150 Years After Fort Sumter

Why We're Still Fighting the Civil War

Hannah Wang 1st Period

Goals

  • Understand the historiography of the Civil War
  • Assess the validity of the author's thesis
  • Explain themes connecting 1861 to present times


Von Drehle's Thesis

In his article, Von Drehle asserts that even 150 years after the Civil War, Americans are still not completely clear on the cause of the Civil War, even though it is a straightforward story describing how slavery broke the nation in two and stirred up war to reunite it.

What evidence does Von Drehle use to back up his thesis?

  • In a recent Harris Interactive poll, 2/3 of white respondents in the 11 states that formed the Confederacy said that the South was mainly motivated by states' rights, not slavery.
  • Internet forums discuss northern aggressors, high tariffs, blundering statesmen, the clashing of economies, etc. as the root of the Civil War.
  • "...there is still this need to deny that slavery was the cause of the war." - David Blight
  • Following the riots of Bleeding Kansas, John Brown noted that the violence was not a question of belonging to the Democratic or Republican party, but rather of being antislavery or proslavery.
  • Kansas wrote up competing constitutions, 1 allowing slavery and 1 freeing slaves.
  • The Bleeding Kansas fights fractured the Democratic party due to slavery issues.
  • Southerners were convinced that all Northern Republicans supported slave rebellion following the Harper's Ferry incident.
  • Moral principles could no longer be compromised by either sides.
  • Slavery was not just "the South's problem"-- It was prevalent in the North as well.


John Brown (left) http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/people/a_c/brown.htm

Historiography- How does perspective alter historical views?

  • Following the Civil War, southern writers and historians reminisced on stories of "noble cavaliers, brilliant generals, and happy slaves" who were faithful to the glorious cause. In the prosperous north, however, freed slaves and their descendants began filling the cities and factories, and the general audience was eager to embrace the current time of "simple and distant" racial issues.
  • Southerners viewed the Civil War as a "Lost Cause" by transforming the political defeat into a moral victory, further alienating the group from the Northerners.
  • President Woodrow Wilson, the first Southerner to become president since 1850, was previously a historian. In his book A History of the American People, his tone is tinged with "Lost Cause" inflections, describing the Ku Klux Klan as "an empire of the South" and completely avoiding the subject of slavery.
  • Movies such as The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind dramatized and romanticized the Old South, exposing southern sympathies.


Gone with the Wind move poster (right) http://inweekly.net/wordpress/?p=11309


Analysis/Reflection

Von Drehle's article does an excellent job of explaining how the Civil War mindset has both evolved and remained stagnant. Today, it is difficult to connect to the ideals and moral issues involved in the Civil War, since it seems distant and not very relevant to our current lives. Many people also assume the viewpoints of their region without truly considering those of others. However, the Civil War did reunite the nation eventually, even if the process was slow and painful. Now, as Von Drehle's notes, "We're the people who order a Coke from Atlanta and some New England clam chowder at a diner in Las Vegas." Had the Confederacy succeeded, unstable relations would have continued.