Moderated by Rick Badie
The Civil War remains a complex and controversial issue, not just in the South but the nation as a whole. One of today’s guest writers wonders whether the struggle still matters in the 21st century. The other writer explains why the war resonates with so few African-Americans, yet challenges them to re-examine its rich history.
Re-examine the Civil War
By Natasha L. McPherson
Aside from a handful of professional historians, history buffs and perhaps a few fans of the movie “Glory,” most African-Americans regard the Civil War with relative indifference. We pay our respects to black leaders of the era, and we may even examine the major political debates that once divided a nation. For most African-Americans, however, the Civil War was a series of events that played in the background while the black liberation struggle occupied the main stage.
This year, as Americans commemorate the 150th anniversary of major Civil War events including the Emancipation Proclamation and the Battle of Gettysburg, let us examine the complex relationship between African-Americans and the Civil War. The war was a pivotal moment in history that gave birth to modern democracy and led to the emancipation of enslaved blacks.
So why don’t black folks care?
First, this wasn’t our war. Many African-Americans fought and died on both sides of the conflict, but they were excluded from the decision-making process. Without political representation, African-Americans have come to regard the Civil War and its memory as the white people’s burden. The black historical narrative places less emphasis on the Civil War itself and tends to highlight actions of African-Americans in response to the war. This seems practical, considering the modern African-American experience emerged directly from individual and collective actions of blacks during and after the Civil War.
Exploring African-American perspectives on the war also means confronting the painful history of slavery. Certainly, the causes of the Civil War were many — preservation of the Union, conflicts over states’ rights and changing meanings of freedom. To be sure, slavery was at the heart of the conflict. For many Americans, slavery is still a sensitive topic, and one that is often too difficult to discuss.
But the Civil War led to the abolition of slavery, right? Maybe. But abolition became possible only once the nation had been torn apart by war, violence and unimaginable bloodshed. For many, this hardly feels like something worth commemorating.
Even if African-Americans observed the Civil War as a proverbial launch pad for liberation, the path toward emancipation and equality has been long and arduous. Immediately following the war, the former Confederate states began enacting black codes to restrict the freedoms of slaves not yet fully emancipated. Jim Crow segregation quickly replaced slavery as the primary obstacle to freedom and citizenship for the next 100 years. For African-Americans, the Civil War and emancipation fell short of their promise.
But perhaps it is time to reexamine our relationship with the Civil War. It may not have been a magical moment for black liberation, but the war was a critical step toward achieving equality and full citizenship for all Americans, and that is definitely worth remembering.
Natasha L. McPherson is visiting assistant professor of U.S. and African-American history at Spelman College.
Find your story
By Brian S. Wills
Ask anyone who belongs to an organization connected with the American Civil War, and one detects an underlying concern regarding the future. So many members seem to be longer in age and experience than the younger generation they hope to attract to their ranks.
This does not mean persons of all ages do not take an interest in the conflict in particular or in history in general. Some embrace these subjects at an early point and continue their historical passions and pursuits throughout their lives. But these numbers appear small when compared to the general population. Furthermore, the increased diversity of the population, with more and more people with no direct ties or links to the turbulent events of the 1860s, is worrisome as well.
The concern persists that with the passing of the Sesquicentennial or 150th anniversary of the Civil War, there may also be the loss of this piece of the American story before another milestone.
Perhaps there is reason to be troubled. Yet with Georgia set to serve in 2013-2014 as the foundation for activities that occurred in the crucial Western Theater in 1863-1864, there are fewer grounds for concern than might be thought on the surface.
Whether they are long-term natives or recent arrivals, Georgian residents will find that the power and poignancy of the collective history we share is hard to resist. No one who has an interest in any aspect of life — from politics and religion to food and communication — will fail to find something in the conflict with which one can be engaged.
Personalities in the story may not trigger the visceral reaction attached to William Tecumseh Sherman, the Union general who vowed to “make Georgia howl” and then did. But even “Cump” Sherman had complications and complexities of personality and experience that are compelling. Thousands of similar individuals existed as well.
Can the Civil War sustain itself for generations?
If we remember that the diversions of youth and the demands of early adulthood regarding families and employment were true for many of us, too, before we came to a closer connection with history, and that the stories include human beings of all races and genders who experienced these difficult times and often sacrificed so much to endure them, then we will recognize the value that remains in examining these events.
Fresh eyes and interpretations promise to reinvigorate interest in the Atlanta Campaign and the March to the Sea. In a way, that will demonstrate the vibrancy and vitality of Civil War history, especially to those who might not notice otherwise or who believe their stories are not caught up in this one.
Your story is there. You have only to find it.
Brian S. Wills is director of the Civil War Center at Kennesaw State University.