In 1877, soon after retiring as president, Ulysses S. Grant embarked on a two-year tour of the world. At almost every location he was greeted with adulation. In London, the Duke of Wellington, whose father had vanquished Napoleon, praised Grant as a military genius, the architect of victory in one of the greatest wars known to human history. In Newcastle, tens of thousands of parading English workers, arrayed with the banners of their various crafts, hailed him as the man who had saved the world’s leading experiment in democratic self-government and as a Hero of Freedom for his role in the emancipation of America’s slaves. In Berlin, Otto von Bismarck, the chancellor of Germany, welcomed Grant as a nation-builder who had accomplished something on the battlefield—national unity—that Bismarck was attempting to create for his own people. “You had to save the Union,” Bismarck commented, “just as we had to save Germany.”
Grant’s contemporaries recognized the Civil War as an event of international significance. One hundred and fifty years after the conflict began, the meanings they ascribed to it offer a useful way of outlining why it was so pivotal in our own history. The Civil War changed the nature of warfare, gave rise to an empowered nation-state, vindicated the idea of free labor and destroyed the modern world’s greatest slave society. Each of these outcomes laid the foundation for the country we live in today. But as with all great historical events, each outcome carried with it ambiguous, even contradictory, consequences.
Because of the war, the nation survived. Yet in its physical destruction and massive loss of life (620,000 Americans, the equivalent of 6 million in today’s population), and encouragement of a patriotism that equated criticism of the government with treason, the Civil War can be seen as an ominous harbinger of twentieth-century total war, with its erasure of the distinction between civilian and military targets and serious infringements on civil liberties at home.
The nation-state created by the war, Abraham Lincoln insisted, embodied the principle of self-government. But it could also be used for undemocratic purposes. Shortly after the guns fell silent, Treasurer Frances Spinner (whose signature adorned every greenback issued by the federal government—the first national currency and itself a symbol of expanded national power) observed: “The thing to be feared now is that we will be running around the world with a chip on our shoulder. If we can avoid this, a glorious future is ours.” Just as Spinner feared, the reunited nation soon embarked on a career of imperial expansion, beginning with the acquisition of Alaska two years after the war ended and culminating at the turn of the century in the conquest and annexation of Hawaii, the Philippines and Puerto Rico. Indeed, the abolition of slavery, an indisputably moral exercise of national power, gave new meaning to Jefferson’s description of the United States as an “empire of liberty.” No matter how violent or oppressive, American expansion now meant, by definition, the expansion of freedom—a rhetoric alive and well today.
The principle of free labor may have triumphed with the Union’s victory, but the national banking system, high tariffs and other economic policies instituted by the Lincoln administration in an effort to mobilize the North’s resources for war underpinned a long-lasting alliance between the Republican Party, the national state and an emerging class of industrial capitalists and financiers. Partly because of the war, Lincoln’s America—the world of small shops and farms—gave way to an industrial leviathan. It was left to the Gilded Age labor movement to warn that a new industrial aristocracy had taken the place of the Slave Power as the enemy of ordinary working people.
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Even abolition had mixed results. Long after the war ended, Lincoln and the emancipated slave would remain global symbols of universal liberty. But the new system of racial inequality that followed the overthrow of postwar Reconstruction seriously tarnished the idea that the Civil War had produced a new birth of freedom, as Lincoln claimed at Gettysburg.
What people choose to remember about the Civil War has always been tinged by politics. In his excellent book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, historian David Blight demonstrates that as soon as the war ended, debate over how to remember it began. Two understandings of the war, he argues, collided in late-nineteenth-century America: an “emancipationist” vision that emphasized black freedom and equality as essential to the war’s meaning, and a “reconciliationist” narrative that de-emphasized slavery and saw both sides as fighting for noble causes—the Union, on the part of the North; local rights and individual liberty, on the part of the South. By the turn of the century, as soldiers from North and South fought side by side in the Spanish-American War, the latter triumphed. The abandonment of the nation’s commitment to equal rights for the former slaves was one basis on which former white antagonists could reunite. And the displacement of slavery from a central role in the war accorded with the new racial realities under Jim Crow.
Forgetting some aspects of the past is as much a part of historical understanding as remembering others. For decades it remained a cliché that the Confederacy lost the war on the battlefield but won the battle over historical memory. In the highly influential writings of Charles and Mary Beard early in the last century, the war was brought on by a conflict between industrial and agricultural elites, and slavery hardly deserved a footnote in the narrative. “Revisionist” historians of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, most of them Southern-born, insisted that slavery was a benign institution that would soon have died out peacefully. Thus, the Civil War was unnecessary—a “needless war” brought about by irresponsible fanatics (Northern abolitionists) who inflamed public passions and by a “blundering generation” of political leaders who failed to resolve eminently compromisable sectional differences. In black communities, the legacy of the 200,000 black men who fought in the Union Army and Navy remained alive. But the memory of them receded in broader society. The conflict was remembered as a “brothers’ war” pitting Northern against Southern whites. Well beyond the borders of the South, memory of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, a symbol of local self-government and individual rebelliousness, long remained a potent cultural force in American life.
