Tony Horwitz, the author of the great Confederates in the Attic, wrote an interesting piece for The Atlantic about how the 150th commemoration of the Civil War and, this week, Gettysburg, will inevitably fail to capture the cost and ripple-effect of the war.
What this suggests is that the 150th anniversary of the Civil War is too narrow a lens through which to view the conflict. We are commemorating the four years of combat that began in 1861 and ended with Union victory in 1865. But Iraq and Afghanistan remind us, yet again, that the aftermath of war matters as much as its initial outcome. Though Confederate armies surrendered in 1865, white Southerners fought on by other means, wearing down a war-weary North that was ambivalent about if not hostile to black equality. Looking backwards, and hitting the pause button at the Gettysburg Address or the passage of the 13th amendment, we see a “good” and successful war for freedom. If we focus instead on the run-up to war, when Lincoln pledged to not interfere with slavery in the South, or pan out to include the 1870s, when the nation abandoned Reconstruction, the story of the Civil War isn’t quite so uplifting.
I agree that the horrifying toll of the war is too often overlooked. No movie or documentary to date has fully captured the war’s brutality. The assault that occurred 150 years ago today, Pickett’s Charge, was of the scale the Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Lord of the Rings, and probably just as many casualties.
Naturally, I also agree that the war set the table for a lot of grim consequences that occurred in its wake. Certainly there were horrendous mistakes made during Reconstruction (and especially after it ended), all of which gave us Jim Crow, segregation, lynch mobs, the KKK and so forth. But I refuse to believe that slavery was a better deal.
Horwitz also brings up the notion that the war might’ve been unnecessary — that Victorian-era Americans lacked the creativity to reach an agreement that would provide a solution to everything from slavery to states rights’ and so forth. I agree that the statesmen of that era were incapable of preventing war, but I also believe it was inevitable as long as slavery was embedded in the fabric of the southern economy. It had to be dislodged and as we’ve witnessed in the present, to extract the key component of an entire economy doesn’t come easily.
Yes, it took a long time for Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom” to truly be realized, but it’s not really the fault of the war itself, which was necessary to obliterate slavery, but rather the fault of how Reconstruction was handled.