Reading The Civil War

We are in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime, maybe once in history, opportunity to learn about the Civil War in a way that can probably never be repeated. Over the past five months or so, I have been reading for about five minutes a day (sometimes longer when possible) about Civil War developments as they happened.

Imagine reading news dispatches and reports from 1861 (150 years ago) day by day. Imagine you can’t just read a one sentence or paragraph summary saying, “The Civil War began when southern forces fired on Fort Sumter,” or some such simplification. You have to read about it as it happened, at the pace it happened.

Charleston, South Carolina. View of Fort Sumte...

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People in the south think differently about the War than people in the north, that is obvious and well-known. But why and what are the issues? Around here, you could ask, “Should North Carolina have seceded?” and the discussion could be interesting.

For example, you might discover that at first North Carolina voted soundly not to secede. You might learn that VA voted not even to have a convention to discuss secession in February of 1861. I never learned any of this in the history books.

The most sensitive issue is whether the Civil War was fought over slavery. It was, but why and in what sense? Was it fought only about slavery?

It was also fought over the union, but were these things separable? How did people back then think about them? Did every state attempt to secede for the same reason? Did they all fight the war for the same reason they seceded?

Did Virginia secede for the same reason South Carolina did? Did residents of southern states approve of their state’s actions? Were they confident they could win? What did they think of their slaves and of “the negro”? Who should be blamed and who should be pitied? Who were the heroes and who the cowards?

And did the Civil War really begin with the attack on Fort Sumter?

It’s all too much to think about or process all at once. No book can possibly do justice to the staggering complexity of the Civil War. 150 years ago today, the nation was shivering like a leaf in the wind over Fort Sumter – and perhaps dozens of other forts over which the states were in contention.

Lincoln had been president for two weeks and had said little about his specific intentions except for in his inaugural address. Many southerners received that speech as a declaration of war. It included one little paragraph that they interpreted ominously, namely that the federal government would not allow their property in the south to be held by seceding governments.

He had also made clear his conviction that no nation could survive if elements could secede at will. But what would he do about it? The south, feeling themselves oppressed and betrayed by the north, feared war. Or did they seek it? Were their grievances legitimate?

Meanwhile, President Buchanan before him and now President Lincoln would not remove their troops from Fort Sumter in Charleston. Should they have?

As of today (March 21, 1861) , one cannot possibly know the consequences of any decisions, though the newspapers are full of predictions.

What about the constitution assembled by the southern confederation? Was it even viable? Could you build a stable government on the principle of the right to secede? Some of the most secessionist southerners didn’t think so.

You can read about these events as they unfold at The Long Recall: A Civil War Aggragator. The American Enterprise Institute collects about a dozen articles every day, then writes a summary of the events of the day. I try to read those daily summaries at least two or three times a week in order. Occasionally I have a chance to read some of the original documents and can look directly into the minds of the age.

It’s not just that you’ll understand the Civl War better, but that you will absorb it at a pace that lets settle in. It is not like living it, but this experience may be as close as it is possible to get to the emotional experience of living in such a traumatic age.

If you teach the Civil War, can I urge you to urge or assign your students to include these readings in their homework? It transcends anything a text book could hope to accomplish. That we are about five months into the post-election drama is no reason not to start. Read what you can now, and you’ll learn more than you could otherwise. When you have a few spare minutes, go read some previous posts. What an eye-opener!

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