Reflections on the Civil War

Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh

In thinking of America, I sometimes find myself admiring her bright blue sky — her grand old woods — her fertile fields — her beautiful rivers — her mighty lakes, and star-crowned mountains. But my rapture is soon checked, my joy is soon turned to mourning. When I remember that all is cursed with the infernal actions of slaveholding, robbery and wrong, — when I remember that with the waters of her noblest rivers, the tears of my brethren are borne to the ocean, disregarded and forgotten, and that her most fertile fields drink daily of the warm blood of my outraged sisters, I am filled with unutterable loathing.—Frederick Douglas, letter to William Lloyd Garrison, January 1, 1846

Our new government is founded on the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man.—Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederate States of America

I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.—Ulysses S. Grant

Before the insurrection of January 6th, the last time our nation's capitol was even remotely threatened by Americans was during the Civil War. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia came within 25 miles of Washington at the Battle of Second Manassas (Second Battle of Bull Run) in 1862. Later in the war, Lee's subordinate, Lieutenant-General Jubal Early, fought the Battle of Fort Stevens on the capitol's outskirts, six tantalizing miles northwest of downtown DC.

The rabble who stormed the Capitol Building on January 6th had been stoked to violence on a diet of preparatory lies about the 2020 Presidential election fed to them for months by the former President and his Congressional sycophants. The fact that Trump's legal team lost 63 cases at state, district, and supreme court levels and almost always for want of evidence will not sway the knuckle-draggers. Fortunately, they were a mob and not an army. Still, they were organized enough to be there and armed. Ham-handed as the insurrection proved, it was a tragic day in American history, a day in some ways worse than September 11th in that it was perpetrated by Americans against Americans and on the most poignant stage.

Don't look away. And don't be deceived: that's what civil war looks like. Those terrible images and video footage of ignorant, hate-filled Americans defiling our Capitol got me thinking about the last time we fought against each other in earnest. And how this time is really last time.

The Solid South

When we were kids in grammar school we learned about "The Solid South" in American history class. Our teacher explained how the southern states—Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C.—voted as a bloc for the Democratic Party for about 100 years, or from just after the end of the Civil War until 1964.

It was abstract. Here was a term—"The Solid South"—and we needed to know what it meant. What my teacher didn't explain was why—why did the South vote Democrat for almost 100 years? And why did that reliable bloc of voting change in 1964?

Maybe she thought the answer was so obvious it didn't need explaining, but kids are naive, they tend to think better of people. I know I did. Even as a precocious 6th grader I couldn't fathom the ugliness required to do that math.

But the answer was simple: racism, hatred, revenge.

The South voted Democrat because Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, freed the slaves. And the South stopped voting Democrat because Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Votings Rights Act in 1965.

"The Solid South," a euphemism of demographics and ballots, belies the almost geological process through which it became a reality, the thousands of dinner tables around which hatred of the black man was handed down from parent to child, the barber shop conversations and workplace coffee breaks in which racism was asserted and compounded, the late-night meetings down dark country roads where cowards conspired to lynch a Negro or firebomb an African-American church.

A century of racism and seething hatred bequeathed from one rotten generation to another—that's what "The Solid South" really means. And it doesn't just apply to how Southern whites voted, it also entails their methodical disenfranchisement of Southern blacks. Southern whites made sure that their fellow Southerners who weren't white couldn't vote against their candidates: poll taxes, literacy tests, and good ole intimidation, even murder when necessary.

And "The Solid South" only accounts for white Southerners voting Democrat until 1964; where is the equally ambiguous term for their abandonment of the Democrats owing to the same racial prejudice?

Still think anything was settled by the Civil War? 

The Civil War put an end to the Confederate States of America, but the pernicious agenda which animated its creation—to own African-Americans as property and reap the economic benefits thereby—mutated. With slavery abolished, Southern whites engineered new ways to keep blacks in essentially the same powerless state of affairs through systematic disenfranchisement, as well as terrorism, violence, and segregation under Jim Crow laws. Ironically, it was the Republicans—the party of Lincoln—who handed the racists their biggest opportunity.

One of the greatest tragedies in American history, the Compromise of 1877 ended Reconstruction in exchange for the uncontested election of Republican Rutherford Hayes to the Presidency. It was literally a deal cut in a smoke-filled room and the Democrats had but one demand: withdraw federal troops from the South—that is, end federal enforcement of the rights granted African-Americans via the 14th and 15th Amendments.

 A short-sighted win for Hayes and the Republicans dealt far-reaching losses to Southern blacks. The federal government would stay out of the South's business, allowing Southern Democrats to methodically disenfranchise African-Americans.

As far as I'm concerned, an army of occupation should still pitch its tents below the Mason-Dixon Line: the South has not changed when it comes to voting.

 Repeating the lies of "voting irregularities" and breaches of elections integrity, legislators in 19 states enacted 33 laws between January 1 and September 27, 2021 designed to make it harder for Americans to vote. When you examine the measures, it becomes clear which Americans will find it harder to vote; it's no surprise which states enacted most of these discriminatory laws. And these are laws from 2021, not 1921:  

 (Voter Restriction Laws summary courtesy
Brennan Center for Justice, October 4, 2021)


"History will look back" and "the wrong side of history"

I often hear people console themselves by starting with the phrase "history will look back"—history will look back on Donald Trump's terrible misdeeds and derelictions of duty; history will look back on our former President's staggering ineptitude, his vulgarity, his utter lack of human empathy; history will look back on his criminally negligent handling of the Coronavirus pandemic; history will look back on the far-reaching damage he wreaked on American democracy….

