National Commentary

The Civil War Then & Now

The U.S. Civil War was really not that long ago. It started in 1860 in reaction to the outcome of the presidential election of that year, though the first bloodshed was not for a few months after.

At the time, it was known as the War of the Rebellion, because it was clear to most everyone that it was the result of slave states in the South seceding from the Union to claim their independence in defense of their practice of slavery.

In that context, it could be called one of the most immoral grounds for a war in history that until it ended in 1865, cost the lives of over 600,000 young American men and boys. The large plantation owners in the South, with tacit assurances of support from the British who profited most from the Southern slave cotton industry (support that never materialized because of pressures from other 19th century imperial powers, like the Russians), convinced their young that it was a war against Union northerners telling them how to run their lives.

In the North, President Abraham Lincoln set forth a powerful defense of the young democracy when many were convinced he wouldn’t fight at all. The full benefits of American democracy, forged by a profoundly-democratic revolution on behalf of the equality of all persons only 75 years before, underlay the passionate commitment of young men in the North to sign up to preserve the Union. (They included my great-great grandfather John Avery Benton who fought with the Wisconsin 32nd).

In the South, cruel and racist plantation elites were fully willing to thrust their boys headlong into mass suicidal attacks, like the ones at Shiloh, Tennessee, in April 1862, Antietam in Maryland in September 1862 and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in June 1863. The first involved over 40,000 Confederate lads against 62,000 Union loyalists, the second 38,000 against 87,000 and the third over 75,000 pitted against 104,000 that included the suicidal Pickett’s Charge of 12,000 that cost half their number strewn on an open battlefield.

Although casualties were almost equal through the war, it was the Southern boys who suffered the worst, ill equipped in terms of materiel and medical treatments, and woefully underfed, because their leaders were the cruelest by far, without conscience willing to throw their young into savage meat grinder slaughters in defense of an inhumane culture of slave labor.

What makes the Civil War seem so distant now has been the interceding Industrial Revolution that changed the technologies of war, first manifested in the Great War (aka World War I) of 1914 – 1918.

Now, in 2020, the United States is the most powerful nation on the planet (far from true in 1860) and only weeks before another presidential election that could result in the playing out of another deep divide in the U.S.

I am sufficiently worried about what can happen in the wake of this Nov. 3 election for president that I have chosen to evoke the November 1860 election and how those committed to the preservation of the Union, of the United States’ unique experiment in democracy, had to step up to put down a deadly rebellion.

Are the American people of today able to muster the same spirit of democracy to defend their cherished nation the way their forebears in the Civil War did?

Those protected and provided opportunities under the mantle of democracy have grown in ranks and definition since the Civil War, now to include, beyond the Emancipation Proclamation’s extension of the full benefits of citizenry to Blacks, to women and all racial and ethnic minorities, and most recently LGBTQ persons and anybody wacky and offbeat by prevailing social standards.

Of course, the summer of 2020 has been a year to rediscover that the promise of equality is far from a reality for most Black folk, in particular, and others.

But it is the evolution toward equality that America’s founding fathers set in motion with their revolution and Constitution that still to this day holds out our best hope for a future for humankind on this remote orb in space to fulfil our happiness and full potential.