In a five-minute video that has been making the rounds over last few days, the head of the history department at West Point insists, in no uncertain terms and with flashy, whooshing graphics, that the Civil War was not fought because of states’ rights or economic differences between the North and the South, but because of “slavery and only slavery.”
That, on the one hand, is my gut impression. But on further consideration, it’s painfully and almost insultingly obvious that New Jersey-raised staffers for leftist publications are not the video’s target audience.
The premise and purpose of Col. Ty Seidule’s video is that a few ignorant dolts out in the land continue to insist that the war was not, in fact, about slavery, and that they are precisely the kinds of people who might be swayed to change their minds on the matter by the invocation of the prestige of the modern American military. When faced with the painful cognitive dissonance of being told an inconvenient truth by a person in uniform, the thinking apparently went, the hardliners, or enough of them to get it circulating on White Twitter, might finally concede the point.
The video, of course, has gone viral.
Setting aside for a rainy day the creepiness of an American military man instructing ordinary Americans about the finer points of history—whatever the truth and belatedness of the actual lesson being taught—I couldn’t help but wince at something Seidule says near the end of the video, after he has already reiterated and thoroughly demolished the usual counter-arguments.
“It’s to America’s everlasting credit that it fought the most devastating war in its history in order to abolish slavery,” he intones. “As a soldier, I am proud that the US army—my army—defeated the Confederates. In its finest hour, soldiers wearing this blue uniform—almost 200,000 of them former slaves themselves—destroyed chattel slavery, freed more than four million men, women and children from human bondage, and saved the United States of America.”
This is a familiar notion, and it is related, as Nation editorial board member Eric Foner says in an interview in the latest issue of Jacobin, to the entombment of Martin Luther King Jr. in the American Pantheon, the saccharine reduction of his vigorous radicalism to that single line about hoping his children would someday be judged by the content of their character. This way of thinking takes the often ugly and violent struggles of American history and makes them into a simplistic story about a more perfect Union and the realization, all in good time, of the ideals of the Founders.
Seidule’s video is a propaganda effort for the forces of the good, of historical accuracy, and so one hesitates to complain about his drawing on American-pie patriotism to win over his audience.