Civil War Isn’t on the Horizon—the Original Battle Never Ended

Civil War Isn’t on the Horizon—the Original Battle Never Ended

Civil War Isn’t on the Horizon—the Original Battle Never Ended

Those in the media sounding the alarm about civil unrest are right to be worried, but popular explorations of the term “civil war” don’t go far enough.


There is a growing fear in the mainstream media that the United States could be on the path to civil war. But the hard truth is that a civil war is not on the horizon—it’s already here. In fact, the original Civil War never ended, and its ideological—and in many cases, genealogical—heirs continue to wage that war to this day.

Earlier this month, The New York Times ran an article noting that “more than a century and a half after the actual Civil War, the deadliest war in U.S. history, ‘civil war’ references have become increasingly commonplace on the right.” In the arena of popular culture, the final episodes of the Paramount+ legal drama The Good Fight are about to air. In the words of the show’s cocreator Michelle King, “we’re dealing with an upcoming civil war in Season 6, and it’s more than just a metaphor.”

Those sounding the alarm about civil unrest are right to be worried, but popular explorations of the term “civil war” don’t go far enough. A civil war is far more than groups of men wearing 19th-century uniforms and standing opposite one another in a field with rifles raised, shooting at each other on dusty battlefields. And in the modern era, it’s not just a question of the potential for the use of violence—that is only one part of the picture. The predicate to war is the rejection of the legitimacy of government and authority of society. Through that lens, civil war is all around us.

The original Civil War didn’t start out as a civil war at all. Rather, it began when the party that lost a presidential election to the candidate backed by Black people refused to accept the results of that election—sound familiar? After Lincoln was elected in 1860, the slaveholding, “keep America white” states didn’t vote to go to war; they voted to secede from the country to which they’d belonged for 73 years. The shooting and killing came later, after the states that had seceded from the union sought to seize federal property in those states, and then defend that seizure by firing cannons at US troops.

In order to properly appreciate the moment that we’re in, we need to understand that, while the leader of the Confederate Army, Robert E. Lee, technically surrendered on April 9, 1865, the Confederates never stopped fighting. Just two days after the supposed surrender at Appomattox, John Wilkes Booth listened to Abraham Lincoln give a speech in support of limited suffrage for former slaves, and promptly told a friend, “That’s the last speech he’ll ever give.” True to his word, Booth then slipped into Ford’s Theater and shot Lincoln in the back of the head. Lee’s “surrender” was not even a week old. Over the course of the next 157 years, the Confederates and their descendants have regularly and repeatedly resisted and rejected the legitimacy of governmental attempts to establish multiracial democracy in America.

Although he did not live to see it, Booth’s murder of Lincoln did a spectacular job at codifying America as a white nation. Andrew Johnson, the man who replaced Lincoln as president, quickly sided with the defeated Confederates in resisting civil rights laws; opposing passage of the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed African American men the right to vote; and paving the path for the abandonment of Reconstruction, which handed the control of slave states back to slave owners.

For nearly 100 years after the official end of the Civil War, tenacious defenders of the Confederacy and its goals fostered white supremacy throughout American politics, culture, and life. The ongoing war was—and is being—waged on multiple fronts. One is via voter suppression, in the form of new, discriminatory laws. Another is white domestic terrorism, with the creation of the Ku Klux Klan by ex-Confederate soldiers. And a third is the fight over the minds of the country’s children. Long before the recent right-wing feast on book banning and so-called critical race theory, the genealogical descendants of the Confederates formed large, influential, and unapologetic organizations such as United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) and Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV). As explained in The Tennessean, UDC led the effort to whitewash the curriculum in the early 20th century, spending “decades shaping and reshaping textbooks to put a strong emphasis on Lost Cause views of the Civil War and Reconstruction, glorifying the white supremacist foundations of the Confederacy and providing justification for racial segregation and Jim Crow.” SCV carries on the cause by selling Robert E. Lee bobblehead dolls and other white nationalist memorabilia.

Over the past century and a half, Hollywood has pitched in and piled on to the narrative by lavishing millions of dollars on essentially Confederate propaganda. Margaret Mitchell, author of the popular 1936 paean to the Confederacy, Gone with the Wind, drew her inspiration from Thomas Dixon’s play The Clansman—the book that was also the inspiration for the 1915 film Birth of a Nation. Both Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind were immensely successful in recasting white nationalist slaveholders as sympathetic heroes and heroines. Gone With the Wind has continued to capture the popular imagination, and was in the “Top 10 of Americans’ favorite novels” as of a 2018 USA Today survey.

In the 1950s, when the iron grip of white nationalism was finally loosened by the force of the civil rights movement, modern Confederates forcefully rejected the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education order to desegregate public schools, and launched a coordinated counter campaign dubbed “Massive Resistance,” as outlined in the “Southern Manifesto,” a document signed by 90 percent of Southern congresspeople in 1956, and described by historian Dan Carter as calling “upon whites to unite in an unbroken phalanx of opposition to any changes in the South’s racial system.” In Prince Edward County, Va., white leaders shut down the entire school district in response to Brown, and kept the public schools closed for five full years—longer than the duration of the Civil War itself.

With the election of Trump, modern-day Confederates found a champion unlike any they had had in many years. His celebrity and wealth offered a semblance of legitimacy for white nationalists across the country, and the message was not lost on them. As former FBI member and counterterrorism expert Frank Figliuzzi has pointed out, “never has our nation had a president who served as a kind of radicalizer-in-chief…. he has given license to those who feel compelled to eradicate what Mr. Trump himself has called an infestation.”

That some people refuse to accept a government that doesn’t uniformly champion whiteness is nothing new for our country. It was not just Trump who attempted to defy the will of the American people. On January 6, 2021, as we have been reminded by recent congressional hearings, the majority of the Republican members of Congress voted to side with the insurrectionists and throw out the results of an election that had been certified by all 50 governors, across party lines.

We are right to be worried about civil war in America, but the concern should not be forestalling another conflict: The imperative of this hour is to finally end the original Civil War.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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