[Today is] the 150th Anniversary of the start of the ACW, War Between the States, War of Northern Aggression, War for Southern Independence, War of the Rebellion, or whatever name you choose to call it. I’m curious to see a post on the impact it has had on American culture/society today. I realize that this could be a lengthy post, so it doesn’t need to be a dissertation by any means. Just the opinions of a man born in the North and who attended college in the state that started it all. Political polarization suggests the country is still divided as badly today as it was in 1860, and I’m curious to read your thoughts about it.
Not only did I attend college in the state that started it all (that would be South Carolina, folks), I lived in Manassas, Virginia for five years and played soccer on fields very close to Bull Run. Allow me to make the following two points before responding to your request:
1. I’d like to believe that slavery would have ended without a war, without losing a million lives, without the huge price tag, and without diverting so many resources from productive use to military use. I’d like to believe that enough people would have had enough moral courage to abolish it, or, barring that, that enough people would have seen its economic inefficiency to abandon it.
2. I think an obvious-in-retrospect-deal could have prevented the war, if someone had thought of it and fought for it early enough: a constitutional amendment banning slavery and abolishing tariffs. I don’t know that either North or South would have favored it, but it would have fixed the two biggest problems of the era.
Now, the impact on our society today? You can read about that in all kinds of books, journals, and websites, by scholars more scholarly than I am. Here’s the super-short, anecdotal version of something I’ve noticed: the war made Northerners overly condescending and Southerners overly defensive.
Northerners don’t think about the war as often as Southerners do. That makes sense; losing stings more than winning soothes, and the war was fought almost entirely on Southern soil. But I think Northerners, when they do think about the war, are overly condescending towards the South. Don’t get the wrong idea; the South was clearly and by far the more wrong of the two sides in the war. But what many Northerners who bash the South forget is that northern ports brought in a lot of slaves until 1808, and thereafter northern mills spun a lot of slave-picked cotton into textiles, and northern clippers moved a lot of cotton and textiles overseas. Northern hands weren’t exactly clean. Furthermore, for most Northerners, their knowledge of the narrative ends at Appomattox and Ford’s Theater. They forget that when Reconstruction ended, the North abandoned the former slaves and left them in the hands of Jim Crow for the next 90 years. Furtherfurthermore, when southern blacks began moving northwards to find industrial work, Northern whites didn’t exactly welcome them with open arms. There’s a reason there were far more “sundown towns” up North than down South.
I think the war made Southerners overly defensive, almost absurdly defensive at times. I’ve lived in the South most of my life–in Manassas, Jacksonville, and Clemson– and discussed the war many-a-time with many-a-person. I’ve never encountered anyone down here–not even in the red-neckiest, plantationest, stars-and-bars-wavingest, General Forrest-lovingest, deepest-southiest, sweet-tea-drinkingest corner of Dixie you can imagine– who said slavery was good, or that they were proud of it. I’m sure some Klansmen out there believe it, but I haven’t met them and have no plans to do so. The South is ashamed of slavery; deeply so, I think. But instead of letting it go at that– acknowledging slavery was evil, that it did far more harm than good, wishing it had never happened– too many Southerners then try to downplay slavery as a cause of the war. Sure, other factors were important, such as the tariff, Lincoln’s election, the states’ rights argument (which, incidentally, the North could make as well; some Northern states tried to nullify the fugitive slave law), but none of those factors were nearly as important as slavery– and Southern governments would have told you that at the time. When folks downplay slavery as a factor of the war, well… the lady doth protest too much, methinks.
All that said, I am unconvinced that racism is worse down South than it is up North. Racial tension today isn’t necessarily worse in one part of the country than another, it’s just different. A recent study showed that of the ten most racially segregated metro areas in America, a whopping none of them are in Dixie. I’m not surprised.
With a little luck, in another 150 years, our descendants might have as little emotional investment in the Civil War as we currently have in, say, Queen Anne’s War. But I doubt it.
Argument begins in the comment box below. Keep it… civil.
(I apologize for the David Caruso-esque closing to the previous segment, but circumstances demanded it.)
I almost forgot to address JCC’s claim that “Political polarization suggests the country is still divided as badly today as it was in 1860.” Here goes:
No. Not even close. We’re not even as badly divided as we were in 2000, or 1968, or 1912… Ask me again in 2012. No battle in today’s political arena is even remotely as divisive as slavery was back then. I think it serves the interests of political parties (i.e., cash contributions and votes) and political commentators (i.e., ratings and ad revenues) to have people believe it, but we just aren’t that divided.