These things may not seem related, but inside my head they all came together last week.
Jerry and I have been immersed in the civil war for a couple of months. We have been watching lectures from the Teaching Company, 48 of them, on the war years, the origins of the war and its effects on both the north and south. In addition we have just finished a biography of William Henry Seward by Walter Stahr. Seward was, first, Lincoln’s and then Andrew Johnson’s Secretary of State. At the same time I read a biography of Ulysses S Grant by H.W. Brands and I am now in the middle of a biography of Lincoln by David Herbert Donald.
I surprised myself by getting so involved in the history of any war, and especially the American Civil War which was one of the bloodiest in modern history. It happened partly because we had some good lectures and books on the colonial period and the new American republic that followed. It’s natural to want to know about what came next. Besides that, both of the biographies were well written and presented the life of the times brilliantly. But the best were the lectures. University of Virginia Professor Gary W. Gallagher’s presentation was just what a college level course should be. He was a grown-up addressing other grown-ups about events, debates, issues that were not simple but complex and nuanced. He obviously was a master of his subject and although he often checked his notes, most of each lecture was delivered formally but conversationally as he moved around, obviously talking from a detailed knowledge and understanding of that time in history. The opinions that I will present here are, however, my own and not necessarily his.
I mentioned in an earlier post that my lawyer daughter and I had disagreed about the causes of the war. She was a history major 25 years ago and she had been taught that the war wasn’t really about slavery, it was about economics.
My friends, make no mistake, that war was about slavery. Ever since the war ended many people who participated, early historians, and those who came later have tried to de-emphasize slavery — that horrible invention of humans in their relations with other humans. We don’t like to think that the early decades of the American experiment were facilitated by something as ugly as slavery. People have been enslaving each other at least since the beginning of recorded history. At first in America slave labor was obtained through “indentured servitude”, but that became impractical in a new country that was mostly wilderness. White indentured servants could slip away too easily and blend into the frontier life. But black people were easy to spot. There were hardly any free black people, so it could be assumed that blacks wandering about were run-away slaves.
In the new American republic there was a general belief that slavery was an evil which should be eliminated gradually. John Adams was a life long hater of slavery and he tried to engage his friend, Thomas Jefferson, in a discussion of it. Jefferson himself paid lip service to the idea that slavery was wrong and should end. But he himself had 200 slaves and only freed a few of them in his will.
In the years before the war, at the time of the Second Great Awakening, evangelical religions developed arguments both against and for slavery. The southern churches came up with teachings asserting that slavery was a positive moral good, that slavery was part of a divine plan. They said that God created white men superior to black men, and intended black men for the use of the white race. They said that black people were happy in their appointed subservient state, taken care of by their owners; that if they were freed they would revert to savagery
The issue between the north and south that led to the war was the expansion of slavery into the territories. A majority of people in the north were opposed to slavery but most were willing to let it exist in the states where it was established, believing that it would disappear gradually. They were against its expansion into the territories. The south seceded because they came to believe that slavery would be excluded from territories which were being organized into new states; thus slave states would be outnumbered by free states in the United States Congress. The south seceded to preserve the institution of slavery and they knew that secession would lead to war.
They lost the war. They could have won if they could just hold the Union Army off until the north tired of the effort. They were unable to do it because they didn’t have leaders or generals with the skills and understanding that the North had. The south had Robert E Lee, who, contrary to popular fable, believed in slavery, and Stonewall Jackson, until he was killed at the battle of Chancellorsville by an accidental bullet from one of his own soldiers. These were the generals with real ability the south had. Contrary to popular fables, U S Grant was a better general than either Lee or Jackson. He was a true military genius. The president of the Confederacy was Jefferson Davis, a man of considerable ability, but one who was narrow minded and suspicious of those around him, unable to delegate.
Besides Grant and a number of other able military men, the United States had, above all, Abraham Lincoln with his extraordinary brilliance, humanity and wisdom, a leader of huge flexibility and craft. Is there a reason why the north had better men than the south? Sure there’s pure chance, but I think it’s unlikely that men of Grant and Lincoln’s stature could have been induced to fight a war to promote slavery. It takes lesser men with smaller minds to follow that path.
Now it’s 150 years since that terrible war, a war that cost more men than any in our history: a war that devastated great swaths of our country. The aftermath of the war was terrible for many southern whites but immeasurably worse for blacks. The white people took their revenge on the blacks for not agreeing to be slaves. When I was a young woman there were still people alive who had lived and fought in that war. When I got on buses in Virginia where my father lived there were signs that said “Colored people will seat from the rear.” There were separate schools for black children and white children. There were separate drinking fountains and public toilets for blacks and whites. And it was illegal for blacks and whites to marry.
When I reached the age of 76 the first black president of the United States was inaugurated and last week he took the oath of office for his second term. Obama is, of course, a Democrat, from the party which protected slavery 160 years ago. The Republican Party was the party of abolition then, but now it’s the party whose leader, Mich McConnell (from Tennessee) said his, and his party’s, one goal was to make sure Obama was a one term president. The once solid Democratic south is now the stronghold of the Republican Party whose policies are formulated to keep blacks, poor whites and Hispanics from voting. Quite a reversal.
