It seems kind of surreal that ten years have already passed since the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. As we lace up our skates to embark on the 160th cycle, as it were, it’s a good question to ask: what have we learned? As Emerging Civil War’s Book Review Editor, it’s my job to screen requests for book reviews, assign them to reviewers, and see them through to completion. In such a role, I can confidently say the answer to the question above is, well, a lot. Battle campaigns, biographies, home front studies, and examinations of the social order during the war have all come out, broadening our understanding of the war beyond just the bullets and bayonets. And yet, there’s still so much work to do, and myths to still fight with fire.
The premier myth still on the list for the 160th anniversaries is the notion that the Confederacy somehow wasn’t fighting for the continued existence of slavery. It’s been a constant since the war ended, in fact, for Confederate sympathizers to deny the role that the “Peculiar Institution” had in the conflict.
Through my role as Book Review Editor, I try to keep a lookout at the end of the year for the magazine The Civil War Monitor releasing its list of the bestselling books of the year. It’s a useful barometer to measure what people are reading, and what books are tracking in the public conscience, as it were. This year, what caught my attention was the fact that Number 5 on the list was Samuel Mitchum’s It Wasn’t About Slavery: Exposing the Great Lie of the Civil War. To say I groaned and said some choice words would be putting it politely.
Plenty of books filled with questionable history are published every year, there’s not much I can do about that. But the fact that only was such a book published, but that it somehow managed to finish in the middle of the top ten bestselling books was disheartening. It reinforces the idea that there are people (lots of people, apparently) who still seek to deny slavery as the premier cause of the war that killed some 750,000 people.
That’s how I know we still have a lot of work to do, and still so much still to learn as the 160th anniversary gets started. We can trot out the secessionist documents, as we always do, or recite the Cornerstone Speech, as we always do, but it’s still not sticking.
It’s been almost thirty-three years since James McPherson wrote his Pulitzer-winning Battle Cry of Freedom, which many (including me) still hold up as the best one-volume treatment of the war. And as McPherson pointed out those thirty-three years ago, tariff duties were the lowest they had been in 50 years when the war broke out. And in 1857 the newest round of tariffs was approved by a massive majority, especially among Southern politicians. Yet, here we are, still trying to squash the idea that the states that seceded did so because of tariffs, and not because they feared slavery’s days were numbered. It’s been thirteen years since Chandra Manning published her fantastic What this Cruel War was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War, quoting from thousands of letters that yes, even Confederate soldiers who didn’t personally own enslaved people were still invested in the institution. And yet, here we are again, on the cusp of once again somehow debating what caused secession, and in turn what caused the war.
Part of me dreads the constant four-year cycle of anniversaries, because I believe it stops people from fully tackling the legacy of the Civil War. When the 160th anniversary of Appomattox comes around, or the 165th, or the 170th, or the whatever “th”, to many people it doesn’t mean Reconstruction and all of its complexities are on the docket next, it means it’s time to rewind the clock back to First Manassas—there’s a guy named Thomas who needs a nickname.
In lieu of that, what have we learned since the 150th? A ton. But we still have a lot of work to do.