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"The Civil War isn't tragic"
August 25, 2011 4:07 PM   Subscribe

The Atlantic's Ta-nehisi Coates sparks months of debate with his contention that The Civil War Isn't Tragic. "The Civil War is our revolution. It ended slavery, and birthed both modern America, and modern black America. That can never be tragic to me."

Coates later continues his point, citing as inspiration James McPherson's This Mighty Scourge:

"It is a privilege to view the Civil War merely as four violent years, as opposed to the final liberating act in a two and half century-long saga of horrific violence, a privilege that black people have never enjoyed, and truthfully that no one in this country should indulge. "

Writer J.L. Wall and historian Brooks Simpson offer early responses, with Simpson arguing, "In short, even as the destruction of slavery is cause for celebration, that it had to come to that through war is cause for reflection and contemplation."

This month, progressive blogger Matthew Yglesias and Forbes writer E.D. Kain argued for tragedy in the wastefulness of the war, both in economic terms and in the number of lives lost.

Yglesias: "Expending vast resources in pursuit of human freedom was eminently justifiable, but it’s still the case that relative to other conceivable ways of wrenching slaves from the grips of their masters “fight a giant war” is a tragically wasteful way to do it."

Kain: "That there was no other way – and I believe there truly was no other way – is in itself a great tragedy. That many men died, including many slaves and freed slaves, many immigrants and poor, and many children, is a great tragedy."

Coates latest post on the subject concludes: "I decline all offers to mourn the second American Revolution. No one mourns the first."

Previously: Ta-Nehisi Coates on the American Civil War
posted by Danila (116 comments total) 54 users marked this as a favorite

 
2 points for Ta-Nehisi Coates!
posted by Renoroc at 4:16 PM on August 25, 2011 [9 favorites]


The rollback of civil rights during Reconstruction - now *there* was a tragedy.
posted by mediareport at 4:17 PM on August 25, 2011 [34 favorites]


Yglesias: "Expending vast resources in pursuit of human freedom was eminently justifiable, but it’s still the case that relative to other conceivable ways of wrenching slaves from the grips of their masters “fight a giant war” is a tragically wasteful way to do it."

? The civil war had zero to do with "wrenching slaves from the grips of their masters"
posted by 2manyusernames at 4:19 PM on August 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


The civil war had zero to do with "wrenching slaves from the grips of their masters"By purpose, no, but by effect, it had everything to do with it.
posted by fatbird at 4:20 PM on August 25, 2011 [6 favorites]


Any war in which the Good Guys won can't be all bad. And any nation that still tolerates the people who still support the Bad Guys in a Lost War can't be all good.
posted by oneswellfoop at 4:22 PM on August 25, 2011 [11 favorites]


There's no way to avoid the "The US civil war had zero to do with slavery" thing in this thread, is there?

*sigh*

*waves*

Later.
posted by mediareport at 4:22 PM on August 25, 2011 [43 favorites]


? The civil war had zero to do with "wrenching slaves from the grips of their masters"

Given that without slavery it might never have happened at all...I think that point is up for debate.
posted by emjaybee at 4:23 PM on August 25, 2011 [8 favorites]


The civil war had zero to do with "wrenching slaves from the grips of their masters"

At the beginning, in the North? Not really. (Although the South made it quite clear that it was seceding in support of slavery.) By the end? Most definitely.
posted by asterix at 4:23 PM on August 25, 2011 [24 favorites]


I have not read all of the posts, but Coates' reply is incompletely theorized. He seems to assume, in reaction to Yglesias, that if war was inevitable it couldn't have been tragic. I simply don't follow that logic, and he doesn't explain it.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 4:23 PM on August 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


? The civil war had zero to do with "wrenching slaves from the grips of their masters"

sweet trollin bro
posted by Greg Nog at 4:33 PM on August 25, 2011 [31 favorites]


Bittersweet is a taste you can experience and your life will not be the worse for recognizing that the sweet came with some bitter.
posted by srboisvert at 4:38 PM on August 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


Clyde Mnestra - You should read all of them, there's a bunch of thinking there that doesn't summarize easily.

One of his points (not the only one) is that seeing the war as tragic necessitates narrowing your focus to the years of the war and the white people involved. If you broaden to include the enslaved (and how could you not?) then it's hard to see the tragedy, and it also seems arbitrary to look only at the official years of war and not the hundreds of years of slavery before that as somehow "not-war".
posted by feckless at 4:42 PM on August 25, 2011 [7 favorites]


I'm not sure why I even tried to say that, since the McPherson quote says it much more elegantly than I could.
posted by feckless at 4:43 PM on August 25, 2011


What's tragic is that we never seem to learn that violence does not solve the the underlying issue.
posted by lobstah at 4:44 PM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Did it involve a hero brought low by an inherent flaw, generally hubris?
posted by klangklangston at 4:47 PM on August 25, 2011 [21 favorites]


What's tragic is that we never seem to learn that violence does not solve the the underlying issue.

The Civil War isn't the best example to use for this sentiment, is it? Didn't solve every problem we have or had, but it sure as hell solved the "whole society run on chattel slavery" thing. Yes, I know various forms of pseudo-slavery persisted into the 20th century, and arguably persist still. The difference is pretty stark, though.
posted by feckless at 4:50 PM on August 25, 2011 [28 favorites]


Feckless, I will accept your invitation. However, I think I will remain hard to convince. I see nothing inconsistent about regarding the Civil War as a "further tragedy" or the "final tragedy" or a crucial achievement with a tragic side.

I have managed to maintain that view without having any sympathy for whinging about the war as if it was dissociated from the evils that gave rise to it. And without losing sight of the fact that it was the lesser harm. In fact, when I have conceived of the Civil War as a tragedy, it is largely because I view it as of a piece with the evils that precipitated it.

It's pointless to deny its tragic character by arguing that it was not THE tragedy, much as it would be to call the flaws of Reconstruction or early 20th century lynch mobs non-tragic because they were mere byproducts of the larger tragedy of slavery.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 4:52 PM on August 25, 2011


I'm not sure how to respond. Is he saying that it is my revolution too, as a white person, so I shouldn't find it tragic that my ancestors on my father's side fought against each other? I take issue with that. Or is he saying "our revolution" as in a revolution that belongs to blacks? In that case I should feel free to consider it tragic.
posted by michaelh at 4:53 PM on August 25, 2011


klangklangston: "Did it involve a hero brought low by an inherent flaw, generally hubris?"

Robert E. Lee is a popular choice, but he wasn't really brought that low.

Jefferson Davis? I racked my brain for any other political figure of the CSA, and came up with the vice president, who I think was named Alexander something or other.

