It is one thing to be a Civil War buff, and another to get a Master’s degree in Military History. When I decided to write a biography of Elmer Ellsworth, I envisioned the inside flap of the book jacket. I asked myself, “Which sounds better–‘Meg Thompson, Civil War buff’ or ‘Meg Thompson, Historian?'” I went with Historian.
Almost five years later I can see the light at the end of the Military History tunnel, and it has been a challenging and wonderful trip–until now.
APU (American Public University) asks a Master’s candidate to take a core of courses in her subject, which is reasonable. My set goes from Ante-Bellum America to Reconstruction, with lots of Civil War in between. My professors are fantastic, my grades are good, my work is both challenging and satisfying–everything was wonderful until this term. This term I am taking Reconstruction (insert tolling bell).
Like most of you, if I may assume, Reconstruction was a bit hazy in my mind. It was after the war, was messy, and no one liked it, but it went away and, after all, slavery had been eradicated, three amendments had been added to the Constitution to make sure all went well, and America was becoming a world power. This was a case where, indeed, ignorance was bliss.
Now not so much. My stack of books by Eric Foner is over a foot tall and Paul Ortiz is one of my new gods. I have never in my life cried so much about events over which I have absolutely no control. I have begun to wonder just why the North ever thought the war was won, and this has caused me hours of angst and grief.
In short, immediately after the war ended, Lincoln was killed, and I do not think there has ever been a more cataclysmic event in American history since the Declaration. Andrew Johnson was a Democrat and a racist, but he tried to administer Reconstruction as well as he could. The problem? Johnson was not very good at his job. Initially, black people could vote and were treated with a little more equality under the law, but as soon as each seceded state had its constitutional convention, wrote its new charter, and was received back into the Union, all hell broke loose.
What black people endured during Reconstruction and into the Jim Crow era, what little armed service in the Civil War, World War I or World War II meant, how men and women fought and died simply to cast a ballot, do a job, work in a safe environment, live in something other than squalor, be able to give their children the education they had been denied . . . there are not words enough, or tears, to describe. There have been times when the thought that slavery had at least been safer went through my mind, and that is an appalling concept!
No course, no books, no series of events or collection of words, has ever made me so sad, so angry, or so confused in my life as has this course. Even the Forums are different. Usually they are a lively discussion of which general was the most talented, why outflanking someone was so important to the outcome of the battle, or how common soldiers changed as they fought into four years of war. This time our Forum is silent, for the most part. I certainly do not know what to say. Even when someone offers a worthy insight, it is usually so awful that I just bow my head.
I am beginning to question this war we all love so much. Again and again I hear, and write, that the two goals of the Union were to reunite America and end slavery. Before this course I assumed both goals had been met. I did not think anything could be worse than chattel slavery. If not worse, then Reconstruction, and all the years after it up to now, was equally terrible.
White Voters, remember!
is being assaulted in our midst, and the most
institutions of the South
are being undermined by the enemy from within!
Frederick Douglass was not the only black man to speak with power and authority, but he is one of my favorites. “Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”
That we, as a society, have moved no further toward inclusion than we have makes me question whether or not those 750,000 or more Civil War soldiers did not die in vain. Because of this class, I have been, and continue to be, shaken to my core. If we claim to be students of the Civil War in order to honor those men who gave their “last, full measure,” then we should do better.
When someone questions just why I choose to study war, I think I may now have an answer. It is only by studying the causes of war, and its aftermath, that we truly become aware of the sacrifice that war truly is. By understanding this sacrifice, hopefully we will value it, and think deeply before we ask others to make it again. And once made, we should remember that it should never be in vain.
We simply have to do better. War is not glorious, but it is honorable, and sometimes necessary. Wherever you are in the world, please be aware, read, speak up against injustice, and vote. Build strength and competence and stand united. Now, more than ever, black lives matter–because all lives matter.
“Southern Trees Bear Strange Fruit” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P8Lq_yasEgo
 “White Voters,” Miami Herald, November 1, 1920.