In this third part of BackStory‘s “Civil War 150th” series, the Backstory hosts present a special listener Q & A. The episode picks up on some of the themes of the previous two “Civil War 150th” episodes, and puts a number of new questions on the table. What role did religion play in the lead-up to war? Why did Abraham Lincoln free the slaves in the Confederate states before he freed the slaves in the loyal states? What is the relevance of the Civil War today?
“Questions Remain” is Part III of a three-part BackStory series commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
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Tape: From VFH Radio in Charlottesville, Virginia, this is “BackStory.”
Peter Onuf: From weapons of mass destruction to the U.S.S. Maine, each of America’s wars has been accompanied by its own debate at home, but no war has produced as much debate about its root causes as the American Civil War. Was it slavery or states’ rights? Might it have been avoided or was it baked into our history from the outset? One hundred and fifty years after the shooting began, the national conversation about what the Civil War really meant is still going strong.
Ed Ayers: We’re the American Backstory hosts and today on our show, we’re diving head first into that conversation with an hour devoted to your questions about the Civil War. What interests you about the war and how much does that have to do with your own family story? How have our collective stories about the Civil War evolved and what in the world is left to discuss?
PO: The questions that remain one hundred and fifty years later. That’s coming up on “BackStory” after this news.
Tony Field: Hi, I’m Tony Field, the producer of “BackStory.” Today’s Podcast is the third and final installment in our special Civil War Anniversary Series. You can find the first two parts on our website and on iTunes. If you enjoy the Podcast, please consider making a contribution to VFH Radio to help cover some of our production costs. There’s a link to give in the bottom right hand corner of our website, backstoryradio.org. Fifteen dollars would amount to a dime for each year since the Civil War began and we’ll consider any donation of that amount as an endorsement of our work on this series. As always, you can also help out by sharing links to our shows with your friends and by leaving a review on our page in the iTunes store. Thanks so much for listening. Now, back to the show.
PO: Major production support for “BackStory” is provided the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation. Support also comes from the National Endowment for the Humanities. [music] This is “BackStory,” with us, the American Backstory hosts. I’m Peter Onuf, the 18th century guy.
EA: I’m Ed Ayers, the 19th century guy.
Brian Balogh: And I’m Brian Balogh, 20th century history guy. [music] A few weeks ago, a historian friend of ours here at the University of Virginia, a guy by the name of Gary Gallagher, received an invitation to deliver a talk about the Civil War. Now, there’s nothing new about that. Gary is one of the most prominent scholars on the Civil War. He could probably talk about the Civil War in his sleep, but he had the feeling that this lecture was going to be just a little bit different.
Gary Gallagher: I was asked to talk to basically the Democratic Caucus of the United States Senate.
PO: The invitation came from the office of Senator Harry Reid. They wanted Gary to provide the after-dinner entertainment for a group of 49 senators attending a retreat in Central Virginia.
Gallagher: I’d been told to give 20 minutes worth of comments and to be ready for 20 minutes worth of questions and answers, and the third and most important thing according to the person who invited me and who was speaking for the Majority Leader Senator Reid, “don’t be boring.”
PO: That last admonition weighed on Gary throughout the evening’s dinner, especially as the dinner went on, and on, and on, much later into the evening than had been originally planned.
Gallagher: Just before I got up, Senator Kerry who was sitting right across from me leaned over and said, “I wouldn’t give prepared remarks if I were you,” and I said, “I’m way ahead of you Senator, I’m not giving prepared remarks,” and so I didn’t. I asked for a hand-held mic and I just walked up and down and talked to them.
BB: Gary ended up talking to the senators about everything from the balance of power between federal, state, and local governments to what happens to individual liberties in war-time—all from the perspective of the mid-19th century. The Q & A continued late into the evening, leading Gary to believe that a lot of these senators found the Civil War more than a little relevant to the issues they’re dealing with today.
EA: In the spirit of that evening, we’re devoting today’s show to your questions about the Civil War. We’re interested in hearing your thoughts about how the war connects with today. The last two episodes of our program looked specifically at the run-up to the war and at the question of what actually motivated Northerners and Southerners to take up arms against each other. In this third episode of our Civil War 150th Anniversary Series, we’re opening things up. All questions are fair game. And, yes, we promise to do our utmost not to be boring.
BB: Okay, guys, I understand that we all get excited about anniversaries and it’s been a hundred and fifty years since the Civil War, but I got to tell you, I don’t understand all of the effort and the subtlety and the nuance that has gone into recreating this event. It actually seems pretty clear-cut to me, right? I mean, there’re two really fundamental things at stake: one is the preservation of the Union—
BB: And two is liberty.
PO: Liberty for all.
BB: Check. Check. Check. End of story. I mean, what actually is there to talk about.
PO: Well, Brian, I would say the question then and now is this: who is an American? Now, if you think we have a clear answer to that question right now, then I think you’re crazy and you know that it’s not true. We’re constantly debating the margins of nationhood. Well, that’s what was happening in the period of the Civil War, that is, were African Americans really part of America? Were they Americans? Now, that’s the question I think that’s so troubling to us now looking back is even in the North, the civil rights, the liberties of blacks were radically circumscribed. You would have very few people accept fully the notion that these are us, that is, white people saying black people are part of the great American people and obviously, slavery was the great bulwark of this exclusion of a whole people, but that’s the reality of the times, so let’s look it straight in the face and say, okay, yeah, we have come a long way but it wasn’t because we got rid of Confederates. I mean, that wasn’t it. There was a lot of other things that had to happen.
BB: So you’re pointing to a danger also, Peter, which is the notion that, okay, this is an important question, but we settled it in the Civil War.
PO: Yeah, exactly right.
