Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Civil War isn’t over

I recently re-ignited my interest in the American Civil War, which had lain dormant for about 15 years.

In that intervening decade-and-a-half, the landscape of Civil War study changed radically — because of the Internet. There are scores and scores of Civil War sites and blogs, from scholars’ pages to reenactor group sites to partisan blogs.

Oh, yes, partisan blogs.

You see, the Civil War isn’t over; the past isn’t past.

The origins and causes of the great conflict are argued in the blogosphere as vigorously, if not (quite) as violently as they were argued in the middle of the 19th Century.

This is no mere academic debate. It remains at the center of our identity as a nation.

Southern Partisans, neo-Confederates, argue that the war was a second War of Independence, a defense of liberty against an overreaching Federal government. Sound familiar? Not surprisingly, the blogs of Southern Partisans tend to be arch-conservative and antigovernment. They’re consistent, too.

While their attention right now is on battling health care reform as conceived by the current administration, many blog archives reveal a strong anti-Iraq War tendency — a rejection of what they regard as an imperialist U.S. that violates the original spirit of the Republic.

Where they go off the rails is in their minimization of slavery as a causal factor. Most reject slavery as a cause of war at all. That’s twaddle. You only have to look at the declaration of secession of South Carolina or the Constitution of the Confederate States of America to see that defense of the institution of slavery was fundamental to the Southern cause, even if it was not a paramount motive of many of the men who fought bravely and skillfully in the defense of hearth and home.

Other bloggers see the meaning of the war very differently.

Some bloggers are deeply committed to the understanding that the war that began over the preservation of the Union ended up being about the extension of the promise of American society — one where all men are created equal.

This exalted view of the meaning of the war can lead to some real hostility toward those who see that interpretation as a gloss. And some smearing with a broad brush.

In another post I referred to a Civil War blogger — very hostile to the outlook of the neo-Confederates — who slagged off the entire homeschool movement because he sees so many homeschoolers in Virginia getting a positive spin on the Confederacy in their history study.

The pieties of teh Southern Partisans can get a little thick — and their denial of the centrality of slavery doesn't pass any kind of historical muster. On the other hand, many of the “anti-Confederate” bloggers can be incredibly snarky, lending credence to the Southron’s belief that the “Yankees” have an incurably holier-than-thou outlook that must impose its worldview on others who don’t want it.

To those who don’t know much about the Civil War (and maybe don’t care) this may all seem vaguely ridiculous. But it’s as serious as a charge of grapeshot.

Interpretations of the meaning of the Civil War matter a great deal to many people as a way of defining who they are culturally and politically. Recently, a large group of scholars (including the notorious William Ayers) called upon President Obama to forego the long-standing tradition of laying a wreath at the memorial to the Confederate dead at Arlington.

Obama upheld the tradition and laid the wreath.

This stuff matters. In many ways, fundamental issues of the War continue to gnaw at us today, whether we recognize where they come from or not. What is the definition of liberty? Is the federal government a guarantor of liberty, extending the torch of freedom, or is it in itself a threat to liberty?

Are we defined as Americans by our race? Is the original sin of slavery an indelible stain or was it washed out by the blood of 640,000 Americans and the passage of 140 years?
These questions remain unanswered — and maybe unanswerable. If the war didn’t decide them, what could?

When we see the passion the rage, the alienation between Americans and (dare I say it) the hatred that marks the bleeding edge of the partisan divide in this country, it is plain to see that the Civil War is not over.

Jim Cornelius, Editor


  1. As I was saying...


    This story also involves former Deschutes County Commissioner Tom DeWolf. See also www.tracesofthetrade.org.

    Jim Cornelius, Editor

  2. Jim,
    Slightly off topic, but the Powell's Review O' The Day is of a book that looks right up your alley:



  3. Thanks Jason. It's on my list.