‘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

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