Friday, June 10, 2011

On the need to teach the American Civil War in our schools

"Any understanding of this nation has to be based and I mean really based, on an understanding of the Civil War. I believed that firmly. It defined us. The Revolution did what it did. Our involvement with the European wars, beginning with the First World War, did that it did. But the Civil War defined us what we are, and it opened to us what we became, good and bad things. And it is very necessary, if you are going to understand the American character in the twentieth century, to learn about this enormous catastrophe of the nineteenth century. It was the crossroads of our being, and it was a hell of a crossroads." —Shelby Foote, 1990

"The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here." —Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, 1863

Shelby Foote died in 2005, 15 years after Ken Burns' 1990 epic documentary "The Civil War" aired. Mr. Foote was an historian with a life-long interest in the Civil War. His own writings on the subject are monumental.

I am a lover of history. I know some of you are as well. I, too, have gotten sucked in by the Civil War, mostly, I think, because of it's many facets and complexities. I am one who likes to try to unravel complexities. But, more than that, I really believe the Civil War was exactly the turning point for our country that Mr. Foote says it was.

The Civil War had to happen, of course. I think many Americans today don't think much about it's lessons anymore.

I can't believe Burns' documentary was 21 years ago! And I am saddened to learn Mr. Foote has died. Many people don't recognize the name, but know him when they see his picture.


  1. Your civil war did indeed affect the States. I suppose it had an effect as powerful as the Greta War had on the UK, although in a different manner.
    The Great War brought great changes, albeit slowly, and your civil war, which means little elsewhere, dies appear to have a profound effect on the US character.

    Burns films were 21 years ago? They must be as I have been here 15 years. How time flies.

  2. I almost had to look up the Greta War, thinking, "Hey, how is it Adullamite knows about a significant war I've never heard of. Did English schools edit out, somehow, a war that Scottish schools taught?" Well, it's still morning, saturday morning, and the flywheels of my brain are not yet up to speed. Insufficient torque to engage the gear that powers the anagram detecting circuits.

    Anyway, having figured it out, I want now to ask you, Mr Clarity, if you would care to undertake a task related to the significance of your Civil War.

    I do, of course, have a very general mental overview of it, but I've never really studied it in depth. I can name various generals, but not be sure without looking them up, as to what side they were on, I can name several major engagements, but not say what happened there, nor name the protagonists, nor the outcome.

    What interests me here though, is your Mr Foote's assertion that the civil war was a defining war, one which shaped the nation of today.

    I invite you, if you would, to try picture the america, and americans of today, and then to try to tell us in what way you think that picture would be different if no civil war had occurred.

    My southern amanuensis tells me that in some places, it's not referred to as "The Civil War", it's known as "The War Between the States", but NOT where she comes from. Oh no.
    Where she comes from, it's "The War of Northern Aggression", and no mistake. Yankees are still neither trusted nor welcome.
    That's the land where beer-sotted crazies shoot at Lincolns just because they bear his name.
    Where the confederate flag flies more often than the stars and stripes.
    Where every grudge, every tramp of the northern boot is still keenly remembered, and everything that is wrong in the world, from a crying baby to a speeding ticket is blamed upon the northern aggressor.

  3. @Soubriquet -

    “I invite you, if you would, to try picture the america, and americans of today, and then to try to tell us in what way you think that picture would be different if no civil war had occurred.”

    I know this is only a theoretical question from you, and I know I am not capable of answering it, but I also know I can't not try.

    Not really. Not in a blog comment could I begin to convey the permanent implications of that sad fork in the road where my country took the wrong path long ago. All I can say is that the “picture” would be a lot better and brighter had the just cause of the South prevailed against the tyranny of the northern politicians who so propagandized and sensationalized a subordinate issue to further their own ambitions and perverted vision that the point whole of the real issue was buried, and northern boys actually were made to believe they were doing the right thing. In the end, the rape of the original American Dream by the northern industrialists and “progressive thinkers” was effected and here we are in the sorry state we are in today. No, I cannot adequately convey HOW MUCH BETTER my country would have been, had the southern confederation been able to stem the tide of northern aggression. How would it be different, you ask? I can tell you there would be no TEA party today, or a need for one. I can tell you we would have been a mighty giant through competition between the states, and through minding our own business. I can tell you we never would have been involved in any of those European wars, much less the Vietnams and Iraqs; that would have been unthinkable. But instead, a cancer began growing in my country and has been growing ever since. It is so large today that many liberals see the cancer as some sort of benevolent “host” rather than something that needs to be cut out.

