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The American Civil War Turns 150. Get Ready for the Fight

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This year we will all begin remembering the American Civil War, which started 150 years ago. For the next few years, the news in the states will be full of various re-enactments, celebrations, and, sadly, protests and arguing.

But why protest and argue about something that happened and was finished 150 years ago? Part of it is that we live in a "24-hour-conflict-a-tron" as Jon Stewart says, but part of it is something else.

So before we begin, it's time we got some facts on the table about the civil war.

The Civil War was about slavery.

There, I said it. For all of you who want to label Southerners as racist immoral traitors and the war as some clearcut battle between the good guys and the bad guys, you have my confession. For those of you interested in learning more about history than you can from a comic book, let's move on to why the civil war was about slavery.

Slavery certainly wasn't the cause of civil war anywhere else: most every other western nation abolished slavery without bloodshed. And the war certainly wasn't about the right for states to secede -- New England states had threatened to secede back in the early 19th century. Nobody raised a fuss. Why? Because every state thought it had a right to secede until the Civil War settled the issue. Indeed, when South Carolina seceded, no newspaper editorials called them traitors -- everybody acknowledged that states had a right to leave the union. It's only in looking back from the present day that we view the states leaving the union as some horrible traitorous act. At the time it was considered a logical thing for them to do given the circumstances and feelings. Don't believe me? Take a look at the oath swore by West Point graduates: up until the war West Pointers swore an oath to their individual states, not the union. We were a "United States", with an emphasis on "states" and not "united"

The war certainly wasn't about racism. Racism was as prevalent in the North as the South during those times. Many will argue it was more prevalent in the North, and that working yourself to death at a factory wasn't exactly an improvement over slavery, but let's walk by that and continue forward.

Complicating things is the fact that slavery was the proximate cause but not the legal one for the war. It wasn't like slavery was outlawed and suddenly all the Southerners became criminals. Slavery was legal the day before the war started and it was legal the day after the war started. Lincoln famously said that he would gladly keep slavery if he could keep the union together. The reason he decided to use force was to save the union, not to end slavery. That's his own words. It was only later on -- when things weren't going too well -- that the war became directly about slavery in the minds of the public. Even then, most Northerners weren't fighting to liberate slaves; they were fighting in order to bring the South to heel. To defeat the rebellion.

Like many conflicts, the immediate reason for how it all started, the strategic problems involved, and the way people thought of it after it finished are entirely different things. Southerners don't like to be reminded that great-great-great grandaddy fought to keep slaves. They'd much rather talk about state's rights. Northerners don't like to be reminded that they used the army on their own civilian population, that political prisoners were taken, legislatures disbanded, newspapers shut down, and so on. We even had an "American Bastille", where thousands of political prisoners were kept. But neither of those things are nice to contemplate, so we frame the fight in ways that are more comfortable to us. That make us feel better.

Sadly, it didn't even have to escalate into the bloody conflict that it did. Lincoln abandoned all the federal property in the south except two forts, one of which was Fort Sumter. (Why he didn't abandon these as well? Who knows?) South Carolinians didn't have to fire on the fort. Lincoln didn't have to raise an army to send against his own people -- in fact, his doing so caused many more states to secede than would have otherwise been the case.

Both sides could have learned quite a bit from Ghandi and peaceful resistance, but it was a different age. It wasn't the time. The time was full of anger and war talk. The North was going to show the South who controlled what in this country. The South was going to have a "Second War of Independence" to free itself from Northern Republican mercantilism.

For those of you who are trivia and history buffs, "Cry Havoc" is a neat little book a couple of years ago at the Lincoln library in Springfield. It's a big list of the things that could have happened to prevent the war. Fun, interesting, and breezy reading.

If want a quick analogy of the war, here it is: I am doing something horribly immoral. You don't like me doing this. You arrange things in an indirect fashion so I have to stop. I refuse to stop and leave our association. You form and army and go beat the hell out of me until I agree to live and think the way you want me to.

Now from my standpoint -- understandably -- our fight is about you coming over and beating the hell out of me. I wonder when you might come back, what else you might use as a justification for force. I'll think and talk about anything but the evil I was committing. From your standpoint -- understandably -- it's a good thing you stepped in! Need to keep an eye on that rascal. The fight? It was about doing the just and honorable thing. You'll think and talk about anything but the precedent that you set.