Wait, wait, I've got it: the nullification doctrine/the ghost of John C. Calhoun.
posted by Copronymus at 4:56 PM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


even as the destruction of slavery is cause for celebration, that it had to come to that through war is cause for reflection and contemplation

Yeah, reflection on and contemplation of the fact that the antebellum South went to war rather than give up its Peculiar Institution.

As always, the war was a story of countless individual tragedies, but I for one won't mourn the Antebellum South, nor do I find its passing writ large to be tragic.

And I grew up in the south.
posted by Gelatin at 4:57 PM on August 25, 2011 [15 favorites]


Sorry, don't agree with his reasoning at all. From his third paragraph:

The Holocaust is tragic. Ending the Holocaust is not.

How is it not tragic that over 60 million people died in the conflict that ended the insanity? The end of slavery in the United States was a great thing that emerged at the cost of 600,000 deaths. That freedom, something that should have been a basic fact of life, was only possible at such a cost is a tragedy.

You can't separate the result from the action. The ends do not always justify the means.
posted by N-stoff at 4:58 PM on August 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


What's tragic is that we never seem to learn that violence does not solve the the underlying issue.

Violence is a result OF the underlying problem. In fact, violence and threat of violence was the primary tool that kept slavery going for so long. Basically, a whole lot of violence happened that then reduced overall violence happening in the country (reduced, not eliminated. Post-Reconstruction, the pushback, eliminationism, and sundown towns were also powered by violence).

What's tragic is that we never seem to learn that human rights are human rights. And that people are willing to kill and die to keep other people from having them. That seems to be both the underlying problem and the tragedy to me.
posted by yeloson at 4:59 PM on August 25, 2011 [5 favorites]


The civil war had zero to do with "wrenching slaves from the grips of their masters"

Of course it didn't! The US civil war was all about state's rights.

Specifically, the right to own slaves.
posted by Orange Pamplemousse at 5:00 PM on August 25, 2011 [26 favorites]


If the United States had not gone to war to prevent the secession, I honestly believe that slavery would still be an institution of the Confederate States of America today. How would that be less tragic than everything we have been through since?
posted by oneswellfoop at 5:00 PM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Childbirth isn't painful, because the result is something you love with all your heart that changes your life forever. How could that be painful?

Nope, that doesn't make any sense, either.
posted by 0xFCAF at 5:03 PM on August 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


558,000 dead soldiers might beg to differ. (If they could speak from beyond the grave.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:03 PM on August 25, 2011


Did it involve a hero brought low by an inherent flaw, generally hubris?

Oh thank you baby Jesus. Talk about one of the most indiscriminately misused words ever.
posted by FelliniBlank at 5:04 PM on August 25, 2011



The civil war had zero to do with "wrenching slaves from the grips of their masters"

Given that without slavery it might never have happened at all...I think that point is up for debate.


In the sense that slaves were people with agency who often freed themselves (e.g. by bailing for Union territory)--and HAD been freeing themselves long before the Civil War (though not in exceptional numbers), the debate might be different than you think.

IAAH. IANYH.
posted by liketitanic at 5:05 PM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


How would that be less tragic than everything we have been through since?

It wouldn't. The persistence of slavery would have been tragic. The civil war was tragic. The history of slaves in America was tragic. I don't see anything here to which I could say "That can never be tragic to me" as Coates does.
posted by N-stoff at 5:06 PM on August 25, 2011


If the United States had not gone to war to prevent the secession, I honestly believe that slavery would still be an institution of the Confederate States of America today. How would that be less tragic than everything we have been through since?

The Confederate States of America
posted by homunculus at 5:11 PM on August 25, 2011 [7 favorites]


Coates is staking out a revisionist (not in a bad sense, but quite literally a re-visioning) view of the Civil War by making the experience of black Americans central to the view of it. I think it's going to get a lot of arguing over a long period of time to get that view accepted broadly in mainstream white America because the Civil War is still extremely politically relevant, but it's a viewpoint that's worth arguing for and I'm glad someone is doing it.
posted by immlass at 5:14 PM on August 25, 2011 [32 favorites]


Childbirth isn't painful, because the result is something you love with all your heart that changes your life forever. How could that be painful?

Pain =/= tragedy.
posted by fatbird at 5:16 PM on August 25, 2011 [10 favorites]


When Fillmore, Buchanan, and Lincoln ran for President one of my old bosses said, 'Hurrah for Buchanan,' and I said, 'Hurrah for Lincoln.' One of my mistresses said, 'Why do you say, 'Hurrah for Lincoln?' And I said, 'Because he's goin' to set me free.'
posted by shii at 5:22 PM on August 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


Yeah, I don't see why the American Civil War can't be tragic and triumphant - the truth is allowed to be complicated. The Civil War was both a horrible bloodbath, and it resulted in the liberation of a people from hundreds of years of terrible enslavement.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 5:23 PM on August 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


I agree with Salvor completely; there is no reason that we can't view the Civil War as more than one thing at a time. We are large, we contain multitudes. Things can be complicated.
posted by Justinian at 5:28 PM on August 25, 2011


The question here is, which would have been more tragic, the continued institution of slavery or preventing the deaths of over half a million people. The answer is: yes.

There is tragedy in everything that doesn't happen. Tragedy is the air we breathe. There is an infinity of tragic things, that's part of why what good things we have or are capable of are so precious. If we seize the power to choose our tragedies instead of having them inflicted upon us by face and circumstance, we can make a small space for ourselves in which to live.
posted by JHarris at 5:31 PM on August 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


Fact, not face. So much for my attempt to state things eloquently.
posted by JHarris at 5:32 PM on August 25, 2011


As a high school student in the pacific northwest, not exactly slave-owning central, I remember more being emphasized about the white army loses than the black freedoms gained. Yes, the rights are important, but the dead were counted, not the enslaved. Yes, the civil war contains much tragedy, but good for Coates for making us talk about the effects rather than the means. While at the time, balancing ends and means is hard, I think a century and a half of ethics lets
us know that it was a just cause.
posted by Schismatic at 5:44 PM on August 25, 2011 [5 favorites]


The rollback of civil rights during Reconstruction - now *there* was a tragedy.

Do you mean after Reconstruction? Because Reconstruction itself gave a tremendous amount of civil rights to black Americans (though still imperfect, of course) in the South that were later shamefully taken away post-Reconstruction.
posted by kmz at 5:51 PM on August 25, 2011 [6 favorites]


The fact that it didn't end with the execution of every slaveowner is a tragedy to me.
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 5:52 PM on August 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


I guess there are at least two kinds of tragedy. One is the unavoidable act of god that destroys the innocent. It is obviously wrong to describe the Civil War that way, but it is common. Somehow war broke out and it wasn't really anyone's fault. Just one of those things.