    In the end, I can’t explain the corny concept of personal freedom to you, and how different and better the U.S. would be today had the North lost our civil war. This is because that concept is only a abstract theory to all of Europe (and 18% of America) today. In general, liberal Europe laughs at the “naivete” of traditionalists in America who still would fight the true cause of the South and throw off the oppression of a federal government whose tyrannical and absolute power over the individual citizen was never imagined, never dreamed of, by the people who lived in this country at its inception. I speak not of the “founding fathers” but of MY fathers, my ancestors. I speak of how they lived and how they dreamed their children could live. You are so used to the concept of intrusive federalism that you now accept it without question and even think you are not oppressed. Unless your ancestors were born in Scotland or Ireland, you truly have no basis to compare what I am trying to say. This is not an insult to you, it is only a fact of what you were born into. But some will not let that old flame die.

    Another civil war is brewing in America today, I fear. As before, it will be between the people who want to be left alone to be the captain of their own destiny versus those who think they know what is better. It is sad we don’t teach our young the lessons of the first civil war. Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.

    I am itching to reason with you and go into so MUCH greater detail about the way we went astray and how WONDERFUL our country would be today, as you asked. But you see how long this comment is already, and I haven’t even been able to convey the most basic essence of it. Two completely different philosophies of how people should live clashed in our civil war. The wrong side won, but the original dream may yet prevail.

  4. @Adullamite - I, too, was a bit thrown by your rapid typing, but after further study, I now understand and agree. :)

    So much of the Great War I don't understand, and have learned only by self-study of European history. You have made that war a major study in your life, and I am always pleased when you choose to share your knowledge of it.

  5. The South of today has become a bit more homogenized, and perhaps even tempered with time and population shift, than some southern sources would lead you to believe. Even in Savannah, that gorgeous jewel of Georgia, terminus ad quem of General Sherman's march to the sea after burning Atlanta, will you see more rebel flags flying than the American horizontally-striped one, nor will your rented Lincoln be shot at.

  6. And it would be a mistake to confuse drunken red-necked third grade dropouts, who hate blindly without any real knowledge, with genteel educated Southerners who know very well what the Civil War was all about. Some hatred may still abide in their gentle hearts as well, but at least they know why.

  7. Wow, I didn't realize how strongly I feel about how crappy my country has become. I need therapy. Perhaps a shot of liberal 101. Plenty of such followers of this blog to inject me.

  8. Thank you, Mr Max, It's a start.
    You might be surprised to hear that I do, somewhat agree with you.

    Whilst I do believe that medical assistance should be free at the point of use, and available to all who need it, regardless of their financial means, that does NOT mean I'm a fan of giving all the decision-making and power to central government.
    And, as I've previously said, I see the creeping powers of the european parliament to be roughly equivalent to your federal government.
    I'd be happy to see Britain sever the ties to yurp.
    I see no reason why my taxes should be spent on propping up other countries.
    And I'd like to see Britain making trade deals with all its own partners without France having tantrums because we aren't buying their produce.
    And I see no reason why I should be subject to any laws made by foreigners.
    British laws for British people.
    Our courts, our parliament, our rights.

    I want border control. I don't want to hear about "rights" from people who are here illegally, who then break more of our laws, and claim we're breaching their "rights" if we send them back whence they came.
    No more of the European Court of Human Rights over-ruling our long established laws.

    As for the Scots and Irish, what about the Welsh? Why do you forget the Welsh?
    Or the English?
    We weren't all born with a silver spoon in our mouths.

    What would an un-civil-warred America look like?
    Would it be a nation? Would some states speak different language?
    I wonder. If your states had less cohesion, would you now be speaking Japanese?
    Well, there'd have been no Pearl Harbour, not for you, because of course, Hawaii wouldn't be American, and besides, there'd be no federal navy. And you'd probably be Mexican anyway.
    Queen Victoria might well have re-taken the eastern seaboard, and maybe California too. There'd be no Alaska or Florida, of course........

    Oh my. my little mind can't extrapolate much further. I think Canada would have advanced its borders south too....

  9. Wow. Ironically, I read this post going, here's something I whole-heartedly agree with. The Civil War has always been the most fascinating chapter of US history to me, with implications and impacts that rippled into this US.

    Part of that is my father's own interest - he was fascinated and read everything he could get his hands on. Part of it is that I lived formative years in Maryland and went, when with my family to many many key battlegrounds.

    I read nonfiction books, but not opinion pieces, per se, on the subject in that same youth (many many). My father had a huge collection of Civil War related books, but I didn't and don't. I didn't recognize either name you mention.

    When you went into your diatribe, though, I realized why that might be. I'm amazed that two people fascinated by the same historical conflict (and well-educated about it) might have such diametrically opposed views on it.

    Ah, that's history for you.

  10. @Soubriquet - Oh, dear me! Come back down to earth!

    You seem to be jumping to wild conclusions far outside anything I’ve suggested. That’s part of the trouble, I suppose, in trying to do this in the comments of a blog.