The Revolutionary War left a big issue on the table -- what to do about slavery? The Founders probably -- if pressed -- would have answered that the states could have seceded if they didn't like the way things were going. the Civil War, however, took that option off the table. And it was a good thing it did.

But by doing so, Lincoln left another issue unsettled -- just where is the line between what the states can do and what the federal government can do? After the war, the federal government gradually took more and more control over the lives of everyday Americans. (Of course the south was occupied for some time as well, but let's not go there) So when Americans talk about our current situation, it's genuinely confusing as to what the options are.

This is really what's going to drive a lot of the conflict you'll be reading about.

For instance, about half the country isn't so happy with our current healthcare system -- but they are less happy with being forced by the federal government to purchase a commodity simply because they exist. How can the federal government do this?

I'm not trying to dig up current political fights, but the problem is that so many of them are anchored in decisions made over the years as our federal government took more control over things. It all gets back to what we expect from our relationship to government. What's the point in electing people to a local government? What's the point in electing state officials? If the feds can do anything they like, then why bother with all those other guys? Not only do voters wonder about this, local and state officials are a bit perplexed as well. (And I'm not talking about the law here, I am talking about our common understanding of our relationship to government)

The way things are supposed to work, the way things are taught in our constitution, our history books, and our civics classes, is that government can have all sorts of power over the people, but that more power is available to governments the closer they are to the people. So, for instance, if you wanted a huge laundry list of social laws and regulations, you would be free to enact that and live that -- in a city. If you wanted change but nothing so dramatic -- say the ability to operate a motor vehicle or be licensed to be a plumber, perhaps you would enact that at the state level. Likewise, there are certain things that only make sense at a national level, like creating an army.

Distributing power in this fashion has a lot of advantages. It prevents corruption -- nothing is changed dramatically or permanently that has a lot of value. It provides for more representation. The guy who's voting to tell you how your house needs to be painted is the guy who lives down the street. Better still, with a system like this folks are fee to move around the country to choose whatever government they are comfortable with, all while remaining citizens of the United States. Meanwhile, people are also free to experiment with various laws and ways of living with each other. If some laws don't work, people start leaving, new folks get elected, and changes are made. Some call this the "laboratory of democracy" -- a distributed, agile, adaptive, powerful system of self-governance.

But that's not the way things actually work. Our distributed system has become a centralized one.

If the federal government could use force to stop slavery, it can use force to integrate schools, to establish a national income tax (and make it horribly complex), to protect our environment, and do many more good things. At some point, however, it can also use that force to do things which are not-so-good. At some point we are electing people who hold their office mostly for life, who live in a faraway city, and who make decisions directly impacting our lives in a manner that we find uncomfortable. We live in a world full of programs and promises made by dead men decades ago who lived thousands of miles from us to get elected in a world that isn't around any more. This structural cruft is an issue left over from the Civil War. We're living in it.

And now, hopefully, you realize what all the fussing is going to be about. How the Civil War connects the Tea Partiers, the NAACP, the healthcare debate, the coming presidential campaign, and a whole host of other current issues with some long lost war on the North American continent 150 years ago.

As for me, I remain very proud of all the combatants in the war. Many people were evil, but many were also good. From what I can tell, for the most part this was an honest disagreement among people who were products of their time. It was not a case of one side or the other purposely being evil. And as much as people pick and choose pieces about history, they tend to forget the good parts.

The Civil War was, well, civil. At the beginning folks took picnic lunches out to watch the fighting. At the end the combatants shook hands and the fighting stopped. During the middle both sides released prisoners so they could go back home and help out with their families. (This stopped later in the war when prisoners started coming back a second time) Many a story is told of both sides secretly trading goods with each other all throughout the conflict.

What did the defeated Southern army do after it had lost? It went home and tried to rebuild a life. Many of the generals went back and wrote books -- wrote books! Compare book-writing to the terrorist warfare we see from defeated causes today. The books started a long line of "lost cause" works -- the world that could have been. (Yes, there was the KKK and all of that, but as I understand it this was a reaction to reconstruction, not the war itself. Different and longer story)

When I look at the Civil War, I think about how the veterans of the war acted after it was over. They got together for remembrance parties. They forgave one another. They marched and paraded with each other. Most importantly, they said that the issue was settled. The federal government was supreme.