The other way events are tragic is because they are avoidable but happen anyhow because of our Tragic Flaw, something that makes us, us but which will also hurt us terribly. What is the Tragic Flaw for the US? Not slavery I think. Maybe Manifest Destiny? The compulsion of the United States to seize the continent at any cost. What would the US be without that hunger for the land we now occupy? Something we could not recognize as American.
posted by shothotbot at 5:54 PM on August 25, 2011


What Coates is getting at here is the issue of tone and the way we frame these things in our broad discussions of and approach to American history. Face it, nobody much writes toe-tapping numbers like this one about the Civil War. We have a (fucking annoying explosion-filled) day to celebrate the liberation of the colonies and one to celebrate the liberation of 1940s Europe but not one to celebrate the liberation of bazillions of tortured and dehumanized US citizens. We can't even raise a few bucks to create a national slavery museum.

We celebrate the day when the Declaration of Independence was signed but have no day of mourning for the day when this language was stricken from Jefferson's draft, which should live in far more infamy than Pearl Harbor:

"he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce"
posted by FelliniBlank at 5:55 PM on August 25, 2011 [25 favorites]


This discussion did make me look at the numbers: 200,000 people died during a war that led to the freedom of 4 million people.

I think it's fair to say that high casualty, high reward military conflicts are, in other areas of America's past and present, treated by the general public, mainstream historians, and politicians as heroic and inspiring rather than tragic.
posted by jsturgill at 5:58 PM on August 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


That 200,000 figure is only for combat deaths; it doesn't account for the much higher number of deaths from non-combat but still war-related causes, nor for the hundreds of thousands of wounded and broken. And that's leaving aside whether that sort of analysis is at all useful in the first place.
posted by Justinian at 6:01 PM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


I would hesitate to call what I wrote analysis. Commentary is more appropriate. It would be a very poor place to begin or end a conversation.
posted by jsturgill at 6:09 PM on August 25, 2011


From Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address:
[At the time of his first inauguration] One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.
...
If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
Also includes a classic passive-aggressive bitch-slap: "It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged."
posted by kirkaracha at 6:18 PM on August 25, 2011 [6 favorites]


This peice was brilliant.I'm going to use it next time I'm stuck in a conversation with southerners.
posted by humanfont at 6:19 PM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


I just finished Coates' piece and am trying to think how I can put this. I am a little too tired to do it right and won't be able to really talk about it well, but let me try:
I grew up at the IN/KY border and the sentiment he expresses is almost EXACTLY what I grew up with out in the country. I know Indiana isn't known as a bastion of equality and pleasant post war race relations...

But as I grew up I cut my teeth on things like "If they (the evil Southerners) would have allowed a PROPER reconstruction..." and stories about what it was like right after the war to be on the border. You have to remember that even though KY was Union, the county (Henderson) right across the river from us had something like an almost 50% slave population (IIRC).

My people (and that's how they always phrased it: "Our people...") helped people fleeing in refugee camps right across the river on the Indiana side and fought in multiple battles. They were Methodist church women and country people. It was more than just the Union and the idea of State's Rights. I have cedar trees in my front yard from two different battles that were always tokens of our part in this struggle. The lamp I have in my bedroom was the reading lamp that the family gathered around when they got word of the Emancipation Proclamation. My Uncle William fought and was decorated not for the right of South Carolina to print its own money or (insert whatever red herring you want) but so that when he died he could face his god knowing that he had done the right thing.

A lot of what I have heard and read in my lifetime is the revision from what I remember hearing as I grew up. Does that make sense? Maybe not. I grew up with people who DID celebrate the end of the war. I grew up with people who were PROUD that they were part of the process of ending slavery and could give a rats ass about State's Rights in this blown-up political sense that has more to do with negating what the war ended up being about than it does anything else.

I don't know. I think that as we get farther away from it and more of the oral histories die after having lived a generation or two we are going to be stuck with "official" first and second degree versions of The Way People Felt & Thought® that really aren't related to how elated my Aunt Sara was when she took in orphan slave kids and taught them how to read or her mother who protected women and children from lecherous Northern farmers who wanted cheap labor in the aftermath.

Ok. I will stop. I think that I am a little on edge about all of this because when I went home to get pictures of the place where the refugee camp was and document it the signs had been removed and there is nothing to mark it anymore. That got me a little riled up.
posted by Tchad at 6:27 PM on August 25, 2011 [24 favorites]


All wars are tragic. Any benefit from war should be seen as lucky, not intentional. No one can predict the consequences of war, only in hindsight does it seem foreordained.
posted by stbalbach at 6:30 PM on August 25, 2011 [6 favorites]


If the civil war had nothing to do with ending slavery, it's certainly not racist to fly a confederate flag. And I'm pretty sure it is, so the civil war must've had something to do with ending slavery.
posted by condour75 at 6:44 PM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't even understand why this is a controversy. And what sort of fractional worth is implied by measuring the violence experienced by white soldiers in the war as if it balanced the far greater violence experienced by far greater numbers of black slaves?
posted by AlsoMike at 6:47 PM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


That can never be tragic to me.

That's all he's saying.

The way he feels about the civil war is different than the way it is conventional to feel about it, and he has various reasons for why he feels this way.

So if you feel different, and you have your own compelling reasons for feeling the way you do, that doesn't actually mean you disagree with him.
posted by LogicalDash at 6:59 PM on August 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


The fact that it didn't end with the execution of every slaveowner is a tragedy to me.

Hm, I think throwing out the Constitution as a final Fuck You to the Confederacy would be a shame.

(see also : no ex post facto laws)
posted by absalom at 7:05 PM on August 25, 2011


Coates is right. There is no "better way." How could there be? The South seceded because their candidate lost the election. Nothing more.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:11 PM on August 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


His point about selective abstraction is very strong. Yes, all wars ARE tragic, but it's interesting the way some wars are remembered as more tragic than others. The Civil War is remembered as more tragic than the Revolution because it ended a Southern way of life based on an immoral and destructive institution, and those Southerners' descendants in many cases still refuse to admit the full horror of what was done, instead waxing nostalgic for their "loss".

Contrast this to the way the Germans teach Hitler, and I think you'll begin to appreciate why the "tragic memory" of the Civil War is such a shameful thing.
posted by macross city flaneur at 7:13 PM on August 25, 2011 [27 favorites]


I think it's important to address the central point of Coates' argument:

We don't say the Revolutionary War was tragic.

We celebrate that war every year.

So why should we regard the Civil War as tragic if the Revolutionary War is regarded as non-tragic?
posted by sotonohito at 7:18 PM on August 25, 2011 [14 favorites]


Did it involve a hero brought low by an inherent flaw, generally hubris?

Aristotle's literary criticism was not much better than his science. His analysis of tragedy was not that good at the time, and tragedy has developed since then. Please do not take one man's analysis as the one true definition of the word.

