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Interesting aspects of the American Civil War
July 8, 2012 6:57 AM   Subscribe

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at The Atlantic, recently touched on a couple of interesting aspects of the American Civil War. First, Racism Against White People briefly looked at how Southern intellectuals argued that Northern whites were of a different race. Then a subthread in the comments on that post spawned an investigation of American Exceptionalism in History and the notion of preserving democracy in the context of the American Civil War. After all, "if a government can be sundered simply because the minority doesn't like the results of an election, can it even call itself a government?" Definitely check out the comments of both posts.
posted by Brandon Blatcher (49 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite

 
It's been over 150 years and we're still trying to decide what caused the Civil War. That seems to me to be something uniquely American.
posted by tommasz at 7:24 AM on July 8, 2012


Thorzdad's comment was a stretch, but examining history as it pertains to the present is almost always instructive. In particular, I like Coates' point about how "the idea of race in American life has never been a rock, but clay fashioned as the racists of every generation need it to be."

In relatively recent times, "white" has come to include Irish, Italians and Slavs -- an idea that anyone, even the Irish, Italians and Slavs, of the 19th Century would have found preposterous. Morgan Freeman recently got in the news for saying that Barack Obama wasn't really black. Look at the line that's often drawn in discussions of Latino politics between Cuban-Americans and all others. The clay continues to be fashioned.

And there's a lot of racism-style rhetoric in liberal-vs.-conservative talk, too. "Oh, well, he's one of the good ones..." "Sure, I agree with Bart Stupak that abortion is wrong, but he's a Democrat, which means he supports Nancy Pelosi and her extreme pro-abortion politics..."
posted by Etrigan at 7:25 AM on July 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


[Early derail deleted; let's try not to make this all about the current election cycle right out of the gate, please. ]
posted by taz at 7:28 AM on July 8, 2012


The people of the Northern States are more immediately descended of the English Puritans [who] constituted as a class the common people of England . . and were descended of the ancient Britons and Saxons. ... The Southern States were settled and governed by ... persons belonging to ... that stock recognized as Cavaliers ... directly descended from the Norman Barons of William the Conqueror, a race distinguished in its earliest history for its warlike and fearless character, a race in all times since renowned for its gallantry, chivalry, honor, gentleness, and intellect. The Southern people come of that race
Wow, that is fascinating. I love the notion that class issues from 11th century still held such stock 800 years and an ocean away.
posted by Think_Long at 7:30 AM on July 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's been over 150 years and we're still trying to decide what caused the Civil War. That seems to me to be something uniquely American.

Denial about racism is hardly uniquely American.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:30 AM on July 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


It's been over 150 years and we're still trying to decide what caused the Civil War. That seems to me to be something uniquely American.

Proctor: All right, here's your last question. What was the cause of
the Civil War?

Apu: Actually, there were numerous causes. Aside from the obvious
schism between the abolitionists and the anti-abolitionists,
there were economic factors, both domestic and inter--

Proctor: Wait, wait... just say slavery.

Apu: Slavery it is, sir.
posted by FatherDagon at 8:04 AM on July 8, 2012 [8 favorites]


Ta-Nehisi does some of his best work on the Civil War. He's knows the material so well, yet he's not connected to academia or most popular historians of the Civil War, so he always has a fresh viewpoint on the topic.
posted by jonp72 at 8:25 AM on July 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


we're still trying to decide what caused the Civil War

I'm not sure we're really still trying to decide on any serious level. It may take us a long to understand most of the complexities and we may never arrive at a full understanding of anything so emotionally driven and so buried in the past, but it's more accurate to say that we understand the major causes and disagreements of the Civil War, though not all Americans understand them, there has been a lot of myth propagated about them, and there is an invested group of deniers who refuse to accept the established narrative.

Wow, that is fascinating. I love the notion that class issues from 11th century still held such stock 800 years and an ocean away.

Well, do note that this isn't necessarily factual truth; it was "the basic conception of the proto-Confederates," a mechanism used to justify Southern superiority. In fact, it is still used; I've heard it fall directly from the mouths of some of my relatives that the South was more populated by "Second Sons," therefore more noble and basically classy and honor-bound than the North. It is a particularly sticky idea. I don't really think that class issues from the 11th century survived unbroken for 800 years to emerge in the South; I think that people around the 1850s looked to history for anything to buttress their cause and found a way to claim nobility and superiority which was useful in their argumentation. Frankly, knowing the South and North quite well, it is ridiculous to suggest that Southerners were primarily settled by or descended from nobility.

