Do We Still Care About the Civil War: Meg Groeling


The cover story of the newest issue of Civil War Times asks, “Do we still care about the Civil War?” ECW is pleased to partner with Civil War Times to extend the conversation here on the blog.

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.

Carl von Clausewitz

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!

Carl Shurz

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.

Gertrude Stein

Never anything more interesting, or anything more important.

10 Responses to Do We Still Care About the Civil War: Meg Groeling

  1. I have to think the Revolutionary War, and the Declaration of Independence that sparked it, was more important than the Civil War. If the Union had lost the Civil War, the United States could certainly have endured. (What other states would have seceded?). Northerners were bound to dominate the settling of the West, (Where would the slaveholders establish
    new plantations—-New Mexico? Arizona?). The USA would have dominated the CSA. The Revolutionary War created the USA, and its concept of liberty and fundamental human rights.

    To be clear, the Civil War was vital. It was necessary to destroy slavery, and to unite the American people under one society. In order for the USA to be the great world power it was in the 20th century, the Union had to win the Civil War in the 19th.

    1. I said that I thought the ACW was the most political of all our wars. The Rev War was hugely important to us, but perhaps not so much to Britain. After all, there were other colonies. Lincoln himself felt that the Declaration was the most important of our founding documents, and he continued to grow in his interpretation of it all his life. When one looks at America’s wars, it is hard not to subscribe to American exceptionalism, even now. Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

  2. Meg Groeling
    Impressive effort at connecting the Civil War to the present day, and thereby justifying continued study. And your mention of today’s human trafficking as the modern version of slavery… very apt, and the fact that slavery continues to this day, just in a variety of different forms is probably underappreciated by many.
    Returning to the example of 19th Century America, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 attempted to limit and control slavery; and the law was so successful that many in the North assumed that slavery was not only contained, but “on its way out.” So it caught many by surprise when the “dying institution” suffered a resurgence (most keenly felt by Northerners with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850); and Bleeding Kansas; and the extension of slavery into the Territories (with some advocating for slavery in California and Mexico and Cuba…) Eventually, there was overreach. And the docile North remained complacent and compliant no more.

    1. I agree with your opinion of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Somehow it was OK for the South to nullify laws with which they disagreed, but my, my, my! Not return our property? No nullifying allowed! Thanks for bringing this up. I am always ready to point out places where the perfidy of the South is particularly obvious..


      2. You and and others, myself included on other threads, have made comparisons of the political climates of then and now, and how similar they sometimes are. Your reference and reply to the Fugitive Slave Act and the South deciding what laws they would enforce and which ones they won’t certainly ring true today with the ongoing fights over illegal immigration, ‘sanctuary cities’, etc. Some things never change, I reckon. Or at least, that adage of “What goes around comes around” will be proven true eventually…

      3. Don’t give up on me entirely, Tom. I read far too many political speeches, congressional records, etc. How the average person felt about things is important as well. I try to play nicely with everyone. What happened, happened. FYI, as a huge fan of the Irish in New York, it is very painful to know how much racism existed there as well.

        What I truly love is that humans seem to have the same issues no matter what era one is studying. Who are we and what do we stand for? Thanks for your comment–I love the passion of all caps!

  3. Dear Meg:
    Very informative article! I think it is all important that we as Americans still view the Civil War as that, it is part of the history of this country. All of the people that lived during that time are so much a part of the US and its’ background, very deserving of recognition. Please continue your excellent writing and opinions as they are most helpful to the knowledge of that era.

    Thank you
    Stephen J. Dupree

    1. Thank you for such a thoughtful reply. I am thinking the adage about “living in interesting times” has been true all of America’s life. It is never dull around here!

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