One hundred and forty nine years ago today, April 12, Confederate troops bombarded Fort Sumter to open a national gash that oozed for more than a century. By the time the bloodiest of American wars ended in 1865, more than 662,000 Americans lay dead. While the total number of Union troops killed was greater (364,511), the South’s wound cut deeper because the estimated 258,000 Confederate dead came from a smaller regional population. One in four white Southern males between the age of 15 and 40 died in “The Lost Cause.”
Our War Between the States tested America and its notion of freedom. In the broadest sense, the war grew out of regional insecurities about slavery that evolved since the earliest days of the republic. Southerners felt they needed slaves to work the land in their agrarian-based economy. They long championed states’ rights and self-government to prop up a social, economic and political structure based on race. As the North industrialized, it sought a more centralized system that promoted economic development and expansion without slavery.
In the midst of two increasingly different outlooks, some sought compromise to bring people together. The war, historian Avery O. Craven wrote, “did not come simply because one section was agricultural and the other industrial; because one exploited free labor and the other slaves; or because a sectional majority refused to respect the constitutional rights of the minority.” Rather, he said, “politicians and pious cranks” ratcheted up the rhetoric on issues that could have been compromised (sound familiar today?) and whipped up the South against the North, and vice versa.
The war devastated the South. As Mark Twain observed in 1883, “In the South, the war is what A.D. [anno Domini] is elsewhere; they date from it.” Reconstruction rubbed salt in the war wounds of the white elite to the point that they figured out a way – Jim Crow laws – to constantly pick at scabs from the war and keep the free black man down for decades. Only after millions of Americans fought overseas during World War II did GIs returning to a segregated South start questioning America’s peculiar apartheid. “I fought the Nazis and returned home to find this?” many wondered.
The landmark Brown v. Board of Education case drove a stake into Old South segregation in schools. Then black leaders from the South led the civil rights movement to help America better realize its true dream of freedom and equality for all.
Today, despite huge leaps of progress, the country is still suffering from a Civil War hangover. Almost mimicking the spirit of those Pace salsa commercials on television, Southerners routinely are distrustful of new ideas and policies that emanate from New York City, Washington or places that are “off.” In turn, Northerners seem to still have caricatured impressions of Southerners and their values of faith, duty, honor, tradition and respect for the past. The residual effect is that there’s a lot of hollering and little listening, much the same as there was just before the start of the Civil War.
Throughout this next year, America has a choice on how to remember the Civil War. In one path, we honor the dead from both sides who gave their lives. We embrace a full, open discussion of what happened a century and a half ago. And we learn from it so we can take steps to make our democracy stronger. Or the country can go down the familiar path of vitriol and hatefulness, needlessly fighting old battles that can only cause more division, more problems and more pain in our over-partisanized, media-saturated America that is hurting more each day.
As Americans, we know what the right thing is – to engage in spirited, respectful discussions on issues to move forward to a common goal, a stronger country. So when it comes to the Civil War, let’s avoid the bitterness that tore the country apart 149 years ago, be respectful, pull together and focus on how our great divide from the past can make us stronger now.
Andy Brack is president of the Center for a Better South. He can be reached at: [email protected]