EA: And not really settled it but atoned for it.
BB: And atoned for it. Yeah, that’s terrific.
EA: What’s what gets me is a sense of, yes, I know we were all complicit in this for 200 years, longer than we’ve been since the Civil War that the nation as a whole tolerated and fostered slavery and somehow that the white North sacrifice, intentional or otherwise, in the Civil War somehow wipes the books clean—
PP: Yeah, yeah.
EA: And buys innocence for the nation. I think the other danger of it is that it creates the impression that a war can fix a deep-seated social problem and, well, look, in just four years, the North wiped out slavery. Imagine what we could do elsewhere with missiles and tanks, so I think that’s it full of danger to too easily settle up on a triumphal story of the Civil War. I think it’s better for us to feel so profoundly fortunate that it turned out as it did and for us to redeem that good fortune by trying to live up to the best of its promise.
BB: hosts, we have some good fortune of our own. We call that good fortune our listeners and our callers. For the past few weeks, our producers have been soliciting your questions on our website, backstoryradio.org. Today, they’ve invited a few of the people who left comments there to join us on the phone.
PO: Our first call today is from Atlanta Georgia. It’s Dan. Dan, welcome to “BackStory.”
Caller (Dan): Hey, thanks for having me.
PO: So, Civil War, a hot topic. Dan, what’s on your mind?
Caller (Dan): Well, I was thinking a lot about the secession crisis of 1860 and 1861 because it seems to me in many of the popular retellings of the history of the war that it kind of goes that Lincoln was elected in November of 1860 and from then on down, the Civil War was happening and there was no stopping it—
Caller (Dan): But over time, you know, I’ve kind of looked a little bit closer at some of the events that happened and there was a really long time in between when Lincoln was elected and when the fighting really started. The states, they didn’t all leave at once. They kind of slowly filed out one at the time and there was a lot of negotiations back and forth and a lot of debate in the state legislatures and so with all of this going on, all of these different small events, how much could those affect the course of history as opposed to the longer term events that we talk about a lot in [9:03/ __________] slavery sectionalism.
PO: That’s a great question. Well, you know, Dan, you’re really putting your finger on a hot button for historians. It’s the contingency button. That is, things are not inevitable. Stuff happens but it doesn’t have to happen and we have one of the world’s leading authorities on contingency hailing from the 19th century. Come to us, Ed. [laughter] Communications are very irregular across the centuries.
EA: One way to think about this is there’s two groups of historians: one, to the fundamentalists who point to the real fact that slavery is a driving source of conflict from the moment that the American nation is created and that the fact that we see every decade some different kind of struggle over it, shows that it was going to come to some kind of head and if you just want to get all hung up on the details of what actually happened, you’re overlooking this fundamental struggle. Other people say, no, no, no, this is really about the political machinations at the time and this is what most American historians thought in the 1920s and ’30s, that if you’d had somebody other than James Buchanan and other inept blundering generation at the famous phrase went, you would’ve had the war. I think what historians today are trying to figure out is exactly how do you connect those underlying structural tensions and the more dynamic personal—
PO: Yeah, yeah, right, but Ed, wouldn’t say that something had to happen. I’m prepared to say that as an expert on the founding, so you might cast me as a fundamentalist but what’s going to happen is by no means clear. Does it have to be that kind of war? Do we know who the antagonists are going to be? We don’t know these outcomes and it seems to me everything is wound up in the thing that does happen and that, of course, is deeply contingent.
EA: Well, you know, I think the critical thing to understand is that it’s not just that the war has started like a wind-up toy—
PO: Yeah, yeah.
EA: Even in April of 1861. Now, once it begins, it can follow lots of different courses. As a matter of fact, the one that it followed seemed very unlikely to most people at the time, that it could be fought to just ultimate exhaustion on both sides. You know, even after Virginia and Tennessee and North Carolina and Arkansas leave, Maryland and Kentucky do not. Even though you could imagine that Kentucky had at least as much reason to secede as Tennessee, it didn’t because of geopolitical positioning and so forth, so I think that Dan, you’re on to something really important, that we’ve got to relax our certainty of how the story is unfolding enough to actually see what happened.
BB: I have a question for you, Dan. As 20th century guy, I want to know what interests you about all this stuff. You know, frankly, to me it seems a really long time ago.
PO: He’s from Atlanta, Brian. [laughter]
Caller (Dan): Yeah, we’ve got a big reminder carved onto Stone Mountain.
PO: That’s right.
Caller (Dan): Of the conflict. You know, in Atlanta, there’s historical markers on every corner in downtown Atlanta.
BB: Yeah, but you know you guys are too busy to hate there in Atlanta and you’ve kind of, you know, you’re the new South, but, you know, to get back to contingency, what about you? What about your circumstances really drives you to learn so much about the Civil War? You seem to know more about it than I do, for instance. [laughter]
PO: That is saying next to nothing.
BB: I know. I know. Dan doesn’t know that, though. You didn’t have to tell him that.
PO: Go ahead, Dan.
Caller (Dan): Well, I think that part of what drives my interest in it today is there so much contemporary debate on it, so even if the Civil War in and of itself was not that interesting, the fact that so many people keep debating about what caused it, how did this happen, what does it mean, you know, it just kind of naturally draws my interest looking to some of the history around it and saying, well, you know, what did happen.
PO: In other words, Dan, you’re saying it’s out of self-defense that you engage with it?
Caller (Dan): I want to feel like I’m well equipped [13:06 / with facts].
PO: You know, I think that’s a serious response. I’m not making fun of that.
