Yesterday afternoon, I sat in the veterinarian's office for nearly two hours. No big deal...just check ups for a couple of my more rambunctious felines. The good news was twofold. One - the cats checked out fine. Two, I had plenty of time to read the April 18 edition of Time Magazine. I was particularly taken by David Von Drehle's article "150 Years After Fort Sumter: Why We're Still Fighting the Civil War."
The answer, Drehle suggests, is because Americans cannot agree on what the war was about...presumably a fact that would "make Lincoln weep."
Drehle issues stern judgment on the contentions spanning the Internet. And rightfully so - "mainstream" historians - as he puts it - have determined beyond any reasonable doubt that the cause of the war was slavery. In Lincoln's words, the nation during the secession winter of 1860-61 was divided by this single issue: "One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute." Since, there have been plenty who insist that slavery was not the cause of the war - and in fact, merely an incident.
But the author of this article, like many of the self-congratulatory historians of the late twentieth century, obscures the reality of the decades immediately following the Civil War. "For most of the first century after the war, Drehle argues, "historians, novelists and filmmakers worked like hypnotists to soothe the posttraumatic memories of survivors and their descendants. Forgetting was the price of reconciliation, and Americans — those whose families were never bought or sold, anyway — were happy to pay it." Yes, Drehle can join the ranks of those who can feel very good about feeling very bad about the racism of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.
In Drehle's estimation, even Union veterans were eager to get on with things and smooth over war issues like slavery - in essence erase race from the equation in the name of national reconciliation. Clearly, Drehle has never read a Union veteran's personal memoir, nor has he looked at a Union regimental history, or perused the text of a Union monument dedication. If he had, he would have seen that the cause of the war - slavery, and the noble consequence of the war - emancipation, was a central theme for those who had fought to save the Union. For some - the twin themes of Union and emancipation ran side by side with seemingly equal significance.
In an era of moralizing self righteousness, Union veterans were crystal clear on what the war had been about - and worked tirelessly to ensure that they were remembered for their efforts. Reconciliation from a Union perspective - thus, is not about forgetting as Drehle figures, but about remembering the war on northern terms.
Drehle inexorably marches into his own trap - by seeking to rescue the cause of the war from obscurity (at least among the masses) he obscures the persistent fight to commemorate freedom. "The process of forgetting, and obscuring," he writes, "was long and layered. Some of it was benign, but not all...writers and historians kindled comforting stories of noble cavaliers, brilliant generals and happy slaves, all faithful to a glorious lost cause. In the prosperous North, where cities and factories began filling with freed slaves and their descendants, large audiences were happy to embrace this idea of a time when racial issues were both simple and distant."
This painfully simplistic analysis of Civil War memory rotating solely along a racial axis does Time's readers a disservice. Why are we still fighting the Civil War? Because the nation has never moved beyond the sectionalism of the 19th century. Sure - some have glossed a few things over here and there. But there remains a deep-seated sectional animosity that runs through most nationalistic currents evolved since 1865. "Union," while perhaps not as tenuous as it once was, is nevertheless profoundly undefined. That is what would make Lincoln weep.