Dale Smith, 60, of Johnsonville, South Carolina, holds a Confederate flag as he looks out to Fort Sumter from the Battery in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, as they wait for cannons to be fired to mark the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, Tuesday, April 12, 2011.
C. Aluka Berry, Mct
Should Civil War anniversary be celebrated?
- Article by: DAVID GOLDFIELD
- Special to the Free Lance-Star
- June 27, 2012 - 9:33 AM
CHARLOTTE, N.C. - We are marking the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. So what?
Most Americans beyond the South are indifferent to the event. Even in the former Confederacy the sesquicentennial has captured only sporadic attention.
That's a pity. The Civil War can tell us a great deal about ourselves, then and now. We have an unfortunate history of plunging into wars for God and democracy that have often made a mockery of both. If we can use this anniversary to learn more about why we rush to war, it will be an exercise worth undertaking.
More than 750,000 men died in the Civil War. Extrapolated to today's population, the death toll would be close to 10 million.
Consider also the millions who mourned the loss of their husbands, brothers and sons, and consider those soldiers who survived yet who returned home maimed in mind or body. Most historians today would lament the casualties, but commend the outcome: the liberation of 4 million slaves.
I disagree. The Civil War was not a just war. It was a war of choice brought on by the insidious mixture of politics and religion that caused our political process and, ultimately, the nation to disintegrate.
The war's outcome did indeed end slavery, but could we have achieved this noble objective without the slaughter? The U.S. was the only slaveholding nation to abolish the institution with a civil war.
Our government governs best from the center and depends upon compromise. By 1861, however, the Bible had replaced the Constitution as the arbiter of public policy, particularly over the issue of extending slavery in the Western territories.
Framing slavery as a moral cause rendered compromise unlikely, for you cannot compromise with sin. The party in power, the Republicans, deployed evangelical dogma to raise the stakes of political discourse.
The party's ideology lay within the Second Great Awakening, a national religious revival begun in the early 1800s. Within a generation, nearly 40 percent of Americans who expressed a faith were members of evangelical Protestant denominations. The message of evangelicals was simple: If you accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior, you will be saved and enjoy eternal life in heaven.
In the North, however, evangelicals used the Gospel not only to convert individuals, but also to reform society. They viewed America as a God-blessed nation, ordained to conquer a continent from sea to shining sea and spread democracy and Protestant Christianity across the land and, eventually, throughout the world.
In order to accomplish this great objective, America must expiate its sins, foremost among them slavery and the Roman Catholic Church - two forms of despotism that undermined democracy and Christianity, according to Northern evangelicals.
Historians have soft-pedaled the religious bigotry of Northern evangelicals and their allies, praising instead their antislavery position. However, you cannot discuss one without accounting for the other because they merged in the political arena.
Also, we should not confuse antislavery with pro-black. Many antislavery Northerners believed, along with the vast majority of whites (including Abraham Lincoln), that African-Americans were inferior.
Beginning in the early 1840s small evangelical political parties emerged in the North demanding government action against slavery and the Catholic Church. Catholics not only competed with Protestants for souls, but they also supposedly avowed allegiance to the pope, not the president.
Violent clashes of Protestant and Catholic gangs in the streets of major Northern and border cities accompanied the entrance of evangelical parties into the political system. One of the bloodiest sectarian riots occurred in New York City in July 1857, an event depicted in Martin Scorcese's film "Gangs of New York."
By the time of the New York mle, the mixture of evangelical religion and politics was pervasive. Between 1847 and 1857, more than 1 million Irish Catholics emigrated to the United States to escape the potato famine. The sudden influx of Catholic immigrants alarmed evangelicals, especially those in the North. At the same time, the controversy over the extension of slavery in the territories worsened.
Northerners concerned about the Catholic "invasion" and the "Slave Power" formed a new political party in the mid-1850s, the Republicans. In 1858, when Abraham Lincoln ran for the U.S. Senate in Illinois as the Republican candidate, the party cited "The Two Despotisms - Catholicism and Slavery - Their Union and Identity."
Abraham Lincoln was neither a religious bigot nor an evangelical Christian. But his speeches and writings in the late 1850s became increasingly messianic, as if some great conflagration were about to consume the country for its sins.
His famous "House Divided" speech in 1858 derived from Matthew 12:25: "And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them. Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand."
Self-righteousness eroded the vital center of American politics. Northerners and Southerners flung biblical verses at each other, deepening the divide. When the Republicans, avowedly evangelical and proudly sectional, took control of the government in March 1861, Southerners were rightly concerned to expect the worst. And the worst happened.
Young men marched off to war as crusaders. But the horrors of the war soon overcame the recruits' religious zeal. At the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862, a Confederate soldier cursed the war he had once welcomed: "Oh! What suffering, what misery, what untold agony this horrid hell-begotten war has caused."
Soldiers at Shiloh witnessed the destructive potential of modern weaponry and outdated tactics: fields puddled with blood and strewn with dead men, animals tearing at their entrails.
Union Gen. William T. Sherman advised his men not to look for God on the battlefield. "When preachers clamor ... don't join in, but know that war ... follows its own laws, and turns not aside even if the beautiful, the virtuous, and charitable stand in its path." This is the war that often gets lost in the self-congratulatory narratives of the history books.
And what of the former slaves, on whose behalf this carnage was allegedly undertaken? The Civil War sealed their freedom, but little else. It would be more than a century before African-Americans attained the basic rights of that freedom.
In 1888, the 25th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Frederick Douglass, the great black abolitionist, pronounced the document a "fraud." The vast majority of blacks still toiled on the South's farms and plantations, often in conditions that some historians have called worse than slavery.
Might not peace, rather than war, have put an end to slavery and secured the rights of African-Americans much sooner? Capt. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. thought so.
Writing to his father after the devastating Union defeat at Fredericksburg, Va., in December 1862, which he called "a hideous human waste," the disillusioned soldier reasoned, "if it is true that we represent civilization, which is in its nature, as well as slavery, diffusive & aggressive, and if civilization & progress are the better things why they will conquer in the long run ... and will stand a better chance in their proper province - peace than in war, the brother of slavery - brother - it is slavery's parent, child and sustainer at once."
In commemorating the Civil War, we should remember that wars are easily made, difficult to end, and burdened with unintended consequences and unforeseen human casualties.
We should also keep in mind that there is no higher law than the Constitution. That is America's Scripture.
David Goldfield is the Robert Lee Bailey Professor of History at UNC Charlotte and the author of "America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation." He wrote this for The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va.
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