I haven't looked enough at Colonial statistics from the two regions but am hunting around now for analysis or critiques of the DeBow theory. It interests me because I could also swear this was featured in a textbook I had in 5th grade or middle school at some point; the idea has definitely been in my head from early on, and only now have I had enough experience in history theory to say "hmmm....wait a minute."
posted by Miko at 8:29 AM on July 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


The race as clay metaphor is lovely, well stated, and accurate - but it is not uniquely or especially American. It is, instead, an intrinsic aspect of race. There have never been any two cultures who could agree on what races do and do not exist or how to tell them apart because it's an entirely imaginary distinction. Thirty thousand years from now, the descendants of the Irish settlers of Australia will look pretty similar to today's Aboriginal population, and that would be true without any interbreeding occurring whatsoever.

This stuff is so depressing to think about!
posted by kavasa at 8:30 AM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


There's a book (the title escapes me) in my store about Southerners who left the south to fight for the Union, the book put the numbers in the six figures. What race are they?
posted by jonmc at 8:42 AM on July 8, 2012


Has anyone read Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America, by David Hackett Fischer? I've meant to for years, but haven't. It's mentioned and criticized in the comments under the first article.
posted by Snerd at 8:43 AM on July 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm putting that on my list, snerd. Looks pretty interesting, even from a critical angle.
posted by Miko at 8:44 AM on July 8, 2012


If a government can be sundered simply because the minority doesn't like the results of an election, can it even call itself a government?

Seems like this would depend on the scale.
posted by cheburashka at 8:58 AM on July 8, 2012


I've read American Nations which does go into the origin what it calls the Tidewater nation (Virgina, Maryland, parts of NC). Certainly it is true that many planters from that region (including Washington) can trace their origins to younger sons of aristocrats and refugee Cavaliers, but that is not true for most people from that region.

What is not a credible claim is that they were therefore descended from Normans, as by the 17th century relatively few English aristocrats had more than a smattering of Norman blood and they were thoroughly culturally English.

The book also makes the point (I don't know how true this is) that the idea that the wealthy plantation owners had of "liberty" was a fundamentally hierarchical thing that had more in common with the ideas of the Patrician Roman Pater-familias than with anything we would identify with that term.
posted by atrazine at 8:58 AM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


If a government can be sundered simply because the minority doesn't like the results of an election, can it even call itself a government?

I think yeah, of course it can call itself a government. All governments are temporary - some just get longer runs than others. And even in our own lifetimes we've seen countless governments get taken down or driven out to be replaced by others. At the fundamental level, a government is just a system of organizing a society. Some are better than others, but they're all governments.
posted by Miko at 9:15 AM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


And it's hardly a uniquely American phenomenon.

I certainly agree, but frequently this sort of statement bleaches the color out of any discussion involving cultural differences. One could equally well say that "language is hardly a uniquely American phenomenon". But, certainly, there are particulars of the way language developed and is used in America that can only be illuminated by ethnographic and socio-historical analysis about Americans. Surely, you would not deny such a statement?

Rather than go down the same road that we've seen in previous related discussions, it would be nice if we could all stipulate that all human cultures are full of assholes, that all cultures have involved oppression, no one is without sin, etc. But the issue here is to examine this particular form of oppressive ideology.
posted by mondo dentro at 9:17 AM on July 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


To expand on wht Atrazine said -- there also seems something amiss with the notion that the Saxons were less warlike, or the Normans more so. The Normans defeated the Saxons at Hastings in part because the Saxon army had force marched south from Stamford Bridge, where they'd just kicked the shit out of a Norwegian invasion.

Isn't there always going to be something wonky with any analysis that presumes some ethnic Or national group more warlike than any other? People are fighty in proportion to their situation, otherwise I'd still be half-naked, smeared with mud, and hitting Irishmen with a giant stick. You know, like my dad.
posted by samofidelis at 9:20 AM on July 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


I think yeah, of course it can call itself a government.

