Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Reflections on the Civil War

The Civil War, the War to Save the Union, the War Between the States, the War of Northern Aggression, That Recent Unpleasantness, the Lost Cause formally began 150 years ago at 4:30AM when Confederate batteries in Charleston Harbor shelled undermanned and ill-supplied Union officers and soldiers in Fort Sumter, South Carolina.

Call it what you want, the North won and the South lost.

The ensuing brutality of the war can be summed up in General Sherman’s pithy statement: “War is Hell.”

Secession actually began earlier with South Carolina voting on December 20, 1860 to leave the Union, followed by 10 other Southern states.

The split was inevitable. The differences between a free north and slave south were unbridgeable. The United States, unlike Great Britain, could not peacefully resolve the differences. England’s slave economy was in a few colonies – not inside England itself. Thus, England under the impetus of William Wilberforce could ban the Slave Trade in 1807, and then totally ban slavery within the British Empire in 1833, buying out the slave-owners. The United States joined England in 1808 in banning the slave trade, but it could not follow up by legislatively ending slavery. Slavery was not the lynchpin of the British economy, unlike the Southern and Border States in the United States, nor of its international trade.

The increasingly industrializing North and the single, cotton economy of the South were losing the ties that bind.

Even the nation’s founding fathers knew slavery was a festering sore, but to keep the states together they entered into the Constitution the first of several compromises that inevitably led to the war. The gulf between North and South widened over the decades in the wake of successive compromises.

Military lessons from the War included the value of railroads in moving large masses of soldiers, the rise of ironclads and the demise of wooden sailing ships.

As wars go, the United States was magnanimous in victory, perhaps too magnanimous. Almost every other winning power in a civil war would have executed the leaders and thousands of supporters of the failed rebellion. The British certainly showed no mercy in suppressing the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 in India.

We learnt that a democracy often lacks the will at the end of a war to carry through, such that the North effectively gave up on securing the freedom of the former slaves.

Victory in war does not always resolve underlying issues, and the Civil War was no exception.

The Civil War at its essence was a war to decide the fate of slavery.

The Civil War emancipated the slaves, but the Freedman was not necessarily free. Slavery was replaced by segregation, Jim Crow Laws, the Poll Tax, the KKK, and lynch mobs, and not just in the South. Anti-miscegenation laws were enacted and discrimination in housing a national reality. Equal opportunity did not exist in employment or college enrollment. Back of the bus was a way of life. Public accommodations were segregated and major college and professional sports teams were white only.

Over a century was necessary for America, and not just the South, to change. It took a Southerner, a Texan no less, to lead Congress into legislating equality. President Lyndon Baines Johnson ushered through Congress a series of civil rights statutes coinciding with the Civil Rights Movement. The United States Supreme Court became a champion of the Civil Rights Movement in a series of cases even before the 1960”s. It was no longer the Court of Plessey v. Ferguson or the Dred Scott decision.

Separate but equal was no longer the law of the land.

The conflict between states’ rights and federal supremacy continues, but the Civil War titled the scales to national preeminence.

The War also ushered in, or accelerated, a number of non-racial changes in America.
The Republicans, in the absence of the Southern Democrats, were able to authorize the construction of the transcontinental railroads, which united the vast American continent. The Morrill Act of 1862 created America’s great public land grant universities. 18 historically black institutions subsequently received land grant status.

The war propelled the United States in becoming the world’s greatest industrial power, and a nascent military colossus. It unified the nation. The United States was now on the way to becoming a true democracy.

However reluctantly, the South was dragged into one America for the South had decisively lost the war and a large percent of its male population. It could sullenly resist, but as generations passed, the flying of the Confederate Flag was no longer a state imperative. The lowering of the Flag is highly symbolic. The South can never return to what it was.

The United States 150 years later has an African-American President and an African American governor of Massachusetts. South Carolina and Florida have elected Republican African –Americans to Congress. Louisiana has a male Indian as Governor and South Carolina a female Indian as Governor; both are Republicans. Virginia earlier had a Democratic African-American serve as Governor. Four African-Americans (three Democrats from Illinois and a republican from Massachusetts) have served in the Senate in recent years. An African-American is the third highest ranking Democrat in the House.

America has come a long way since the Civil War.

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