(And in this thread, this is the thing I find worth arguing about?)
posted by moss at 7:19 PM on August 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


I bet Ta-nehesi won't take pictures of ugly people either.
posted by bpm140 at 7:19 PM on August 25, 2011


"All wars are tragic. Any benefit from war should be seen as lucky, not intentional. No one can predict the consequences of war, only in hindsight does it seem foreordained."

Not for any coherent definition of "tragic."

Wars may generally be calamitous, miserable events, but not all wars are such, nor does that necessarily make them tragic.
posted by klangklangston at 7:19 PM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Civil War was tragic because the states could not avoid going to war over the issue of slavery.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:23 PM on August 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


"Aristotle's literary criticism was not much better than his science."

It's not like I'm saying all tragedies involve goats.

"His analysis of tragedy was not that good at the time, and tragedy has developed since then. Please do not take one man's analysis as the one true definition of the word."

Dude, c'mon, that a secondary meaning for tragedy has developed, roughly synonymous with "disaster" or "sad-making" doesn't mean that there both aren't better words for what Coates was saying, or that I'm a dogmatic Aristotelian.
posted by klangklangston at 7:26 PM on August 25, 2011


All I know is this: in every war, every where, there's a soldier on the ground somewhere, bleeding, watching his heart's blood soak into the soil, thinking:

"What am I dying for? Am I dying for this? I didn't mean to die for this! Fuck this!"

War is general. Death is specific.
posted by SPrintF at 7:28 PM on August 25, 2011 [5 favorites]


"The Civil War was tragic because the states could not avoid going to war over the issue of slavery."

They could have pretty easily, they just didn't. I mean, determinism schmeterminism, it's like saying that Bernie Madoff couldn't avoid stealing all that money, or that anyone in a car crash couldn't avoid whatever they ran into. It's true, but kinda misleading, and the South could have avoided going to war over slavery. They collectively just didn't want to.
posted by klangklangston at 7:29 PM on August 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


Nah, they couldn't have because they really didn't want to and they had no idea of how deadly it would be.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:43 PM on August 25, 2011


The revolution was the coup that kept Tilden from the presidency. The tragedy of the civil war was that reconstruction was so disastrous to the economy of the south. It took almost 100 years for the Americans to see rebuilding countries after wars was an economically sound business plan.
posted by parmanparman at 7:50 PM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think it's important to address the central point of Coates' argument:

We don't say the Revolutionary War was tragic.

We celebrate that war every year.

So why should we regard the Civil War as tragic if the Revolutionary War is regarded as non-tragic?


Umm, maybe because not all wars are alike?

It's not an argument, just a question, and an inane one at that. Honestly, if one isn't even prepared to acknowledge that successful revolutions or interstate conflicts are different than civil wars -- that how a nation treats a war against a defeated "other" is different than how it treats a war against a people it never regarded as separating from the union, and that it wanted to assimilate, and in which kin fought kin (yes, even more than in the Revolutionary War) -- there's just no point in talking about this.

I should make clear that I think "we" won both wars, and that both accomplished great things. But the idea that we should treat the birth of the US the same way as its near-collapse and narrow redemption, because both were wars that we won, is just stupid. Honestly, I have much more sympathy with the argument that the Revolutionary War and the Constitution shouldn't be celebrated because they wound up accommodating slavery.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 8:08 PM on August 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


Holy crap. If you've got some time on your hands, why not read the Wikipedia page on Reconstruction?
posted by Orange Pamplemousse at 8:14 PM on August 25, 2011


The fact that it didn't end with the execution of every slaveowner is a tragedy to me.

Since what you're suggesting would lead to my non-existence, we'll agree to disagree.

The Civil War is remembered as more tragic than the Revolution because it ended a Southern way of life based on an immoral and destructive institution

I won't deny that a large part of why we see the Civil War as tragic comes from unfortunate Southern Lost Causism, it's not like that's the only difference between the Civil War and the Revolutionary War. The Civil War was far more deadly and led to a hugely larger amount of human suffering, both in terms of battlefield deaths and the civilian suffering and economic deprivation in the South. The Revolutionary War led to death to be sure, but the difference in casualties is literally an order of magnitude.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:17 PM on August 25, 2011


I mourn the first American Revolution :(

/descendent of United Empire Loyalists

But I don't mourn the Civil War. It began about slavery (there would have been no successions but for slavery) and it was necessary to end chattel slavery, a horrific institution of violence and inhumanity.
posted by jb at 8:20 PM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Did it involve a hero brought low by an inherent flaw, generally hubris?

I would be comfortable writing a high school-style essay arguing that the US could be seen as a heroic figure (shown in Revolutionary war throwing off of Colonial power) brought low (pretty devastating war) by an inherent flaw (over-reliance on slavery), such as hubris (thinking that not only was relying on slave labor a really great way to run an economy, there was also really nothing wrong with it because it was the natural order of things.)

Hubris (play /ˈhjuːbrɪs/), also hybris, means extreme haughtiness, pride or arrogance. Hubris often indicates a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one's own competence or capabilities, especially when the person exhibiting it is in a position of power.
posted by bleep at 8:21 PM on August 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


Well, y'know, it wasn't a fucking comedy either.

Perhaps it was theater in that it seems some dramatic sacrifice needed to be made as a nation. Although what altar upon which it needed to be laid is debatable. Slavery seems the most accommodate. At least there we can take some solace that the war was necessary.
posted by Smedleyman at 8:28 PM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


What was tragic is what remains tragic. That special interest groups can divide the country and aggravate the citizens to the point of war. Slavery has largely been replaced by poverty and prison. That the country is still run by an elite ruling class.
posted by doctor_negative at 8:38 PM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


I won't deny that a large part of why we see the Civil War as tragic comes from unfortunate Southern Lost Causism, it's not like that's the only difference between the Civil War and the Revolutionary War. The Civil War was far more deadly and led to a hugely larger amount of human suffering, both in terms of battlefield deaths and the civilian suffering and economic deprivation in the South.

The loss of life was nothing compared to the Germans in WWII. They had the dignity to complain about that fact remarkably little. In fact, some historians have recently begun to argue that, if anything, the Germans erred on the side of minimizing their own suffering too much. To their unending credit as a people.

They have the dignity to admit things the South never has:

1. They brought it on themselves through monumental hubris, stubbornness, and stupidity. Every last bit of their suffering was of their own creation.
2. It was all rooted in a diseased ideology of ethnic privilege.
3. Everyone was implicated.

IF the south has been allowed to remember the Civil War without the words "American holocaust" and "absolute shame", it is only because their basic outlook was shared by so many northerners, and it would be another century before that ideology would even come close to being purged from mainstream thinking.

