In the Shadow of the Civil War’s Beginning

As a scholar engaged in a study of the Civil War Era in the United States, It’s been my job lately to think about the way we remember and interpret this period. And the more I think about it, the more I believe we’ve been doing it wrong. Our national obsession with primarily Eastern, predominately politico-military events from April, 1861 to June, 1865, creates a refuge for bad history–teleology, really–that has had nothing short of a disastrous effect on the way we reckon with things like class, race, and freedom. 

The conventional (read: easy) narrative looks something like this: sectional crisis, Lincoln’s election, secession, MINUTELY-DETAILED NARRATIVE OF EVERYTHING THAT MIGHT HAVE HAPPENED ON OR NEAR A BATTLEFIELD FOR FOUR YEARS, Appomattox, Ashokan Farewell, Lincoln’s martyrdom, Credits.

Oh, and Reconstruction. That was bad. And confusing.

And that’s pretty much it. It may seem like I’m picking on the Ken Burns series, but there’s no denying the powerful effect it’s had on the way we see the era. Yet Burns’s documentary (parts of which are fantastic) reflects the larger framework that had already been constructed to house “Civil War History.” A typical Civil War era textbook, for example, ostensibly “covers” the period 1848-1877. But the bulk of the narrative, content, and detail is disproportionately dedicated to 1861-1865. Sure, the war is important. Sure, it’s got a vise grip on so many peoples’ historical imagination. But the pre-packaged narrative that comes out of this myopic focus on what is, objectively speaking, a really small window of time, wreaks havoc on our historical understanding.

I’ve argued elsewhere that we ought to think very seriously about our discussions of the war’s chronological boundaries If we blithely declare it was over in 1865, then it’s all too easy to say things were “fixed,” and our problems today are merely recent and therefore temporary. Complicating our notions of “ending,” for example, Gregory Downs’ splendid After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War makes a compelling argument for seeing  what we traditionally have called “reconstruction” as instead an “insurgency” that was as much as anything an extension of the Civil War “proper.” William Pencak, in an essay that deserves a much wider readership, argues (“with apologies to Baudrillard”) that “the American Civil War Did Not Take Place.” Rather, he suggests,

Would it be too much to say that the South won, not the Civil War – which did not take place – but an ‘Era of Racial Violence’ which extended…from ‘Bleeding Kansas’ in 1854…to the End of Reconstruction in 1877? At issue is which periodization is most useful for understanding the America that emerged in the twentieth century. In the long run, the Confederacy not only won the right to control its own racial affairs, it also triumphed in the popular imagination as a legitimate and heroic cause, largely because scholars and popular culture have abstracted the relatively civilized violence of the years 1861 to 1865…from the at least equally consequential but far more repugnant era in which future Southern troops fought a guerrilla war for slavery in Kansas and ex-Confederates turned terrorist finally drove the Union forces out of the South. To conclude paradoxically: the Civil War did not take place, and the South won it.

Given the violent resistance across the white South to Republican attempts to rebuild the national polity by enforcing emancipation, given the waves of terrorism that washed across the defeated Confederacy, given the tenuous and contingent nature of national authority in large swaths of occupied territory even into the 1870s, how could one argue that the war was “over?” One man’s “unreconstructed reb” is another man’s insurgent guerrilla. There is more than a superficial resemblance between the race-based violence and resistance exhibited by white southerners in the late 1800s and the guerrilla campaign carried out by the Viet Cong against foreign occupying armies. But as Pencak so incisively points out, seeing the “war years” of 1861-65 as the era’s undisputed high point has forced us into looking at everything else as either prelude or postscript. And thus we miss those important continuities because we’ve imposed an uncritical periodization that presents as truncated the processes of the longue durée.

But as important as confounding our notions of “ending” is, an even more crucial question centers around beginningsWhy, among all of the slaveholding regimes of the globe, was it only in the United States that slaveholders attempted to create an antidemocratic state that rested on the very principle of race-based chattel slavery? The US wasn’t the only slaveholding nation-state in the western hemisphere, and in terms of numbers, wasn’t the largest, either. Why was there no secessionist slaveholding movement in southern Brazil after the abolition of the Atlantic Slave trade, for example? As Stephanie McCurry points out in her excellent Confederate Reckoning, the “secessionists’ experiment in proslavery nationalism…was also uniquely American in origin and design.” Indeed, “Confederates…present the only case of a pro-slavery ruling class confident enough to launch its own state-building project and the only example of proslavery nationalism to arise in the Western Hemisphere.” (quoted at 16-17).

