A week before the spring WQ appeared with my article, “America’s Changeable Civil War,” Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia unintentionally drew attention to its main thesis by proclaiming Confederate History Month without making any mention of slavery. The Washington Post and others immediately jumped down his throat, and the governor quickly apologized for his omission. Issue over? Not necessarily. As the Civil War Sesquicentennial gets under way, the country still seems to be divided over what the war was about and, of more immediate importance, how Americans today should feel about it.
Moralists such as Thomas Friedman
of The New York Times
have no doubt that it was a war of good against evil. “We had a civil war in America in the mid-19th century because we had a lot of people who believed bad things—namely that you could enslave people because of the color of their skin,” he wrote recently, and many historians today would endorse both the substance and the harsh tone of his assertion. On the opposite side are the people McDonnell was appealing to—Southern patriots and battlefield re-enactors who in many cases are, like Friedman, in effect re-fighting the war, as well as ordinary Virginians whose great-grandfathers fought for the South without any sense that they were risking their lives to preserve slavery.
Is it really necessary for Americans today to proclaim their loyalties as if they were combatants in a war that took place 150 years ago? The point of the Sesquicentennial is to honor both sides without trying to relive their commitments. The participants lived in a different time, thought in different ways from us, and cannot reasonably be praised or blamed for not holding the attitudes of 2010. Nobody today doubts that slavery was an evil. The fate of that institution was settled in 1865, and nothing is gained by pretending that any controversy still exists on the subject.
The Civil War was tragic for many reasons, but one is that by almost any standard there were such large wrongs and large rights on both sides. Both sides fought bravely for freedom as they defined it; in hindsight, both sides had huge blind spots. Honoring Union and Confederate soldiers in the 21st century should not be equated with taking positions in contemporary politics that superficially resemble those of the 19th. Only narcissists treat history as a mirror.