“How did it get so late so soon? It's night before it's afternoon.” - Dr. Seuss
by Jamie Lutton
- The Capitol Hill Times -
This August marks the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War and, in particular, the Battle of Gettysburg, where tens of thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers died in a bitterly-won, horrible battle.
Seattle and the West Coast don’t show much interest in this anniversary. If we lived 50 miles from Gettysburg (or the Battle of Bull Run, etc.), it might be a bit different; most Civil War battles were fought on the East Coast. Besides, it seems so long ago and far away. It’s a pity, though, since American history is the great struggle for full rights for all human beings, played out in our political documents, like the Gettysburg Address.
Lincoln’s speech, made over fresh graves, restated and reframed the idea of what America stood for, what the war was about. Gary Willis’ book, “Lincoln at Gettysburg,” focuses on the importance of the text of Lincoln’s short speech, which many argue is the most important speech in the English Language.
Lincoln was influenced by the 2,500-year-old Perclies’ Funeral Oration, praising Athens and its moral ideals, and Jefferson’s writings (and, in my opinion, Thomas Paine’s “The American Crisis”). The grave moral hazard facing our country from the 1790s to the 1850s was the persistence of the institution of slavery in half the country. Though slaveholding had been banned in all the northern states (and the slave trade from Africa had been made illegal some two decades before), owning slaves was part of the South’s economic engine.
In his book, Garry Willis gives a brilliant summation of the political struggles in the 1850s, where the South nearly won an important political battle: the fight to spread the institution of slavery into the western territories, like Kansas, and to politically protect legal slavery in the South. Had they succeeded, the Northern states would have been outnumbered in the Senate and the House, and the South very likely would have ended up controlling the nation. We might never have been rid of slavery. Think of it as if today’s “red states” (the former slaveholding states and territories) dictated what California, Washington, Massachusetts and New York did in matters like gay rights and abortion rights.
Anyone academic who claims that the Civil War was not about slavery is a revisionist, at the very least, or an outright apologist for slaveholding. The declarations of succession put forth by the Southern states say outright that slavery was their reason for succeeding.
The Civil War wasn’t really about the many furious and bloody battles that raged for five years; these battles were only the second half of this great struggle. Why would our country rip itself apart – brother literally fighting brother – if it wasn’t about deeply held ideas? In the end, it was about grotesque money and power struggling with the determined force of moral conscience. We see this in our own time, too, like those fighting to keep gays from marrying. The Russian government feels so threatened by the gay rights movement that laws were passed to mortally attack gays and their sympathizers. This fight is mild compared to the political infighting that occurred over whether owning another human being should be legal.
The 1850s in America are a distant mirror to our own time, as humanity struggles still over these vital questions. And as Lincoln said in 1858, when he debated Douglas during the campaign, “A nation divided against itself cannot stand.” If the South had managed to win the war, the United States would have been unrecognizable; we would have been two countries.
Another book on the topic to read is “Grant Moves South,” written in 1960 by Bruce Catton, as part of his 100-year anniversary series of the Civil War. This particular book is about how Grant took over command of the Union Army partway into the war. It focused on what sort of man he was, as well as how he controlled and commanded the Union Army, giving a week-by-week history of the beginning of the war, as well as the character and ability of particular leaders on both sides.
A small but important account in “Grant Moves South” tells of how one of the first things the Union Army did for slaves who fled the South and joined the North was to provide marriage for couples. One Union chaplain married 119 of freed slaves in one hour.
Slaves had not been allowed marriage under slavery, speaking to the notion that blacks were considered mere animals. Marriage meant the world to the freed slaves, as their families were ripped apart and sold off; it symbolized their true freedom from bondage. And it also humanized them in the eyes of the Union soldiers, most of whom had rarely seen black people. Because they wanted to be married, because they dealt with them face to face in great numbers, this brought their humanity alive to them so they could see what they were fighting for.
Soon after this, the first black companies of the Union Army were formed to fight the Confederates, even in the sure knowledge that they would face torture and death at the hands of the Confederate Army if they were captured. The runaway slaves had convinced enough of the Union leaders of their full humanity. They were eager to serve.
These times echo what we face now. Some Americans – some nations! – would draw a circle around a small group and say, “Only these people have full human rights.” For blacks, women, immigrants and gays, the struggle isn’t over. It’s clear who won the Reconstruction after the Civil War (the South), as it took another 100-plus years before black citizens had a semblance of full civil rights. As we can see in Russia and elsewhere, today, the struggle is still ongoing to attempt to give all humans equal rights.