Monday, January 10, 2011

The Civil War 150 Years Later

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the bloodiest and most bitter war in American history, the Civil War. I am going to follow the war in my blogs for the next 4 years by noting the important events, as they occurred on the anniversaries of the various events.

The Civil War was a bitterly divisive war fought between not only nations and states, but often between close friends and even families (with fathers and sons and even brothers often finding themselves on opposite sides of the battle lines). Various aspects of the conflict are still hotly debated. One of the points of debate is the very name of the conflict. The most common name is, of course, the American Civil War. That name, however, is not universally accepted. In many places throughout the southern states, it is still referred to as "The War Between the States", “The War of Northern Aggression” or “The War for States Rights.” Technically speaking the common name, the Civil War, is not accurate. A Civil War is fought between two or more groups within a country. In this case, when war broke out the southern states had legally seceded from the union. They had joined together and formed a separate country, the Confederate States of America, which had been internationally recognized and had established embassies and trading agreements with several European countries including both Britain and France.

Another point that engenders passionate debate involves the causes leading to the outbreak of hostilities. If you ask the average person what caused the Civil War the most likely answer would be the issue of slavery. History books often will say that the Northern States fought to end slavery in the South. This, of course, has a lot of truth to it but here again there is far more to the story. Slavery as an institution was on it’s way out and it is generally accepted that the Souther States would have ended it of their own accord in a few years. What impassioned the South to secede and then go to war was that they saw the Union as intruding on their rights as sovereign states to determine the issue of slavery, an a multitude of other (mainly economic) issues for themselves. They felt that the dominance by the Northern States, primarily through the Federal Government, was straggling them both economically and socially. When war actually broke out they saw the Union forces as foreign invaders. It is sometimes hard for us, living in modern times with so much interstate mobility and communication, to understand how deeply loyal people were in those days to their communities and their states. A good example is Robert E. Lee, who resigned his commission from the U.S. Army reluctantly because his loyalty was, as he said, first to God and then to his state before his country. Slavery was therefore a central and primary cause but it was far more indirect in nature and was one of several main causes for the war.

Another factor that may affect the remembrances and should therefore be acknowledged, is that for the first time, African Americans are involved with a major Civil War anniversary on more equal footing. The centennial of the Civil War in 1961 occurred as the civil rights movement gained momentum, but segregation still dominated the South. Many events were held in segregated hotels, where blacks were not allowed to stay.
NAACP leaders also have expressed unhappiness with some upcoming events they say would glorify the Confederacy and all that it stood for. That includes plans by a private group in Montgomery, Ala. to stage a mock swearing in ceremony of Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederacy. "From a free speech point of view, I understand their right to put that on," said Benard Simelton, president of the Alabama NAACP. "But the only thing it's going to do is incite divisiveness among people and there are much better things to spend money on than to re-enact the Civil War."

Even the Park Service may find itself targeted over its plan to commemorate the first shot fired in the war on April 12, 1861 at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Randolph said he plans to contact Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar over plans for a ceremony in which a lone blank mortar round will be fired at the fort on April 12.

"It recreates a terrorist act," Randolph said. "I can't imagine the Park Service being involved in that."

That event, said the Fort Sumter National Monument historian Rick Hatcher, also involves a dramatic star burst propelled into the sky that splits in two, symbolizing the nation divided. Bob Reynolds, a Park Service spokesman said he will reserve comment until after Randolph's complaint is received.

For most historians, the question of what caused the war was settled long ago. The United States had the largest slave population in the world. By 1860, 60 percent of South Carolina's population were slaves.

"Historians don't fight this battle anymore about what caused the war. It's slavery," said James Marten, president of the Society of Civil War Historians and chairman of the history department at Marquette University in Wisconsin. "The constitutional issues would not have caused the Civil War unless slavery had been attached to those debates," he continued. "It was an extraordinarily important institution economically, historically, and politically. Without slavery, you wouldn't have had a civil war. Maybe we've done a bad job of communicating this."

Marten sees the 150th anniversary as a teaching moment, but laments he sees "no grand narrative" about the war and its legacy that's been drawn up a national scale. "It's become so localized and so politicized. Given who the president is, and what just happened in the election, with the tea party and the debate over health care, I don't think much will change in how we understand the Civil War as a country," he said. "That's the nature of popular history and memory versus history. Memory is something that is really hard to change."

From my humble perspective, I will leave this debate to you. What I intend to do is to follow the actual events, marking them as they occurred. I will limit my comments to discussion of the battles, the participants and the tactics of this war that cost more American lives than the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, World War I and World War II combined!

The most significant events in January of 1861 revolved around Fort Sumter in the mouth of Charleston Bay. Tomorrow I will discuss the important part this fort played in the eventual outbreak of war.

Live Long and Prosper.....

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