Magazine article The Nation

The Civil War

Magazine article The Nation

The Civil War

Article excerpt


In his majestic, homespun Memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant writes, "As time passes people . . . will begin to wonder how it was possible that their ancestors ever fought for or justified institutions which acknowledged the right of property in man." Grant's optimism--one of this modern hero's most endearing traits--has proved more prodigious than precise. Far from wondering how their forebears fought for slavery, most Americans barely acknowledge slavery as a reason for the war. Indeed, 125 years after the fighting, the argument that slavery served as the war's excuse, rather than its cause, continues its career as one of the most popular misconceptions of our history; promoted at every cultural level--Gone With the Wind for the masses, Edmund Wilson's Patriotic Gore for the elite--it attracts adherents from both left and right whose conviction withstands seemingly irresistible assaults of logic, imagination and evidence.

"Our new government is founded on the opposite idea of the equality of the races," Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens declared in his inaugural address. "Its cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery . . . is his natural and normal condition. . . . This government is the first in the history of the world, based upon this great physical and moral truth."

Stephens's assertion defines the Confederacy and its cause. Slavery--in the pithy phrase of the abolitionists--was the sum of all evils. Many conflicts--regional, cultural, economic--centered on slavery and contributed to the growing national crisis. But slavery also had a life of its own, following its own course and stressing to the breaking point conflicts between race and democracy, labor and freedom. Without slavery Shiloh and Cold Harbor would never have been fought; and the contention that the war was about Northern expansion and that slavery was merely a sideshow or a useful propaganda gambit is a denial of the historic role blacks play in American life and the momentous lurch the national struggle represented in the development of human consciousness and morality.

This denial--shared by white Southerners and Northerners alike--results in, at best, a partial understanding of the war. Even the most honest creative thinkers ignore whole areas of accomplishment. The absence of discussion in Patriotic Gore (first published in 1962) of the black literary experience of slavery--from slave biographies to spirituals--undermines Wilson's claim that his volume is a study of the war's literature, while W.E.B. Du Bois's Black Reconstruction remains a largely unrecognized master-piece. A double standard judges the struggle's protagonists. Grant's bloody assaults against the Army of Northern Virginia convict him as a butcher; Robert E. Lee's murderously profligate command--"We were very lavish of blood in those days," said a Confederate general--enshrines him as a noble hero and military genius. Gen. William Sherman's march is a frequently cited horror of war; all but unknown is the fact that while tramping through Pennsylvania Lee's army captured free blacks whom the general sent back to slavery.

The recent contributions to Civil War writing have begun to correct this view. Never mind the Reaganite feel-good media brouhaha over Ken Burns's eleven-hour documentary, recently shown on PBS. This ambitious work marks an intellectual and cultural turning point. Along with James McPherson's best-selling Battle Cry of Freedom--to which Burns's ratings-winning documentary is deeply indebted--it climaxes a revision of Civil War history led by scholars who grew up during the civil rights movement. Emphasizing the central role of slavery and the African-American contributions to the war, the documentary, along with its superb accompanying volume and the Library of America's recent issues of Abraham Lincoln's papers and Grant's and Sherman's memoirs, opens a new, realistic perspective on the conflict the documentary's creators call "the crossroads of our being. …

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