The quote was about the second post, which was looking at the notion of the Civil War being, at least in part, a fight for democracy.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:25 AM on July 8, 2012


Ta-Nehisi Coates is pretty much the only blogger in my RSS feed reader "Read Daily" category (originally intended to be my 'can't miss a post) that I never skip reading. The only 'problem' with him is that he makes things so interesting that I can't help but want to be interested in them too. I think jonp72 nails it when he says that Coates's lack of previous connections make his viewpoint so interesting; he genuinely goes into a topic with an open mind that is lacking elsewhere (and one of which I am incredibly jealous)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:27 AM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


...there also seems something amiss with the notion that the Saxons were less warlike, or the Normans more so.

Perhaps I am missing the point of this statement, samofidelis, but the issue is not about the historical accuracy of the Norman-Saxon myth ("The former are a master-race--the latter a slave race, the descendants of Saxon serfs."), but about how the people who believe it behave. The same holds for the article on American exceptionalism. One might examine the validity of claims to such exceptionalism, but the real issue in terms of these articles is how does that belief shape our character as a nation.

One could similary examine how pious followers of Abrahamic orthodoxies behave, regardless of whether one accepts their truth claims. And so on...
posted by mondo dentro at 9:33 AM on July 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


mondo - I'm not sure that we're actually at odds. To be clear, I'm not trying to say "well, everybody does it!" I'm more going for "and here's yet another example of the idea of race being total bullshit." Sorry if it seemed like I was trying to make excuses or anything like that, I'm emphatically not. I just loved the metaphor of racial identities as clay to be molded by the racists' needs and want to say that it's a true metaphor everywhere.

I should also of course acknowledge that, while race is not grounded in any sort of objective reality, it is grounded in a cultural reality that has real effects. I'm 100% not one of the "if we all just pretend there's no racism and/or that race has no cultural reality it will go away!" people. It has real effects on real people and is, sadly, thus made real.
posted by kavasa at 9:34 AM on July 8, 2012


I'm not much of a history buff but I have learned far more about the Civil War from Ta-Nehisi Coates than I ever did in school.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:38 AM on July 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


...the idea of race being total bullshit...

Yes. Unfortunately, a form of bullshit with particularly potent toxicity.

One commenter to the first article makes a point closely related to yours:
Then it hit me: it the term "race" you use so freely. That the term is a social construct we already know, but then why use it again and again? I was reading a book about the early Roman republic and the various groups which fought for and against Rome during the second Punic War. These were similar in the outlook to the Irish, German and other groups you are mentioning in your article.
...
I think you should start doing the same: stop using "race" and start using "ethnic groups", you'll find the world looks completely different.
I'm somewhat ambivalent about the recommendation: objectively, the commenter is exactly correct, but when we speak of values we are drawn into the subjective realm. Surely, it is worth mentioning that some groups are highly motivated by the notion of race. But perhaps Coates does not use enough caveats to make this subjective-objective distinction clear.
posted by mondo dentro at 9:44 AM on July 8, 2012


kavasa: I wanted to say "Like you, I'm somewhat ambivalent..."
posted by mondo dentro at 9:46 AM on July 8, 2012


I read (and cannot find the link) that the south was obsessed with English and Scottish Litertaure that reconstructed history so it suggested a kind of polite courtliness that might not have existed otherwise. Ivanhoe and other Scott was mentioned extensively.
posted by PinkMoose at 9:49 AM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/historically_speaking/v010/10.3.moltke-hansen.html

Here is a project muse link, which is not going to be helpful for most, but it does seem conntected.
posted by PinkMoose at 9:53 AM on July 8, 2012


Mondo-- fair enough, I think I was stumbling on details instead of paying attention to the actual substance of the argument. I still don't know how many aristocratic Southerners would identify as a Cavalier during a time when the British were so often at war with France, but that's supposition on my part, and I don't have the facts.
posted by samofidelis at 9:53 AM on July 8, 2012


Denial about racism is hardly uniquely American.

But we have raised it to such a fine art!
posted by oneswellfoop at 10:18 AM on July 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


The KKK's burning cross is probably connected to interest in Scottish history.

Well, do note that this isn't necessarily factual truth; it was "the basic conception of the proto-Confederates," a mechanism used to justify Southern superiority. In fact, it is still used; I've heard it fall directly from the mouths of some of my relatives that the South was more populated by "Second Sons," therefore more noble and basically classy and honor-bound than the North.

The reverse side of that equation is also used by Northerners to explain Northern virtues. There are plenty of well-off New Englanders who'll tell you that they got to where they are because they're descended from hardworking Puritans who eschewed fancy living, and draw a direct line between having ancestors on the Mayflower and driving a beat-up Volvo.

