‘If you think about it, why?’

Published:May 1, 2017 by Brendan Wolfe

This morning, in a radio interview, President Trump took a moment to contemplate the American Civil War. “People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why?” he said. “People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?”

Of course, people do ask that question; they have been asking it for more than 150 years. I asked it as a kid, when I read everything I could get my hands on about the Civil War. My favorite writer back then was Bruce Catton, who wrote an essay about the legend of Robert E. Lee. In it he wondered about how the passions of the Civil War had somehow been stayed these many years. How had we managed to avoid another war?

I think the chief reason for this is the legend of Robert E. Lee and the heroic Confederate soldiers. For this legend was the channel through which pent-up emotions could be discharged. The essence of the legend of Lee and the dauntless Confederate soldiers was that they suffered mightily in a great but lost cause. The point is that this very phrase accepts the cause as having been lost. There was no hint in this legend of biding one’s time and waiting for a moment when there could be revenge. This was the lost cause; something to be cherished, to be revered, to be the outlet for emotions, but not to be the center of a new outbreak of violence.

I read this when I was sixteen and living in Iowa. I was a Confederate reenactor who nevertheless had an African American sister. A little bit of cognitive dissonance didn’t bother me! So I didn’t really think too hard about what exactly this lost cause was that could be, perhaps should be, cherished and revered.

Secession. States’ rights. That sort of thing.

I was a bit more sophisticated than that, but not much. And when Catton praised the myth of the Lost Cause as important in keeping the peace all these years, I found him persuasive enough to praise on this blog just nine years ago. I might have wondered that Catton authored many of his best books during the height of the civil rights movement—a time of great racial unrest that saw the murders of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, the bombing of a church in Birmingham, the lynching of Emmet Till.

What exactly was the peace that had been kept?

It’s hardly a new observation that the Lost Cause neatly cuts slavery out of the Civil War. If slavery did not cause the war, if Confederate soldiers did not care about or fight in defense of slavery, then slavery should have nothing to do with this great “outlet for emotions” deemed necessary come war’s end. No slavery, then no need to take heed of any “new outbreak of violence”—such as, I don’t know, lynching. Or the Danville Riot. Or the 1960s.

What strikes me, though, looking back at the president’s thoughts on the Civil War, is that if you take slavery out of the equation one might legitimately be left to wonder why there should have been a war in the first place.

“Why could that one not have been worked out?”

What need was there for gentlemen of the caliber of Robert E. Lee to get all worked up over … tariffs? Especially if you forget (or choose to forget) that in 1860 the South had $10.2 trillion of its wealth—in today’s numbers—tied up in the value of slaves. Everything else, including the land, was worth just $10.9 trillion.

Imagine that—slavery accounted for almost half of the South’s entire wealth.

“Why could that one not have been worked out?

The question, one dearly hopes, answers itself.

IMAGE: postcard, ca. 1916, courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, James Branch Cabell Library, Virginia Commonwealth University


5 Comments on “‘If you think about it, why?’”

  1. Pierrette

    The question at the end only answers itself if the questioner had ever read a history book — even a sixth grade one.

  2. James

    The president appears to be unfamiliar with the history of his own nation. But I digress. Mr. Wolfe makes a good point about Catton’s claim that the “lost cause” served as a soothing tombstone to the Confederacy. It may be true. If so, I am glad to see this semantic band-aid pulled off because we will never be one nation until those wounds are fully cleansed. We must deal with the realities of our nation, its original sin, and the world that our ancestors left us with today. Should we honor those who owned slaves? What of those who fought and killed in an effort to preserve slavery? Do they deserve civic honors? Were these men traitors or citizens loyal to their individual countries? Does the winning side get to define these terms? None of these questions can be answered– and some not even asked– until we agree on the true, painful and honest history of the CSA.

  3. Geoff

    I admire your style, as always, Brendan, but I take issue with your argument. I don’t think you’re accounting for the biases our own time brings to understanding the past. What I say below is not in anger, but an attempt to speak for a frequently marginalized set of opinions and beliefs.

    Why the war was/had to be fought is a different issue from individual soldiers’ motivations. Gary Gallagher, for instance, has argued pretty convincingly in two books, _The Union War_ and _The Confederate War_, that very few people on either side were as motivated by slavery as current people are. We can think differently now, but that’s because we see things with our own bias. The silliness of “institutional racism,” for instance, that suggests minorities can’t be racist, demonstrates just how far many have gotten from the critical, rational mindset demanded to truly understand history. Our age has its own comforting myths and master narratives, and they’ve conditioned many of us to judge when we should instead question.

    With the sort of overwhelming predominance left-leaning interpretations of race have in the academy, and the media, these days, I doubt we can really appreciate how people thought back then– which, of course, is necessary to really answer President Trump’s question. Comments like James’ above (“soothing tombstones” is a micro-aggression if ever I heard one) demonstrate the sort of emotional baggage many bring to the study of the Civil War. The need to make certain people (or entire regions) our self-constituting others, the way many people do with “the South” (itself an arguably reductionistic idea) is a dangerous sign. I think it will take us decades to get free of the current mess that is academic historiography. As much as I hate to concede any point to Frederic Jameson, that historiography he helped inspire HAS almost made it impossible for the present to truly understand the past.

    I’d also argue your misreading of Catton is willful enough that it loses its rhetorical effect. I think you’re just trying to make a point about contemporary politics. I think it’s pretty clear Catton had another war in mind with the phrase “outbreak of violence.” For as horrible as the Jim Crow South (and, for that matter, the North) were to African-Americans, it’s nothing compared to another conflict that would have further eroded, and maybe destroyed, a political system that would secure the rights won in that war, even if it took another century. I think that would be my answer to your question, “what exactly was the peace that had been kept?”

    Again, I do (legitimately) admire your style. I just don’t think you’re interpreting history, or President Trump’s statements, fairly here.

    I guess now we can cue up “O Fortuna” from _Carmina Burana_ and let another massive internet fight begin…

    1. Brendan Wolfe Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Geoff. No massive internet fight here. I disagree with pretty much everything you’ve written here (I’m aware of the distinction between the cause of the war and why soldiers fought; nothing silly about “institutional racism”; not difficult at all to figure out how people thought back then because they wrote about it voluminously; it’s especially easy to downplay the violence of the Jim Crow South if you weren’t a victim of it, just as it’s especially easy to dismiss the value of another conflict if you didn’t stand to gain from it, etc.). Unfortunately, I’m about to leave town and don’t have time to craft a better response. I do appreciate the feedback, though.

      1. Geoff

        Fair enough 🙂 In all honesty, I would be interested in seeing a longer response. I think any kind of dialogue is important, given how contentious public discourse surrounding the Civil War can get. I appreciate your civility (good lord, pun not intended).

        In one case, though, I don’t think you quite get where I’m coming from. It seems you feel I’m downplaying the violence of the Jim Crow South. Nothing I said suggests that– I instead suggested that an idea that helped prevent further open military hostilities (the notion of the Lost Cause), if it did have that effect, had legitimate value. When one also considers the difficulties of veteran reintegration into society– no matter what conflict we’re talking about—I’d argue the value of that narrative to individual, as well as social, psychology become even clearer.

        I’m not saying this to nitpick. I just think it’s important to clarify that I’m not trying to downplay any sort of unjust violence, whether that’s the injustices of the Jim Crow era, or war crimes like the murder one found at Point Lookout prison camp, where there were cases of Union prison guards firing at random into POW’s tents.

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