Well, that’s the macrocosm of American racial politics. In my little world, the microcosm, my latest great-granddaughter was born last week, a few days after Obama’s inauguration. She’s the daughter of my lovely granddaughter, Sarah Grady, and her husband, Malik Grady, a tall handsome black man.
They live peacefully in Florida and have many friends, black and white. Next week I will visit there and meet this beautiful, healthy whopping 9 pound 11 ounce Ellana. How the world changes. Who knows what may happen next? Some day, perhaps, Ellana Grady will be the first black woman president.
You read it first here and my blog will be history!
Beautifully written piece, Anne and so on the money. When I was growing up in the South, attending schools there, I was ostracizesd for holding the view that slavery was, indeed, the issue, underpinned by economic inequities that slavery helped maintain.
Ellana is a beautiful baby, and will grow up, I hopw, in a better world than you and I have. One can hope.
I think it’s a mix of reasons for any war. There is the emotional one where people become convinced it’s the ‘right’ thing to do and there is what the powers behind the throne want. When you read any history it’s always interpreted and even at the time of an event, you can argue over the reasons.
The truth is a lot of so-called northern states like Oregon were as bigoted as any. A law was passed here and not changed until the 1900s that no person of color could own property. So the people here berated the Southerners as inferior for slavery while they passed such a law and kept it as long as they could. Blacks could go to Washington and buy property but not in Oregon. To me it’s a lot like some of the hot button issues of today. People think they fight for one reason but truth be told, it’s not what they believe.
My mother was a musician and talked of her travels in the ’30s through the South on trains when she saw how the blacks were kept down. I saw it even when I was there when my daughter lived in Georgia 14 years ago, which was the first time I really thought we still need affirmative action. It takes a long time to get past some things and the treatment of minorities in this country is one of those. Maybe we are getting there but only time will tell.
I live in an area where in one city there is bi-racial marriage with nobody thinking anything about it. Another city had a bi-racial couple having threatening signs burned on their yard. When we moved to this farm another city still had a way of keeping any minority from buying property. But later a black couple were neighbors out here, looked after our livestock when we’d be gone, and their son was a football hero (at a school called the Dragons and not for mythological beastie); so it changes but slowly.
I think the country is still very uneven for how minorities are treated and it isn’t all in the South. I also have read that Lincoln actually had a solution for what to do after slavery was abolished– send the blacks back to Africa. He was a product of his time, but at least he worked it out better than Jefferson, who as you said didn’t free his slaves even in his will, some of whom were his children.
And beautiful grand-baby. She will be gorgeous as an adult.
Interesting and very clear reflections on complex things, and how you move from macro to micro, from the big sweep of history to your beautiful baby great grand-daughter. I’d never been aware before that, as well as making it easier to dehumanise people if they look different, it was kind of practical to enslave people who were a different colour because they could be spotted if they escaped!
Interesting too when you say ‘it’s unlikely that men of Grant and Lincoln’s stature could have been induced to fight a war to promote slavery. It takes lesser men with smaller minds to follow that path’. I suppose I feel that while conservatism and reaction are inevitable and even necessary sometimes for balance, intellectualising and ideology of right wing positions is somehow more repellent and flawed… and yet there are always brutal, corrupt and flawed people on all sides.
I do admire how you and Jerry don’t just read and watch stuff, you really study it.
I love this lesson in history, I’ve had very little study of US History it was mostly European and of course Irish.
thanks for this.
I am looking forward to the day when we don’t identify by colour or ethnic origin or gender. Just human beings.
Your gorgeous little ggdaughter is beautiful!!
Oh yes, it was about slavery. Of course there were economic elements too, but it would never have come to rebellion if it had not been for the issue of slavery.
(But I disagree strongly about the quality of the leaders. The North won on sheer brute economic force, against far better Southern commanders, I think.)
It is a fascinating conflict, and explains a lot about America. I always say that if I was going to hand a foreigner one book to explain this country, it would be Shelby Foote’s history of the Civil War.
…and congratulations! 🙂
Dale, do read “The Man Who Saved the Union” by Brands, a biography of US Grant. Also, I am now in the middle of Doris Kerns Goodwin’s “Team or Rivals” which turns out to be a page turner. And I loved the biography of Seward mentioned above. But as I said, the best and most convincing were the lectures of Prof. Gallagher. It was actually he who said the it was the leaders that gave the north the edge. He refers, at one point to Shelby Foote, who I remember from Ken Burns Civil War series on TV — the old days when I still sometimes watched it. Gallagher refers to “the lost cause” school on the Civil War. He doesn’t agree. He say they could have won.
Well, if you’re going to bring my name up, and our argument, I guess I’m going to have to state my position, since your readers were not there to hear it. Did you really think your “lawyer” daughter would let a chance like that pass by?
I do agree with your feelings about slavery old woman, but have to insist the causes of the civil war were far more complex. I am perfectly happy to allow that we have different views.
