“There never will be anything more interesting in America than that Civil War never.”

Following the murders of nine African-American churchgoers in South Carolina, old social media photographs of the white supremacist arrested for it naturally surfaced almost immediately. In one, he’s wearing jacket patches of the apartheid South Africa flag and the white minority government Rhodesia flag. In another, he’s posing on a car displaying the Confederate States of America emblem.

His embrace of the latter has revived arguments inside the U.S. about the post-Civil War tacit understanding under which the United States became one country again:

Screen capture of Vox.
Screen capture of Vox.

That Vox piece is the sort of thing that leads one to wonder if supposedly well-educated members of the media have ever read a serious history book?

It would have been easy in the wake of the overwhelming Union victory in 1865 to have left nothing but “desert” behind in the defeated southern Confederate states. There were indeed infuriated and vengeful Northerners who wanted to do pretty much that. Many wanted also to hang the lot of the leading rebels: Confederate “President” Jefferson Davis, top general Robert E. Lee and others.

However, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s and his administraton’s aim by the time of his assassination was not just end slavery in the seceded southern states. It was also to reunify the United States in spirit. Lincoln especially felt brute reconquest – what we today would term “occupation” and failing “to win hearts and minds” – would never suffice.

Part of the price to be paid for that was a quiet “bargain” that came into place over time: grant the defeated Confederates “leniency,” and even “a zone of honor,” where possible, as former combatants. Thus why the U.S. subsequently permitted the likes of United States military bases in the former secessionist south, such as Fort Bragg in North Carolina and Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia, to be named after secessionist – and, yes, traitorous – Confederate generals. It’s also why monuments to secessionists such as General Robert E. Lee have been allowed.

Doing so was essentially a “look the other way” effort to give former Confederates “space” in order to bring them back into the reborn United States, and above all to treat the conflict as a collective national tragedy, including for the white former Confederate soldiers who formed the sharp end of the rebellion. As Lincoln himself earnestly believed during the war, every soldier who died was a dead American, a loss to the country, whether from New York or from South Carolina. No one was to be an “outcast.”

True, that approach would turn out to be riddled with moral inconsistency and makes us today very uncomfortable at times. It has never been universally applauded. It proved definitely imperfect in a more tangible sense: it allowed segregation and abuse, denial of civil rights, and even murder of African-Americans in the south by children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren of defeated white Confederates.

But was there a better alternative? We also need to remember that “us” vs. “them” between 1861-1865 was not always as plainly obvious as it is to us looking back at the war from our 21st century. Lincoln, we should recall, had in early 1861 offered Union Colonel Robert E. Lee command of the Union army. United States first lady Mary Lincoln eventually had relatives in the Confederate army. Many others were in similarly divided personal situations.

So, after the defeat, Lee was allowed to die quietly of heart disease and not on the gallows. And he was hardly alone. Had the conflict ended instead with mass executions of Confederate leaders and generals as fratricidal wars regularly had ended elsewhere, would the country have been better off? Would a properly reunited United States have ever been possible if everything had been taken from the defeated right down to their last shred of dignity?

More likely, the U.S. would have become merely another hopeless land – much as we see around the world today in many places – doomed to passing on an inherited hatred, bitterness and strife between sections, segments of the population, and perhaps even among families.

Free Stock Photo: Mounted civil war soldiers in the 2010 Saint Patricks Day Parade in Atlanta, Georgia. [Note: they are African-Americans, in Union uniforms, parading in what had been Confederate, secessionist Atlanta, Georgia.]
Free Stock Photo: Mounted civil war soldiers in the 2010 Saint Patricks Day Parade in Atlanta, Georgia.

Look closely at that photograph. It’s of African-American men, dressed in Civil War-era United States cavalry uniforms (perhaps Buffalo soldiers), parading in what was one of the former Confederacy’s main cities. Notice too whites standing just off the sidewalk, enjoying it.

If you think about it, the picture is actually astonishing. It’s also innocuous by American standards today. Yet in other places in the world what you see in that photo would be considered a “provocation” and perhaps even result in rioting or worse. Many non-Americans seem not quite to understand the “bargain” Americans have slowly struck among themselves about their civil war, and that’s understandable. If social media in the last few days is any indicator, even quite a few Americans don’t seem to grasp it either.

Americans’ post-Civil war experience has perhaps also led them diplomatically to imagine that abroad much the same “settlement” can always somehow be fashioned. End a firestorm conflict like “gentlemen,” as the Union’s victorious General Grant and the defeated Lee did at Appomattox Court House in 1865, salute each other as brave individuals of “honor,” and everyone put down your guns and go home. “Take care. We’ll all see each other at the 50 year reunion.”

In 1937, American novelist Gertrude Stein, who spent most of the last forty years of her life in France, observed:

So I was interested in being in Richmond and in Virginia and I was interested in hearing what they were all saying and I was interested, after all there never will be anything more interesting in America tha[n] that Civil War never.

With the Charleston terror racist killings we are again sadly reminded that Stein had something of a point. The moment the post-Civil War “bargain” resurfaces in debate, some Americans reflexively take sides once more. But it’s not “interesting” so much as heartbreaking that, suddenly, it is, even if only briefly, “1861” all over again.

Posted by

Author: โ€œConventions: The Garden At Paris,โ€ โ€œPassports,โ€ โ€œFrontiers,โ€ and โ€œDistances.โ€ British Airways frequent flier. Lover of the Catskill Mountains...and the 1700s. New novel of 1797-1805, "Tomorrow The Grace," due out in 2019.