plenty of terrible slaveholders in the North and plenty of unjustifiable compromises before, during and after the war. But when a rebellion is built around a single ideal, eventually that ideal becomes the target—for selfish and selfless reasons both. As Gen. Ulysses S. Grant put it to Otto von Bismarck of Germany, “As soon as slavery fired upon the flag it was felt, we all felt, even those who did not object to slaves, that slavery must be destroyed.”

We tend to mistake these conflicted views of slavery as somehow canceling each other out—instead of cluing us in to the deeper issue. We’re tempted to see the Civil War as being more complicated and complex than it really was, if only to avoid having to have a clear opinion about it other than “It was bad.”

Today, maybe now you serve on a US Military base named after a Confederate general. Or perhaps, you attend a college that flies the stars and bars. Or your Senator preposterously misinterprets the war with a straight face. Or your favorite presidential candidate explains it away with with wishful, delusional thinking. Or you live in the places I’ve lived like New Orleans and Austin, where there are statues and monuments to the Lost Cause. Or you liked Gone With The Wind. All of this muddies the water.

It’s important to understand though, much of this came later. It was racist grandfathers and great grandfathers who raised those icons in the 1900s (like the preposterous but hidden Liberty Monument in New Orleans). Most of this was born well after the war. They were products of segregation and the vicious counterreaction to the political changes the war brought. The US Civil War was unique in that it did not devolve into a guerilla resistance—at least on the surface. Beneath the surface, hatred and bitterness over the loss, that’s what created this fake history. It’s fought on even now with ideas. And even the simplified pro-Union narratives avoid looking directly at it all. So they tell children their own stories.

The past tends to confer dignity on events and people. Sometimes this is deserved, sometimes it is not.

150 years is a long time. But it is also not that long ago. As Louis CK says, it’s the two old ladies’ lives back to back. Or, I’ll put it this way: the Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr. died leading US troops on the beaches of Okinawa during WWII. His father surrendered troops to General Grant at Fort Donelson—the first victory in Grant’s ascendent rise. As of 2013, the US Government was still paying two Civil War pensions.

The Civil War is right there. It’s in front of us. And I urge you to look at it. Let it make you uncomfortable. Wrestle with that feeling. Wrestle with the people and the facts and the figures involved. Who cares about what troops fought where and with what tactics—focus on why they were fighting and what it means.

Coming to the inevitable conclusion that half the country went to war over the principle of chattel slavery, and the other half only got off their ass to do something about it because it looked like the other side might actually win doesn’t make you a bad citizen. It makes you a good one. Reducing the Civil War down to its basic reality is not some liberal revisionism, on the contrary, it’s honesty—it’s your obligation as a thinker.

More to come, if you like.

For now, here is The Beginner’s Civil War Reading List