An overdue debate about the Civil War and truth in history

After Charleston, South Carolina, there is a new, vigorous debate about the Civil War, the Confederacy, race relations, slavery, and, about truth in history. It is all very healthy, and all long overdue.

In today’s Washington Post, professor James W. Loewen has some very interesting thoughts about this, about how the Confederacy lost the war but won the history. It is time, he writes, to “de-confederatize” the United States and set history right. The war was about slavery, nothing else.

“Removing slavery from its central role in prompting the Civil War marginalizes African Americans and makes us all stupid,” Loewen writes.

Here is what I wrote in my recent book, Land of Dreams: A Reporter’s Journey from Sweden to America:

“In his book Sidor av Amerika, Swedish journalist Thorsten Jonsson, who was once the daily Dagens Nyheter’s correspondent in New York, wrote during a trip through the South in 1946 how difficult it was to like it there, because “so much of the old and beautiful contains so much that is unhealthy and unproductive”  — there is a “smell of oppression that seeps out from the daily relationships between whites and coloreds” …” a piece of gangrene in the body politic that must be removed.”

Today, the South has changed, of course, and the gangrene has healed. But I remember that even in the 1960’s, the South was a strange and frightening part of America, and not just for blacks. If you were a young, white student and drove a car with license plates from a northern state — be careful! Anything could happen.

My picture of the South, the eleven Southern States that fought for slavery in the great Civil War from 1861 to 1865, has long been influenced by the 60’s, when so much injustice and violence and death was part of everyday life in that part of America.  Still, today, I cannot completely get away from this picture when I travel through the South, because I am constantly reminded of the past. The South lost the Civil War and as a result, the slaves were freed but what followed were one hundred years of institutionalized discrimination and oppression.  Everywhere, monuments remind the visitor of the past, and the scenes of the major battles are holy ground. But they are all monuments to a lost cause.

In Washington, DC, on the border between the North and the South, the Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s old home is visible on the hill above Arlington National Cemetery across the Potomac River in the State of Virginia. Here, one is constantly reminded of how far south Washington actually is, and how close one is to the bloody history of the Civil War. The trip from Frederick, Maryland through Leesburg and Culpepper in Virginia down to Monticello is called the “Journey through Hallowed Ground.” It is a journey through this country’s most historic part, where nine Presidents had their homes. History is often more alive in America than in Europe – perhaps because the history of the United States is so much briefer than Europe’s…

The American Civil War between 1861 and 1865 was a war with many names, depending on whether one was for the Union or sympathized with the eleven States in the South, known as the Confederacy. Names like the War Between the States, the War against Northern Aggression, the Second American Revolution, the Lost Cause, the War of the Rebellion, the Brothers’ War. But whatever the name, it was a war for the preservation of slavery in the South, and it was bloody. During nearly four years of fighting, from Fort Sumter in South Carolina to Appomattox, Virginia, over three million soldiers fought and 620,000 of them were killed. Not far from my home in Maryland, at Antietam, one of the bloodiest battles of them all took place — 23,000 soldiers on both sides died.

The free black population in the North consisted of only one percent of the total population, but in the final stages of the war 180,000 black soldiers fought for the Union, or ten percent of its forces. Their victory was the slaves’ victory, and America’s victory, even if the war cost President Abraham Lincoln his life and even if the Blacks in the South had to wait another 100 years for their true emancipation.

When the North’s commander Ulysses S. Grant met his counterpart from the South, General Robert E. Lee, at his surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, Grant wrote the following memorable words about the South’s cause:

“I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”

And so it was … one of the worst reasons, ever, to go to war.”

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2 thoughts on “An overdue debate about the Civil War and truth in history

  1. Thank you for being a part of this important discussion. I am hoping it will continue nationwide so that the more than 100 years of oppression for those who do not look like me will end.

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