150 Years After Fort Sumter: Why We're Still Fighting the Civil War

North and South shared the burden of slavery, and after the war, they shared in forgetting about it. But 150 years later, it's time to tell the truth

  • Gregg Segal for TIME

    Confederate Civil War reenactors in Locust Grove, VA

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    Reigning over the study of slavery was Yale's U.B. Phillips, the son of slave owners. For decades he was the only scholar to undertake a systematic examination of the plantation economy, which, he argued, was a benign and civilizing force for African captives. He concluded that slavery was an unprofitable system that would have soon died out peacefully. That would have surprised the Southerners who in the 1850s certainly believed there was money to be made in slavery. In the decade before the war, per capita wealth grew more than twice as fast in the South as it did in the North, and the prices of slaves and land both rose by some 70%. If slavery was dying out, it sure was hard to tell.

    Why It Matters
    Historians began to break the grip of forgetfulness after World War II, as the civil rights movement restarted the march toward equality. In 1941, Franklin Roosevelt ordered equal treatment for "workers in defense industries or government." The next President, Harry Truman, desegregated the armed forces. The next one, Dwight Eisenhower, dispatched federal troops to enforce school desegregation in Arkansas. And so on, step by little step.

    In 1947, the year Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color line, John Hope Franklin, a black historian then at Howard University, published From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. This runaway best seller revolutionized academic discussion of the black experience. The same year, Columbia's Allan Nevins published the first of eight volumes of Ordeal of the Union, which explored America's road to disaster in great depth and clarity.

    The Dunning School lost its grip on Reconstruction when C. Vann Woodward of Johns Hopkins published The Strange Career of Jim Crow in 1955. The following year, Kenneth Stampp at Berkeley did the same to U.B. Phillips with The Peculiar Institution, which examined the slave system through the eyes of the slaves themselves for the first time.

    With the centennial of the war approaching, a flood of outstanding Civil War history books hit shelves, and the half-century since then has been rich in scholarship. Robust controversies rage and always will, but the distortion and occluded memory that shaped the Lost Cause story is found now only on the academic fringe. What energy exists in the modern version comes from a clique of libertarians who view the Union cause as a fearsome example of authoritarian central government crushing individual dissent. Slave owners make odd libertarian heroes, but by keeping the focus narrowly on Big Government, this school uses the secession cause to dramatize issues of today. Outside academia, denial remains an irresistible temptation for some politicians. Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell last year issued a 400-word Confederate History Month proclamation without a single mention of slavery. "There were any number of aspects to that conflict between the states," McDonnell later explained. "Obviously it involved slavery, it involved other issues, but I focused on the ones that I thought were most significant for Virginia." (Barraged by criticism, he corrected the omission.)

    And in popular culture, as University of Virginia historian Gary Gallagher writes, "The Lost Cause's Confederacy of gallant leaders and storied victories in defense of home ground retains enormous vitality." It shows up in movies like Gods and Generals, in commemorative paintings, decorative plates and battlefield re-enactments. By contrast, Gallagher searches in vain for a scene in any recent film that "captures the abiding devotion to Union that animated soldiers and civilians in the North."

    Why does this matter? Because the Civil War gave us, to an unmatched degree, the nation we became — including all the good stuff. Had secession succeeded, it's unlikely that there could have been a stable, tranquil coexistence between an independent North and South. Slaves would have continued running away. The riches of the West would have been just as enticing. There never would have been the sort of roisterous hodgepodge of wide-open energy that America became. One of the blessings of being able to set up shop on a new continent was that Americans never had to be defined by clan or tribe or region. We're the people who order a Coke from Atlanta and some New England clam chowder at a diner in Las Vegas. The place where a boy from Mississippi goes to California to make a movie called Blue Hawaii. Secession was about making more borders. At its best, Americanism is about tearing them down.

    To be blind to the reason the war happened is to build a sort of border of the mind, walling off an important truth. Slavery was not incidental to America's origins; it was central. There were slaves at Jamestown. In the 1600s, writes Yale's David Brion Davis, a towering figure among historians, slave labor was far more central to the making of New York than to the making of Virginia. As late as 1830, there were 2,254 slaves in New Jersey. Connecticut did not abolish slavery until 1848, a scant eight years before the fighting broke out in Kansas. Rhode Island dominated the American slave trade until it was outlawed in 1808. The cotton trade made Wall Street a global financial force. Slaves built the White House.

    Furthermore, if slavery had spread to the West, the country would have found itself increasingly isolated in the world. Russia emancipated its serfs in 1861. The once sprawling slave system that had stretched from Canada to South America was by 1808 still vital only in Brazil, Cuba and the U.S. The first nation founded on the principle of liberty came dangerously close to being among the last slave economies on earth.

    Two fallacies prop up the wall of forgetfulness. The first is that slavery somehow wasn't really that important — that it was a historical relic, unprofitable, dying out, or that all societies did it, or that the slaves were happy. But slavery was important, and not just to the 4 million men, women and children enslaved — a number equal to the population of Los Angeles today. And the fact that it ended is important too.

    The second fallacy is that this was only the South's problem and that the North solved it. Not long ago, the New-York Historical Society mounted its largest-ever exhibition, titled "Slavery in New York." You can still visit the website and listen to public reactions. Over and over again, visitors repeat the same theme: as a teacher, as a college graduate, as a native New Yorker, "I knew absolutely nothing about this." As long as that belief persists, spoken or unspoken, Americans whose hearts lie with Dixie will understandably continue to defend their homes and honor against such Yankee arrogance.

    Lincoln's words a few weeks before his death were often quoted after the war by those who wanted not just to forgive but also to forget: "With malice toward none, with charity for all." But those words drew their deepest power from the ones he spoke just before them: "Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'"

    In other words, the path to healing and mercy goes by way of honesty and humility. After 150 years, it's time to finish the journey.

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