Richard Cavendish wrote that the American Civil War was fought to preserve the Union. There had long been tensions between the rights of the states and those of the federal government, going back to the issue of tariffs in the 1830s. But it was slavery that brought matters to a breaking point. Slavery had been made illegal in all the northern states by the early 1800s and, with European immigrants supplying cheap labour for the industrialising economy, the North was pleased when the abolitionist movement gained strength. Northerners seemed ashamed that slavery had ever been tolerated in the USA.
But the South regarded slavery as crucial to its plantation economy, to its society and its traditions. It was estimated that c650,000 Africans had been exported to the USA before the British abolition of slavery in 1807. By 1860, slaves accounted for 4 million people, out of a total population of 23 million (17.4%) and a quarter of all white families in the South owned slaves. Southern cotton production was making record profits.
In 1860 Abraham Lincoln became the Republican president, carrying all the northern states bar one. His triumph convinced politicians in the South that slavery would soon be banned by an amendment to the constitution. There were committed unionists in all the southern states, but the prevailing opinion was that the sudden liberation of 4 million Africans would be a nightmare. And, presumably, a financial catastrophe for the South.
Blue areas = Union states, including those admitted during the war.
[Light blue areas = Union states which permitted slavery].
Red areas = Confederate states.
Unshaded areas were not states before or during the Civil War.
In Feb 1861, a congress in Montgomery Al. adopted a constitution for the new Confederate States of America – Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas would together create the new nation. Then Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas and Tennessee joined the Confederacy and both sides organised their armies. The War Between the States eventually killed almost 700,000 young men.
Now let me leap to 1961 when Americans prepared to mark the 100th anniversary of the nation’s worst ever conflict, the Civil War. According to Robert Cook, the centennial had been planned by the USA Civil War Centennial Commission as a means of steeling citizens in the Cold War struggle against communism. High-profile heritage projects were designed to showcase America’s commitment to liberty. The Freedom Train, a travelling collection of the nation’s canonical documents, was a prime example of how public elites sought to use their version of history to build support for the anti-communist crusade.
The anniversary of a bloodthirsty civil war may have seemed an unlikely subject for national unity, Cook noted, particularly as that conflict had left southern whites embittered by defeat. And particularly since the Civil War Commission had assumed in 1961 that the anniversary would be a whites-only affair. The entire project seemed shocking when black delegates to the Commission were banned from racially segregated Charleston hotels.
The Civil War had to be quickly rebranded in the national memory. Once a vessel for myriad internal hatreds, the war was to become the moment when America had been reunited, and a modern superpower was born. Did it work? Celebrating the southern states’ secession from the Union made perfect sense to the 1961 segregationists who dominated the region’s state centennial agencies. What better way to mobilise grass roots opposition to court-ordered desegregation and black civil rights activism than to remind ordinary whites of their ancestors’ vigorous resistance to Federal tyranny!
4th USA Coloured Infantry (Union army),
Fort Lincoln, Washington DC
In fact there was so much enthusiasm for the Confederacy in the South that advisors were telling President John F Kennedy that the centennial could totally endanger the USA's unity. So it may not be surprising that the combination of neo-Confederate theatre and the exclusion of blacks proved disastrous for the centennial. Blacks and Northern whites were appalled by the ease with which segregationists had co-opted the centennial.
In Sept 1962 a hastily reorganised Civil War Commission hosted an event at the Lincoln Memorial to commemorate the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Although the commission chose to equate emancipation with the anti-communist crusade for human freedom, rather than the fight for racial justice at home, major civil rights campaigns in 1963 and 1964 made them unresponsive to southern fears that the CWCC had become a mouthpiece for integration. Cook concluded that when it ended in April 1965, most Americans simply disregarded the Civil War centennial.
Because I am not an American history scholar, I have tried to quote Cavendish and Cook as closely as possible. However there are still questions that I would like to ask. What proportion of soldiers on both sides were black? I know that in July 1862, Congress passed an Act that freed slaves who had masters in the Confederate Army. Recruitment was slow until black leaders encouraged black men to become soldiers, to ensure eventual full citizenship. At the same time, the National Archives suggest that by the end of the Civil War, 179,000 black men (10% of the Union Army) served as soldiers in the USA Army and another 19,000 served in the Navy. Nearly 40,000 black soldiers died over the course of the war. Were they not an important part of the Civil War, especially on the Union side?
I really do understand why slaves were an important part of the Southern economy and I can almost understand why southern states would go to war in 1861 to protect either their states’ rights against Federal or northern intervention, or to protect their economies. But why were these powerful symbols of separation still valid by 1961??
Normally after a civil war, the seceding states would use their symbols of separation only in two cases – firstly if they won the civil war or secondly if they were still hoping to secede some time in the future. Robert Cook was right. The anniversary of a miserable and destructive civil war was an unlikely subject for national unity, no matter how it was rebranded.
devastation of war, Navy Yard at Norfolk Va
Photo from USA National Archives.