Among historians, all this began to change after World War II. If World War I, with its massive slaughter and disappointing aftermath, had fueled Civil War revisionism by instilling skepticism about war in general, the Good War proved that in certain circumstances military action is necessary and desirable. In an influential article in 1949, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. challenged the underlying premise of prevailing Civil War scholarship. The South, he pointed out, had shown no evidence of a willingness to end slavery; indeed, over time it had become ever more hysterical in its defense. With one eye firmly on the recent past, Schlesinger insisted that a society closed in support of evil could not be appeased, and if it was worth a war to destroy Nazism, surely it was worth one to eradicate slavery. But not until the 1960s, under the impact of the civil rights revolution, did historians en masse repudiate a half-century of Civil War scholarship, concluding that the war resulted from an irreconcilable conflict between two fundamentally different societies, one resting on slavery, the other on free labor. Historians pushed Emancipation to the center of their account of the Civil War, and it has remained there ever since.
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If historians have reached a considerable degree of consensus, the same cannot be said of the general public. Americans do not share either a single understanding of the war’s meaning or a unified conception of its relevance to our own times. Nor, as the war’s sesquicentennial progresses, do we appear to be in a celebratory mood. In the wake of Iraq, a truly needless war cynically justified in the language of freedom, many Americans seem reluctant to commemorate an earlier conflict. A number of recent books have insisted that the Civil War—and indeed all war—has no meaning other than death and destruction, and that by ascribing lofty motives to the combatants, historians fall into the trap of legitimizing past and present carnage.
Both left and right have grown more suspicious of exercises of power by the national state. Civil libertarians are appalled by the persistent violations of individual freedoms since September 11. The party of Lincoln, its center of gravity now located in the states of the old Confederacy, has little desire to recall a time when its ancestors believed in a federal government that actively promoted racial equality and paid for war with tariffs and taxes (including the dreaded income tax, inaugurated in 1862). Nostalgia for the Confederacy survives in Tea Party and broader right-wing circles. Moreover, the whole business of historical commemoration has been somewhat tarnished of late. Ever since 1992, when Native Americans and their allies disrupted efforts to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage by drawing attention to the deleterious consequences that flowed from the European conquest of the Western Hemisphere, historical anniversaries have exposed fault lines in today’s society.
As always, a gap remains between historical scholarship and popular understandings of history. Fifty years ago, when Charleston, South Carolina, marked the anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter, the city was bedecked with Confederate flags and the commemorations made no mention of slavery. This past April, the city fathers and National Park Service sponsored a gathering that included reflections on slavery’s role in the war and on post-slavery race relations. As in 1961, a band played “Dixie,” but this time “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” accompanied it, recognition that a majority of South Carolina’s population (the slaves) sided with the Union, not the Confederacy. But the event attracted far smaller crowds than fifty years ago.
Of course, the centennial celebrations of the 1960s took place at the high tide of the civil rights revolution, which underscored the Civil War’s continuing relevance. A century after the war began, passions over the war did not seem to have diminished; at a gathering in April 1961 to mark the anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter, the Headquarters Hotel in Charleston denied accommodations to a black delegate from New Jersey. In response, President Kennedy moved the event to a nearby naval base, whereupon Southern delegates seceded to hold their own Confederate States Centennial Conference.
A half-century later, the election of the nation’s first black president has produced the ironic result of largely removing issues related to the legacy of Emancipation from the national agenda. In the absence of a vibrant movement for racial justice and in an era that has been labeled “postracial,” the relevance of the Civil War appears far less clear than it did fifty years ago. In 1963 it seemed entirely appropriate for Martin Luther King Jr. to begin his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial with a reference to the unfulfilled promise of the Emancipation Proclamation. Such rhetoric is rarely heard today, when the black freedom struggle, intensely divisive when it took place, has been transformed into a narrative of national unity, a fulfillment of bedrock American principles rather than the “revolution in values” called for by King. Even neo-Confederates portray the Old South as a multicultural paradise of racial harmony and invent imaginary legions of black Confederate soldiers to demonstrate that both sides can claim credit for the end of slavery.
In a society in which everyone from Glenn Beck to President Obama assumes the mantle of the civil rights movement, slavery seems not to arouse as much interest as in the past. Polls show that a majority of Americans identify issues other than slavery—states’ rights, the tariff, etc.—as the war’s fundamental cause. Yet contemporaries had little doubt that slavery “somehow” lay at the root of the conflict, as Lincoln put it in his Second Inaugural Address, and that Emancipation was its most profound outcome. The Confederacy’s founders forthrightly announced that they had created a republic whose “cornerstone,” as Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens declared, was the principle that “slavery, subordination to the superior race,” was the “natural and moral condition” of black Americans. When Bismarck identified preservation of the Union as the war’s purpose, Grant corrected him: “Not only to save the Union, but destroy slavery…a stain to the Union.” Despite America’s post-Reconstruction retreat from the ideal of equality, the destruction of slavery remains an epochal victory for human rights, worthy of celebration. Moreover, as Lincoln recognized, the service of black soldiers, most of them emancipated slaves, proved essential to Union victory. No narrative of the Civil War can ignore the centrality of slavery to its origins, conduct and legacy.
This past May at a ceremony in Paris, French President Nicolas Sarkozy unveiled a monument to the victims of slavery (something we have yet to erect in the United States). Its inscription reads: “By their struggles and their strong desire for dignity and liberty, the slaves of the French colonies contributed to the universality of human rights and to the ideal of liberty, equality and fraternity that is the foundation of our republic.” In other words, the monument posits not simply that the nation conferred freedom on the slaves but that it learned about freedom, in part, from them. Here is a model of sober celebration, of triumph laced with humility, that we might seek to emulate.