Last Battles

By Cobb, William | The New Yorker, July 6, 2015 | Go to article overview

Last Battles


Cobb, William, The New Yorker


LAST BATTLES

CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA

In some future footnote or parenthetical aside, it may be observed that although General Robert E. Lee surrendered in 1865, the Confederacy's final retreat did not occur until a century and a half later. The rearguard movement of Republicans in the aftermath of the slaughter in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church marked the relinquishing of the Confederacy's best-fortified positions: the cultural ones. We have for decades willfully coexisted with a translucent lie about the bloodiest confliict in American history and the moral questions at its center. Amid the calls last week to lower the Confederate battle fliag at the state capitol, the defenders of the fliag averred that it represents "heritage, not hate." The great sleight of hand is the notion that these things were mutually exclusive.

Americans, both in the South and beyond, attach a particular brand of exceptionalism to the region. This is the reason that there is a Southern Historical Association but not a Northern one; a genre known as Southern literature but no Northern corollary; and a concept of Southern politics as something distinct from the national variety. The notion of the Confederate fliag as a benign tribute to that exceptionalism rests upon another premise that illustrated, long before our present concerns with climate change and vaccination did, the political usefulness of denial: the idea that the Civil War was not fought over slavery--a claim that would have bewildered those who served in it--allowed Southerners to memorialize the leaders of an armed insurrection without the sticky moral baggage of bondage attached.

That interpretation held that the war was sparked by a confliict over tariffs that penalized Southern agriculture to the benefit of Northern industry. Or, more vaguely, that the war was fought over "states' rights." This evasion proved amazingly effective. Monuments to the valor of the Confederate ideal dot the South like materiel left on a battlefield. But none of these arguments bear scrutiny. Were the Southerners who erected those monuments concerned primarily about the valor of men, there would be many more dedicated to the former slaves who fought for the Union and risked death or, arguably worse, reenslavement. Were the war mainly about tariffs, we would be left to think that these fugitives flied farms and plantations to join the Union Army because of their abiding belief in trade protectionism. Or that the nearly forty thousand of them who died did so defending their views on Federalism. The Confederates themselves did not believe this. Here is the South Carolina convention in 1860, explaining the rationale for secession:

A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that "Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free," and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.

This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety. …

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