I did take my degree in history (honors), twenty, not twenty five years ago (1992), and my honors thesis was on post reconstruction segregation in our federal government especially in regard to Woodrow Wilson and his obnoxious behavior towards people of color who were employed by our government. Most of my research was original, using the resources of Howard University and the Library of Congress, where I was lucky enough to be able to check out books because of my internship in the Senate. I have spent a great deal of time studying the plight of African Americans in the history of this country, especially given the fact I am a woman, white, and spent my formative years in the South.
My honors thesis, “What Wilson Wrought, a Study of Broad and Specific Effects of Racial Segregation in the Federal Government” was defended then published by the University of Maryland with the others in my class who successfully achieved honors, and it can be found in McKeldin Library at that same university. I studied many many hours of American history, for years. Not just one semester, though I took courses in African American history and liturature in the African American studies department as well, and several courses that addressed the civil war, and one graduate history class that was solely devoted to the causes of the civil war. I was lucky enough to have some of the best history professors in the country teaching me. The University of Maryland History Department ranks well respected and possesses a very high rank amongst public universities in this country. I am proud of my education there, and the many fine professors who taught me what history was all about.
Slavery was a blight on our history, a national shame. And there were many people who certainly were fierce abolitionists, some of them legislators. There were surely many people whose hearts and minds were fully committed to that war for the sole reason that they saw slavery as a great evil and wished to wipe it out. I certainly would have, had I lived in that time.
On the other hand, vast sums of money and resources were allocated to that war. This country has never engaged in a war without financial motivation, period. In some cases in our quest for “manifest destiny”, in others instances to protect the riches and resources we possess and felt were threatened, and at other times, to protect resources other countries have we want to control. Like oil.
That doesn’t mean that we did not have other motivations and reasons alongside the financial ones. sometimes very righteous reasons. The civil war would certainly be a good example of that. I am just saying that I believe that those who insist that the sole reason this country entered into that war was to end slavery on an immediate timetable are missing the complexity that has always made up the history of this country, and, actually the world and humankind itself. We are complex. It is very rare that human beings are that singular, and governments certainly aren’t. There is constant weighing and balancing going on. Decisions are not made in a vacuum, with everything logically connected and impacted by issue at hand divorced and excluded from consideration. If decisions were made that way, we would all be in trouble.
I continue to believe that without the financial considerations and motivations that were present at the time, the manner and timeline in which slavery ultimately ended might have been quite different. There are plenty of historians out there who I know would agree with me, even today, twenty years later.
She is BEAUTIFUL!!!
LD: I applaud your academic achievements, but I think you miss the point of what I said. I do not think the war was fought to end slavery. It was fought prevent the spread of slavery and to preserve the Union. What I said was that it was about slavery and would not have happened if slavery had not been an issue. I agree wholeheartedly that a lot of people made money on the war. People always make money on wars. But to say that the principle cause of the Civil War was not slavery is like saying the principle cause of WWII was not fascism.
The prevention of the spread of slavery was a financial as well as a moral imperative. If the economic piece had been missing, slavery would have likely been ended over time rather than through a war, in my opinion. It would have happened, it was inevitable, but the manner in which slavery ended, and the time frame, would likely have been different.
What a wonderful illumination of our shared history and the personal history of your family. I love what you say here.
And yes, slavery was what it was about. I remember when historians were saying wars were always fought over economic issues, but I do think that is now considered to be an obsolete point of view. I never believed it.
Fascinating post and articles! I admire the depth of your history readings and your thinking about them. I wish everyone took such an interest in their country’s past and how that affects the future, including attitudes to war. I can only add that besides slavery, there is the treatment of the Indians (called First Nations here) that I find very disturbing in our histories and in the present.
And congratulations on your latest addition to a large and lovely family! I also enjoyed your previous post on your Arizona trip – glad Jerry’s brother’s estate business was resolved. Sorry my comments are late, though I read your posts a while ago.
Reading the comments between you and Lawyer Daughter is an education in itself. Slavery and economics are intertwined. Those great southern plantations could not have operated at a profit without slave labor. If slavery had been carried into the western territories, it would still have been an economic consideration.
Your great granddaughter is beautiful. Look at those eyes! We all hope future generations will learn to live in the peace that has eluded humans since we rose out of the savannah but I doubt we will ever evolve into an unwarlike species.
Great writing as usual Anne! I wait for your synopsis of the War of 1812. I swim in the Nottawasaga River which houses the remains of The Nancy. The Nancy was a British Ship sunk by the Americans in the War of 1812. I read [years ago] that General Grant [or was it President Grant?] said something like “we will take Canada as easily as a Sheppard shakes a Poodle in its mouth”. However, the Brits burned the White House and that is why I live in Canada! It would be interesting to compare the American and Canadian versions of this war.
I can’t believe the American voters were thick enough [I am being polite] to vote for George Bush twice and then smart enough to vote for Obama twice. What a country! I think it proves the power of the internet which I firmly believe will bring real democracy sometime after my lifetime.
Welcome your gorgeous great grandchild to our world. Safe journey.
Nice Anne. I did write in a history report that it was a railroad war, and my husband still teases me about this.
Congratulations on that beautiful grandchild.
Thank you for the well written post; I enjoyed it and it made me think. And, Ellana is beautiful!