Thursday, December 08, 2011

The Civil War Was the Heroic Birth of Black America

Ta-Nehisi Coates has an excellent essay in the Atlantic Monthly special issue on the Civil War. His main point is to call on African-Americans to know and own and cherish their role in the Civil War in winning their freedom and making democracy real in America.

More than that, Coates calls on all Americans to see the Civil War as a "good war," in the sense that we see the Second World War as a "good war" - a just struggle that defeated a manifest evil. He argues that to see the Civil War as a tragedy that divided brother against brother is to collude in the exclusion of the "darker brother" from existence in America.

I think Coates is quite right. The collusion of northern and southern whites in the myth of the Lost Cause after the war may have seemed worth it to foster national white reconciliation. But it came at the high cost of racial apartheid, terrorism, and oppression for another hundred years.

Only now, on the 150th anniversary of the start of the war, can we start to appreciate the Civil War as a heroic war for the American ideals of liberty and equality for all Americans. And no matter which side, if any, your ancestors were on (and I have ancestors on both sides), all Americans can come to see the Civil War as the heroic birth of the whole nation.


Brendan said...

I wasn't terribly interested when he started in about it, but reading Coates has given me an education in history that I would never otherwise have received. A few years ago I would have argued that the war had more to do with economic factors than with slavery--that the Emancipation Proclamation had been basically a means in the war, not an end. I would have been wrong, and it's good to have learned that.

Mac said...

I, too, read Coates’s article, but I came away wondering what the whining is all about. I had three ancestors who fought in that war, all for the Union. Two, my great-great grandfathers, were killed in action. The third, my great grandfather was a 12 year old drummer boy who stood with Thomas, the Rock of Chickamauga.

The people Coates champions disrespect my ancestors every day with their whining about how evil is white America. It would have been easy for Lincoln to either compromise with the states of the mid-south or to simply let the Confederacy go. I suspect that slavery would have disappeared as soon as the cost of purchasing and maintain one of McCormick’s mechanical reapers and other similar jumps in farm machinery technology made the cost of purchasing and maintaining slaves uneconomical.

What is clear is that my white ancestors put aside their lives to fight to restore the Union and to end slavery when they need not have. They shed their blood and lost their families for a race that today largely uses its independence to whine that they are not being cared for to the degree they want, that their welfare checks are too small, that their kids drop out of school because they are not palatial or they can make more on the streets. They sure are honoring their own ancestors who Coates correctly notes risked life and limb “in covert corners of their world, committing themselves to the illegal act of learning to read.”

So, until Mr Coates and his friends say thanks to Captain Ebenezer Gear Jack and Quartermaster Sergeant Pleasant Fontaine and the hundreds of thousands of other men who gave their lives in the hope that the black men and women they were seeking to free would make their sacrifice worth it, I think he ought to keep his whining to himself.

Mac said...

And for what it's worth, I am not surprised that the great historian Charles Beard argued an economic basis for the Civil War. He saw history through an economic lens. Witness his classic book (written with his wife)titled An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution.

Anonymous said...

I guess there are two sides to every story. Good Centrists realize this.

Anonymous said...

I didn't like Coates' article, either, but not for the reasons Mac did. Where Gruntled went astray, and where Coates did too, is in thinking that there was only ONE right at stake in the Civil War, and that the correct version of that right was victorious. That, to put it very crudely, white-washes history, and renders the very omissions Coates tried to pander with legitimate. That isn't honest, on any level.

But I would also caution using Beard's analysis with an uncritical eye. Foner was right about so much in his take on American history. (In a rather curious way, both Mac and Gruntled seem to subscribe to Modernist understandings of history. I suppose Hegel's ghost is alive and well in some arenas...)