Sunday 21 June 2020

A new Civil War

I studied for a time in New Hampshire. I found America both strange and familiar. I found Americans of all backgrounds to be extraordinarily patriotic. They treated their flag and national anthem with a reverence that I had never seen in Britain. They were sensitive about their Constitution and even their President. The heroes of American history were treated like saints. What else is the point of the George Washington story about him being unable to tell a lie? I was fascinated and studied American history in some detail.

The United States after winning its War of Independence was a divided society. It was divided between those who focussed on states’ rights and those who focussed on the country as a whole. It was divided between those states which had slavery and those which did not.

For the first decades as the USA spread westwards it muddled along through each crisis without ever resolving the fundamental divisions. Were states sovereign? Did they have the right to do what the United States itself did when it rebelled against Britain? Could a state leave the United States? South Carolina first threatened to secede in 1832, but the quarrel was smoothed over. A bargain was made about whether slavery could spread westwards and a compromise was made about Missouri. But slavery and states rights continued to divide the USA right up until 1860.

The Civil war is poorly understood in Britain. The crisis that led to war was the election of Abraham Lincoln. The 1860 presidential election saw North and South completely divided. Lincoln won ever state in the North, but none in a state that had slavery. The South used the SNP argument to demand secession.

The war was caused by both the division over states rights and slavery, but it’s immediate cause was not slavery. Lincoln did not intend to abolish slavery when he was elected, nor for that matter did he intend to abolish slavery when the war began. The Union Army’s initial war aim was to defend the territorial integrity of the United States and defeat what it saw as rebellion. If the war had been won quickly it is unlikely that slavery would have been abolished at least in the short term. Lincoln wrote

If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.

Most Northern soldiers were likewise indifferent. It was war itself that led the North to see the abolishment of slavery as a war aim because it was viewed as a means to undermine the Confederacy.

For the first three years the North fought the war on land poorly especially in the East. The South had by far the best General in American history in Robert E Lee, two of the best cavalry commanders in J.E.B. Stuart and Nathan Bedford Forrest, plus ordinary soldiers who could usually win despite being massively outnumbered, having poorer equipment and worse food.

Lincoln looked in vain for a win until Antietam (1862) gave him a draw that he could pretend was a win. At this point he could announce the Emancipation Proclamation which freed states not where the North had control, they remained slaves there, but only in the states of the Confederacy. But it was a start and it made a difference.

The Union was saved by two men, Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. Grant owned slaves while Sherman did not believe in equality for black people. They were people of their time. Most Americans North and South had racist views including Lincoln who wanted to send free slaves back to Africa.

Grant’s capture of Vicksburg on the Mississippi in 1863 was the equivalent of Midway (1942). It meant the South could no longer win. His overland campaign in 1864 showed that perseverance, stubbornness and indifference to casualties was all it ever took to beat Lee’s genius. Meanwhile Sherman marched to the sea and demonstrated what happens to secessionists by destroying everything in his path and burning the South Carolina capital of Columbia to the ground.

The Civil War is by far the most important event in American history. It killed between 600,000 and a million people. It led to decades of poverty for the South and enormous bitterness.

But the genius of America is that it was able to overcome this division. By the time of the First World War people from the South were quite willing to fight for the USA. They didn’t think of themselves as still Confederates. They were Americans and the flew the Stars and Stripes.

This was achieved because from the beginning of the surrender by Lee at Appomattox the focus of the armies was on beginning reconciliation. Grant gave Lee and his soldiers lenient terms of surrender. Even Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president, after a period of imprisonment was allowed to go free.

Since this time American culture has worked on reconciliation between North and South. Confederate heroes became American heroes. Books and films that depicted the Civil War usually did so in such a way that both people from North and South could respect each other.

This is the importance of Gone with the Wind. It was read and loved by people whose ancestors fought each other.

Black people gained their freedom after the Civil War. The original American sin of slavery had been paid by blood of those who died between 1860 and 1865, but it would take another hundred years before black people gained the civil rights that made their freedom worth having.

Black people were left out of the reconciliation process between the Union and the Confederacy, but Martin Luther King changed that. His vision of a colour-blind society touched people all over the world. His peaceful protests, inclusive language and patriotism finally meant that the words said at Appomattox “We are all Americans” applied to black people too.

But since Dr King’s death America has begun to divide again. Despite the election of a black president America has become divided in a way that it has not been since 1860.

While Martin Luther King was patriotic about America, the Black Lives Matter protesters are the heirs of Malcolm X and black nationalism. This is why they use the raised fist of the Black Power movement. This is also why they go down on one knee.

When various American sportsmen went down on one knee, they were protesting about the United States flag and national anthem. They were saying this is not mine. I will not take part. Instead of the unifying message of “We are all Americans” they were saying we are not Americans. They were secessionists. The heirs of the Confederacy.

The attack on statues in the United States is an attack on the symbols of reconciliation that created one nation indivisible under God.

By tearing down statues of flawed people who were of their time such as Washington, Jefferson, Lee and others, Black Lives Matter opens the way to tearing down all of American history until there is nothing left. It means that nothing will unite Americans until it reaches a point when they will fight.

Burning the American flag and destroying statues of Washington with whoops of joy will cause fury.

Americans atoned for slavery in the Civil War. If that atonement is not enough, then Black Lives Matter are saying a new war is needed. Sensible Americans from all races and backgrounds must say that this is not so. Identity politics will cost lives unless a new Martin Luther King arrives with a new message of unity that gives all Americans a new birth of freedom.