And history always looks back "with incredulity," "with scorn," and "in stern judgment."

Aside from its redundancy—it is the nature of history to look back—the phrase is a deceptive misattribution; historians and, more importantly, the general populace looks back, not some detached, unerring judge called "history." And people attempt to re-write history, even when it has been seared onto the retinas of millions of viewers via thousands of hours of video footage.

I also hear some use a variant formulation, placating themselves by stating that Donald Trump (or Steve Bannon or Michael Flynn or Paul Manafort or any of the sother former administration's despicable scoundrels) is "on the wrong side of history."

It's well meant, but conscienceless scumbags like Trump, Bannon, Flynn, or Manafort won't lose any sleep over it. Taking solace in such vague justice is the equivalent of believing in an afterlife where the wrongs of this world will be redressed in the next. The phrase works like mental morphine.

Most importantly, knowing your oppressors will be on the wrong side of history offers hollow consolation when you're on the wrong side of a machine gun.

The Civil War demonstrates the wrongheadedness of the notion "history will look back." There are many Americans who believe the lie that the Civil War was fought over states rights and not slavery; that statues of traitors and repellant racists—Robert E. Lee an example of the former, Jefferson Davis an example of the latter—ought to be allowed to sully the landscape; that the Confederate flag isn't a glaring standard of racism but a symbol of some nebulous "Southern identity."

As William Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." And if history has taught us anything it's that history has taught us nothing.

American Exceptionalism

Mississippi-born historian, journalist, and novelist Shelby Foote achieved national notoriety when Ken Burns' documentary series The Civil War aired in 1990. The film's most memorable commentator, he beguiled American audiences with his melodious voice and his Southern colonel's accent, as well as his encyclopedic Civil War knowledge. At times, you'd think he'd actually fought in the war. Toward the end of the series he offered an uncharacteristic assessment:

    We think that we are a wholly superior people. If we'd been anything like as superior as we think we are we would not have fought that war. But since we did fight it, we have to make it the greatest war of all
    times. And our generals were the greatest generals of all time. It's very American to do that.

It's true. We're raised to think America is the greatest country on earth, that we're different, somehow better. Those bad things abroad? It could never happen here, our history to the contrary notwithstanding.

The myth of our uniqueness begins with the Constitution. As a governmental template, it has many virtues; most of history's regimes were founded on nothing more than sword tips, superior numbers, and long lines of horsey-faced inbreds. As an infantry officer I took an oath to uphold the Constitution and protect it from all enemies foreign and domestic. The latter-part of that oath seems the more salient to me now.

But there are several cancerous genes in our government's genetic code. For the sake of profits, the first half of the Second Amendment has been ignored so that the gun lobby can peddle more firearms, a deliberate misinterpretation which prompted former Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger—not exactly the most liberal guy the bench has ever seen—to state:

    The Gun Lobby's interpretation of the Second Amendment is one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word fraud, on the American People by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime. The real purpose of the Second Amendment was to ensure that state armies—the militia—would be maintained for the defense of the state. The very language of the Second Amendment refutes any argument that it was intended to guarantee every citizen an unfettered right to any kind of weapon he or she desires.

This greed always comes disguised as patriotism and the results have been catastrophic: annual five-figure gun fatalities for decades. With guns easier to buy in some states than a six-pack of beer, we plant a stadium's worth of Americans in the ground every year so that a few racists and paranoids can clutch as many Glocks and AR-15s as their little meat-beaters can hold.

But the Second Amendment is just that, an add-on to the main ideas. Slavery was written into the very text of our Constitution. It's encoded in our national DNA by a poisonous arrangement reached with the nascent Confederacy, the Three Fifths Compromise, whereby, in order to determine how many seats a given state might hold in the House of Representatives, three fifths of each state's slave population was counted towards that state's total population—despite the fact that slaves could not vote.

Here it is, Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 of our Constitution:

    Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

It's unnerving how legalese muffles the ugly clang of evil. The phrase "three fifths of all other Persons" obscures the glaring inhumanity of the compromise. When you think of three fifths of a group of people it seems innocuous, but apply it individually: each slave was reckoned as three fifths of a human being though he or she stood before you with a head, two arms, and two legs.

A slave may have been thought of as three fifths of a person by the men who totted up their profits, but by 1860, one out of every seven Americans belonged to another American, the Three Fifths Compromise and a One Seventh Reality which applied to four million men, women, and children.

England made the trade of slaves illegal in 1807 and fully emancipated all slaves throughout its colonies in 1838. Just saying.

Even before the Civil War ended, Americans began to hallow the bloody battlefields, most notably when Lincoln visited Gettysburg. In our self -mythologizing we like to think that the valor shown on both sides somehow elevated the cause above its essential ugliness: that people wanted to form a new country predicated on human bondage. But men have displayed valor in every war; why would our civil war differ? The grim tenacity at Stalingrad of both Wehrmacht soldiers and the future keepers of The Iron Curtain amply shows that valor and honor can be mutually exclusive. Besides, for every three soldiers killed in battle in the American Civil War, five more died of disease.

America still contends with disease, two old ones that'll never go away: racism and lies. We saw a vicious outbreak of that disease on January 6th, intimations, however remote or feeble, of civil war.


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Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh is a writer and poet.
He writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. For more of his columns and other writings, check the Archives.

©2021 Patrick Walsh
©2021 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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