What a Tragedy!

Published:April 27, 2011 by Brendan Wolfe

Ta-Nehisi Coates, who recently linked to our black Confederates entry, now tells the world about our sister program BackStory‘s wonderful three-part series on the Civil War: The Civil War: 150 Years Later.

Coates worries that the accepted premise of the BackStory programs is that the Civil War was a tragedy. He writes:

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.

I happen to be of the Coates school of thought, at least in terms of wanting to set myself on fire most times I hear the word “tragedy.” It is a much-abused member of our language, as is, for instance, “awesome.” But to declare a position on the tragic or non-tragic nature of the war is to engage is something very different from history, I think. (It is more akin, perhaps, to literary criticism.) Regardless, I am told that a response will be forthcoming from the American History Guys.

PS: By the way, a stirring rendition of Alexander Stephens’s “Cornerstone” speech, mentioned here, can be heard at the 28:30 mark of the first episode of BackStory‘s Civil War series.

UPDATE: Here is Ed Ayers’s response to Coates:

Thanks for this excellent point; as it turns out, we at BackStory (thanks for the plug!) agree. Two of the three primary sources you cite are used in the podcast, in fact, and we make clear that slavery drove everything associated with the war. We do, on the other hand, acknowledge the enormous waste of human life that came from a war that Americans, north and south, stumbled into. We end our three-part series with the thought that the nation was fortunate indeed that the end of slavery for four million people was wrenched from this war that began with no such purpose in sight.

IMAGE: 25th United States Colored Troops, Company C or G, Camp William Penn in February 1864