10 August, 2011

Mark Shea on the Civil War

Very reasonably, Mark Shea does not attempt to make any definitive declaration about which side was "justified" in the Civil War, though that is what the questioner here asks him to do. He points out problems with both sides that I'm very ready to admit. Remember that my staunch defense of the north in this blog is a reaction to my time at college in the south, where I was horrified by southern attempts to make their half of the country into a bunch of martyrs for "the Roman ideal" or "Western Civilization" some such nonsense (Well, I guess the Romans did base their aristocratic leisure on slavery...but with the Catholic denunciation of slavery dating from St. Patrick and earlier, it was hardly "Western Civilization" at it's height..unless by Western Civilization they mean "that state in which non-Europeans are oppressed"). The north was never perfect, because there is no such thing as a "perfect" side in war. We could even get into all that with WWII...Look at FDR's motivations for fighting Hitler, for instance, and the rose-tinted glasses Hollywood has provided us for generations will disappear.

On the whole, I see the war not as a triumph, but a tragedy, in which the respective flaws of both parts of the country infected the conflict and turned the honest efforts and sacrifices of ordinary Americans into a mockery of idealistic intents. Particularly tragic is what the war turned into after it was fought. With Lincoln, despite his flaws, you have a man desperate to uphold the core of the constitution, whether he made mistakes in doing so or not. You have an honest desire to mend the divisions of the war and to welcome the south back after the war was ended. Instead, Lincoln died, the power-mongers of the Senate jumped into the gap, and the  powers that the Federal government can be argued to have constitutionally in time of war into the powers it has in time of peace as well. Reconstruction was botched. Opportunists from both parts of the country were allowed free reign. The ideals which were being fought for disintegrated as the slaves were freed but denied the opportunity to make an independent life for themselves and the southerners contributed to their own impoverishment by refusing to actually work in pursuit of their own self-improvement, preferring to live in a constant state of resentment of history that persists to this day and is comparable only to the African American resentment of their ancestors' enslavement--ironically, a complaint that said southerners tend to decry as "liberal" self-martyrization while they themselves do precisely the same thing.

Whatever the injustices of the war, however, it is absolutely crucial to recognize that imperfections in the way the war was carried out and mixed motives on the part of many northerners do not invalidate the heroism of the thousands of northerners in the field during the war who believed they were fighting for the just application of the Declaration to all men.

Two excerpts from Shea's blog nicely articulate what I've been arguing thus far; plus, it's always nice to realize one's not the only one crazy enough to suggest that the Civil War might actually have had something to do with slavery and that Romanticizing the south is inherently problematic:

Like it or not, in the South, the reality is that slavery had everything to do with the shots fired on Fort Sumter and the whole domino fall of secession. The South fought for “State’s Rights” because the South was fighting for the right to keep an agrarian economy based on slavery. That’s what the war was about. It was the simmering resentment of a northern economy that was squeezing the life from the South *and* looking down on the South with increasing contempt for their “peculiar institution.” No slavery, and there might very well never have been a Civil War.
. . .what the Civil Rights Movement forcefully reminded us of with the images of good white Christian folk screaming at kids for the crime of going to school in a black skin, or Bull Connor and his dogs and fire hoses, was that the Romanticism of the South (much like our culture’s present Romanticism about the rise of the Women’s movement) acted not only to celebrate what was good, but to obfuscate some real evils. Just as the story of feminism includes not only the righting of real wrongs against women, but also the sacramentalization of abortion as a core value, so the romanticism of the Southern role in the Recent Unpleasantness systematically overlooked the continuation of the slave culture under other names until the Civil Rights movement reminded us that the war may, after all, have been a necessary first step in purging America of the original sin of its founding.

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