Today is the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the war that caused the largest loss of American life in our nation’s history. The reason this is still true despite the many wars since is our citizens fought on both sides. It is called by many names depending upon who is putting their spin on it. I have heard it called, “the War Between the States”, “The War of Southern Secession”, “the War of Northern Aggression,”and even “The Recent Unpleasantness”! But the name most historians use is the most fitting. It was our Civil War.
I grew up in New Orleans. It may surprise some but back then, New Orleans was the largest city in the south. I took in quickly that New Orleans was a southern city and many of my ancestors fought for the south. The pastor of the church I was baptized in helped convince our state government to secede as well. But I also quickly learned in history class that the south lost. And as a boy I tried to reconcile all these facts. And so, I went to my father and asked him what it would have been like if we had won instead of lost. And I will always remember him turning and looking at me, pausing, and then saying, “it would have been a disaster.” “A disaster?” I thought. “What?” Today I well understand the wisdom of his words.
The national media has geared up for this historic milestone. Many magazines are going to be devoting articles not just this month but in the coming years to commemorate the Civil War’s anniversary. And no matter the publisher, the resounding message is this, “Don’t be fooled by any arguments to the contrary, the Civil War was about slavery.” In the end, I have to agree with them. I am one who not only grew up in the south but who also majored in history and I came to the same conclusion. Most of my ancestors were fighting for the wrong thing. While it is true that most white southerners never owned slaves and that they didn’t like the northern states meddling in their way of life, in the end it was all about slavery. Southerners could not envision their economy operating without slavery. And they were going to fight to keep to north from changing things.
Today, we look back and cannot believe that anyone could find it moral to own another human being (which involved kidnapped them, transporting them across the world, and then forcing them to work for someone for free for the rest of their lives). As a Christian today, it is even harder to fathom how people went to church on Sunday, read the same Bible we do, and prayed to the same God and yet found slavery not just acceptable but something worth fighting for. Then again, perhaps we are doing things in our society today that Christians in the future will scratch their head over trying to figure us out.
To answer my own childhood question more fully, if the South had won, not only would slavery have been perpetuated but it would have fractured the nation and the United States would not have been able to respond in the 20th century in the many ways we needed to. We would have been two smaller nations with a fraction of the power and influence. On top of that, we would have reinforced the idea that anytime you disagreed with a larger body, the answer would be to quit. We see parts of the world that continue to fragment into smaller and smaller pieces. You even see elements of that in our own society. It would have been a tragedy for the south to have won.
So, what will I teach my children about many of their ancestors? Is all I can say about them is they were wrong on the big issue of the day? No. First, I will tell them they were remarkable warriors. In any computer simulation, the north beats the south within six months. Southerns fought with heart and skill, and that extended well beyond the generals. Second, I will tell them not to assume that white folks in the north were so enlightened about race relations. They might have thought slavery wrong but African Americans were hardly treated as equals in the north. We were all wrong on this issue at many levels back then (just some more than others). Third, that when the south took northern territory, we did not treat the locals nearly in the way the northerns treated southerners. I believe to this day that we (Americans) retain a northern tendency to want to tell others how to live their lives without fully understanding the culture. The north could have helped brainstorm and offer material support to the south to transition out of the slavery system. It did not for a long time. Beyond saying ‘no’ to a given situation, what is a workable ‘yes’? We need to ask similar questions today.
I also want to tell them that God, as always, turns good out of bad. Consider the many ways African Americans are a blessing to our society today. Some of our best scientists, chefs, musicians, armed force members, academics, ministers, and southern leaders today are African Americans. Some of the most brilliants minds I have ever encountered have been men and women whose ancestors were slaves. And we must remember spiritually, the God’s people have been slaves more than once. Never underestimate what God can and will do through people to turn evil into good. Also, I will remind them that the Civil War is but one war, and when anyone traces their ancestors, that we will find they took sides. Sometimes our ancestors were right. Sometimes they were wrong. Can we take the good from any conflict no matter the side it comes from?
I plan, just like the media outlets, to reflect upon the Civil War in these coming years. I think there is still much we can learn from it including and beyond the issue of slavery.
What do you think?
Until next time,