Editor’s Note: David W. Blight teaches American history at Yale University and is the author of Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory and the forthcoming American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era. He serves as a scholarly adviser to an exhibition on the 15oth anniversary of the Civil War being planned by the National Constitution Center. A version of this essay appeared as an op ed in the New York Daily News.
In his The Legacy of the Civil War (1961), Robert Penn Warren declared: “The Civil War draws us as an oracle, darkly unriddled and portentous, of national as well as personal fate.” While writing that book, Warren described his challenge: “to distinguish between historical importance” of the war and its “fundamental appeal to the American imagination.” All the “attractions” Americans felt toward the Civil War, he concluded, were not “worthy.” “Because the war made us great we like to look at it – as the dog likes to look at the icebox door.”
Do we as a people gaze at the Civil War more than we actually understand it? Is this most pivotal event in our history still, at its 150th anniversary, a story we look at like rubber-neckers at a horrible car accident? Or, have we finally matured to a stage of reasonable consensus on the war’s causes and consequences? Is there an unbridgeable distance between historical scholarship and public memory when it comes to this most divisive and mythic story in our past? Depending on where one asks these questions, varieties of yes and no will emerge.
And where is the Civil War’s “oracle?” On Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg? Monument Avenue in Richmond? In the words on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial? At Stone Mountain in Georgia? At Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ masterpiece sculpture, the Shaw Memorial in Boston, dedicated to the African American regiment, the 54th Massachusetts?
Is it in a book, a favorite passage of prose by Bruce Catton or Shelby Foote, or poetry by Walt Whitman, or oratory by Martin Luther King, Jr., or an essay by James Baldwin? Or, is that oracle simply in our minds, ready to burst into action when prompted by a modern issue, a fear, or a legacy that suddenly hits us between the eyes?
What indeed is the hold of our worst national nightmare and bloodletting on the American imagination? Why doesn’t the Civil War, and for that matter, the Confederacy – the largest dissent in American history – just go away? The historical imagination is drawn to loss, to the withering story of the 625,000 dead American soldiers and the uncounted civilian casualties. Loss on a profound scale is the subject of some of the world’s greatest literature, epic myths, and national destruction and creation stories.
As Whitman mused in Specimen Days, it was “the dead, the dead, the dead, our dead – or South or North, ours all” that had un-made and might yet re-make America. We are also drawn to epic history, that which invests us in what we innocently like to call a Homeric tale all our own, as though such is the test of peoplehood. If Civil War enthusiasts admit it, they love this conflict because it is a great contest for world-historical aims, a fundamental rending, but one with a beginning, middle, and if we so wish, a tidy ending. As William Dean Howells once said, Americans “love a tragedy,” as long as “it has a happy ending.” We have given this war too many happy endings without gazing into its authentic tragedy.
For some the Civil War’s seductions involve the sheer pleasure of military detail, the strategic and tactical fight on the ground, or in the mental battlefield, where winners and losers can be crowned and great warriors anointed as geniuses. On perhaps a deeper level, many are attracted to this event because they have learned that a “modern” America was somehow born out of that terrible time, an America that despite the sacrifice was to become a powerful, centralized, world power able to forge The American Century to follow.
And in searching for the origins of our modernity, we often insist on a story of national reconciliation – reached largely by the denigration of the humanity and the destruction of the rights of the millions of blacks freed in the war. Such a heroic reunion story delivers a Civil War that ultimately unified us. In all our vexing diversity, people often love to revisit the Civil War to find a time when we fought to the death in order, as the pleasing story goes, to find our greater destiny and unity. We love being the nation that freed the slaves, rather than the one that owned four million people as property and had to destroy ourselves in order to save ourselves.
Increasingly over recent decades, new generations of Americans may also have read or been taught that the Civil War and Reconstruction brought the end of the first American republic and the bloody rebirth of a new, second republic. If we listen carefully, “rebirth” is the central metaphor of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. What he was saying is that the republic founded “fourscore and seven years” past was interred in the fresh graves of the cemetery he dedicated.
A new “nation” had to be forged, somehow rooted in the frightening but beautiful idea of human equality. When we see the Civil War through this lens, then our oracle is potentially infinite in its lessons and wisdom. And then we also begin to see why this event really is the pivot of our history, as our first great racial reckoning, but also in the redefinition of what it means to be an American in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution.
If we can remember our Civil War as this kind of constitutional and moral transformation – rooted in the social revolution of emancipation – then we may begin to grasp not only why it has such staying power in our imaginations, but why so many of our roiling political issues of today can be traced to those graves of 1863 and the new nation they died to create.
The Civil War, 150 years later
Today, we live in a society not only polarized over race relations and the advent of a black President, over the rights of immigrants, over religious tolerance, over who and what is a legitimate American and whether they shall be accorded “birthright citizenship” as enshrined in the first line of the Fourteenth Amendment. But we have a political culture riven by a near war over federalism – the ceaseless debate about the proper relation of federal to state power. Yes, the Civil War is rooted in states’ rights. But the significance of any exercise of states’ rights is always in the issue to which it is employed. And in 1860-61, “state sovereignty” was exercised by some Southerners as an act of revolution in the interest, as they said themselves over and over, of preserving a racial order and a system of slavery.
Today, states’ rights doctrines are advanced by many governors and Republican-majority legislatures in the very language of “secession” and “nullification” made so infamous in antebellum America. A short list of examples among many tells us just how alive some Civil War legacies are in our culture.
- Kentucky has a bill pending to make that state a “sanctuary” from the Environmental Protection Agency.
- Arizona Republicans want to exempt products made in their state from federal interstate commerce laws.
- Montana is considering a bill to “nullify” the federal Endangered Species Act. The same state’s legislature has a bill pending that would require the FBI to get a local sheriff’s permission to make any arrests.
- Utah passed a bill authorizing use of eminent domain to seize federally-protected land.
And many Republican governors and attorneys general have tried to use the courts to nullify federal health care reform. Some state legislatures have tried to pass bills declaring their residents “exempt” from the health care reform law.
This is nullification by any other name, and it is happening, unfortunately, in too large a vacuum of historical perspective. We have a history with this idea, and it had a terrible result in 1861. Either the United States born in slave emancipation and that second American republic of 1865-68 is based on a social contract, forged and re-forged by the new historical imperatives of industrialization and urbanization in the Progressive era, by a horrible economic Depression in the 1930s, and a civil rights revolution in the 1960s, all of which for real and good reasons necessitated the increased exercise of federal power to protect human liberty, welfare, and survival, or it does not.
The conservative movement in America seems determined to repeal much of the twentieth century, and even its constitutional and social roots in the transformations of the 1860s. The Civil War is not only not over; it can still be lost. At its sesquicentennial, as much as ever, we should journey to our oracle, not to seek its “attractions,” but to listen carefully for its “historical importance.”