EA: I would have a word in particular for Dan. We look back on it now and that is that Georgia came in pretty soon after South Carolina which was one of the original Confederates states, but historians have looked at the returns pretty carefully and think that maybe a majority of white Georgia men would have voted against secession if it had been presented as such. And it’s certainly the case that Georgia under Governor Brown began to be a real thorn in the side of the Confederacy almost from the beginning, withholding men, resisting Confederate policy, so here’s the contingent thing I’d leave you with, Dan. Virginia comes in kicking and screaming, deeply reluctant.
EA: And then is remarkably loyal to the Confederacy from start to finish whereas Georgia is torn apart. Northern Georgia resists the Confederacy so we tend to think about the Deep South being the real Confederacy and the upper South being kind of an ersatz Confederacy—
PO: Yeah, yeah.
EA: But in the course of the war it becomes the opposite.
PO: So, Dan, do you feel well armed for your next engagement on the Civil War?
Caller (Dan): I hope so.
PO: Good. Yeah, well, keep your powder dry.
Caller (Dan): It can be difficult to make some progress among people sometimes.
PO: All right. Well, Dan, keep on fighting.
BB: Thank you, Dan.
PO: Thanks for calling.
Caller (Dan): Thank you very much.
EA: Bye, Dan. [music]
PO: It’s time for a short break, but before we go, let me just tell you that we’ve posted tons of great multimedia resources on the Civil War at backstoryradio.org. After the break, we’ll return to the phones, so please, don’t go away. This is “BackStory,” the show that looks at a topic from the perspective of three different centuries. I’m the 18th century guy, Peter Onuf.
EA: I’m the 19th century guy, Ed Ayers.
BB: And I’m the 20th century guy, Brian Balogh. Today, we’re marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s beginnings by opening up the phone lines to your questions about the conflict. For a few weeks now, our producers have been surveying all the comments that you left at backstoryradio.org. Today, they’ve invited a few of the people who left questions there to join us on the phone.
PO: Hey, guys, we’ve got a call from New York City. Elaine’s on the line. Elaine, welcome to “BackStory.”
Caller (Elaine): Hi, thank you so much and thank you for having me on the show. So, I was wondering, what did racial identity, ethnicity make up, was in the military in both the North and South since at that time there were a lot of different races and plus a lot of different ethnicities living in America already.
Caller (Elaine): So, I would imagine the military probably had a good mixture of different races, probably in the North but I’m not so sure about the South.
PO: Ed, maybe you could speak in a general way to the ethnic and racial make-up of the armies. In a way, the question is do they reflect the country or the parts of the country that are now at war with each other.
EA: They actually do reflect their populations very effectively. No, the white Southern concern was that the Union armies were reflecting too much ethnic diversity, [laughter] that they were not really the Northern people mobilizing but rather sending what they saw as the riff-raff, people who didn’t have a job otherwise, sort of mercenaries, but we’ve looked at this pretty carefully and it turns out that white Southerners were right in that Northern immigrants did fight but they fought really as a part of solidarity often with other people from their own ethnicities and they fought with remarkable bravery and consistency. The harder thing for us to understand perhaps is that also in the South, which was more ethnically diverse before the Civil War than it was afterwards.
PO: Yeah, interesting.
EA: That there sometimes people were more conflicted but you would’ve had very prominent Irish people, Germans, and Jews who would fight for the Confederacy, so I think the general story is that the entire populations of the North and South, the entire white populations, were quite mobilized by the Civil War.
PO: And that’s the important qualification, Elaine. It’s white we’re talking about. The idea of African Americans fighting on, well, on either side, though, ultimately, of course, even the Confederates consider mobilizing slaves and freeing them in order to win, but this is in the desperate final phases of the war, but the idea that this was a democratic movement in the broadest sense, North and South, even in the North there’s tremendous resistance to mobilizing black troops.
EA: Yeah, Elaine, I’m curious as to where your question comes from.
Caller (Elaine): Well, I’m Chinese and we all know that America at that time that there were a lot of people from all over the world already, so I was just wondering, what was their motivation to join the military at that time?
PO: It’s a great question. Yep. And I think Ed mentioned the Irish and maybe, Ed, you could talk a little bit more about the Irish because in some ways that is the great immigrant group of this period and how the Irish would fit into American society, that’s a live issue. There’s some discussion among historians that in many ways Irish were treated as if they were black, that is, a despised other, so the moment of wartime mobilization and Irish enthusiasm for the war North and South, because Ed’s right, I mean, there’re Irish units on both sides, indicates a kind of self-conscious Americanization. It’s a moment in which you can prove yourself that you’re a part of this great country.
EA: This is all the more remarkable that the Irish would fight because they were often pitted against African Americans at the bottom of the social order—
PO: Yes, yes, exactly.
EA: Competing for jobs and so the fact that Irish people often who’d lived in the United States less than 10 years are willing to imagine themselves as a part of the American people and willing to fight for the freedom of other people is really another amazing story in U.S. history.
PO: Uh huh.
EA: Something we need to remember, however, is that the Irish also rioted in the streets against what they saw as, and what was, in fact, an unfair use of the draft that seemed to them days after many of their compatriots had died in Gettysburg and the story was in the Irish neighborhoods, that they had been sacrificed by Union generals who did not value Irish lives the way they did a people who had been born in the United States, so you have both the greatest gallantry and sacrifice for the Union but also the nagging story of when push came to shove, the Irish and other working people did actually riot against the United States.
BB: And just for our 20th century fans, it’s also true for the 20th century where we have zoot suit riots among Mexican Americans during World War II that on a large part ethnic groups and racial groups see this as an opportunity but they also are not unaware of the intense discrimination and it’s very understandable that some would ask, what?
PO: But isn’t it interesting, though, that the U.S. colored troops are not rioting?
BB: Far from it.
PO: They’re rioting for the opportunity to fight and so the comparisons are interesting because, of course, there’re mixed feelings about the war but the one group that is absolutely clear about the war would be freed people or slaves, that the war means for them the end of slavery and the possibility of dignity and inclusion in the nation.
Caller (Elaine): Right.
PO: Thanks for your call. It’s been a lot of fun talking to you.
Caller (Elaine): Thank you. Have a good day.
EA: Bye bye.
Caller (Elaine): Bye bye. [music]
PO: We’ve got another call and it’s a local call from right here in Charlottesville, Virginia. Blake— welcome to the show.
Caller (Blake): Hello.
PO: So, what’s on your mind?
Caller (Blake): Well, you know, I was brought up in Virginia and have lived I guess with the Civil War for my whole life and remember very vividly the Centennial in Richmond, but recently I have been trying to learn a little bit about the, for lack of a better word, the causes and have been reading particularly about the influence of the church, in this case, mostly Methodist and Presbyterian churches in the South and was wondering how you guys viewed that. Do you feel the preachers from their pulpits and their writings led the South to the Civil War and to secession?
PO: Well, Blake, that’s a great question. Blake wants to know whether the preachers are responsible for the Civil War. That’s the short version of it. Obviously, they didn’t do it all by themselves. I’d say this is a point of departure. Many Southerners believe there was a piety deficit between North and South, that the South was a more Christian place and the North was riven by heresy and socialism and secularism and so Southern preachers did a couple of important things, I think, and that is, on one hand, to tell Southerners that they had God on their side, that they were good Christians, and second, preachers played an absolutely crucial role in the emerging pro-slavery argument.
EA: That’s really well put, Peter. I think the preachers make a real point of saying, hey, hey, hey, the pulpit is no place to talk about politics.
EA: All that we say is that slavery has God’s divine sanction. Other than that, we have no political position at all to make.
PO: That’s all.
EA: That’s right. So, Southern preachers do not lead the South into secession but as Peter says, as soon as providence seems to dictate that that’s the way to go, the ministers are some of the most vocal advocates of the Confederacy.
PO: But, Ed, it’s my impression from historians who’ve written on this subject that in fact Southerners had ample ground in scriptural reference for the support of slavery and they might even have had the edge over their Northerner counterparts, at least if you’re looking for literal readings of the Bible and what it tells us.
EA: Well, that’s the crucial point, Peter. The literal historic injunctions, especially in the Old Testament do accept slavery as a reality. Increasingly, what happens in the North is that people look at the spirit of the New Testament instead. It said how can you possibly love someone as your brother and hold them in perpetual bondage so there’s plenty of energy in the Bible—
PO: Yeah, yeah.
EA: For both pro- and anti-slavery.
PO: No question, but what is also going on and what’s important for white Southerners is that they believe that they have been successful in a great missionary campaign to Christianize the quarters and it’s one of the reasons why they’re comfortable with slavery is that they have taken an instrumental role in spreading Christianity in the slave population so the idea that the slaves were an internal enemy or dangerous subversives who would rise up and revolt, that had been mitigated if not altogether eliminated for many Southerners because they thought of Christianity as a profound bond of union between black and white, even if they worshipped separately.
Caller (Blake): But would that be a true belief, do you think, or more or less just an apology for the burdens that they’d put on African American through slavery.
PO: Hey, Blake, what is a true belief?
Caller (Blake): [laughter]
PO: It’s a known unknown or unknown known. Do they believe it? I think absolutely. One of the things that we learn as historians is to take our subject seriously. They may be by our standards deluded and self-serving, but that Southerners believe they were good Christians, I believe that’s absolutely true.
EA: As a matter of fact, the South says we are in the process of creating the most Christian nation on the face of the earth, but your question, I think, Blake is right. It doesn’t take long for the end of the war for white Southerners to begin to worry, hmmm, were we fooling ourselves?
EA: Yeah, do they really love us? [laughter] The fact that they’re moving away at the very first moment of freedom really is a confrontation with a kind of truth that the white South is really not ready to embrace.
BB: Hey, Blake, may I add an addendum to your good question?
Caller (Blake): Yes, please.
BB: hosts, I’d like to know— I do know, actually, that the church played such a crucial role in the lives of African Americans after the Civil War. Can you tell me something about religion and slaves during the Civil War?
EA: Well, one of the first thing that happens is the churches which had been the really only inter-racial space in the slave South begins separating. At the very first moment, African Americans seize the opportunity to have their own churches. You know, they’ve always gone off on their private worship ceremonies out in the woods or whatever, but in the Civil War itself, as things begin to fall apart, you find that black ministers step forward and begin leading the African American church, so you find that there’s a kind of freedom that comes maybe first in the religious realm and African Americans are quick to seize it.
PO: Well, Blake, thank you for calling “BackStory.”
Caller (Blake): Thank you very much
EA: Thank you, Blake.
Caller (Blake): Right.
PO: Bye. [music]
BB: If you’re just tuning in, this is “BackStory,” and today we’re talking about everything you ever wanted to know about the American Civil War. Or at least everything the people on the other end of our phone line want to know.
PO: Next up on that line we have Carl, calling in from Murray, Kentucky. Carl, welcome to “BackStory.”
Caller (Carl): Oh, thanks, glad to be on.
PO: Yeah, so, we’re talking about the Civil War and you have something for us.
Caller (Carl): My question involves education. As a future educator myself, I’m just wondering what do you all see the significance of the Civil War for kids of the next generation?
