Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Six Reasons Most Americans Don’t Understand the Civil War


I know i haven't written anything in a good while, so I decided to pull this one out of the archives.  I was originally going to put this on Cracked.com, but their intro process is so long and stupid I said forget it, then never did anything with it.  So here you have it now.

Growing up in the South, I’ve heard my share of pro-Confederacy dialogue.  I’ve been to a Civil War reenactment, argued both sides of the issue, and even had a Confederate Battle Flag with Hank Williams, Jr.’s face and the words, “If the South would’ve won, we would’ve had it made.”  Since then I’ve reconsidered and adjusted my position, but with that and a handful of upper-level history classes, I’ve seen some things that people on both extremes miss.

#1:  Slave-owning culture was not based on racism.

First of all, we have to remember that the Civil War started almost 150 years ago.  Let’s face the facts, it was a long time ago and we have to see it from their eyes.  We didn’t grow up around slavery, so it’s easy for us to demonize it.  But people who grew up then took it as a given, much like we do instant communication and Dick Clark’s New Years Eve.  If you grow up hearing people talk about slaves as property and not as human beings, you have to make a conscious choice to think otherwise.  And, once you look at the slave owner’s argument from that perspective, it makes a little more sense.

Think of it this way.  Let’s say that Congress passes a law declaring all paper money worthless and paper transactions illegal; money stored in banks will be honored, but only non-cash liquid assets will have any value.  All of the people who bank online and have their money in banks are set, but people who operate on cash transactions are out in the cold.  

Scrooge McDuck would be screwed.

But because America is not a dictatorship, cash would still be honored by the people who choose to honor it, based on the same thing that keeps cash in use today: the value we attribute to it.  Cash-users would become a separate group and be divided into two groups: those who give up and switch to electronic transactions and those who reject electronic transactions for operating by cash only, keeping themselves in tightly-knit groups.  There would be some wiggle room for people who use credit only when they have to, along with some keeping cash for only when they absolutely need it, but the bottom line is it would separate the nation into two classes, one of which has a significant amount of power over the other.

            Back in the antebellum days, the battle had been fought in Congress, long before the first shot was fired, to restrict slavery’s expansion – but not necessarily to eliminate it.  With the Missouri Compromise of 1850, a non-slavery state had to be admitted for every pro-slavery state admitted to the Union so that neither one would outnumber the other.  The North was becoming more industrialized, the South was highly agrarian, and the West was expanding with some people who wanted to own slaves and some who didn’t; and it just so happened that all of the pro-slavery states were located in the southern U.S., which were best for farming.  

As the abolitionist movement heated up, Northerners had no problem giving up slaves they didn’t need (much like how some people would have no problem never using cash), but Southerners relied on the industry of slavery for their livelihood.  Letting slaves go free meant losing all of the money spent buying, feeding, clothing, and sheltering them would be replaced with…absolutely nothing.  Naturally, Southerners were not happy about this, and wouldn’t you be mad if you found out that gangsta roll in your pocket was worthless?

Something tells me this kid will survive.

#2: Abolitionists didn’t necessarily believe in equal rights.

            Depending on when you learned about the Civil War in school, you probably heard something to the effect of “Southerners hated black people, so they made them all their slaves.”  While it’s true that white slaves were phased out, there were also “free people of color,” who had rights as citizens, but had to carry papers proving they were not slaves, lest they be mistaken for slaves and picked up by the guys who made money catching runaways…okay, wait, I’m arguing against myself here.

            The assumption was that, since the South had slavery and fought to keep slavery, Northerners hated slavery and wanted black equality.  This completely ignores the facts that Northern territories like Indiana and Illinois made it illegal for blacks to enter (because they wanted to keep slavery out at all costs) and that Northern businesses such as hotels denied black business in order to appease their white Southern clientele.  Even those who fought for the Abolitionist cause didn’t necessarily want racial equality, merely what their name said: the abolition of slavery.  These are the people who supported sending blacks back to Africa long before Southerners did.  
“Slavery’s just icky, you understand.”

Because they didn’t have the ability to turn on the TV and see what people hundreds of miles away were doing, they took it as a small victory whenever they could say slavery was abolished from their region…and that’s all most of them really cared about (just like how I’m against human trafficking, and I don’t see it going on around me, so I suppose I’m doing a pretty good job, right?).  After all, one of the reasons Congress outlawed slave trade in Washington, D.C. was so they didn’t have to look at it.

            But what about the Southerners?  Even if they didn’t own slaves, most of them benefitted from the “peculiar institution,” and fought to support the government that permitted it, right?  Surely, even if the Northerners didn’t love blacks, the South still hated them, right?

#3: Nationalism was kind of a new concept.

            Keep in mind that large nations as we know them today (specifically the U.S., China, Russia, etc.) didn’t exist until the 19th century.  Around the same time, some folks decided that all of the German-speaking people should be cool with each other and unite into one state; the same was true for all of the Italians.  And, like most European ideas, some Americans caught on and others didn’t.  Then, when the folks in power decided their way was right, they enforced it on everyone else.

            So most Americans didn’t think that way, not even Northerners.  Most people were more loyal to their local community than to their state, much less to the country as a whole; really, this had been going on since the colonies were first founded – remember, before the Constitution were the Articles of Confederation, which kept the Federal Government from doing anything without a unanimous vote from every state.  Since mobility wasn’t terribly common, especially among Southerners, the people in the local area were their family, for whom they held the strongest feelings.  This is why many Southerners, including General Robert E. Lee, chose to fight for the Confederacy even if they didn’t own slaves or even agree with slavery.

            But Southerners fought to defend slavery, didn’t they?  Doesn’t that mean they hated black people?  It’s not like any black folks fought for the South, now did they?

