Wednesday, August 24, 2011

But Why?

If you're like most of the kids I taught in history class you're main question about this blog is "But Why?" Just because something is 150 years old, is not a good reason to study it. (In fact from the 13-18 year-old mindset there are at least 149 good reasons NOT to remember something 150 years old). Whole books have been written on the topic of remembering the Civil War (and I certainly don't want to put you through all that) so here are my top three reasons for pausing to remember and learn about the US Civil War.

1. Around 600,000 Americans died fighting it.
2. It was a war fought between democracies for different democratic ideals
3. Its effects, and actually, its causes are still with us.

1. The deaths of 600,000 people is, of course, a matter which we should probably choose to remember. These people were our ancestors and their relatives, friends and neighbors. Many of them fell in places which were as foreign to them as other countries are to our generations' veterans. Far, far too many of them died because the technology of killing was yet to be matched by the technology and knowledge of surgical sanitation. Far, far too many died because the tactics and strategies of the generals, both north and south, had also not kept pace with the weaponry. To die young in battle is terrible enough, but when that is multiplied by those who should not have even been wounded, had their leaders been able to act in wisdom; and that is multiplied by the infection spread by barbaric medical practices ignorant of germ theory the results are truly tragic. So reason #1 to remember and study this war is to remember and honor the sacrifice of so many who died for what they believed.

2. What they believed in, and died for, is not a simple matter, and it is also not a matter which is easily discussed in our day. To honor roughly half of those who fought can offend the descendants of those who were kept as slaves in their society. Slavery was the elephant in the room of American politics at least from 1783-1861. While the sides did not officially fight for or against slavery at the beginning of the war, both sides new it was the one issue behind the disagreements which led to war. To begin to understand why slavery could cause this war with its terrible cost I would highlight two facts: in 1861 slavery had an older history in America than religious freedom, the first African slaves arrived in the Jamestown colony to work in tobacco plantations in 1619, the year before the pilgrims would establish the Plymouth colony. 2nd: The slavery in the United States before the Civil War was, largely, slavery at its ugliest and most degrading. Most slaves in America were treated about like the farm animals. This condition is called chattel slavery and its effect on slaves and owners has been well documented in books like Roots.
Why then should any of us choose to remember those who fought to preserve the culture, society and government which fostered this abominable treatment of human beings? While this question is paramount to us it would have been insensible to the average Confederate soldier. That person, who would have marched many miles during the war without shoes, clothed in rags and powered by meager and rancid rations would not have been a slave owner. Those men were motivated by their belief that they were Virginian, Tennessean, or Georgian before they were American. They believed that Union armies were armies of invasion and they fought for the right of their state government to be the sovereign power in their life. Thus, the motivators of the armies were two visions of what democracy would be. That can be said of very few conflicts in the history of our planet.

3. This video from FoxNews shows a very tangible way that the civil war is still current at Gettysburg, PA.
It may not be so obvious, but the themes of racism, local vs federal government power, who will participate in our democracy, are still very much a part of our political fabric. I think it is good for us, in our heated defense of that which we believe to be right to pause and remember that there was a time 150 years ago when similar passions led to the most costly war our nation has ever experienced.