Victor Nuovo: Reflections on the Civil War
Editor’s note: This is the 50th in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.
Normally, I try to write the essays in this series in the third person, as anyone should when writing history. Impartiality is the rule. One’s person should not intrude. But I confess that, when reading and thinking about the Civil War, I am constantly overcome by feelings of unease, disappointment, sadness, anger and shame. With apologies to Julia Ward Howe, whatever glory the Civil War evokes has become tarnished in my imagination.
To be sure, the Confederate insurrection was put down, Confederate armies were defeated, the Confederacy ceased to exist, the Union was preserved, slavery was abolished, the Constitution was amended to grant citizenship to all Freedmen, along with the rights to vote and to equal protection under the law. Yet these noble achievements were not enough to destroy the scourge of racism, which has been and remains today a deadly infection inhabiting the white American mind, creating political fantasies of white nationalism; it knows no borders; its demonic omnipresence pervades North and South. It was the racist fear that slavery might be abolished that caused the South to secede from the Union and make war on the North. Racist beliefs were the means by which slave traders and slave owners eased their consciences of the burden of guilt and the of enormity of their crime, and, finally, it became their consolation in defeat. Racist fantasies were the cause of lynchings and their justification. Racism has been and remains the chief roadblock in the way of achieving full equality by African Americans throughout the nation. It has taken root in our national consciousness, and in this era of acute narcissism and self-pity, when our nation is presided over by a perfect narcissist, for whom objective standards of truth and justice mean nothing, it has gained renewed legitimacy.
Considerations such as these lead me to ask whether the Union was worth preserving? And if the answer is Yes, since its preservation required that the Union be victorious in a civil war, whether the Civil War has ended? These are two big questions, and require long answers. For the present, I will assume that the answer to the first question is affirmative; postponing until later a justification for it. With respect to the second question, my answer is No, because racism persists.
The historian James McPherson concluded his award-winning narrative of the Civil War, “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” by asserting that the Union victory “destroyed the southern vision of America and ensured that the northern vision would become the American vision.” In general this may be true, but it is nevertheless misleading.
In the first place, just what was “the northern vision?” Was it a pure vision of equality? Such a vision surely existed somewhere in the North and even in the South, but it was not the vision of the whole North, neither then nor now, but only of a few enlightened individuals. I am reminded of Lincoln’s belief that it would be better if Black and white did not live together, and of his counsel to free Blacks that they consider emigration to Africa; and of Julia Ward Howe, who wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” to commemorate the legacy of John Brown, but, in spite of her strong advocacy for the emancipation of slaves, she wrote in one of her books that Blacks are not equal to whites intellectually or morally. For this she was rightly rebuked by the Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison; but he in turn later sacrificed his moral vision to political compromise.
Nor did a Northern vision make the North immune to racial prejudice and violence. Where was it in 1863 when the draft riots erupted in New York City? Why had it not penetrated the minds of white working-class men, mostly of Irish descent, and prevent them from rioting, tearing up paving stones and hurling them through glass windows, setting buildings aflame, and attacking fire fighters who rushed in to extinguish them, and from murdering 100 innocent Blacks, and destroying their homes and businesses. This nation of immigrants, who were themselves objects of discrimination, had become a racist nation.
There is also a softer subtler, more insidious “southern vision” that lives on and which has infatuated the American mind, North and South. In 1939, when Hitler’s armies were beginning to overrun Europe, David O. Selznick, a Northerner, produced “Gone with the Wind,” based on a novel by Margaret Mitchell, a Southerner of Scottish descent. It gave new life to the romance of the Confederacy, depicting slavery as a benevolent institution, and slaves as willing participants in it, devoted to their masters. Selznick worried over the racist theme of the movie, but chose to produce it anyway. In 1942, MGM released “Tennessee Johnson,” which portrayed Andrew Johnson as an American hero. In 1946 Walt Disney, also a Northerner, produced “Song of the South,” a racist film. These films were supposed to uplift the nation in time of war, which if fought with segregated armed forces.
The romance of the Old South, which such films depict, is linked to the myth of the Lost Cause. It is claimed that the Cause for which the South fought was a noble social ideal, gentle, cultivated and chivalrous. Never mind that it was founded on slave labor. Southern romantics supposed that the South lost the war not because its cause was unjust, but because it was overwhelmed by the material superiority of the North. They regarded the war as a conflict of matter against spirit. In the wake of such delusions, much popular Civil War history has been written. Robert E. Lee is touted as superior to Grant as a military leader. It is supposed that Grant was victorious only because he had the benefit of more men and material, which he recklessly expended. All this in spite of the fact that Lee was outgeneraled by Grant in Northern Virginia and by Meade at Gettysburg. How does one explain that Lee has become an icon, while Grant has not? Is it because of Lee’s aristocratic manner and appearance compared to Grant’s plebeian dishevelment? Yet by making war against the United States, Lee committed treason.
The myth of the Lost Cause is supposed to convey the moral superiority of the Old South over the North. It is the sacred doctrine of Neo-Confederates, where it continues to be put to political use. It was employed by Dixiecrats against Harry Truman. The late U.S. senator and 1948 presidential candidate Strom Thurmond promoted it. It continues to inspire white nationalists. In 1993, a bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate by Jesse Helms to grant the United Daughters of the Confederacy patent rights to their corporate insignia, a Confederate Battle Flag encircled by a wreath. After a speech by Sen. Carol Mosely Braun, in which she reminded the Senate that the real question at issue was race, the measure was defeated. Sen. Mosely Braun reported that, after the vote, as she and Helms rode the elevator together, Helms smiled at her and began singing Dixie.
Has the Civil War ended? I think not. Nor will it end until every trace of racism has been removed from the consciousness of Americans, and white nationalism has become a distant memory, and the Old South regarded as a world well lost.
To be continued.
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