A Civil War cor­rec­tive

The North has also mis­re­mem­bered why it fought

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY HUGH HOWARD Hugh Howard is au­thor of “Houses of Civil War Amer­ica.”

With as­ton­ish­ing speed — and a sur­pris­ing new con­sen­sus — the sta­tus of the Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle flag has been al­tered. While a re­con­sid­er­a­tion of that sym­bol’s orig­i­nal mean­ing is long over­due, there is a coun­ter­vail­ing risk that the right­eous sat­is­fac­tion in some quar­ters at low­er­ing the flag may blind us to another large misun­der­stand­ing of the past.

The con­ver­sa­tion in re­cent days has been il­lu­mi­nat­ing, as many politi­cians from the South try to nav­i­gate a his­toric land­scape blurred by gen­er­a­tions of dis­tor­tions. With the abrupt­ness of cataract surgery, “Lost Cause” in­ter­pre­ta­tions of a gen­teel South­ern past have fallen away. The de­nials that, in the Con­fed­er­acy, the im­pe­tus for war was slav­ery have long rung false; the min­utes of the se­ces­sion con­ven­tions held in South­ern states make that ex­plicit (as one Mis­sis­sippi ad­vo­cate put it in 1861, “slav­ery was or­dained by God and sanc­tioned by hu­man­ity”). Ac­knowl­edg­ing that the Con­fed­er­ate flag sym­bol­ized the fight to ex­tend hu­man bondage can at last put to rest an en­dur­ing false­hood in our na­tional mem­ory.

As im­por­tant as this cor­rec­tive may be, we will do our his­tor­i­cal mem­ory a dis­ser­vice if we fail to re­call how cit­i­zens of the Union re­garded Abra­ham Lin­coln’s War, slav­ery and even African Amer­i­cans. To a sur­pris­ing ex­tent, the way the North re­mem­bers the Civil War is also deeply flawed and mis­lead­ing.

Re­call that when Lin­coln took of­fice, slav­ery had the of­fi­cial sanc­tion of the U.S. gov­ern­ment. Like it or not, slav­ery was a part of the eco­nomic history of the North as well as the South. Much of the na­tion’s cot­ton, its largest ex­port, was taken north of the Ma­son-Dixon Line to be pro­cessed; for that mat­ter, many of the South’s most suc­cess­ful planters were Yan­kees who adopted with alacrity the prac­tice of slav­ery on their way to wealth.

In the an­te­bel­lum years, there was noth­ing re­sem­bling an anti-slav­ery con­sen­sus in the North. Amer­ica’s great­est philoso­pher, Ralph Waldo Emer­son, hes­i­tated for years to de­cry what he called “the habit of op­pres­sion.” When he fi­nally did so from the podium in Concord Town Hall, he was called a fa­natic and worse. The word “abo­li­tion” made his neigh­bors an­gry. The idea rang rad­i­cal even in Mas­sachusetts, where many re­garded those who es­poused such views as dan­ger­ous.

It’s sim­ply wrong-headed to pre­sume that av­er­age, mid-19th-cen­tury farm­ers and fac­tory work­ers in the North har­bored abo­li­tion­ist sym­pa­thies. They didn’t.

I was taught grow­ing up in Yan­kee Mas­sachusetts that the North went to war to end slav­ery, but since then I have come to un­der­stand that I was mis­in­formed. A case in point is the story of the well-known prim­i­tive pain­ter Robert Peck­ham. He had served as a dea­con in the same Con­gre­ga­tional church that I at­tended as a child in cen­tral Mas­sachusetts. But archival re­search re­veals that, in 1850, when Dea­con Peck­ham es­poused abo­li­tion­ist sen­ti­ments, the church fathers ex­com­mu­ni­cated him, declar­ing one of their own un­wel­come be­cause they thought his ideas too ex­treme. Lit­tle Westminster rep­re­sented a quiet ma­jor­ity opin­ion in the re­gion.

Even Lin­coln’s racial think­ing evolved in a slow and am­bigu­ous man­ner. Un­til the very end of his life, the hero of the age re­sisted the no­tion that the black and white races were equal. In his fa­mous 1858 de­bates — and else­where— he re­peat­edly re­jected the idea of per­mit­ting black men to vote, serve as jurors, hold of­fice or in­ter­marry with whites. “There is a phys­i­cal dif­fer­ence be­tween the two, which, in my judg­ment, will prob­a­bly for­ever for­bid their liv­ing to­gether upon the foot­ing of per­fect equal­ity.”

That meant that, at its out­set, the war for Lin­coln was ex­plic­itly about union — un­til it be­came ex­pe­di­ent to make it about eman­ci­pa­tion. The Eman­ci­pa­tion Procla­ma­tion was pri­mar­ily in­tended to hob­ble the Con­fed­er­acy’s war ef­fort, which re­lied upon slaves for pro­vi­sion­ing and other sup­port.

Even among those who rec­og­nized that hu­man bondage must end, few thought blacks were equal to whites. In the South, where 95 per­cent of the na­tion’s African Amer­i­cans resided, slav­ery had been a fact of life for gen­er­a­tions, fix­ing the black man’s in­fe­ri­or­ity in the minds of most whites. In the North, where less than 1 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion was black, rel­a­tively few whites in­ter­acted with men or women of color; there, any­one of African de­scent re­mained very much other.

The past is no more a fixed des­ti­na­tion than the fu­ture is, and we need to ques­tion con­stantly the history we’ve been handed. One en­coun­ters such proper names as Re­con­struc­tion, Jim Crow, Selma and, now, Cle­menta Pinck­ney. But even as our out­rage sim­mers at what made pos­si­ble the al­legedly mur­der­ous ig­no­rance of Dy­lann Roof, we would do well to con­sider that, aside from the color of some of the play­ers’ skins, there is lit­tle that is black and white about our ter­ri­ble Civil War and the en­dur­ing legacy with which we must still wres­tle.


An artist’s de­pic­tion of the charge of Union sol­diers with theMas­sachusetts 54th In­fantry Reg­i­ment on FortWag­ner, S.C., in 1863.


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