Friday, June 21, 2013

More Thoughts and Observations Gleaned From My Civil War Reading

As I've mentioned a couple of times here, I have developed a renewed interest in the history of the Civil War.  Now that I am no longer paid to be an expert in 19th-century German history, a subject I don't really care that much about anymore, I am free to indulge my actual interests without feeling guilty or hurting my career.  This has meant reading way too much on the topic, to the point where my knowledge of the current historiography on the Civil War rivals that of my former specialization.  That said, I am almost exclusively interested in the social and political side of the Civil War, rather than its battlefield aspects.  It's pretty obvious to me now that the Civil War is America's true revolutionary and defining moment, not the War of Independence.  Without further ado, here are some general thoughts on the topic for my history geek friends.

Parallels With the French Revolution
As I just mentioned, the Civil War is more a revolution than anything else.  It and Reconstruction together also constitute a contested and unfinished revolution, one still being fought 150 years later.  Racial inequality is as deep ever, the scope of government power is constantly being battled over, and we still have a fundamental conflict between those who would like a society that provides general prosperity with one that values cheap labor and the aggrandizement of a small elite.  I see some interesting parallels with the French Revolution, because it to has essentially cast the mold for political divisions in France ever since.  Those who idealize the Confederacy today claim it to be a matter of "heritage," but in reality, it is the endorsement of a hierarchical, racist and sexist social order for the present.  That's the key to why many modern Northerners like Ted Nugent sport the rebel flag that their ancestors died fighting against.  And the reason why the state troopers at Selma were waving the same flag before committing brutal violence on peaceful protestors at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Secession Was a Really, Really Stupid Decision That Is Best Explained By Cultural History
I am aware that hindsight is 20/20, but even in the context of 1860-1861 secession was an incredibly stupid move by the Confederate states.  I am currently reading Bruce Levine's solid Fall of the House of Dixie which posits that Southern elites had stayed in the Union when they thought it could be used to protect slavery, and bolted to the Confederacy for the same reason.  No argument here.  (He also has some interesting things to say about how Border State slave holders perceived the Union to be a better economic bet early in the war due to geography and the belief that Lincoln would not tamper with the "peculiar institution" where it already existed.)

Of course, the agrarian South was picking a fight with the industrialized North, which had stunning advantages in population, resources, and production.  Not only that, its enslaved population was actively hostile to the war effort, as were Unionist whites in several large pockets of the South.  Texas governor Sam Houston was well aware of this, and told his Southern brethren that they were on a suicide mission.  The Confederacy's leaders figured the Yankee wouldn't fight, or that the South's cotton was so important to industrial powers like Britain and France that those nations would intervene on the Southern side.  They ended up being wrong, in large part because the South's leaders refused to acknowledge the reality that chattel slavery was dying in the Americas, and that for most Europeans had come to be seen as morally reprehensible. Especially after the Emancipation Proclamation, there was no way that the British government would be willing to wage a war to protect slavery.

The Confederate elite were trying to hold back the tides of history by preserving slavery.  The newly independent, former Spanish colonies like Mexico had banned it, as did the British and French empires.    It was a dying institution, but the South insisted on starting a destructive war against all odds to keep it going.  If the South had stayed in the Union, the eventual emancipation would have come gradually with compensation, and would have been done in a way that would have preserved the elite's monopoly on political power.  Instead, emancipation came with the sword, and slaves used the war as an opportunity to overthrow and undermine the system wherever they could.  These elites only got their local power back after the violent backlash against Reconstruction, and lost the national influence they had in the Antebellum period.

This is a case where cultural history can explain what economic history can't.  Based on the rational actor model favored by economists, the white South did something incredibly irrational.  However, when viewed from a cultural historical vantage point, it is obvious that the identity that Southern white men had as masters over slaves (even for those whites who did not own slaves) was so deeply rooted in Southern society that there was no way that the institution of slavery could be allowed to perish, even if it meant brining on a war against long odds.  That's my two cents, anyway.

There Needs to Be a Civil War Epic Movie From the Slave Perspective
There aren't a lot of great films about the Civil War.  The most recent, Lincoln, takes a top-down view and removes much of the agency slaves had in their own liberation.  The two most famous Civil War movies, The Birth of a Nation, and Gone With the Wind are massive spectacles in homage to the "Old South" and white supremacy.  This got me thinking: what if there was an epic film with the scope of those films, but told from the slaves' point of view?  A three-hour epic concentrating on the lives and fates of slaves of a particular plantation could show enslaved men and women undermining slavery by spying on their masters for the Union, fleeing to "contraband camps." and joining up to fight in the Union army.  There are all kinds of opportunities for drama and action in this scenario, if that's what Hollywood needs to get it made.  Having read so much about what slaves did to bring slavery down, I know there is all kinds of amazing material for a film version.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You are absolutely right on all counts. You shouldn't hold your breath for a movie on the civil war though. Hollywood specifically fears making movies where white people are the predominant bad guys unless the good guys are also white. Danny Glover has been trying to make a movie about the Haitian revolution and has been turned down endlessly due to that exact reason.