I just don't buy the numbers as an explanation for the narrative of tragedy. Such "nuance" could only be a product of a nation which, as a whole, did not, in fact, find slavery that deplorable.
posted by macross city flaneur at 8:40 PM on August 25, 2011 [23 favorites]


The fact that it didn't end with the execution of every slaveowner is a tragedy to me.

This type of over-the-top, no-relation-to-reality talk is what makes the internet suck.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:49 PM on August 25, 2011 [5 favorites]


You know, I don't generally think of myself as someone with a "black outlook" — I'm a mixed kid who grew up with her white family in a white place and generally has a middle-class white outlook on a lot of life. But the idea that people can sit here debating the finer points of a war that made me a person with actual human rights — man, white people be crazy. Playing the my sadness trips your sadness game is usually pretty dumb and all, but if you see slavery as something other than the Holocaust (but lasting way longer), I just don't know ...
posted by dame at 9:09 PM on August 25, 2011 [13 favorites]


I had a little taste of this debate a few years back. I was editing the Wikipedia article on the Underground Railroad, which was in a woeful state when I found it, and added some concrete sources. One of them pointed out that the Railroad actually spirited very few slaves to freedom over the years it was active -- maybe 1 or 2% generously. It wasn't doing much to injure slavery at that rate, even with importation from Africa eliminated. But on the other hand, it was having a very alarming effect on Southern slave-owners and politicians, who demanded ever more stringent Fugitive Slave Laws (both from Congress, and from case law such as Dred Scott). In fact, there is a theory that the Civil War happened because of these laws, which were in reality often flouted; Northern jurisdictions engaged both actively and passively in widespread civil disobedience, enforcing the ownership of human beings by other human beings only out of legal necessity. Essentially, this safety valve -- no matter how small -- made it impossible for the South to stay in the Union, because as long as there was a part where slaves could go and not have to worry about their status as property, the peculiar institution was in the long run impossible to maintain. This forced secession, and the Union then went to war to contravene this extralegal act. Thus, I pointed out that the political effect of the Underground Railroad was far greater than its direct effect.

Well, I got into a discussion with a black fellow editor. In his words, the most important aspect of the Underground Railroad wasn't the political effect it had, but the fact that a whole lot of black people were freed. I ended my involvement with the article soon after. I couldn't argue with that. It was pretty frustrating that even though we were basically on the same side (Underground Railroad good!), we couldn't agree on how to assess its success or lack thereof. I don't know what the article says today.

Obviously the Underground Railroad has two stories: that of the slaves who rode it to freedom, and that of the often-but-not-exclusively white conductors. I felt that it was ahistorical to over-emphasize its success, because that's another example of the Hollywood trope of telling a story about black people through white protagonists. I don't know how to resolve this internal contradiction even today.
posted by dhartung at 9:49 PM on August 25, 2011 [10 favorites]


The Revolutionary War led to death to be sure, but the difference in casualties is literally an order of magnitude.

About 8,000 American Revolutionaries died during the eight years of the American Revolution.
About 7,800 Americans were killed over three days at Gettysburg.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:54 PM on August 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


Even if you recenter the Civil War to focus exclusively on the struggles of Black Americans, I don't think Coates' point holds water if he's saying the Civil War was a necessary condition for the freeing of those of African descent in the Southern US. Considering African slaves in British territories were freed pretty peacefully over a period a generation earlier, I think that freedom for black slaves in the Southern American states was inevitable. I mean, I realize that the economic and social structures of the South were very different from Northern & Western American states & the British empire's slaveholding lands, but in terms of both ethics and industry, a global revolution was fomenting that would have rendered slavery untenable, even in the South.

(Of course, the Brits followed up slavery by importing "indentured servants" from Asia and Africa, so one might argue that system actually expanded post-slavery, but, well, that's an argument for another thread.)

PS dhartung: the Underground Railroad wikipedia article prominently reads, "Although the economic impact was small, the psychological impact on slaveholders of an informal network to assist escaped slaves was immense."
posted by lesli212 at 10:26 PM on August 25, 2011


The fact that it didn't end with the execution of every slaveowner is a tragedy to me.

It's interesting you say that. Southern states were on their way to ending slavery when the Haitian Revolution happened. There was widespread fear of similar massacres and executions happening in the United States, so talk of ending slavery in the Southern states immediately reversed. You could say that your partisan ancestors in that respect were responsible for not only 60 additional years of slavery but hundreds of thousands of deaths in the Civil War.
posted by michaelh at 10:51 PM on August 25, 2011


This peice was brilliant.I'm going to use it next time I'm stuck in a conversation with southerners.
posted by humanfont at 6:19 PM on August 25 [1 favorite +] [!]


whoa whoa whoa. don't slander "southerners" with that big brush. it was southerners that won the civil war--by fleeing from border plantations to follow the Union army --a general strike--by enlisting in the Union army and fighting for their freedom, and by serving as spies.

At least, that's the basis of WEB Du Bois's great work that Coates is no doubt drawing inspiration from. Black Reconstruction should be required reading for American history students.

So many of our modern political struggles have their roots in the struggles of the Reconstruction, that you can really say that it was the Second Revolution.

(at least, according to this southerner, if you would even listen to such ignorant people.)
posted by eustatic at 11:02 PM on August 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


I honestly believe that slavery would still be an institution of the Confederate States of America today.

That'd be the Yankee viewpoint. In truth it was the BRITISH (and to a lesser extent the French) who are most responsible for the global abolition of slavery. Queen VIctoria abolished slavery in the British empire in 1837 (almost three decades before the "Union" took up the banner) and she ordered the Royal Navy to interdict the slave trade.

That being said, the British empire was also quite economically dependent on southern cotton. Textles represented a significant part of Britain's GDP in the 19th century. Yankee fear that the British would recognise the Confederacy was one of the driving forces behind Lincoln's slow embrace of "emancipation." Indeed, Lincoln held the proclamation in his pocket for months until he could show a victory on the battlefield proving he was able to enforce it. Lincoln's emancipation proclamation far less morally guided and much more cravenly political than legend would have it.

In any case, even if the Confederacy had prevailed, the slave trade was destined for defeat. They could barely avoid the blockades of the pathetic Union Navy - how could they have dealt with the Royal Navy?

So yeah, the American Civil War was really a side show in the global abolition movement and the result would have been the same with or without the death of 600,000 soldiers.
posted by three blind mice at 11:41 PM on August 25, 2011


"In any case, even if the Confederacy had prevailed, the slave trade was destined for defeat. They could barely avoid the blockades of the pathetic Union Navy - how could they have dealt with the Royal Navy? "

I don't really have a side in this discussion, but this statement is just irrelevant. From the Wiki article on the Atlantic slave trade, which I had to go to for exact dates:

"In 1807 Congress, acting on the request of President Jefferson, outlawed the importation of slaves beginning on January 1, 1808, the earliest date permitted by the United States Constitution for such a ban."

