The Bloody War That Millions of Americans Prefer to Overlook

For a nation that that loves anniversaries, the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the American Civil War — April 12, 1861 — crept by on tiptoe, like a burglar slipping through a darkened house. Yet the Civil War was, given the size of the population at the time, a fearful killer. All told, at least 630,000 died; at Gettysburg, the single bloodiest engagement of a war that ran from 1861 to 1865, around 50,000 fell across the three-day battle, nearly the entire body count of Americans in the Vietnam War. The Civil War defined American politics for the next hundred years and is still a

The reason for this eerie silence is not hard to find. The Civil War is contested political terrain, particularly in the racist backwash after the 1960s and the civil rights movement, which naturally looked back on the Civil War as one in which tens of thousands of Americans gave their lives for the principle that all are born free and slavery is a shameful blot on any society.

These days, we live in the shadow of Nixon's southern strategy, which became Reagan's southern strategy and is now standard issue campaign politics for the Republican Party: Play the racist card, finance think tanks to churn out papers churning out onslaughts on quotas and deride all attempts to level the racial playing field. Speak “frankly” about the supposed pathologies of the black family.

Meanwhile, up north, the forthright honoring of a war waged for decent principles has faded amid revisionist histories of what the war was really about. Add to this a general wan feeling that the fruits for a terrible conflict were the appalling racism of the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, when the Ku Klux Klan began to burn and lynch, and the migration of Southern slaves and their descendants from the Deep South to the slums of Chicago and other Northern cities. Ahead lay decades of poverty and oppression that prompted the riots of the 1960s.

So the Civil War is a dangerous football to start kicking around on network TV, bad for the advertising business. The arrival of a black man to the White House has naturally intensified these divisions.

A friend of mine, Kevin Alexander Gray — a black radical living in Columbia, S.C., remembers — amid a brilliant evocation of current efforts across the South to honor the Confederacy — burning the Confederate flag a few years ago, outside the state capitol:

I was talking on the phone to a white liberal friend a day or so before we burned the rebel flag. She asked me, 'Why are you doing this?' and 'Who's putting you up to this?' I said it's what I think of the flag and what it stands for — slavery; racial oppression; a privileged, landed class; white supremacy and patriarchy; and a deep-seated belief in the very existence and rightness of the Confederacy.

Those who fought and died under the Confederate flag were willing to die for the expansion of slavery. This, not some vision of mint juleps and ladies in ringlets and lace, is the 'heritage' that modern Confederates defend when they champion this flag and the Confederacy. For most Americans, let alone most African-Americans, the men who died under the Confederate battle flag were not heroes; they were traitors to the fundamental notion of human freedom.

Incidentally, Gray advises that “if you're going to burn a flag, make sure it's cotton — not that synthetic, man-made, plastic-like material. The synthetic material melts and drips little fireballs.

Whatever the material, soak it overnight in kerosene or lighter fluid. The cotton Nazi flag went up in a flash. The store-bought synthetic Confederate flag burned so much slower that we had to keep squirting it with Zippo lighter fluid, much to the delight of the rednecks surrounding us who sang, 'Our flag won't burn, our flag won't burn,' to the tune of 'Dixie.' A middle-aged, long-gray-hair white guy in the crowd yelled out, 'We'll see you in hillbilly hell.'

These days, many Southern states have celebrations of “Confederate History Month”, basically a glorification of the Confederacy and thus, in Gray's words, “about white resistance to black advances. Nonetheless, historians of an emphatically leftist bent make the argument that it's quite legitimate to ask whether the Civil War was worth it, in terms of destruction and the questionable outcome, so far as African-Americans were and are concerned.

Former New Left Review editor Robin Blackburn, author of the classic “The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery,” also the recent “An Unfinished Revolution: Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln,” pointed out on our CounterPunch site last week that slavery remained legal in Union states for months after the Civil War broke out and that Lincoln gave his support for a constitutional amendment, never ratified, that would have renounced any right or ability to challenge slavery and reserved to the slave states themselves the entire responsibility for regulating slavery.

It wasn't until 1863 that the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment clearly put the Union in the right. Indeed, the abolitionists, a hugely powerful moral force, far more potent in lobbying power than the tea party today, preferred to argue against slavery on the basis of biblical injunction, rather than the U.S. Constitution, which recognized the right of secession.

Blackburn says flatly that “In the US case acquiescence in secession would have allowed the North and the West to become a large and progressive state, a sort of vast and diversified Canada, hospitable to free labor, social protection and gun control. The Confederacy meanwhile, would have become a republican version of the ramshackle Brazilian Empire, a major slave society that eventually managed to shed slavery in a largely peaceful manner… In this context a willingness on the part of the United States to admit the possibility that the war was not the best response to

Like other major historical turning points, “what ifs” hang over the Civil War. Winston Churchill once wrote an amusing essay, “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg.” On one of the innumerable Civil War historical websites, I ran across this optimistic posting:

If (the Confederate States of America) had won, North America would be made up of 3 countries, Canada, USA, and CSA. I suspect USA would not have joined WWI against Germany and as a result it would have been a stalemate: no humiliating Versailles Treaty and Hitler would be a footnote. Without Nazi Germany and WWII, no Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Because CSA lacked manufacturing capability, it would have been forced into creating manufacturing industries by importing European technologies and immigrants which in turn would have changed their agrarian society into an industrialized one similar to the one North. Slavery would have died but at a pace dictated by economy.

There's a coda here: The “pace dictated by economy” these days means deteriorating lives for millions of Americans of all races, the very reverse of Blackburn's “large and progressive state,” as Made-in-the-South phenomena like runaway union-free factories, Walmart and a prison gulag of around 3 million advertise what capitalism has delivered. The first act of the Republicans in Congress, after the Southern delegations quit Washington on the outbreak of the Civil War, was to set up a national banking system, anchored in New York. The nation was on its way to JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs.