The Civil War Isn't Tragic

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Yesterday, Robert Zimmerman was kind enough to link this podcast on the Civil War, and the reasons soldiers, Union and Confederate, offered up for fighting. It's a good segment which I heartily recommend, especially for those of us in the Effete Liberal Book Club. That said, one thing struck me about the conversation, which inevitably comes through any time smart people gather to discuss the Civil War. The conceded common ground was the following--The Civil War was a tragedy.


I think that ground is generally accepted by almost everyone, and for good reasons. Six hundred thousand people died in the Civil War, a shocking figure which doesn't really capture the toll that this sort of violence took on the country at large. And yet when I think about the Civil War I don't feel sad at all. To be honest, I feel positively fucking giddy.

And I don't think I'm abnormal because of this. Twenty-two thousand people died in the Revolutionary War, and we celebrate that with hot dogs and hamburgers every year. I'm sure that while Jews feel fairly horrible that the Holocaust happened, very few of them consider the fighting it took in order to liberate the death camps, "tragic." The Holocaust is tragic. Ending the Holocaust is not.

In that fashion, from my perspective, the most trenchant facts of the Civil War are not that it turned "brother against brother," or that it produced a plethora of great military minds, or even that it produced arguably our greatest leaders. In sum the most trenchant facts, for me, as always, emanate from this:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.


Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth...

And this:

You cannot make soldiers of slaves, or slaves of soldiers. The day you make a soldier of them is the beginning of the end of the Revolution. And if slaves seem good soldiers, then our whole theory of slavery is wrong.

It's really simple for me. One group of Americans attempted to raise a country on property in Negroes. Another group of Americans, many of them Negroes themselves, stopped them. As surely as we lack the ability to see tragedy in violently throwing off the yoke of the English, I lack the ability to see tragedy in violently throwing off the yoke of slaveholders.

For most Americans, the Civil War is a sudden outbreak of a existential violence. But for 250 years, African-Americans lived in slavery--which is to say perpetual existential violence. I don't know what else to call a system that involves the constant threat of your children, your parents, your grandparents, being sold off, never for you to see them again. That is death.

Malcolm X was fond of saying that that there was no such thing as a "bloodless revolution." I don't know if that's true, but it surely was true of black people. The Civil War is our revolution. It ended slavery, and birthed both modern America, and modern black America. 

That can never be tragic to me.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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