The Civil War Isn't Tragic

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We fought for months over this. Here is the result:


In our present time, to express the view of the enslaved--to say that the Civil War was a significant battle in the long war against bondage and for government by the people--is to compromise the comfortable narrative. It is to remind us that some of our own forefathers once explicitly rejected the republic to which they'd pledged themselves, and dreamed up another country, with slavery not merely as a bug, but as its very premise. It is to point out that at this late hour, the totems of the empire of slavery--chief among them, its flag--still enjoy an honored place in the homes, and public spaces, of self-professed patriots and vulgar lovers of "freedom." It is to understand what it means to live in a country that will never apologize for slavery, but will not stop apologizing for the Civil War. 

In August, I returned to Gettys­­burg. My visits to battlefields are always unsettling. Repeatedly, I have dragged my family along, and upon arrival I generally wish that I hadn't. Nowhere, as a black person, do I feel myself more of a problem than at these places, premised, to varying degrees, on talking around me. But of all the Civil War battlefields I've visited, Gettys­burg now seems the most honest and forward-­looking. The film in the visitor center begins with slavery, putting it at the center of the conflict. And in recent years, the National Park Service has made an effort to recognize an understated historical element of the town--its community of free blacks. 

The Confederate army, during its march into Pennsylvania, routinely kidnapped blacks and sold them south. By the time Lee's legions arrived in Gettys­burg, virtually all of the town's free blacks had hidden or fled. On the morning of July 3, General George Pickett's division prepared for its legendary charge. Nearby, where the Union forces were gathered, lived Abraham Brien, a free black farmer who rented out a house on his property to Mag Palmer and her family. One evening before the war, two slave-catchers had fallen upon Palmer as she made her way home. (After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, slave-catchers patrolled the North, making little distinction between freeborn blacks and runaways.) They bound her hands, but with help from a passerby, she fought them off, biting off a thumb of one of the hunters. 


Faulkner famously wrote of Pickett's Charge: 

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863 ... and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet ... That moment doesn't need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. 

These "Southern boys," like Catton's "people," are all white. But I, standing on Brien's property, standing where Mag Palmer lived, saw Pickett's soldiers charging through history, in wild pursuit of their strange birthright--the license to beat and shackle women under the cover of night. That is all of what was "in the balance," the nostalgic moment's corrupt and unspeakable core.

This is the conclusion of a really incredible debate. I doubt that I will convince all of you. But I love you guys nonetheless. It was fighting and grappling with you that gave me this. I hope you enjoy. More on this in the coming hours and days.

See the escalation of this long argument hereherehereherehere, and here.
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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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