    First and foremost, you seem to be assuming I don’t favor a federal government (in our situation) just because I condemned the unlawful arrogant abuse of federal power. I’m not against a federal government. In the case of the United States, a federal government is close to indespensible. However, when you are dealing with several member-states, all those states want is an entity to provide for the national defense and to regulate interstate commerce, and a few other things. Unfortunately, the commerce clause of our constitution has been used as an excuse for federal interference in almost every aspect of the daily lives of citzens you can think of. That was hardly the intent of the states when they allowed a federal government to be established. They had no intent to give such a government more power than it needed to settle disputes between states and facilitate commerce across state lines. If anyone wants to be reminded of the reasons the states allowed a federal government, they need look no farther than the preamble of our constitution. Unfortunately, power corrupts, and soon the feds were getting the wrong-minded notion that they were somehow the boss of the states rather than servant-administrator-arbitors of interstate issues.

    The states realized there would be occasions in which, like the revolution, they would need to present one voice to the world. Like NATO (in theory!) if you attack one state, you attack them all, for example. The constitution didn’t even contemplate the President or Senators being elected directly by the people. Only the direct representatives of the people were to be elected by the citizens directly. It was a mistake to change the constitution to allow Senators to be elected directly, and it would be a mistake for the President to be elected directly by the people as well.

    Do you know the name of the EU president? Maybe, maybe not. Do you vote for him or her? Why would you even CARE who he or she is? Such, also, was the unimportance of the President and Senate to the rank and file citizens, the framers thought. The Senators represent states at large, not districts, and so need to be sent by the several state legislatures IN THE NAME of the people. As for the President, he was a CEO. What would the American people care who he was? Much has changed. Much has become perverted.

    As to whether or not we would have ended up with 48 states or not, who knows? Who’s to say the states, acting in concert, wouldn’t still have come up with the Manifest Destiny idea? Who’s to say they would have acted individually more compassionate to the Indians or thought differently about slavery if they had kept the check-rein on the feds? Who’s to say they wouldn’t have taken land from other people, especially Mexico, just because the federal government wasn’t running amok? One thing for sure, Queen Victoria wouldn’t be getting any land back, just because the states told the feds what to do.

  11. Soubriquet cont. : Alaska and Hawaii? Of course you are right about that. There’s nothing wrong with one country buying land from another country; we didn’t colonize Alaska and then take it over. We bought it, then tried to pollute it. But I have never been able to wrap my mind around the reasoning that it should have ever become more than a territory of the U.S.

    Hawaii? Well, that’s pretty cut and dried. It was a proud monarchy until your Sandwich guy decided the natives lives would be better off under the British Crown. And then comes us and our missionaries and we finally send enough white people to the islands to control the vote. And, by golly, here we have our 50th state. Well, if you ever have any doubts as to whether the real owners of Hawaii love Americans and want us there, I suggest you pay them a visit and speak to a few native Hawaiians. No, they should not be a state. In fact their land should be given back with an abject apology. As thin as our excuses were for taking the Indians’ land, we had no excuse at all for bullying the Hawaiian people. This is only my personal opinion, of course. (And,maybe, the opinion of a lot of native Hawaiians who wish the Howlies would just disappear back to their own land.) How did we justify thinking Hawaii was close enough, geographically or culturally, to be a state? I wonder if the UK would consider adding Sicily as a new addition to the UK? It’s much closer to the UK than Hawaii is to our mainland. Again, I am not meaning to confuse territories, however gained, with actual states. Some people even believe Puerto Rico should become a state. Unbelievable, these thought processes.

    The whole point of all this is that the American Civil War firmly established the precedent for the federal government to begin to ride roughshod over the rightful soverignty of the several states, in the face of the intentions of the framers of the constitution and the early Americans who conditionally allowed that federal government to come into existance. Since the Civil War, individual Americans have seen their personal freedoms and the intended soverignty of the several states reduced to near serfdom. That is the lesson of the American Civil War.

    I can’t quite put my finger on it yet, but I am sensing a counterattack in the making, though.

  12. @Stephanie Barr - Diatribe? That's pretty narrow-minded. A diatribe is a bitter verbal attack. I'm not bitter. I have a firm opinion. I don't know of any thinking American who doesn't have an opinion about Our Civil War, one way or the other. If someone who shares your personal opinions states those opinions, then that's just the First Amendment in action, right? If someone (like me) has a very different opinion, then that's a diatribe. I see.

    Well, those opinions about the goodness or badness of the Civil War aside, I also like to read and study about the Civil War simply for it's interesting complexities, battles, generals, strategies, failings, frustrations. The fact that it is a complex thing is reason enough for me to love to try to sort it out.

    The point of this post, though, was not simply to talk about how much fun it is to read and learn about the American Civil War, even though I do find that fun. The point was that the Civil War WAS a turning point in the direction the U.S. began to take compared to how it was before the war. And I have a right to my opinion that we have given up too much along the way, without my well-supported statement of that opinion being personally attacked as a diatribe.

