The Quiet Sesquicentennial of the War between the States
Not much media coverage, not much fanfare, not much reflection. A war that carved over 600,000 lives from the nation when the nation’s population was just 31 million. To compare, that would equate to a loss of life in today’s population statistics, not to mention limb and injury, of circa 6 million.
We are in the month of May, when 150 years ago Grant crossed the Rapidan to engage Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Lee stood atop Clark’s Mountain and watched this unknown (to the eastern theatre) entity lead a massive army into Lee’s home state. Soon there would be the Wilderness, where forest and brushfires would consume the wounded and dying. Days later, the battle of Spotsylvania ensued, in which hand-to-hand combat would last nearly 12 hours. Trading casualties one for one and rejecting previous prisoner exchange and parole procedures, Grant pushed on, to the left flank. The Battle of the North Anna, then the crossing of the James, and thus into the siege of Petersburg. This was 1864 in the eastern theatre.
Today there is hardly a whisper of the anniversary of these deeds, sacrifices, and destruction. Why?
One can suppose that the weak treatment of history at the alleged higher levels of education in this country contributes to the lack of attention. “It was about slavery; now on to WWI.” The War between the States was so much more complicated than the ABC treatment that academia presents. And as the old saying goes, the more complicated the situation, the more the bloodshed.
Was it a “civil” war? In a civil war, one party wishes to topple the government and take over the country. This was not the case. The South sought an exit from a Union into which those states willfully entered, and many reserved the right to detach if so decided.
Was it about the spread of slavery? Yes and no. Certainly the balance of power in Congress between pro- and anti-slavery was a great issue. But when the South seceded, the threat of the spread of slavery disappeared. The Confederate constitution also forbade international slave trade. Huh?
The secession documents of the Deep South states certainly voiced their concerns regarding the threat of the federal government ending slavery. But why didn’t Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas leave with the Deep South if the war was all about slavery? Those states did not leave until forced to contribute to the coercion of the Deep South states, which they refused to do.
We are told the war was all about slavery, but Jefferson Davis, in his inaugural from Montgomery in February of 1861, before any shots were fired, failed to mention slavery. He focused on Constitutional grievances.
Lincoln admitted he had no power to interfere with slavery.
The Confederate vice president’s speech, Alexander Stephenson’s famous Cornerstone oratory, is often quoted for a famous racist remark and assumption. But did anyone read the other 24 paragraphs?
And after the battle of the First Manassas (Bull Run) in July of 1861, both houses of Congress passed the Johnson Crittenden Resolution emphasizing that the current conflict was not about any special institution (slavery), but rather directed at the reunification of the Union. So complicated, and so difficult to explain.
And what of the Emancipation Proclamation that freed slaves only in areas of rebellion? Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware slaves were unaffected, amongst other regions.
The complications of the War between the States make teaching it properly a grand task, and a task that apparently most history teachers in this country fail to attempt. And the failure extends itself with the glaring ignorance of the carnage, sacrifice, and issues that held the attention of a nation 150 years ago. Shame on those who don’t know and choose not to know, or teach. A nation must remember the accurate history of itself.