Moving beyond the factoids of the Civil War

Posted on February 7, 2011 by


I look for them everyday… factoids that pop-up on Twitter. There are a number of folks who post daily, providing us with blow-by-blow details about events as they happened 150 years ago. Some of these folks provide factoids such as “so-and-so (someone significant in the Civil War) was born this day”, or “this happened today”… factoids. Others provide snippets from newspapers of the day… either details of events as they happened, or opinions of people at the time… more factoids. That’s all interesting, and important in helping us remember and reflect, BUT… do they ever challenge what we know about the history of the Civil War? By “what we know”, I mean the collective’s popular memory of the war. In some ways, I wonder if we’ve become too comfortable with our history.

Let’s consider this piece from December 26, 1861, from the Valley Spirit (Chambersburg, Pennsylvania):

The Union Dissolved

The death-knell of our glorious Union is resounding through the land. The present United States are dissolved, broken up–the noblest Government on the face of the earth, with all its elements of wealth, prosperity, happiness and power, have at length been sacrificed by the madness of fanaticism. Every honest and unprejudiced mind must see, and acknowledge with a feeling of mortification, the true source of our national troubles and deep disgrace. To narrow it down the cause must appear as absurd as the Lilliputian war about the end at which the egg should be broke before it is eaten. The Democratic party maintain that our government was formed by white men to be controled [sic] by whitemen for the prosperity and happiness of their race. The Republican party contend that the negro is entitled to equality with the white man–that he must be included and recognized in all our institutions, and have a vote and voice in all our state and national affairs. This is the question–this the delusion that has dissevered and ruined the country and threatens to involve the white man in bloodshed. Must we lose our own freedom in an attempt to free the negro? It ought to require but a very trifling amount of common sense to settle this question justly and forever, but then–

“Faith, fanatic Faith, once wedded fast To some dear falsehood hugs it to the last.”

Northern fanaticism rules the hour–sectional hate and abolition rage have goaded the South to that point where forbearance ceases to be a virtue, and impel them to demand that they be allowed peaceably to withdraw from a confederacy in which they have the equality or safety. Even this poor boon is to be denied them if the wishes of their implacable enemies prevail. They must be coerced to stay where they are and put up with all the wrongs and continually heaped upon them and not dare to resist or avoid the assaults on their Constitutional rights. The North may violate the Constitution, and resist the Laws of Congress, and then appeal to its “higher laws” in justification of its treason, but for the South there is no appeal–the gibbet and the bayonet are the remedies proposed to subdue her into obedience to the mandates of a Constitution that a northern “higher law” has trampled under foot time and again.

The South demands nothing more than equal rights in the Union. To this she is entitled but northern fanaticism is in the ascendancy and all her appeals have been insultingly and doggedly denied. Her next and only resort is secession, but the moment that is proposed the long smothered howl for her blood wells up. The Republican party, backed by a few renegade Democrats, are clamoring for an army to murder our brethren of the South, and for what?–because they will not consent to consider the negroes their equals? Could madness go further? Has it come to this that we must be forced to remain in an abolition confederacy and consider negroes our equals or be shot down like dogs?–Strange and fearful are the times upon which we have fallen and no mortal eye can see whither we are drifting. If the flames of civil war are once kindled in the land who can tell where it will end–who can say what destruction of life and property it will involve? Heaven forbid it and grant our rulers wisdom to devise measures to avert so great a calamity to the whole nation. If we cannot live together in peace let us part in peace and not stir up civil strife and imbrue our hands in the blood of our fellow-citizens. No matter what may be the stagnation in business–no matter what States may secede–save us from that greatest of all calamities civil war–the most terrible, relentless and inhuman of all wars. If we solemnly reflect on the destruction we are about to draw down upon us it must make us pause in time and put forth every effort to create harmony–reestablish fraternal feeling among our countrymen and restore the Union.

Is this what you would expect from a Northern newspaper, following South Carolina’s secession? Is this small article inconsistent with what the collective might expect from a Northern newspaper at that time? Was criticism of secession from north of the Mason-Dixon Line absolute? Now, I’m well aware of Copperheads, but this example is from south central Pennsylvania… not exactly the hot-bed of Copperhead activity.

Should we be spend more time challenging popular memory of the war more often throughout the Sesquicentennial? I’m not saying that we need to make-up challenges. There’s no need. Challenges already exist.

Keep those factoids coming… but maybe we need to be equally as active in providing items that offer challenges to popular memory. Maybe we need to become more uncomfortable with our history in order to begin grasping the complexities.