Pictured: your imagination

When the war started in 1861, the 1st Louisiana Native Guard offered to fight for the South against Union invasion.  Why?  Because they loved their home.  Sadly, the Confederacy rejected their offer, so they stayed behind to defend New Orleans.  When the city fell to Union forces in April 1862, many of them swapped sides and became the 73rd Regiment Infantry U.S. Colored Troops.  Again, their goal was to defend their hometown – New Orleans – regardless of who was in charge.  In April 1865, however, with the Confederacy hurting for soldiers and near the end, President Jefferson Davis signed a bill allowing the enlistment of up to 300,000 free black soldiers.  Granted, most of these soldiers never saw combat, and the quota of 300,000 was never reached.  Still, it shows that the South was willing to try…well…at least those who didn’t object to it…there I go arguing against myself again.

            It’s also true that black Southerners owned slaves.  How could this be?  Well, you take an agrarian slave and set him free; what does he know how to do?  Farm.  What does he know about running a farm?  Slave labor.  In fact, most free blacks, whether or not they were freed slaves, saw themselves as better than slaves.  Even the black churches were divided along the slave/free line.

#4: The South didn’t have a whole lot going for them.

            As mentioned earlier, the North was highly industrial while the South was highly agrarian.  For the most part, the North had factories which took raw materials from the South and turned them into marketable products, which were in turn sold back to Southerners at a high markup.  When the South seceded, they were left with nothing but raw materials being produced, goods they already owned, and no way to replace what they owned when it wore out or broke.  Most importantly for a nation going to war, the South couldn’t produce weaponry.  In the beginning, of course, they were still able to buy from some willing entrepreneurs in the North.
In case you were looking for the connection between Lord of War and National Treasure 2.

Confederate forces didn’t instantly throw away their blue uniforms and jump into some fresh gray ones, either.  Since most of the standing army had come from Union forces, they continued wearing what they had before.  The local militias wore whatever they chose to wear as a group, if they had any uniform to begin with, and many soldiers scavenged dead bodies for better clothes whenever necessary, and of course the blue uniforms eventually started turning gray.  Some Confederate soldiers even wore US belt buckles upside down to show their disdain for the government from whom they stole a uniform.

Stuff it, Union!

            Then the South started losing.  There were several opportunities to win, but didn’t happen.  Worst of all, the Union had a much larger supply of men to send to war, along with many to leave behind to work the factories, whereas the South sent pretty much every able-bodied man who wasn’t too much of a pansy to get shot at.

#5: The war didn’t end at Appomattox.

            On April 9th, 1865, General Robert E. Lee (CSA) surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant (USA) at Appomattox Court House.  Now, although Lee was the commanding general of all Confederate forces, he was leading the Army of Northern Virginia.  Other Confederate Generals did not accept Lee’s surrender as applicable to them, especially since they commanded other armies. 

Keep in mind that telegraph lines had been slashed and railroad tracks had been bombed so that communication and mobility weren’t at their best.  Furthermore, the Army of Northern Virginia had surrendered, but other units, such as the Army of the Trans-Mississippi, the Army of the Potomac, etc., continued to defend their state until defeat – remember, nationalism was a new concept.  It would take Union forces until several months to reconquer Confederate territory, which involved lots of breaking stuff and making things bad for the Southern populace and not just the soldiers.  Thanks, General Sherman.  For those who say the United States has never been occupied by a foreign power…

…speak for yourself, Yankee!

#6: Reconstruction was pretty much the worst thing ever.

            Did I mention the South didn’t have a whole lot going for them?  It just got worse.  According to Stephen Ambrose, the Southern representatives walking out of Congress upon Lincoln’s election was pretty much the worst thing they could’ve done (To America).  There had been a continual battle for where to put the Transcontinental Railroad, and now it was definitely not going through the South.  This would ensure that the majority of east-west commerce for the next several decades would be directed through Northern states.  During the latter part of the war, General Sherman decided that since Southerners saw slaves as property – and slaves needed to be set free – Southerners should be relieved of all other property as well.

…by fire!

            So following the Civil War, Northerners obviously had to reprogram Southerners.  They couldn’t allow Southerners to choose their own elected officials, as they would most likely elect former Confederate politicians and officers to Federal positions (oh wait, they did…why do I keep arguing against myself?).  The South was divided into five military districts and “Radical” Reconstruction was put into place, with many wanting to put “black heels on white necks.” Then a peculiar thing happened where a congressman visiting South Carolina saw a black police officer arresting a white citizen and decided that, for the protection of blacks, there should be separation – so they made it into law.  That’s right, de jure segregation was a Northern idea.

            The only chance the South had was the one Senator who didn’t walk out: Andrew Johnson, who was elected Vice President and succeeded Lincoln after his assassination.  Up until the 1866 elections, Johnson did what he could to keep the South from being severely raped and pillaged.

He compromised on the idea of moderate rape and pillage.

But after the population of Congress changed, they turned on Johnson, impeached him, and basically neutered any chance of him doing anything else.  Johnson tried to influence the Southern states not to ratify the 14th Amendment, but that only went so far.  After Grant was elected president, the days of only moderate rape and pillage were over.

            So Southerners had nothing at all to be proud of.  They weren’t the first to rebel, but they would be the last.  Life was bad, and didn’t look like it was getting any better.  But they knew their history, and had heard from their fathers and grandfathers how great things were before the Civil War.

Obviously, they left out some details.

The generation following those who fought in the Civil War started something unheard of to date: reenactments of a war they lost.  Most people don’t understand the concept, but when you think about it, it’s not that much different from how Native American communities still host powwows…except Native Americans, never owned slaves, did they?  Well, maybe we just dislike Southerners because it’s 100% impossible to feel sorry for the group who was in charge losing.

Pictured: guy it’s only 50% possible to feel sorry for.

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