Years later, when it came time for the country to pull together to fight foreign wars, the unity that these veterans died for was a key part in the later victories. Soldiers and officers whose grandfathers fought on one side or the other fought side-by-side. Hollywood movies typically portrayed southerners as being proud, stubborn, and honorable. (Those days are gone) America grew from a distributed agricultural society to a centralized industrial society. These were all great and necessary things for our country.

So as the heat gets turned up over the next few years -- as you hear about various groups protesting various other groups celebrating the war -- remember that the combatants themselves managed to forgive each other and move on. A lot of people died so that we can do the same. We should honor their sacrifice.


Good post!
I feel the 3rd part (from "The Civil War was, well, civil") is not as good as the rest. There is no explanation of why both sides of the Civil War choose to forgive each other, left only a emotional portrait of the nobleness. It is somewhat weak given the point is to encourage a rational style to debate. A follow-up on this issue will be greatly appreciated.

Thanks for the comment!

Sure thing -- I'd love to do a follow-on article about how the war ended and the following decade or two. This period -- commonly called "The Reconstruction" -- is just as fascinating as the period that preceded it. (And probably much more controversial!)

You lost me when you said the War of Northern Aggression was about slavery. This statement simply denies the facts.

Lincoln wrote Horace Greely in August of 1862, "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the union, it is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that." Horace Greely was a very outspoken abolishionist and editor of the New York Tribune. Lincoln's stated claim at the out set in 1861 was reunification by force. Lincoln himself did not believe that blacks were or ever could be equal to whites. Read the debates between Lincold and Douglas 1858.

In 1860 80% of US government revenues was raised through southern tariffs. The Morrill Tariff act of 1860 put a tremendous strain on the agrarian south. Even Charles Dickens, another strong opponent of slavery recognized this and I quote, "The Northern onslaught upon slavery is no more than a piece of specious humbug disguised to conceal its desire for economic control of the United States. Union means so many millions a year lost to the South; secession means loss of the same millions to the North. The love of money is the root of this as many, many other evils. The quarrel between the North and South is, as it stands, solely a fiscal quarrel."

Karl Marx supported the north but still was not fooled, "The war between the North and South is a tariff war. The war, is further, not for any principle, does not touch the question of slavery, and in fact turns on the Northern lust for power."

Of course our public education system teachs something very different. Let us consider that it is the same public education systems that graduates a large percentage of illiterates. So let us rise above all dishonest teachings and seek the facts and truth. If we can do so then we will be a better nation for it.


Great quotes! And all true, too.

The nation was evolving from an agrarian, decentralized society to a mercantile centralized one. In fact, the more I read the more I become convinced that the nation before and after the civil war was two completely different things. All that stuff we teach kids about the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights? That was superceded by Lincoln. It just kind of hangs on to our government, like so much excess baggage. Or, as one Congressman put it: "We can do anything we want"

But I'll stick to my point about slavery. It was the fuel to the fire. The war would have happened anyway without slavery -- you are correct. But the proximate cause was slave and free states.

Thanks for the comment!

Really, I don't know what kind of explanation I could do, but I realize a lot of soldiers fought for some good reason. My great grand-father had ancestors who born an lived in California, some of them were soldiers like Francisco Ybana, who served (1861-1865) in the First Battalion of Native Cavalry, Company A, state served California by side Union, during Abraham Lincoln period, and i feel pride of him. No hates, no resentment, for the past.
Thanks for Ybana Family Civil War Service Records and Civil War History Facts by searching Ybana Civil War Service Facts.

Thanks for you and for the comment.
God bless you,
Pedro Vilca Ybana

... from Lima-Ica,PerĂº, where some of Ybana relatives have also immigrated two centuries ago.

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This page contains a single entry by DanielBMarkham published on January 2, 2011 7:34 AM.

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  • Pedro Vilca Ybana: Really, I don't know what kind of explanation I could read more
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