PO: Yeah. Super question. That’s really the big question of this series we’re doing on the Civil War. What can we take away from the Civil War? What are the lessons we want to learn and can we get beyond simply reveling in the details and reenactments and all that stuff. How about the 20th century, because, you know, as an educator—
BB: I was being quiet because I know so little about the Civil War, Carl, but I’ll say my piece and then shut up. I’ll tell you what I’ve learned from the guys about the Civil War which is basically you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. You know, there were some very smart people back then and we might not have agreed with them and their views, but they thought about this really carefully and they followed the news and they talked to each other and they debated each other and just about everything that they thought was going to happen either didn’t happen or happened in another way or happened in ways that absolutely would’ve confounded them two or three years later.
PO: So, Brian is so absolutely right and it’s the historians’ takeaway, but just imagine with Carl that we’ve got school kids and we want this to be a real teaching opportunity. Are there any— Well, the old-fashioned word “civics.” Any civics lessons, Ed and Brian.
BB: Well, I’ll continue and then, again, try to shut up.
PO: You will succeed.
BB: I think one of the lessons I would take away, Carl, and your future students, is that language and the way we talk to each other matters.
Caller (Carl): Right.
BB: That’s a very timely issue today as you know, and we as historians tend to pooh-pooh some of this very heated rhetoric that’s being tossed around today and say, oh, you know, they were a lot worse to each other back in the 19th century but, you know what, every now and then things kind of come unraveled and that heated rhetoric which they surely used contributed, I think, to tearing at the fabric of the nation, along with, of course, key issues like slavery and expansion of slavery into the territories and now I really am going to be quiet.
EA: May I ask what age students that you’ll be teaching, Carl?
Caller (Carl): It’ll be secondary ed, 8th to 12th grade.
EA: Oh, man, 8th. If I were you, I would choose the 12th. [laughter]
Caller (Carl): Hey, I’m at the point now I’ll take anything they give me, really.
EA: I know how that goes. That’s right. Even 8th graders. But, you know, it’s a fine line. I always tell the story, I’ve actually written some things about kind of the open-ended nature of some of these things and my daughter who was 11 at the time which I guess is pretty close— That’s not quite 8th grade.
BB: She’s very precocious, though, Carl
EA: Exactly. She walked in, literally with her American history textbook with her finger in part of the pages and she said, “Daddy, what caused the Civil War?” And I was thinking, okay, do I go into all this thing about a the complexity and the indeterminacy and the choices to be made. I said, “slavery, honey.” [laughter] And because, you know, that’s what she could have right then. That’s what she could understand. If you have to chose one word, that’s what it is.
Caller (Carl): Right.
EA: But the trick is, you know, as the kids get older, to suggest, yes, it was slavery but how was it slavery?
PO: Yeah, that’s the question.
EA: It suggests that the North was all different from the South. No, they weren’t. They sort of discovered over the course of the war that slavery was going to have to be destroyed and they didn’t want to do it necessarily and they weren’t just the good guys who were coming in.
EA: But the people that look back on it now and, you know, you have the same accent I do, so I know you’re a fellow Southerner—
PO: It’s really grating, isn’t it, Brian?
BB: Yeah. I would say one’s enough.
EA: Hey, it’s never enough, is it, Carl?
Caller (Carl): That’s right. We got to band together, I guess.
EA: Well, we tried that once. It didn’t really work out all that well. Even the last time I checked you guys in Kentucky chose not to stick together with the South.
Caller (Carl): Well—
PO: Come on. East Tennessee, a hot bed of Unionism.
Caller (Carl): I would say I’m from far western Kentucky and we were called the South Carolina Kentucky, so I guess I’m from the pro-Southern part.
EA: And I’m from east Tennessee. We’re called the Massachusetts of Tennessee, so I guess it all evens out. Which is an important lesson in and of itself, you know, that this was not just a thing. If I were to come up with a sort of short version of all this is that kids, this is a story that we have to follow to see how it unfolds. You can’t just sort of get to the summary and say that’s what it was all about.
PO: You know what? We have to be aware of unintended consequences and we like in our mythic understandings of American history to ascribe the right intentions to our forefathers and foremothers. We like to think that the right people at the right time stood up like Abraham Lincoln represents the North and he had a vision that slavery was evil.
Caller (Carl): Right.
PO: It’s not that there isn’t a conscience and a moral sense. There is all over the place. It’s just that what happened was not scripted, that it became a war that ended slavery was on nobody’s mind or very few, except for radical abolitionists’ minds at the start of the war and I think this is humbling—
Caller (Carl): Right.
PO: So, Carl, after listening to all this, you still want to go into the history teaching biz?
Caller (Carl): Well, yeah, sure. [32:49 / __________]
EA: Okay. So what can we do to get you’re a job now, Carl? Let’s get down to brass tacks.
PO: How about we write a letter for him?
EA: We’re ready.
PO: All right. “BackStory” endorses Carl. Great talking with you, Carl. Thanks for calling.
Caller (Carl): Oh, yeah, I really enjoyed it.
EA: Thank you very much.
BB: Thanks a lot, Carl.
Caller (Carl): Thank you. [music]
BB: It’s time for another break. Don’t go away, though. When we get back, we’ll hear if these two very wordy colleagues of mine are capable of summarizing the Civil War in a hundred and forty character characters. That’s right. You’re going to hear Peter and Ed tweet the Civil War.
PO: You’re listening to a Civil War special from “BackStory,” and we’ll be back in a minute. We’re back with “BackStory,” the show that turns to history to understand the world around us today. I’m Peter Onuf, and I represent the 18th century.
EA: I’m Ed Ayers, representing the 19th century.
BB: And I’m Brian Balogh, spokesman for the 20th century. Normally on our program we take a topic from the news and explore its historical context. Today we’re changing things up a little, and devoting the entire show instead to listener calls about the Civil War. But before we go back to the phones, I’m just determined to get a little bit of the 21st century into this show. Okay, guys, I’ve warned you and you have had sixty seconds, a millennium in 21st century terms, to think about this. One hundred and forty characters or less, I want each of you to distill the essence of the Civil War. I want you to tweet the Civil War.
