What We’ve Learned: Still A Lot of Work to Do

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.

26 Responses to What We’ve Learned: Still A Lot of Work to Do

  1. Nice read!

    One ,must be on the guard. against any misconceptions regarding the American Civil War.

    The US that we live in today, was created by our Civil War.

  2. History has taught us that there is much more focus and reflection on lost sports games,Hollywood awards and of course wars.The saga of the Lost Cause will continue on.

    1. True, the Lost Cause has been going strong for almost 160 years now, so it’s always going to be a force to be reckoned with.

  3. Sadly the age we occupy is filling with more and more folks who see anything attributed to or created by people they consider elites a conspiracy of lies. This now includes written history including the cause of the Civil War which as noted is the institution of slavery. Thank you for manning the ramparts against the tide of anti-intellectualism.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting. I’m also alarmed by the recent trends to distrust and in some cases actively go against the words of experts or academics.

      1. I am not at all surprised by trends to distrust and in some cases go against the words of experts, academics and intellectuals. It is not a “trend” and it is certainly not a new phenomenon. I have observed that experts’ opinions and publications have often not only been informatively critiqued but also substantially contradicted and, in some cases, discredited even after the process of peer review.

  4. Well said, Ryan. Nobody gains when facts are tossed into the dumpster because they don’t fit what some folks want to believe.

  5. I first saw that book (no surprise) at the Beauvoir giftshop in Mississippi. In the background, an older couple was getting into that age-old rant with the cashier that the war wasn’t about slavery with the same points of “not everyone owned slaves”, “it was about taxes/tariffs”, “slaves were treated well and didn’t want to be free”, “it was about government overreach”… It took all my will power not to correct her, but I had to take into consideration where I was (Jeff Davis’ last home). I just gritted my teeth and kept browsing. That was a tough day to stay quiet. While I’m curious about the book, I have a feeling I’d just end up throwing it against a wall.
    I believe you’re right, Ryan. We’ve learned a lot, but clearly not enough since these false ideologies are still floating around. All we can do is strive to be better and “spread the gospel” when practical.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Sheritta. I totally understand the being in a tough situation where you can hear people spreading mistruths, but not sure what to do or say, or realizing that even getting into a debate with those kinds of people wouldn’t change anyone’s opinion. Which is depressing in a way, but it’s where we’re at.

  6. Just two small points, and not meant to contest your general argument: (1) That a book reaches a high level on a bestseller list doesn’t mean that everyone who reads it agrees with its content; on the contrary, well-informed people read arguments on all sides of an issue. (2) A subset of the myth that slavery did not cause the Civil War is that the war was not just about slavery, and indeed there were contributing factors, and even combatants whose main objective was not maintaining slavery. Acknowledging the complexity of the situation might help chip away at the overarching myth.

    1. What you say is true, that there are people who buy books to read and dissect their arguments. But then a quick glance at the book’s reviews on Amazon or Goodreads show that hundreds of people have been commenting that it presents true history, or “Non-PC” history. And therein lies the rub– people who are actively distrustful of what academics or expert historians have to say, and are willing to ignore anything that doesn’t match their views, even if it does include chipping away at the situation, as you say in your second point.

      1. I think the main thing to do is make sure you’re contributing to what I call “free thinking”. We have to allow people to think their own way to the truth. Many will never make it and that is just what it is. I don’t think it is something to beat ourselves up about. It’s just how we are as human beings. So all you can do is keep on talking about the Fire Eaters and Secessionist documents, and allow that to hopefully become the salient point on the war over time.

        Academics and experts may be right about the causes of the Civil War, but that doesn’t mean they are right about other things, or that that makes them a good person. The 1619 Project is a good example, although I note many progressive minded historians have poo pooed it to their credit. People just don’t like being talked down to and told what to think. Some academics cannot help themselves in talking down to people or actively engaging in partisan politics. This is not a good way to teach history, if that is what one’s life’s work is truly about.

        So I say write and work for history’s sake, and be careful about those who are doing history for their own cultural, political, and financial ends.

        If you can get people to respect you, because they trust where you are coming from to them, you’ll be able to get some folks to change their own mind.

  7. The Mitchum book on slavery denial will appeal to Lost Cause partisans and White Nationalists, the audience of choice for its publisher Regnery Press. While seven of the books on the bestseller list are from reputable publishers, it is sad that three come from just one publisher, Regnery.

    One of the other Regnery books on the list is The Problem With Lincoln by Thomas DiLorenzo. The author is held in low repute by historians, yet his books against Lincoln are heavily promoted by far-right outfits with ties to, wait for it, the modern Republican Party. Here is what the Claremont Review says about this book:

    “The Real Lincoln is the latest attempt to finish the job so ignobly begun by John Wilkes Booth in April 1865. Although Lincoln breathed no more after that, his character and reputation lived on, to be sniped at ever since. The Lincoln haters are an increasingly diverse lot, with strange and not always compatible purposes. The alleged purpose of Thomas DiLorenzo’s invective is to defend constitutionalism and free market economics. He claims to demonstrate that Lincoln was an enemy of both, as well as a hypocrite on the subject of “racial equality.” What he mainly demonstrates, however, is that his aim is not nearly as good as Booth’s.”

    Regnery at one time occasionally put out real historical works. Now it seems dedicated to distorting the past.

    -Pat Young

    1. A lot of people don’t understand that DiLorenzo is not a historian – he’s an economist, and an economist who is firmly allied with the Mises Institute and its beliefs. Anybody who buys his books should be aware of that.

      1. Thanks for the comment, Pat. I thought your points about the books on your Reconstruction Blog were all on point and said the same things I was thinking.

  8. The history of “federalism” as practiced in the US seems to me to be certainly a public priority. Different people will have different views on the proper role and scope of the general government in a federal system, and it is appropriate to examine the past to determine where we are today. The “war was not about slavery” debunkers seem to want to push the larger question (as viewed by some perhaps many) away or recast the question as just an example of systemic racism practiced by white nationalists or republicans.

    I mean isn’t the 1619 Project about “everything was over slavery”?

    1. And the 1619 Project has faced heavy scrutiny for its absolutes. But that doesn’t change the underlying causes of the Civil War.

  9. Great article! I think we should all consider your last point about how we use the anniversary cycle to keep resetting the clock.

  10. Just as the south has the “lost cause” the north has the myth of “fighting to free men”. They are both simplistic stories to justify the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans.

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