Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Thoughts and Observations Gleaned From Months of Civil War Reading

As I mentioned a short time ago, I have spent the last few months indulging in a newfound interest in the Civil War.  Unlike in my youth, I have been delving into political machinations and social changes rather than troop movements and Springfield rifles.  I still have not gotten my fix, and am looking for even more books to read on the topic.  In any case, here are some ideas I've had since my reading binge began.

The Civil War was America's real revolution
I'd already thought this, but my readings have only confirmed it.  Of course, the opportunities of Reconstruction were not fulfilled, but after the war slavery was dead, industrialization had been catalyzed, and the federal government's role had been expanded and solidified.  In fact, slavery was dead mostly because of the actions of slaves themselves, not least those men who escaped and then fought in the Union army in disproportionate numbers, risking death or re-enslavement if captured in battle.  I am more convinced than ever that the Tea Party's fetishization of the Founders and Constitution are a repudiation of America's second founding, represented by the 14th Amendment.

Civil War generals had to risk their lives
I'd known this for a long time, of course, but I had read battlefield accounts back in the late 1980s before America's unending war spree.  It's amazing to read about generals up with their men as the bullets fly, urging them on and risking death. (Not all generals in that war did this, but a great many did.)  I don't know how those who so willingly order their troops to their deaths without risking their own lives can live with themselves.

The Civil War is fascinating in a global context
Around the time of the Civil War, there were many other similar conflicts, political revolutions and national unification projects.  For example: the Taiping Rebelllion, the Great Reforms (which banned serfdom) in Russia, the wars of unification in Germany and Italy, the Paraguayan War, Mexico's war to push out the French, the Great Uprising in India, and the Meiji Restoration in Japan.  It's no wonder, then, that this is the era in which Marx composed Kapital, his magnum opus on the operations of the new global capitalist economy.  In a lot of ways, my interest in the Civil War has been driven by a deep interest in the 1850s-1860s from my training as a Europeanist.  I like to think of this time as modernity's horizon, and historians of America could very much profit from making comparisons between the American Civil War and other, similar developments at the time.

Lincoln was a master politician, not a god
I'd already come to this conclusion, with the full knowledge of Lincoln's infamous comments about racial equality during the Lincoln-Douglas debates.  However, I have won a newfound appreciation for what a masterful politician he was.  Another Republican president may have moved faster on emancipation, but probably would not have been as skillful at managing the political hazards involved with it.  Lincoln was not ahead of his society when it came to slavery or race, but he did very deftly manage to bring about change by correctly reading the political winds.  These days, I think that's the best we can hope for from a president, and the quality that I like about the current occupant of the White House.

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