PO: Okay. I start. I get a hundred and forty characters?
EA: That’s right.
PO: Right. All right. Here’s the simple version.
EA: That includes your name.
PO: Americans love their country. They’re nationalists. We had two different nations on one territory and it was love of nation and, of course, one of those nations was predicated on the existence of racial bondage; the other on the integrity of a Union that included both parts, both nations. It’s nationalism. That’s my one word answer. Patriotism. That’s another word. But it’s the same word. It’s this devotion to some higher cause and I think that’s why we admire these heroes North and South. We know they are devoted to a higher cause. We may have different judgments about the worthiness of that cause in retrospect, but put ourselves back in a moment. They died for a reason.
EA: Okay. In fairness to Peter, they didn’t have Twitter in the 18th century.
PO: How many [centuries] was that? [laughter]
BB: We’ll call that a fascinating and engaging blog. Ed, you’re closer to the 21st century. See if you can tweet the Civil War.
EA: North versus South. Black versus white. Events creating their own momentum. North brings victory out of near defeat, brings emancipation out of slavery. The story continues.
PO: That’s good.
EA: That was very close. [laughter]
BB: Well, now that we’ve experimented with the 21st century, why don’t we go back to an old-fashioned technology like the good old telephone, something I feel so comfortable with as 20th century guy. [music]
PO: We have another call. It’s from our nation’s capital and it’s Alan. Alan, welcome to “BackStory.”
Caller (Alan): How are you guys doing?
PO: Oh, we’re doing pretty good.
Caller (Alan): Okay. Well, you know, gentlemen, it seems to me that one of the criticisms of the Emancipation Proclamation is that it didn’t cover the border states or some Union-controlled areas.
Caller (Alan): And a lot of people look at that and they say, well, you know, there’s some illegitimacy concerning the Union’s desire to eliminate slavery. Could you talk about that?
BB: Well, you have to trace this really to the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1st, 1863.
EA: And what the Emancipation Proclamation says is that in those places in rebellion against the United States, slavery is hereby abolished, but that leaves enormous gray areas. You have some areas where the Union Army has penetrated and occupied all along the Mississippi River, New Orleans, Nashville, Tennessee. Then you also have states that have never left the Union that are slave states, especially Kentucky is the largest one, and in all those places, you have a fundamental uncertainty about the future of slavery that the Emancipation Proclamation does not resolve.
BB: Does that not get cleared up until the 13th Amendment?
EA: That’s right, Brian, until the 13th Amendment in 1865 officially abolishes in the grain of the Constitution not as a war aim—
PO: So, Ed, the bottom line for Kentucky is there were slaves until the 13th Amendment was ratified.
EA: That’s right. So, ever since then, people have pointed to the hypocrisy the Emancipation Proclamation, that it emancipates people who are weak and actually reach them and the ones that are completely within our control are not emancipated.
EA: So, let’s think about Abraham Lincoln’s point of view. He needs more than anything the loyalty of the slaveholding border states—
EA: Or the war is lost, especially Kentucky and Maryland. If Maryland goes, then the capital of the United States is surrounded by enemy territory. If Kentucky goes, they lose the Tennessee River and the incredible strategic advantage that gives. You might also say that even if those things weren’t compelling, he does not want to have to be fighting a war in the rear, so to speak, of slaveholders resisting the Union cause in those very tenuous Union states, so the reasons to not abolish slavery are much more powerful than the moral consistency of abolishing slavery in the border states would’ve suggested.
PO: Yeah, and Ed, it’s fair to add that preponderant opinion throughout the Union North was not anti-slavery. It wasn’t as if there was a clear public will and so even in prudential political terms, Lincoln couldn’t get out, way out in front of the American people, that is, the people of the North without subverting his own cause. You can talk about a war in the rear. What would people have said about a war against slavery? Not only was it unconstitutional but nobody was ready or had thought through the implications of the end of slavery, not just for the South but for the North as well.
BB: Well, I’m going to just jump in kind of on Alan’s end of things and just comment on the remarkable paradox. If I’m right, Ed, that you had slaves being freed in the Confederacy before there were freed in the Union.
EA: That’s right. So, the hypocrisy is apparent and people who want to be skeptical of Abraham Lincoln and, ironically, this is often African Americans who were looking at this and saying don’t be talking about giving us anything, because we seized our freedom ourselves. When you did have power, you didn’t use it.
Caller (Alan): I just want to just add a couple other things. You know, I don’t really want to, you know, glorify Lincoln too much, I guess, but I do understand that before the war, he tried to, I guess, in modern language, tried to maybe pay off the border states. I know that he specifically approached Delaware and basically said, you know, can we have compensated emancipation and I think his term was, you know, this war will probably end slavery anyway. Why don’t you let us pay you to free your slaves and then at least that will be one less contentious issue to think about, so, again, I’m not really saying that he deserves credit but I think that’s maybe a bit of history about him trying to cause emancipation in the border states that people don’t understand, so that’s just one thing I was going to add.
PO: Yeah, well, you know, Lincoln was in favor of colonization, that is, to free people and send them someplace else and the idea of compensated emancipation is another version of colonization. It was going to be a big thing for white Americans to get their minds around the idea of an integrated nation based on the premise of equality. If you look at state legislation in the North up to the Civil War with few exceptions, the legal political environment was increasingly hostile to freed blacks—
EA: That’s right.
