Wednesday, April 13, 2011

150 years and one day ago...

...the U.S. Civil War began. The first skirmish at Fort Sumter (just outside the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina) resulted in the U.S. Army's surrendering to Confederate forces--and according to Ken Burns (renown documentarian of all things Civil War related) the only casualty was a Union horse who died during the barrage.

I live in the U.S. South, yet I also live in a liberal college town. And at Southern U. (a very liberal research I state university) there was nary a mention of the beginning of the Civil War. I didn't see it noted in the student newspaper, and I didn't see any evidence among my students that anyone was commemorating this event (in other words, no one was whistling Dixie or wearing confederate flag paraphanalia). But then again, my corner of the U.S. South is not mired in nostalgia for a plantation economy, say in the way that Charleston is.

When Southern Man and I spent a few days on the South Carolina coast in December (part of my post-mastectomy recovery and recuperation), one of the things I was really struck by was how SOUTHERN South Carolina felt--and how the greater Charleston area was living through a Gone with the Wind rosy-romanticized-lens of itself. There were subdivisions named after different characters from that film--and everything was named with either "Magnolia" or "Plantation" (as in a condominium called "Plantation Acres"--now why on EARTH would you want to live in a place called "Plantation Acres"??? How is that at all appealing to be associated with a system of servitude???). I imagine that if we were in Charleston now, just as we had been during the 150th anniversary of Secession (click here for an older post on this event), that we would inundated with various commemorations and celebrations and re-enactments and reminders of a Confederate past that is not really past but very present.

And one of the things that drives me slightly batty when hearing about all these commemorations is the revisionist history that people seem to want to engage in--to re-imagine that the Civil War was fought over reasons other than slavery. Indeed, if you google "cause of Civil War" the first entry you will find is this article in "Top Five Causes of the Civil War" that insinuates that people have falsely believed that slavery was a main cause when in fact there were many other factors that led to the South's secession from the Union.

[Aside: If you have the stomach to go through the comment thread, you will find a very interesting cross-section of America that shows just how divisive this issue continues to be, and how much people are unwilling to look closely at race and specifically the form of institutional racism that slavery was as a leading factor in the divisiveness that was (and continues to be) the Civil War]

On the PBS News Hour last night (click here for the video) they did a segment on the Civil War that included notable historians whose expertise is in the Civil War, such as Harvard University president Drew Gilpin Faust. Apparently while U.S. historians are united in their agreement that slavery was the leading cause of the Civil War, a majority of Americans believe that the war was fought over "states rights."

Which is true...the right to own slaves.

Finally, let me leave you once again with the words of Larry Wilmore, who reminds us that it's not politically correct to say that the Civil War was fought over slavery, it's CORRECT, correct!


Unknown said...

I agree with you that slavery and the Civil War are completely intertwined. However, I think it’s not completely true that slavery was the only cause of the Civil War. It is a slippery slope to bring other causes besides slavery into discussions of the Civil War because in the aftermath of the Civil War, the emancipation of slavery is what is most often discussed. However, it is impossible to dismiss the role the economy played in the Civil War. The changing and polarizing economic needs of the south and the north were a major cause of the Civil War. Slavery was a large part of the economy that the South depended on. President Lincoln even said that as long as the strife between the North and South was resolved he wasn’t resolute on the issue of the emancipation of slavery. I am not disagreeing with you about the sometimes distasteful pride the South takes in it’s Confederate identity and ignoring the atrocities they supported that came along with that identity. I just feel it’s important to acknowledge these complexities so distaste for glamorizing plantations and Gone With The Wind related sentimental pride is factually founded.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for leaving a comment. I wondered if you wouldn't mind clarifying what other factors--ones not reducible to slavery--contributed to the Civil War. I'm asking this not to be argumentative, but because in some of the on-line debates that I've read, it seems as if nearly everything comes down to the institutional benefits of slavery that the South gained and that the North lacked.

I think it's simplistic (and wrong) to say that the war was fought over the end of slavery--or that Northern Yankees were abolitionists who wanted to "free" the slaves. How Northern or Southern people felt about African Americans and the system of chattel slavery varied tremendously.

However, whether one was of the planter class and therefore able of owning several (sometimes in the hundreds) of slaves or whether one was a poor white who did not own slaves, overall the economy of the South seems to have benefited from slavery, as a whole. Much in the same way we could say that while poor and working class Americans have not benefited from capitalism, Americans and the U.S., on the whole, do.

So other than slavery, what are the nuances of economic differences between the Northern and Southern halves of the U.S. in the antebellum period?