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Monday, April 19, 2010

Monday Musings

If you're a political junkie like me, or even if you're not, you may have heard about the hot water Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell got himself into when he issued an official proclamation declaring April Confederate History Month without mentioning slavery — and then compounded his error by explaining that, while slavery was an important issue in the Confederacy and the Civil War, he had "focused on the [issues] I thought were most significant for Virginia." He ended up apologizing and amending the proclamation to include a reference to slavery.

As a born-and-bred Yankee descendant of a long line of Yankees I've never quite understood the Southern fascination with the Confederacy and various attempts, some still afoot, to make the Confederacy and the Civil War somehow not about slavery. It was about freedom, independence, states' rights, anything but slavery.

The incomparable Fred Clark had, or I should say borrowed, another take on Confederate History Month. I followed a link in the comments to an Open Yale lecture series by Professor David Blight on the Civil War and Reconstruction, and I'm currently five or six lectures in. (I'm reading them; at some point I may listen to them as well, but I'm still fogy enough to prefer the written word.) In a lecture on the Southern point of view Blight quotes a Southern writer on why the South has such a long memory: "Because we lost the war." Apparently, as we approach the Civil War sesquicentennial, that still rankles, and not necessarily in a way-in-the-back-of-the-mind way. There is the Lost Cause, there are the Confederate flags, and there are local historical societies that seem a lot like the ones around here that glory in Revolutionary War reenactments (I grew up in a nearby town where one of the first battles of the Revolution was fought; by the fourth grade I was thoroughly tired of hearing about it) — except that these Southern historical societies refer quite matter-of-factly to the War of Northern Aggression. If the Yankees had just had the good sense and good manners to leave well enough alone, the feeling seems to be, in its own proper time everything would have worked itself out, slavery would have withered away, and we'd all have been better off.

As a Yankee I have a lot of trouble with this. The history I learned in school took it for granted that slavery was an intolerable evil and that, therefore, and regardless of any other issues, the Union cause was the right one, or at least the better one. While still believing this to be true, I wonder if it's too simplistic.

So, my Southern friends, help me out here. How does this look from the other side? What did you learn in school about the Civil War? Was the war mostly about slavery or something else?


  • I am not a southerner by any stretch so I cannot enlighten you as to their thought process. But you made me think about how the losing side thinks about a war. My perception is that the Germans sorta-kinda accept that WWII was a bad thing that their leaders caused. The Japanese, not so much. I doubt that the British have any bad feelings about the Revolutionary War. Does this shed any light on your question? Don't know, but it is interesting to think about.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:49 PM  

  • Well, of course, I am up here in the north with you, but I remember learning in grade school that the Civil War was about slavery. By the time I got to high school they told us it was about state's right. Both statements are correct but I think the significant point to make is that the issue the states were mad enough about to go to war over was slavery.

    By Blogger Carole Knits, at 7:16 AM  

  • I learned that it was everything but slavery. States rights, economics, etc. And that abolishing slavery was a bonus. The focus on slavery in the lower grades is because it's something our little brains can comprehend. Good vs. Evil.

    By Anonymous Maryse, at 8:20 AM  

  • My understanding is that, like most wars, it was about economics. Slavery was the justification, but the northern industrialists wanted that cheap southren cotton and didn't want the south selling it to the Brits. At least, that's what I dredge out of the swamp of my memory. Then the south said, "It's our cotton and we'll just go sell it where we want." Then the well-funded industrialists in the north pounded the south into submission and got their cheap cotton after all. Oh yezh, and abolished slavery because that's what it was all about, right?

    By Blogger Roxie, at 9:31 AM  

  • I'm a Northern gal but I really like Roxie's musing. I also think the War on Terror isn't about freedom either; it's about cheap oil.

    By Blogger Carol, at 7:30 AM  

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