Do we still care about the Civil War? The lead story in the December 2019 Civil War Times attacks this question straight on, with many points of view represented in the answers. The stalwart editors of our own Emerging Civil War then asked their writers to add their opinions to those expressed in CWT. Here is my response:
Of course, it matters! Why would I be writing this if it didn’t? Why would you be reading this? It matters now more than ever.
President Trump just summoned the specter of the American Civil War recurring if he is impeached. In the last few years men and women have risked life and limb to either protect or destroy commemorative statuary or fly flags. Daily, I expect a railroad to be damaged or at least arms and ammunition to be stolen from state arsenals. No military historian worth her ongoing printer ink subscription can fail to recognize the famous Carl von Clausewitz maxim:
War is simply the continuation of political intercourse with the addition of other means.
I think the Civil War is the most political of all American wars. It was fought by armies that reflected the political situation in America, even as it evolved. Whether the issue is immigration, finances, racism, the rule of law, or the correct interpretation of the Constitution, little has changed from the mid-1800s.
In the 1800s the focus of anti-immigration Know-Nothings was the Irish and the Germans, among others. The opening of the West upset finances nationwide–we had a severe recession in 1857 and southern planters were resentful of changes in voting patterns in Congress. In fact, Congress was even more rude and violent then than it is now! Legal chattel slavery has reimagined itself as human trafficking. Racism appears to have leaked into almost everything we do. The three branches of government–put there to avoid trouble in the first place–can’t agree about anything anymore.
German-American politician Carl Shurz famously added to his “The Doom of Slavery” speech these words:
Hear me, slaveholders of America! If you have no sense for the right of the black, no appreciation of your own interests, I entreat, I implore you, have at least pity on your children!
If we do not try to understand the strangeness of humankind that somehow makes us angry, resentful, and petty in ways that are harmful to all, then we are in even more trouble than I think. So are our children. Nothing happened in our Civil War that does not have parallels to today. That war defines us as Americans. Whether one is a “mud-and-blood” historian, a Lost Cause adherent, a hugger of Witness Trees, or someone researching an ancestor, everyone reading this ought to care about the Civil War. Ex-patriot American, writer, art collector Gertrude Stein said it best:
There will never be anything more interesting in America than that Civil War.
Never anything more interesting, or anything more important.