You may notice that that's a few decades before the civil war. Ongoing slavery in North America was pretty much entirely fed by the maintenance and expansion (by rape, amongst other means) of the existing slave population. There's no reason the British abolitionists would have brought any sort of an earlier end to slavery.
posted by kavasa at 12:10 AM on August 26, 2011 [5 favorites]


You could say that your partisan ancestors in that respect were responsible for not only 60 additional years of slavery but hundreds of thousands of deaths in the Civil War.

The original comment was hyperbolic but this is just bullshit. I'm pretty sure that slaveowners and their allies are the ones responsible for slavery and the Civil War. Fear and paranoia is not an excuse to continuing owning human beings.

So yeah, the American Civil War was really a side show in the global abolition movement and the result would have been the same with or without the death of 600,000 soldiers.

Except for, you know, those millions of slaves who would have been in captivity for that much longer.
posted by kmz at 12:48 AM on August 26, 2011 [5 favorites]


See also Freddie de Boer's take on this:
I just see no service, public or private, in regarding a question as vexing and vexed but insisting on arriving at an untroubled answer, and worse, for casting the cheap currency of privilege onto those who aren't similarly self-assured.
And more. Since the conversation seems to be about semantics and definitions. (I have no horse in this race, but found this take to be interesting.)
posted by ianso at 12:59 AM on August 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah, de Boer's post is quite interesting and basically says what I would say if I were a smarter person than I am.
posted by Justinian at 1:18 AM on August 26, 2011


Aargh, that second link should go here.</butterfingers>
posted by ianso at 1:23 AM on August 26, 2011


Coates is staking out a revisionist (not in a bad sense, but quite literally a re-visioning) view of the Civil War by making the experience of black Americans central to the view of it. I think it's going to get a lot of arguing over a long period of time to get that view accepted broadly in mainstream white America because the Civil War is still extremely politically relevant, but it's a viewpoint that's worth arguing for and I'm glad someone is doing it.

The thing is, I suspect most of the people who are arguing against positioning it as a victory would take the opposite view of the Revolutionary War - which has just as much claim to be a tragedy; many people were killed, it was a disaster for the North American loyalists (and a disaster for blacks, because the British would ultimately accept that slavery needed to be abolished long before the US did, and without a war; had the British colonies in North America been part of the Empire, it likely would have resulted in the slaves been freed more quickly and with less bloodshed...).

The only way one can really hold those positions (one a tragedy, another not) is to privelge the lives of white Americans above black Americans, and republican Americans above royalist ones.

man, white people be crazy [...] but if you see slavery as something other than the Holocaust (but lasting way longer), I just don't know ...

Slavery's lastest for almost the entirety of human history. And it's hardly been a whites-only institution.

Southern slave-owners and politicians, who demanded ever more stringent Fugitive Slave Laws

Ahh, yes. Fugitive Slave Laws. Brought to you my the upstanding gentlemen of the South, who wanted nothing more than the right for states to govern themselves without constant interference from the Federal government.

Except for, you know, those millions of slaves who would have been in captivity for that much longer.

I don't think three blind mice considers the lives of blacks as important as the lifetsyles of white southerners.
posted by rodgerd at 1:48 AM on August 26, 2011


The original comment was hyperbolic but this is just bullshit. I'm pretty sure that slaveowners and their allies are the ones responsible for slavery and the Civil War. Fear and paranoia is not an excuse to continuing owning human beings.

None of it is bullshit. I know it's frustrating to think that slaves freed in one place could have delayed freedom in another place, but that's what happened.

You can say the Southerners should have stuck to their guns, consequences be damned, but you have to admit that only a rare person would do that while thinking their entire family would die for it, as was believed to be a likely consequence. There really were a lot of murders in Haiti.

If you are able to blame Party A but recognize Party B influenced Party A for the worse (something required of me too often), you should not have a problem with what happened.
posted by michaelh at 1:54 AM on August 26, 2011


Haiti was not the reason slavery went from dying out to the central fact of the South. It was the combination of the cotton gin with the rise of automation in textile factories in England and France. Spectacular profits could be made.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:19 AM on August 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


None of it is bullshit. I know it's frustrating to think that slaves freed in one place could have delayed freedom in another place, but that's what happened.

No. It's frustrating that someone would advance this as an argument. Because it's bullshit.
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 4:01 AM on August 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


Haiti was not the reason slavery went from dying out to the central fact of the South. It was the combination of the cotton gin with the rise of automation in textile factories in England and France. Spectacular profits could be made.

I can see nobody will believe this, but while that was a factor it was not the catalyzing reason for the nearly immediate reversal of opinion when the news started to come in.
posted by michaelh at 5:04 AM on August 26, 2011


From a comment I posted elsewhere:

Coates has been writing about the Civil War for a while. I was always inclined to believe that the War really was about slavery, but his yeoman's work with the original sources and subsequent critique of the necromantic attempts of Lost Causers to argue otherwise was really, really convincing.

But from there, he seems to be taking a rather bizarre position. He seems to believe that saying that the Civil War is "tragic" implies that the speaker believes that the Civil War was "about" something other than slavery. Given that belief, it makes a certain amount of sense to say that the War was not "tragic."

But that's a really weird belief to have. It eliminates, for instance, the possibility of believing that the entire institution of slavery was a grave moral wrong, and that this is underscored by the fact that it took four years and half a million deaths to completely debride its presence from American culture.

A position like Coates' means it's impossible to characterize the Crucifixion as tragic. Which is something that Christians traditionally believe. I mean, sure, it's the only means by which we are saved, etc., but it still majorly sucked for Jesus, you know? And because Christians are supposed to love Jesus and all, is there not room for regretting that it had to happen at all, even if it was the only just response to human sin? Really, Coates seems to deny anyone the possibility of both grieving and rejoicing about the same event, which is only mature response to a lot of the human condition.

I think Coates does himself a disservice by conflating his opponents' positions the way he does.
posted by valkyryn at 5:18 AM on August 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


I don't think Coates at all denies that it's possible to grieve and rejoice simultaneously. He just sees, accurately I think, the prevailing European-American view of the war as way disproportionately aggrieved.

It's presented as a horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible event with some good or necessary outcomes.

vs.

The American Revolution, which is presented as a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful event that unfortunately made Mel Gibson lose his son and house.

Heck, let's just count up the minutes of happy vs. sad music in the Burns documentary.

One could make the case rogerd mentions, that we all might have been much better off if, instead of appeasing the Southern colonies over the slavery issue to get them to go along with the Revolution, the Continental Congress had said, "Fuck y'all, some things are not negotiable" and ended up staying within the British Empire a few more decades until after slavery had been abolished.
posted by FelliniBlank at 5:39 AM on August 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


How many others nations ended slavery without civil war during the 19th century? All of them, except of the United States. That seems pretty tragic to me.
posted by dgran at 5:46 AM on August 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


You could say that your partisan ancestors in that respect were responsible for not only 60 additional years of slavery but hundreds of thousands of deaths in the Civil War.