From whence did this “confidence” arise for the slaveowning Confederates that embarked upon this nation-building project? I’d argue that this is where we can really untangle the roots of our present-day racialized violence. These self-styled Confederates had made an enormous profit from the labor of black slaves, labor to which the workings of the national political system made them feel entitled. The property-rights fetish in American law provided a powerful idiom and rationale for them to defend their right to completely abrogate the rights of others. The powerful racism that existed even in the “free soil” of the North and West provided unceasing affirmation and implicit approval for the ideology undergirding the slaveholders’ regime. The “Slave Power” was a real thing. It ran the United States government during the antebellum era. Setbacks for the Slave Power were notable only for their rarity and for their status as the exceptions proving the larger rule. When a solemn-faced Roger Taney could proclaim from the Bench of the Supreme Court that despite what the historical record said, the slaveholders’ preferred version of American history–the version where only white men had “rights”–would stand as the law of the land, how could these budding secessionists feel anything but confident?

And if these factors sound familiar, that’s because they are with us still. The fact that few whites, and no mainstream politicians, take the idea of reparations seriously is testament to how powerful the sense of white entitlement remains. The continued sacralization of property rights paints anyone who damages “property” as an outlaw, someone whose legitimacy becomes forfeit. Ask protesters in Ferguson or Baltimore how that process ends; the vehemence of the state’s militarized defense of “order” and “property” dwarfs the  commitment to defending rights that are ostensibly the birthright of all. The carceral crisis for people of color, the institutionalized racism that persists in a hazy semi-Apartheid, even the ways in which we approach our popular amusements–the conditions that begat the Confederates’ confidence in the rightness of their venture are the conditions which constrain us still. And until we critically examine our misbegotten assumptions about both the beginning and the end of the Civil War, we will be unable to thoroughly reckon with these things which so vitally concern us all.

In this sense, then, it doesn’t so much matter that the Confederacy didn’t “win the war.” The ability to start it was victory enough.

We live in the shadow, not so much of the end, but of the beginning of the Civil War.

4 Replies to “In the Shadow of the Civil War’s Beginning”

  1. Interesting post–thank you!
    A history class on the Civil War & Reconstruction eras should be longer than a semester…

  2. Thoughtful. We always tend to compartmentalize events. While it is important to look at the longer range suggested here, we can’t diminish an event that killed 800,000. I don’t think reconstruction has been overlooked to the extent implied here. I would disagree with Pencak’s description of relatively civilized violence from 1861-1865. Spotsylvania Courthouse, the Wilderness were not civilized to name a few. Even at Gettysburg, the fighting was hellacious. Double canister at point blank range is not civilized. The war of1861 to 1865 was to put down a rebellion and ending slavery was part of that. The failures afterward do not diminish that. The author is correct about the ongoing effects of racism. As David Blight said at the Appomattox commemoration, the Civil War (properly the War of the Rebellion) is not over yet. A growing part of scholarship is addressing the issues after the war as it should be.

  3. A few more thoughts. You could take the time frame back to 1812. The slavery states panicked after the British took any slaves who made it to them to freedom in Bermuda, Jamaica and Canada. Penal codes were strengthened and slaves were denied some things they could do before 1812. Brazil, I think doesn’t describe the uniqueness of the US experience. It was a very different society, government, culture. I know many think the west has been ignored. I don’t agree, there are new studies on the west. Once, Grant captured Vicksburg, the strength of the South in the west was diminished. The war in the east is considered more important for good reason. Antietam, Gettysburg, the Overland Campaign, the siege of Petersburg and Sherman’s taking Atlanta and the rest of his campaign are what broke the Confederacy. We should also remember that there were parts of the South that opposed the rebellion and fought for the Union. And then there was Kentucky which aligned with the rebellion after Appomattox.

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