Everyone tends to think that their kind is the best and invent elaborate historical fictions to explain why.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 10:22 AM on July 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


I don't disagree with that; both are fictionalizations.
posted by Miko at 10:24 AM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ta-Nehisi Coates is in my daily read list as well. He's been discussing issues around the Civil War for quite some time, and manages to distill here something that has been bothering me for quite a while:
Now in some sectors of the country for which Lincoln died, patriotism means waving the flag of his murderer. The party he founded supports this odious flag-waving and now gives us a candidate who would stand before that same flag and peddle comfortable fictions. What hope is there when those who talk of patriotism brandish the talisman of bloody treason?

The matter falls to you. Don't conned. Don't be a mark. Live uncomfortable.
posted by ambrosia at 10:29 AM on July 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


There are two distinct phases to history: a story told to support a certain agenda or point of view, and then later, the same story retold and repurposed to buttress another agenda.

There is of course, little connection between the Norman invaders of 1066 and the (largely Scottish-descended) slave-owners of the antebellum South. Yet the fact that the slaveowners felt it necessary to repurpose a previous historical narrative to support their own historical narrative is itself an object of historical inquiry, which is one of the reasons why I'm endlessly fascinated with history.

History is basically the study of the stories that we tell about ourselves. The study of the repurposing and repackaging of those stories across generations as they are reused to support different political movements.
posted by Avenger at 10:41 AM on July 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's been over 150 years and we're still trying to decide what caused the Civil War. That seems to me to be something uniquely American.

No. it's been over 150 years and some people are still trying desperately to pretend that the Civil War wasn't caused by the intense desire of white southerners to keep owning other people as property so that they could wring their bread from the sweat of other men's brows.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:04 AM on July 8, 2012 [8 favorites]


Snerd: "Has anyone read Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America, by David Hackett Fischer? I've meant to for years, but haven't. It's mentioned and criticized in the comments under the first article."

Yep. Read it in college. The prof asked if any of us were weirded out by the book's thesis, which was a reframing of "the Cavalier theory." None of us had the faintest clue what he was talking about. Albion's Seed forwarded the argument that early America was shaped in part by the pattern of settlement: that people from particular parts of England settled in particular parts of America (e.g., people from the Midlands settled in, say, New England while people from East Anglia settled in, I don't know, the South). The author mustered up a lot of physical evidence -- house types, etc.

It wasn't too terribly wacky, and it certainly didn't drag in any ethnic-group nonsense. Even then, I wasn't sure how true it was, but it didn't seem crazy. (Also, it's a great book for a college student. It's huge, but you can rip through it and get the important points good enough to pass an exam in an afternoon. One big core argument forwarded in chapter one, then hundreds of pages of evidence to back the theory. You can skim like a righteous bastard.)
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 11:10 AM on July 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


We know about the role of technology in the carnage, and the employment of outmoded strategy. But is there any relationship between this kind of racial dehumanization and the mass slaughter that followed?

It's not hard to imagine Americans in that day struggle for a social model to accommodate the diverisity represented by their aspirations. Think chaotic. European and classical history were the wells from which they drew inspiration. I'm going with the notion that a classical education, not genetic predisposition, was at work in defining the aristocratic pretensions of southerners. I'm not sure the northerners were substantially different, except in its mode, shaped by its different economic details.

Dehumanizing the enemy is a requisite effect of war. You don't bayonet your brother, unless he's screwing your wife--then you call him out for the dog he is just before you stick it to him.

I imagine that the hatred which engendered that war follows along similar lines. Running with my poor analogy, the wife of the south is the theory that blacks are chattel, and those who tend them are mere herdsmen. Northerners, though divided on the chattel theory, aren't above screwing another man's wife. States' rights is the notion that you get to shoot the guy doing the cuckolding. Also at stake, let's say, is the wife's dowry. Here's where they roll out the drums and guns, and start calling for their seconds to arrange the duel. Ah, me. Honor and money. Classic. Classical, too.

Quite a few folks during this time didn't subscribe to this chattel theory. Underground railroads and abolitionist movements seemed to be trying to deal with it on a broader scale. They felt that Americans could reason their way out of this, using common sense and general Christian theories, such as "do unto others..." and so on. They seemed to think that blacks ought to have some input into all this. Quite a few blacks at the time added their public voices to the effort, mostly singing to the choir. These folks were not successful.