PO: If you just tracked legislation as an expression of the popular will, you’d say, you know, things don’t look that good, so what’s remarkable is that opinion could be so radically reshaped and what really was in historians’ terms, a very short of time and I think that makes the achievement of emancipation all the more remarkable.
EA: Peter’s exactly right, of course, about the atmosphere for African Americans in the North before the war. The sad thing is that it was the same thing for African Americans after the war as well.
PO: Uh huh, yep.
EA: A terrible backlash in some ways against African Americans during the war. The New York City draft riots and all that, blaming African Americans for being held in slavery but after the war at the same time that Reconstruction’s going on, Northern states are removing the vote from African American men, so I guess what strikes me is that it is amazing that the North could mobilize itself enough during the war to get behind ending slavery. I think that is the main story frankly that Lincoln through enough manipulation of political chits and public opinion and timing and good luck militarily and so forth was able to pull this off. He was barely able to do that. And after he did it, there was sort of a backlash in the white North, so I think people are right to be skeptical, but I think that what’s remarkable, too, is the extent to which for a moment in the crucible of war, Lincoln was able to lead a majority of white northerners to accept that destroying slavery was a wise and just and feasible thing.
PO: Hey, Alan, thanks a lot for calling.
Caller (Alan): All right. Thank you guys.
PO: Bye bye.
EA: Thanks, Alan. Bye bye.
Caller (Alan): Have a good one. [music]
BB: If you’re just tuning in, this is “BackStory,” and we’re talking about some of the questions that remain one hundred and fifty years after the shooting started for the Civil War.
PO: hosts, we’ve got another call. It’s from Fultonville, New York. Wanda, welcome to the show.
Caller (Wanda): Thank you.
PO: Well, we’re talking about the Civil War and it’s on everybody’s mind for some reason just about now. What have you been thinking about?
Caller (Wanda): Well, I’m writing a book called Soldier’s Dream and in researching the dreams in the letters of Civil War soldiers, soldiers from both the North and the South dream of home as a lifeline to normalcy and humanity, but I’ve found there seems to be a difference between the dreams of Southern soldiers which are often lengthy, evocative, describing the dreams as so real you can taste the peach or hold the beloved, and Northern soldiers who still do not deny their dreams are real, but they’ll say something like, well, I dreamed of you last night and it was really real.
PO: Hey, hey, Wanda, this is very upsetting. I’m from the North. You’re saying—
EA: Well, Peter, it’s obviously, Wanda, they read Hemingway in the North and in the South, they read Faulkner, Wanda.
EA: Call over.
Caller (Wanda): I’m thinking that there might be a cultural difference in the mindset we have of the Northerner’s pragmatic and practical and getting things done and this is [45:05 / __________] Ed, and I dreamed about you, and the sort of overly romantic Southern solider who goes on at some length about trees and glades and flowers—
Caller (Wanda): And holding his beloved.
PO: Wanda, Wanda, we need to devote a whole season of this show to that question and let me toss it over to Ed framed in this way: A lot of the discussion of the origins of the Civil War pivots around the idea that there were, as Southerners said, separate civilizations North and South, that is, your cultural question, Wanda.
Caller (Wanda): Right.
PO: That is, that they just think differently down there. Now, as close as we get to an authentic Southerner in our midst and I don’t know about Ed Ayres since he’s from east Tennessee which is a dodgy part of the South—
PO: But, Ed, what do you think?
Caller (Wanda): I’m from Tennessee.
PO: [laughter] I didn’t say it was a bad part, just dodgy.
EA: We’re probably related, honey. [laughter]
PO: So, Ed, this does verge on what we call in the business, essentialism and it does run counter to I think the prevailing wisdom among many of us now that in cultural terms there’s not all that much difference between North and South.
EA: Ahhh— Boy, you set me up on this one, Peter. As it turns out, you know, I think that does describe my own thinking about this, except that this question poses in such an interesting way, so here’s the paradox, Wanda. I think that what you’re saying is true in the sense that Southerners are known and I have lots of tape on the editing floor here to prove, known for being long-winded and somewhat in love with the sound of their own voice
PO: Ed, will you just get to the point?
EA: This is the point, Peter, is that I like to talk, but the thing is is that there’s a famous line from Bell Wiley, the historian who pretty much invented the social history of soldiers way back in the 1940s and ’50s. He’d read thousands and thousands of letters and he said, if you took the letters from Northerners and Southerners and threw them up in the air and they landed on the floor, you would not be able to put them back into the right pile again, that the differences between the way Northerners and Southerners talk and even the ideological content of what they said was far more alike in their letters than you might think. Now, I don’t think that Bell Wiley was looking at the sort of subtle cultural manifestations that you’re talking about.
Caller (Wanda): Right.
PO: Hey, Ed, I got another idea here and that is we have troops from the North marching on the South and threatening the homes of these soldiers—
Caller (Wanda): Exactly.
PO: These evocative images really suggest that sense of profound threat. It may seem more prosaic and routine for Northerners to talk about home, but that’s because it’s a fixed place and it’s not necessarily under risk. Now, we know that the home front does suffer in the North but nothing like that nightmare vision of what happens when a countryside is destroyed by a marching army and it seems to me that those evocative images of this sensual, romantic, sentimental, wonderful place have something to do with—
Caller (Wanda): With what’s being threatened.
Caller (Wanda): And the universality that I found interesting speaks to— [Carl Hume] made a statement which I don’t think was every thoroughly proved that when soldiers ceased to dream of home on the battlefield, they should be removed for a time until they began to dream again because they became animals on the battlefield and fought with less humanity.
BB: You know, it’s interesting because there’s a pretty well known article about World War II that talks about what soldiers were really fighting for had to do with home and had to do with consumer goods and it’s, you know, kind of tossed off as being superficial, especially when the army was spending so much effort and money to train soldiers in terms of the ideological reasons they were fighting.
