The Civil War Isn't Tragic: The Source

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What follows is an excerpt of my interview with Eric Foner for my Civil War essay. I ended up not quoting Professor Foner, but as will become obvious, his work and his thoughts, were deeply influential on my own writing. Professor Foner is the Dewitt Clinton professor of history at Columbia University and the author of (among others) Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery which won the Pulitzer last year.


The Fiery Trial and Free Soil, Free Labor have been especially important to my thinking about the Civil War and about the interaction between radical activists and electoral politics. (Reconstruction is next up after Middlemarch.) On a personal note, Professor Foner has been extremely gracious with his time. I feel indebted to him for that and, frankly, the larger community of academic historians the lot of whom have been more than happy to share their thinking. For those looking to begin their research into the period, I highly recommend Foner's work. Not only is it deeply informed and full of insight, it's extremely well written and clear.

See the escalation of this long argument hereherehereherehere, and here. See the conclusion for the magazine here. We'll have an interview with David Blight up in the next few days.

I wanted to first begin with this basic question I've been hashing over in some of my writing at the Atlantic. Is the Civil War tragic?

On the one hand you can say any war is tragic. But it's kind of metaphysical and that has nothing to do with a historic situation. When people today say "the Civil War was tragic" what we're getting [now] is an odd combination of two things. One, there's a  long standing conservative view that the war was unnecessary, that slavery would have died out anyway, and therefore the Civil War is tragic because people died for no reason.

Lately, on the more liberal end, there's a different angle that comes to much the same conclusion but is a more general anti-war sentiment. Whenever people get fed up with war, it reverberates back. That is fed by a general  cynicism about politics and political leaders. "Well political leaders are all corrupt anyway." Or "Yeah they talked about slavery but..."

When I lecture, I am amazed how many people come up to me and say, "It was really about the tariff." There's an unwillingness to look slavery in the face. But slavery is the bottom-line for beginning to talk about the Civil War.

The tragic notion also feeds on the idea of "the brothers war. White people killing each other, how tragic." But blacks are not the brothers of these guys. I'm almost a pacifist nowadays, and if someone can show a plausible route to getting rid of slavery without the Civil War I will say "OK it's tragic." But there is no such route.

Right now, people find it easier to talk about the Civil Rights movement which is 50 years ago, than the Civil War. We'd rather have a  defanged Civil Rights movement, than talk about slavery 200 years ago.


 

How do you balance those two things though--Your own abhorrence of war and, in this case, it's seeming necessity?

You have to be skeptical. One does not have to ignore the many negative things that happened in the Civil War. War always generates infringement on liberties, for instance.

Is part of how we avoid the cause, slavery, by focusing on soldiers and valor? I'm thinking of the "brothers" narrative, here.

Yes. There's valor on both sides and so it doesn't really matter what they're fighting for.  I have no objection to studying how the military ebbed and flowed, but you have to step back and say 'Why did it take place?'

Before the new visitor center was built at Gettysburg you could go there and never hear the word "slaves" or "slavery" or blacks.  But some of the battle took place on farms owned by black people. Blacks fled ahead of the confederate army.

The visitor's center at Gettysburg has been overhauled relatively recently. Can you talk about your involvement in the changes at the visitor's center at Gettysburg?

It originated in part in a letter I wrote to the park service. My daughter was in a ballet camp in the area. I said we're going over to Gettysburg for the day. And I wrote a letter to the park service objecting to the way history was presented. And that stimulated things. They picked up on it.

Most people who visit the Civil War battlefields go to Gettysburg, but very few blacks visit the battlefields. The national park service has tried over the years to make this better. Charleston's Fort Sumter site is very good. Natchez has revamped its presentation. But there's a tremendous constituency that doesn't want any change.

This came up many times. The superintendent was Virginian and was very good about going to these groups and talking. Jesse Jackson Jr. got congress to direct the park service to revamp their presentation of slavery in various site. We also had a lot of major historians--James McPherson, Nina Silber, the director of the Museum of the Confederacy working on the new visitor's center

Of course what they can't even touch is reconstruction.  There is no national park service site dedicated to the history of reconstruction. Black people exercising power is really alarming.

I proposed Beaufort, South Carolina. But again, there was this other tendency to write off the Radical Republicans. "They're all racist." That sort of thing. There's also this disappointment. Freedom came. But what kind of freedom?

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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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