Nobody among the major players actually asked the blacks about all this, and just assumed that they would appreciate 1.) being freed, or 2.) defending the Stars & Bars against Yankees. The major players felt that an actual war was the best way to go. They won. You may look to any part of the US and see the result--a legacy of hatred and denial. It's not universal, but it's abiding, and it's found everywhere, north and south, east and west.
posted by mule98J at 11:32 AM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Yankees were likened to Goths and Vandals; they were "hordes of Northern Hessians"

This was the age of Sir Walter Scott, remember and the Yankees were torching entire cities, but also the infrastructure and farmland of the Shenandoah Valley. Frankly, if it been my city, or my farm, I think I would have used stronger language than that.

David Hackett Fischer - definite worth the read. Actually, pretty much anything he writes is worth the read.
posted by IndigoJones at 11:44 AM on July 8, 2012


From the Coates piece cited by ambrosia:
Lincoln was not an abolitionist. He believed that mass emancipation by the federal government was neither legal nor wise. But he hated slavery, and the democratic assent of such a man to the proved too much for the white South to take

Three days after Lincoln's election, the first secession conventions began. Within three months of South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, Georgia and Florida had all seceded. This effort was aided by men who, in the last days of the Union, effectively worked as double-agents--serving in the upper reaches of the American government by day, and urging revolution against that government by night.
So... is it something trivial, like mere framing, that makes the comparison of this radicalized situation with the so-called Tea Party movement during the Obama administration seem so apt? I don't think so, but I'd love to entertain a convincing argument to the contrary.
posted by mondo dentro at 11:47 AM on July 8, 2012


Dehumanizing the enemy is a requisite effect of war.

You know, as an aside, because my museum is working on an exhibit that touches on the Crusades, I've learned that a lot of scholars consider this not a truism but as a very modern idea. In ancient times and up through the Middle Ages, you don't see this; you see the enemy as misguided or a worthy opponent or divinely set against you, but not as subhuman. That idea seems to come along with colonization, offering a potent rationalization for not just war and booty but ongoing occupation and exploitation. Incidentally.
posted by Miko at 11:48 AM on July 8, 2012 [11 favorites]


They seemed to think that blacks ought to have some input into all this. Quite a few blacks at the time added their public voices to the effort, mostly singing to the choir. These folks were not successful.

Nobody among the major players actually asked the blacks about all this, and just assumed that they would appreciate 1.) being freed, or 2.) defending the Stars & Bars against Yankees.


Also, I think this is wrong and lacking in evidence. Any detailed study of the decades (in fact century) leading up to and including the Civil War reveals blacks not just "singing to the choir" but actively winning converts to the cause and appearing on a national stage to air ideas. And it's flatly simplistic to say "nobody...asked the blacks;" black activists had demonstrable input and agency in at least the Northern discussion. We need to thoroughly unseat the idea that abolition and war against slavery was a white project and a white idea.
posted by Miko at 11:52 AM on July 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Black Abolitionist Archive
Black Abolitionist Papers
Black Abolitionists and Lincoln
Black Abolitionist Papers print collection
posted by Miko at 11:56 AM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I am still waiting to see any exponent of white supremacy-- or even mere white intellectual superiority-- acknowledge in any way the recent research seeming to show that white Europeans are descendants of relatively recent neandertal-human hybridization, and that Asians are descendants pf neandertal, human and probably denisovan hybrids, making black Africans arguably the only purely human beings in the world.
posted by jamjam at 12:08 PM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


'American Exceptionalism': A Short History. How did a phrase initially used dismissively by Joseph Stalin become shorthand for who loves America more?
posted by homunculus at 12:22 PM on July 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Despite fights about its merits, idea of American exceptionalism a powerful force through history
posted by homunculus at 12:40 PM on July 8, 2012


homunculus, thanks for that link -- I so enjoy telling people that the thing that ***** ***** just said derives directly from COMINTERN jargon.
posted by dhartung at 5:47 PM on July 8, 2012