BB: But, in fact, you’re saying that this is really essential to retaining one’s humanity.
Caller (Wanda): And survival, because I’ve also found dreams of soldiers in Andersonville and the ones who survived best are the ones picturing in their mind and dreaming recurring dreams of a place in their childhood or a place in their home where they were thriving with food on the table and in one particular case, a person dreams of an inn where his father took him as a child in St. Louis where there were tables and tables of food and this got him through Andersonville. He would wake up to a crust of bread, starving, but that memory of food gave him the will to survive and not go crazy.
PO: Wanda, this is, of course, another story about human nature and how we can transcend horror and survive it and it’s an inspirational one. I’d just like to add this darker dimension to it, however.
BB: He’s from the North, Wanda.
PO: Yeah, well, when we sentimentalize home and these dreams are a way of making home seem very real, present to you in your dream and you re-dedicate to the cause and to surviving the great war, but at the same time, as you sentimentalize your home, you’re demonizing your enemy because those are the people that want to destroy your homes, so I’d say that both it’s a triumph for humanity and it’s also a triumph for inhumanity.
Caller (Wanda): Well, that’s interesting. That’s interesting. So then you wonder which takes over if the dream of home—
PO: Oh, yeah.
Caller (Wanda): Yeah.
PO: No, and on an individual level, what can you say? This is wonderful. This is a resource to work with. This is the way people have survived, but on a cultural level, when a whole society is at war with another society, I think it takes on a rather uglier profile.
Caller (Wanda): Unless it’s what gets you back to where you were before.
Caller (Wanda): However you define home, back to that memory of someone that you’ve loved, back to a place where you can separate yourself from the battlefield and be where you were when things were normal again.
PO: It is a dream of peace.
Caller (Wanda): Yeah.
Caller (Wanda): Yeah.
PO: Well, Wanda, this has just been fabulous and thanks so much.
Caller (Wanda): Well, thank you.
BB: Thank you so much, Wanda.
Caller (Wanda): Oh, thank you. This is great. [music]
BB: That’s where we’re going to have to leave things today. But as always, we’d love to keep this conversation going online. Drop in at backstoryradio.org and let us know what still interests you about the Civil War.
PO: Again, that’s backstoryradio.org. You can listen to the first two episodes of our Civil War series there, as well as any of our other past shows. We’re also on Facebook and Twitter. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.
EA: Today’s episode of “BackStory” was produced by Tony Field and Catherine Moore. We had help from Miriam Kaplan and Jose Argueta. Jamal Milner mastered the show and Gabby Alter wrote our theme.
BB: “BackStory’s” executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.
PO: Production support for “BackStory” is provided by Cary Brown Epstein and the W.L. Lyons Brown, Jr. Charitable Foundation. James Madison’s Montpelier, Weinstein Properties, Trish and David Crowe, Austin Ligon and an anonymous donor.
Tape: Brian Balogh and Peter Onuf are professors in the University of Virginia’s Corcoran Department of History. Ed Ayres is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. “BackStory” was created by Andrew Wyndham for VFH Radio at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
- The Freedmen and Southern Society Project – the drama of emancipation in the words of the participants
- Behind the Scenes – memoir of Elizabeth Keckley, dressmaker to both Varina Davis and Mary Todd Lincoln
- “I Will Be Heard!” Abolitionism in America – an online exhibit from the Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Collection
- Visualizing Emancipation – maps where men and women were becoming free in the Civil War South
- A collection of documents and online resources from The Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition
- North American Slave Narratives – narratives of fugitive and former slaves
- Born In Slavery – Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers Project
- Abraham Lincoln – “Plea for Compensated Emancipation” (PDF); Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation (PDF); and Emancipation Proclamation (PDF)
- Resources on “Contrabands” – “Fort Monroe During the Civil War“; Benjamin Butler’s Report on the Contrabands of War; Contraband Historical Society; “General Butler and the Contraband of War,” 1861 NYT article
- A Small Southern Town – radio documentary on Civil War-era Washington, DC
- EDSITEment lessons on slavery, the crisis of the Union, the Civil War, and Reconstruction
THE CIVIL WAR TODAY
- The Civil War and Reconstruction Era 1845-1877 – a free online course taught by BackStory guest and Yale historian David Blight
- Disunion – a NYT project that uses diaries, images, and analysis to follow the Civil War as it unfolded
- The Long Recall – the Civil War in real time, 150 years later.
- A House Divided – detailed coverage of the Civil War Sesquicentenial from The Washington Post (master archive)
- Seven Score and Ten Years Ago – reports and delivers Civil War news each day, as it happened exactly 150 years ago
- A House Divided – an instructional film from the Civil War Centennial in 1960
- History News Network covers the Civil War Sesquicentennial
- African American Reenactment – slave auction; Slave Cabin Project
- Civil War Road Trip – a photo essay
- Blogging the Civil War – an interview with Disunion blogger and BackStory guest Adam Goodyear
- A few notable Civil War blogs – Civil War Memory, Jubilo!, Civil War Women, Blog Divided, Civil Warriors, Crossroads, TOCWOC, Renegade South, Civil Warriors, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Civil War Research Circle
- “Virginia 4th Grade Textbook Criticized Over Claims on Black Confederate Soldiers,” Washington Post
- Retouching History: The Modern Falsification of a Civil War Photograph – scholars investigate a photo of black Union soldiers “retouched” into Confederates
- “Interpreting the Civil War,” by former chief historian of the National Park Service
- “Historians Respond to Gov. McDonnell’s Confederate History Month Proclamation,” Civil War Memory
- “China’s Lincolnophilia,” Alan Wachman