...but you'd be wrong. Even if they feared being massacred, all they had to do was deport their ex-slaves, probably to Haiti, which was seriously thrown around as an idea.

You might, just might, want to consider the invention of the cotton gin in 1794, the resulting explosion of cotton production in the south, and the increase in the value of holding slaves as maybe having just a wee bit to do with its continued existence.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:07 AM on August 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


He just sees, accurately I think, the prevailing European-American view of the war as way disproportionately aggrieved.

And he's probably right. But he's taking too strong a position. Instead of simply attacking that prevailing view, which he's done successfully and admirably elsewhere, insisting that the Civil War is not "tragic" under any definition of the word proves too much.
posted by valkyryn at 6:28 AM on August 26, 2011


Haiti was not the reason slavery went from dying out to the central fact of the South. It was the combination of the cotton gin with the rise of automation in textile factories in England and France. Spectacular profits could be made.

I can see nobody will believe this, but while that was a factor it was not the catalyzing reason for the nearly immediate reversal of opinion when the news started to come in.
posted by michaelh at 5:04 AM on August 26 [+] [!]


michaelh, I'm far from an expert about slavery in the Americas, and other posters have responded with much more detailed and cogent historical detail than I can muster, so I'll default to reason. According to your argument the south was all ready to move on from humans owning other humans as property, until some people got killed by ex-slaves in Haiti. This changed the situation suddenly and so completely that they apparently thought it was worth fighting a pretty brutal war over. There is perhaps a reason that nobody will believe you. Oddly enough, the study of history isn't, or at least shouldn't be, built on belief.
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 6:40 AM on August 26, 2011


I can see nobody will believe this...

Possibly because "this" is just naked assertion on your part. And, also, because your asking us to believe that Southern slaveholders suddenly decided to maintain an economically inviable system, upon hearing the news that the same system had violently exploded in a neighboring country. How does that make any sense?
posted by steambadger at 7:01 AM on August 26, 2011


it was southerners that won the civil war--by fleeing from border plantations to follow the Union army --a general strike--by enlisting in the Union army and fighting for their freedom, and by serving as spies

The United States Colored Troops "constituted approximately one-tenth of the Union Army" and "fought in all theaters of the war, but mainly served as garrison troops in rear areas." About 52% were from Confederate states.

Black men fighting for freedom and the Union was less militarily decisive than it was powerfully symbolic:
Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters US, let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth or under the earth which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:03 AM on August 26, 2011


I think the point here is that the Civil War led to emancipation. Why is it that we can't celebrate that event?

Coates' comparison with the celebration of independence is apt. It's not a matter of "Whoo-hoo! Dead British soldiers, dead loyalists!" It's a celebration of independence and constitutional democracy. We remember the war as a matter of good Americans, the patriots, fighting the bad British king. The revolution and it's goals are things we have no problems embracing and celebrating.

The Civil War and emancipation are different. Emancipation came about as a result of one group of white Americans fighting another that wanted to preserve slavery. Full emancipation and full equal rights for freed slaves was not something the winning side was comfortable with. Even with emancipation, even within the Republican party, this position was seen as radical. Unfortunately, even today too many of us are not comfortable with the idea of full equality; celebrating it, rather than just acknowledging it, would be seen as divisive.

The idea of celebrating the end of slavery reminds of things about our past and present that make a lot of us uncomfortable and that we'd rather not think about.

That a lot of people died in the war was tragic. It always is. Slavery was tragic on a scale that's difficult for us to imagine or take in. It's also tragic that even today we can't unreservedly celebrate the end of it.

(Dec. 18th, 1865)
posted by nangar at 7:18 AM on August 26, 2011 [8 favorites]


TNC's point -- it's the kind of thing I think it's valuable to say, but not really worth debating. There's too much give in how to evaluate something's "tragicness." Half a million people were violently killed, most of them with no particular personal connection to slavery, many of them in fact fighting against slavery. Is that tragic, or is it not tragic because of the good result? Just comes down to the word at this point.
posted by grobstein at 7:31 AM on August 26, 2011


The only way one can really hold those positions (one a tragedy, another not) is to privelge the lives of white Americans above black Americans

It's also about privileging a view that holds white people's experience as central to American history over a view that holds black people's experience as central. But a lot of talk about the Civil War is talk about current politics, which is why it's so bitterly divisive. It's talking about current and recent racism in the US and about serious current policy and political differences in historical guise. (Just to pluck out one example: people talking about how they'll use this discussion to argue with "southerners" like some people agreeing with Coates aren't southerners themselves.) Privileging the life and experience of one set of Americans over the other is intimately tied to privileging some political views over others. This is not an exclusively American experience by any means (see: not just Germany, but Northern Ireland and Israel/Palestine) but it's part of why Americans can't talk about the Civil War easily or civilly.
posted by immlass at 7:36 AM on August 26, 2011 [7 favorites]


It's also about privileging a view that holds white people's experience as central to American history over a view that holds black people's experience as central.

More precisely, it's about not only endorsing but perpetuating the narcissistic, myopic 18th-century viewpoint that enlarging the civil, political, and economic liberties of a small well-to-do European-American elite is always a much larger and more pressing priority than trying to establish fundamental human rights for everybody. Even in 1776, plenty of people knew better, but we see lots of Americans today who obviously still think in those terms.
posted by FelliniBlank at 7:54 AM on August 26, 2011 [4 favorites]


no day of mourning for the day when this language was stricken from Jefferson's draft

It is a shame that anti-slavery language was stricken from the draft of the Declaration of Independence, but that specific language, which blamed the King of England for the ongoing practice of slavery in the colonies, was sheer nonsense. The fact that Congress itself insisted on striking antislavery languages, and that the practice would go on to be legitimized in the Constititution, is proof.
posted by Gelatin at 8:40 AM on August 26, 2011


Eh? That passage blames George for the trade in new slaves, not the ongoing practice of black slavery.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:23 AM on August 26, 2011


Larger point taken, though. I guess that in the context of the larger discussion, if there's a given point in American history that is "tragic" -- in its original sense of people making horrifically disastrous ill-thought choices -- then with respect to slavery, the whole Revolutionary era is the tragedy and the carnage of the Civil War its aftermath and requisite corrective event.
posted by FelliniBlank at 9:30 AM on August 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


I really liked this piece. I think that one can make the point that Coates makes by reversing the statement. Rather saying that the American Civil War was not tragic, simply say that the American War of Independence (why do we call it a Revolution, anyway?) was just as tragic.