Also at stake, let's say, is the wife's dowry.
...in 1860 American slaves, as a financial asset, were worth approximately three and a half billion dollars--that's just as property. Three and a half billion dollars was the net worth, roughly, of slaves in 1860. In today's dollars that would be approximately seventy-five billion dollars. In 1860 slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America's manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together. Slaves were the single largest, by far, financial asset of property in the entire American economy. The only thing worth more than the slaves in the American economy of the 1850s was the land itself, and no one can really put a dollar value on all of the land of North America. If you're looking to begin to understand why the South will begin to defend this system, and defend this society, and worry about it shrinking, and worry about a political culture from the North that is really beginning to criticize them, think three and a half billion dollars and the largest financial asset in American society, and what you might even try to compare that to today.
Yale History Professor David Blight, from his excellent course The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877.
posted by kirkaracha at 6:33 PM on July 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


"It's been over 150 years and we're still trying to decide what caused the Civil War. That seems to me to be something uniquely American."

Well, we're also currently observing the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, so there's lots of extra Civil War discussion to go around.

But I think understanding the Civil War is important. I think it really influences, for example, America's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's an unusual civil war that's fought by leaders from the same backgrounds -- the same culture, the same religion, the same schools, the same regiments, the same public service in the same legislatures -- over, essentially, an idea (freedom). (Yes, there's plenty of economics and culture and history and whatnot wrapped up in it all, but let me stick with my main point.) It's an unusual civil war where one side WINS, and not through genocide. It's an unusual civil war where the peace holds and the wound is knitted -- with heavy scarring and cultural problems that continue to this day, but we're still one nation. Those are weird things. And I think Americans learn about OUR Civil War, and don't realize that other civil wars are often based in religious or ethnic differences or tribal animosities. They think civil wars can be won, and countries can be knitted. They don't realize that, while these things certainly aren't UNIQUE to the American Civil War, they're kind-of unusual, and they arise out of some unusual circumstances. I think the better we can understand that, the better we can understand not just our own country, but other countries.

And, really, America's a young-ass country with an old-ass Constitution. The great battles over the Constitution in American history are so interesting, not just to the U.S. but to the world, because watching a young country make itself from scratch is INTERESTING. And watching what's arguably the world's oldest written constitution being continuously solved and argued and remade by a very large and diverse population, as the U.S. struggles to become itself, is INTERESTING -- and for students of democracy, instructive.

The Civil War also brings us such an incredible concentration of great men, and so many of them (like Lincoln himself) "new" men, that if you're a fan of biographies it's also a little addicting. Other periods in history do the same -- Henry VIII's reign is littered with great men, so many of them put to death by the king, which I think partly accounts for the current Tudor-mania. And the Civil War is a period rich in literary artifacts -- letters and newspaper reports and records of speeches and preserved military records* -- that it's an endless trove to seek through and to come to feel like we can KNOW these people, at least a little.

*While doing a little family history research, I ran across a partial name of a great-great-grandfather who served in the Civil War, and the National Archives was able to get me a PDF of his service record in about 3 days based on the partial name, with handwritten enlistment records and pay records and all kinds of things. From that, I was able to find out his regiment, and from there I was able to ask the Wisconsin state history people for help, and they were able to point me to a state history book on the Civil War detailing the movements and action seen by every single regiment from Wisconsin, listing every man recruited, and so on. And now I have fifty pages of research on this relative, who enlisted in 1864 when he was 18 and so barely saw a lick of action, mostly just guarded a train station in Tennessee, and I know an incredible amount of information about his life (where he grew up, how big his family was, what education and training he had, what jobs he'd held) from the meticulous records kept by the U.S. Army and the state of Wisconsin. And it took me, like, under two weeks. It's amazing.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:40 PM on July 8, 2012 [9 favorites]


Miko....Any detailed study of the decades (in fact century) leading up to and including the Civil War reveals blacks not just "singing to the choir" but actively winning converts to the cause and appearing on a national stage to air ideas. And it's flatly simplistic to say "nobody...asked the blacks;" black activists had demonstrable input and agency in at least the Northern discussion. We need to thoroughly unseat the idea that abolition and war against slavery was a white project and a white idea.

I agree that my short essay was simplistic. I'm aware that quite a few abolitionist sentiments were present, mostly in the north. I might have written a few paragraphs noticing the ripple effect in such places as Kansas and Texas, or perhaps California. I stand by my statement that whites in general provided the impetus for the war. Several instances of black revolts, spanning over a century, are well-documented. Blacks made many reasoned appeals regarding the institution of slavery--they made them to the government, composed of white men. It's also interesting that many abolitionist speakers were white women.