  13. Freaking awesome post and great info… and wonderful comments, once again you nailed it.

  14. Oh no, you don't have to disagree with me to diatribe. I've done it many times and I almost always agree with myself.

    It's about a rant that is demonstrably one-sided. I'm that way on many topics.

  15. As for you having a right to your opinion, whereever did I say otherwise?

    I was surprised. That doesn't equate with condemnation.

  16. When I was in school I had friends who obsessed over every battle, knew every general, and liked to spout off that the last battles of the Civil War were won by the Rebels.

    Growing up in Texas with standard issue poor white trash values, we viewed the South as the Good Guys and the North as the Bad Guys. Everyone talked about States Rights and no one ever mentioned slavery. Talking about slavery seemed to bring the whole discussion to an unpleasant pass no one wanted to cross.

    I'm pretty happy with the world as it is today. Take out the Civil War and who knows what would have happened. Maybe better, maybe worse, but diffidently different. And different isn't always better.

  17. @Jeff King - Thank you for the compliment Jeff, and thank you for coming and reading my blog. I appreciate it!

    @Stephanie Barr - It's not a diatribe or a rant. :) Both of those things require unreasonable unobjective emotion. It's a well thought out position. It includes emotion, because it is something I care about, but it is not blind and deaf emotion as diatribes and rants are.

    I honestly believe there is a NEED and a rightful place for a federal government. Many things ore more logically accomplished that way, though not nearly as many things as some people think (my opinion.) We've gone through the examples in the past of what I think are not within the intended scope of our federal government.

    You may find it surprising that medical care is NOT something I think the federal government should stay out of (though I don't necessarily think they should be the insurer, collector, or payor.)

    I think I might do some posts on the Civil War without any points about creeping socialism. Maybe we can have some fun with THOSE posts. :)

    And thank YOU for continuing to read my stuff.

    @Descartes - Welcome! So...... the Civil War will bring you out? I'll remember that. :)

    Your friends were right, you know. All that stuff about battles and generals is what makes the Civil War fun to study, why they still use it to teach tactics (right and wrong) at West Point today. So there's that, and then there's the political aspects of the war, which are never as much fun to play brain games with.

    Of COURSE the war was fought over States Rights, specifically the 10th Amendment which got trampled on by the feds, and, in that sense, all the states lost, not just the South.

    The "right" in question was whether a state, once admitted to the Union, could change its mind and withdraw from it again. The Constitution is silent on the subject, leaving the actual statehood "rules" up to Congress. Lincoln said "no" and the Supreme Court blew it.

    Now, a person has to have blinders on not to consider that there was a REASON those states wanted to withdraw from the Union. I know that and you know that, but it wasn't the technical reason the Civil War was fought. It was fought because Abraham Lincoln took it upon himself to step on State's Rights. And that turned out to be a hell of a precedent.

    Am I glad he did it? Damn right. We wouldn't have a country today if he hadn't. Not even pieces. What I am angry about is that it came to that in the first place, the he had to make such a decision.

    Why couldn't we have talked some more? We had had 4-score years to talk but preferred to pretend the specter of slavery was going to magically go away. It should have been dealt with and not endlessly compromised for all those years. Congress should have made it top priority to remove the reasons those states wanted to leave. Offered alternatives and even compensation to change their way of life. There are ALWAYS alternative possibilities, as Mr. Spock might have said. Why wait until there is no way out? Another lesson endlessly unlearned, this non-talking business. Vietnam. Iraq. Now Libya, and who knows what next. If there is anything I've learned, it's that wars always seem to kill the wrong people. Send the proud politicians to war first.

  18. 'Freedom?' that strange American fascination with a false dream. There is no freedom anywhere in this world, and what 'freedom' means in the US comes down to getting rich and ignoring everyone else.
    An exaggerated worship of the individual that goes against basic bible teaching, yet is encouraged by Republicans!

    What would happen to blacks had the North not won? They would still be slaves, probably hanging from trees at the weekends.

  19. I've always liked Foote's explanation of Lee's ordering the charge at Gettysburg. It is the only thing I've ever heard that makes sense.

  20. @Adullamite - Why would you assume there would still be slavery if the war hadn't happened? Is war the only way to cure evils, then?

    @Leazwell - Foote's explanation seems to be that it was all a big mistake on Lee's part. I think it was more complicated than that. But then, Foote studied the war all his life. :)

  21. @Addulamite - As usual, one can find something in the Bible to support one's personal point of view, whatever that view is. The Bible DOES seem to promote socialism by advising to give all your worldly goods to the poor. It also seems to encourage capitalism by the parables of the sower and ways he can get a better harvest, and by commending the servant who invested his master's "talents" wisely. Let us also not forget it was St. Paul who advised the slaves to obey their masters and not make trouble.



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