Doing a little math, the casualties (on both sides (including wounded)) of the American War of Independence were equal to approximately 4% of the population of the colonies at the time. This is very close to the 3.7% of the United States (1860 census figures, casualties on both sides, including wounded) for the American Civil war. (Numbers pulled from wikipedia, I was genuinely surprised by the casualty figures for the War of Independence.)

If you object to me counting both sides in the War of Independence, then equally, you should probably leave out the Confederate casualties for the Civil War. After all, both involved part of a country trying to separate itself from the rest.

So yes, the American War for Independence was a damn tragedy. Too many died. And it was unnecessary, as the independence of Canada, Australia and New Zealand demonstrate. The United States would have eventually become independent, just as the slaves would have eventually been liberated without the American Civil War.
posted by Hactar at 10:26 AM on August 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think Bleeding Kansas demonstrated that the democratic processes of the time were insufficient for bringing about non-violent restrictions or regulations on slavery. Both abolitionists and pro-slavery parties used ballot-box stuffing and violent intimidation in an attempt to influence the election in their favor. Even if the southern states had not voted for secession, it was likely only a matter of time before the independent militia groups dragged the whole country into warfare.

I think the hopes for European intervention were slim. Although they won the Crimean war, it exposed deep flaws in the leadership of the British Army. Even in the early months of the Civil War, casualty rates rivaled those sustained by English and French forces in two years of Crimea. Napoleon III's monarchist ambitions in Mexico were weak, and Canada vulnerable to blockade and hostile control of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence. Meanwhile, England had a cotton-producing empire and friendlier cotton-producing allies in Africa and Asia.

Meanwhile, I suspect that even if a peace had been brokered between Union and Confederacy, that the shared doctrine of manifest destiny would have made it extremely short-lived.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:47 AM on August 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


What's tragic about the Civil War is that all these generations later, people are still using the language, ideas, and rhetoric of slavery and white supremacy to perpetuate the sins of the past while draping it in some bullshit language of "honor", "heritage", and "tradition".

What's tragic is the poor whites of the South bought into the bullshit sold to them by the white elites and didn't completely overturn the system during Reconstruction and rebuild the entire political and economical system in a way that both whites and blacks could benefit rather than just a handful of rich whites.

What's tragic is that the advances African Americans made in the few short years following the war were undone so quickly and thoroughly and that it took them generations to get back to where they started.

What's tragic is that 150 years after the damn war was over and the good guys won, we still have to have these arguments over what the war was "about" and who the good guys were.

I say this as a Southerner and as a Civil War historian, the only thing tragic about the Civil War is that no one learned a damn thing.
posted by teleri025 at 11:08 AM on August 26, 2011 [12 favorites]


I'm also not convinced that we can say much about what might have been if the American Revolution had failed beyond, "things would be different." Perhaps the scale of North American slavery might have delayed emancipation here. A different process for assimilating territory might not have involved a half-century of ugly political conflict over slavery.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:20 AM on August 26, 2011


And it was unnecessary, as the independence of Canada, Australia and New Zealand demonstrate. The United States would have eventually become independent

Well, we don't know how Britain would have treated its (white) colonies if it had successfully crushed the American Revolution.

And... when? At the earliest, you can date Canadian pseudo-independence to confederation in 1867. More realistically, Canada was not functionally independent until 1931, when the UK more-or-less gave up the right to pass laws affecting Canada, and was not fully independent until 1982. There are similar stories for Australia and New Zealand.

I dunno... saying that Americans shouldn't have had a war because they'd only have had to wait another eighty-odd, or another 150, or another 200 years for independence is hard to accept.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:23 AM on August 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah, the continued presence of those colonies as part of the British Empire would almost certainly have changed both internal politics and foreign policy.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:22 PM on August 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well, what about Coates' contention that the prevailing narrative concerning the Civil War is that it was a tragedy and more something to be mourned than celebrated? What does that narrative say about Americans, both past and present?

I know I have always had difficulty separating the Civil War from the hundreds of years of violence against blacks that preceded it. I have never put it in the same terms that Ta-Nehisi does and have no quarrel with anyone who sees the Civil War as tragic or thinks of their own family members who died fighting in it. But the Civil War as an event has always seemed part of something much larger. My view of history is heavily shaded by my ethnic and racial background as an African-American and descendant of slaves. I can't really "see" the Civil War as anything other than the final straw that broke the camel's back of enslavement.

There is this quote from a Time article about Juneteenth:

"In recognizing the history of American freedom, advocates say, Juneteenth is as deserving of recognition as Independence Day. "We may have gotten there in different ways and at different times," says [Reverend Ronald] Meyers of blacks and whites, "but you can't really celebrate freedom in America by just going with the Fourth of July.""

posted by Danila at 1:05 PM on August 26, 2011 [4 favorites]


Slavery's lastest for almost the entirety of human history. And it's hardly been a whites-only institution.

And you make my point for me, really. As an American descended from slaves, that particular slavery we are talking about is personal — intensely personal. If not but for the grace of god . . . So I can sit here and say, well American slavery was really very different from Greek slavery and blah-de-blah-blah, but that is beside the point.

The Civil War should be celebrated because I am free. And sure, some people only tangentially involved in enslaving my people with their own hands and all were killed, but, you know, lots of Germans died in WWII as well and no one is sitting around sobbing about it. Plus, now I get to be a person, with rights, and the freedom to come and go, and the freedom to at least accuse my [hypothetical] rapist (who is also not my owner!), and all sorts of things. And that is fucking awesome. And I want to have a party with fireworks about it, please.
posted by dame at 2:02 PM on August 26, 2011 [13 favorites]


I was in Lynchburg VA a couple of weeks ago. We stopped at the big cemetery so we could see the civil war section -- my dad particularly wanted to show me how the yankees were kept outside the fence. They also weren't included on the sign that mapped names, ranks and unit #s to the spots on the ground where that soldier was buried.

but my wife quickly noticed another interesting feature: The slaves (and a couple of black union soldiers) were all buried separately, in a well-defined space inside the "confederate" fence. But whereas the white confederates were buried or identified by name, rank and unit, all the slaves had been buried with only the name of their master identified.

I guess what I'd say is that if I were grading Ta Nehisi Coates by whether or not he had rigorously complied with the standard definitions of tragedy or had been a little over-general about whether or not there was any tragedy in the war, well, maybe he wouldn't do so well. But the man has a point: The confederate states were utterly dependent on a vile institution and that war resulted in the end of said institution. If he has a problem seeing it as a tragedy, I'm not about to get in his face about it.
posted by lodurr at 11:36 AM on August 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


Black Confederates at Harvard

Black Confederates At Harvard Cont.
posted by homunculus at 1:42 PM on September 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


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