I'm not sure why the notion that the Civil War "...was a white project..." needs to be thoroughly unseated. Thoroughly? Whatever for? If anything, it was a white response to slavery that provided traction to the cause--guns, troops, funding, legislation. Black revolts accomplished mostly reactionary backlash among their white owners.

If you take my stance as an affirmation of the powerless black being rescued by the benovolent white, then I have failed to make my point clear. It's about class, not race. Class is a social fiction, not an inherent quality of any particular human being.
posted by mule98J at 1:31 AM on July 9, 2012


whites in general provided the impetus for the war.

Only whites had legal power, power to hold office, and power to vote, so this is a bit of tautology.

I'm not sure why the notion that the Civil War "...was a white project..." needs to be thoroughly unseated.

Because it's inaccurate (referring to both many decades of advocacy for abolition and advocacy for war). It wasn't wholly or even largely white, especially early on.

Black revolts accomplished mostly reactionary backlash among their white owners.

Well, that's certainly a narrow view of events and much too simplistic. In Africa, in the Caribbean, and in the United States, there was comprehensive resistance to slavery on the part of blacks throughout the era of legal slavery, which included outright revolt at times, sometimes quite powerfully damaging; but that was only one aspect of it, and even when brutally punished as most were, it continually lodged in the public mind an awareness of black discontent and opposition, and symbolized resistance in ways that encouraged further discussion and action on the part of abolitionists, black and white. This resistance also included the Underground Railroad, migration, escape, petty and political crime, financial support for various political causes, work slowdowns and small acts of daily resistance, political action and advocacy.

It's also interesting that many abolitionist speakers were white women.

I don't know why you find it interesting, but it's logical. The conditions were ripe for female activism. White women of the growing middle and upper classes in the early Republic and at midcentury were benefitting from levels of education unimaginable to their mothers and grandmothers. They grew up during a time of powerful religious revivalism in America; in fact, a particular kind of revivalism, the Second Great Awakening, that emphasized social concerns. It also emphasized the role of women as educators and nurturers of the family and community, and hence as moral leaders. The birth rate began to decline significantly by about 1800, so by midcentury families were smaller, leaving women more time for activity outside the family unit. And since women in these classes were not typically working outside the home, they had the time available for reading, meeting, organizing, fundraising, and hosting events. Their contributions to the movement, despite being unable to vote, were significant indeed. In fact it's likely their experience of success at organizing aspects of the abolition movement that led directly to the movement for women's suffrage.

It's about class, not race.

We can't disentangle these things in American history. I see that you have a particular thesis here, and I'm certainly alert to the often dominant issue of class constructs as a player in American history, but racially biased thought and feeling interacts with class in such many and complicated ways that it's not possible to replace one issue with the other. They are intertwined, and together, have complex effects. Saying "it's really about class" is indeed too simplistic to be persuasive in an argument about the conditions that led to the Civil War.

I was thinking about this this morning. It's so easy to fall for a single theory that seems to explain everything, as the Norman-Cavalier seems to so persuasively do. But the field of history is littered with such one-note theories. Events are rarely driven by one factor. Environmental historians just as easily point to environmantal factors as determinant of the culture of the North vs. that of the South. Even the earliest colonists in the North came here imagining that they would plant great plantations and export the products to Europe. Only through bitter experience did they discover that the North offers very little in the way of arable land that can be profitably managed by a single planter's organization. Uneven, rocky, sandy glacial soil gave such little yield that it was much more challenging just to feed themselves than anyone had pictured, let alone develop enough surplus to export. The fall line was so close to the coast that rivers fell rapidly, and glaciation gave them many obstacles, so few rivers provided adequate transportation channels for export shipment. As a result, the Northern tendency remained to hug the coast, clustering in villages supported by fishing and transshipping, or supervise quite small parcels of land which could support one family and perhaps yield a bit of domestic trade in small surplus.

Meanwhile, in the South, vast swaths of rich, flat, bottomland and long winding river networks made it far more possible to efficiently command and cultivate large plantations and ship products easily downriver to outports.

This as much as anything determines the differences in social organization and agricultural production north and south.
posted by Miko at 7:01 AM on July 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


My survey teacher had some data on the library of several slave mansions. Over 75% of the books were fake and the appui-livres were the sought after decorum.
posted by clavdivs at 1:56 PM on July 9, 2012


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