Monday, February 07, 2022


Halfway through Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought: it thoroughly deserved its Pulitzer. 

The biggest illumination from my American history binge so far: the Civil War was every bit as popular in the North, at its outset, as in the South. Finally the gloves were off. The South had held the Senate in a hammerlock for long enough. The North was going to kick the slaveholders' butts six ways to Sunday, and it was looking forward to it. Volunteers flooded in faster than they could be armed and organized.

The war was a religious one. They were going to purge America of sin. And what would become of the slaves and free blacks afterwards... well, that would fix itself somehow when the time came. What the pro-war Northerners wanted was not so much to release the slaves, as to release themselves from the South's continual sabotage of their efforts to create the Great Universal Republic of the New World. They wanted to be emancipating slaves, building canals and railroads, facilitating capital, civilizing savages: the Southern bloc prevented them at every turn. They couldn't just let the South go, because it was bound up with dreams of empire and manifest destiny. A rival republic was the last thing they wanted, politically or ideologically. They considered their virtue and their polity the manifest endpoint of history, the denouement of God's plan for bettering mankind. I think you miss the point of the Civil War if you don't grasp just how offended and insulted the North felt.

Of course there were individuals who were motivated by compassion for the slaves, and even a few who would subsequently welcome free Blacks into the North. But there weren't all that many. Mostly they were fighting for that shining city on the hill. It's a story that gets into your blood. We sang that song again in the 1970s:

We are stardust; we are golden.

And here we are: having learned nothing: wanting to learn nothing: itching to resume the war.


Personally? I would fight the Civil War over again in a heartbeat. If General Grant sent me against the trenches at Cold Harbor, up and over I would go. I'm not immune to the shining city.


But if we are going to draw any lessons: surely the first is that problems do not fix themselves.


Well. A dirty sky, and a dreary cold day ahead. This winter has settled into my bones as no other ever has: for the first time I understand people going away to sunny places for vacations. I could stand a week or two dreaming in the sun.

1 comment:

Bathwater said...

The civil war definitely was more than freeing the slaves, I think people forget that. I am not sure how they are teaching it in schools today, but when I learned it we discussed all the factors.