“Civil War 150th” is a periodic compilation of information related to the sesquicentennial, or 150th anniversary, of the U.S. Civil War (2011-2015). In keeping with the theme of this blog, the focus is on the often-misunderstood role of slavery and race in the war.

Today’s “Civil War 150th” includes the North’s relationship to southern slavery, battles over the Confederate flag and commemorative license plates, and the complexity of Missouri’s role in the Civil War.

Readers are encouraged to share these stories and to offer their thoughts at the end of the post.

“Civil War’s dirty secret about slavery.” On the 150th anniversary of the war’s outbreak at Fort Sumter, CNN’s web site ran a commentary that I co-authored with Katrina Browne under the headline “Civil War’s dirty secret about slavery.” The subject was the widespread perception that the North was innocent in slavery and fought the Civil War in order to end southern slavery. In fact, as we show in the essay, northerners were deeply complicity in southern slavery and profoundly ambivalent about abolishing slavery after the war.

Does the Confederate flag stand for racism? The Louisiana Supreme Court is hearing a case this week in which the death penalty for Felton Dorsey, convicted of killing a white firefighter, is being challenged because a black juror felt he was unable to serve properly with the Confederate flag flying outside the Caddo Parish courthouse. The ACLU is arguing that flying the “stars and bars” outside a public courthouse “presents an intolerable risk that African-Americans may be intimidated to serve on juries.” The NAACP led a protest last week, and Professor Charles Ogletree, director of Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, has stated that the Confederate flag stands for a “vicious, ugly, degrading, racist, and incomprehensible past.” Chuck McMichael, of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, has responded that the flag represents not racism, but instead “men who answered the call of their state to protect their state from a hostile army.”

Do Confederate license plates promote a positive image? Meanwhile, the Sons of Confederate Veterans are campaigning for specialty license plates with the Confederate flag in Florida, Texas, and Kentucky. “The plates promote a positive image of the Confederate States of America,” says a spokesperson. “The Confederate soldier, he takes a beating nowadays. We’re trying to divest ourselves of the negative association.” The group already receives revenue from plates in nine southern states—Alabama, Georgia, Maryland, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia—and has won court cases to prevent states from refusing to offer the plates.

Two civil wars in Missouri. Missouri, according to historian Arnold Schofield, fought two civil wars in the 1860s: one between the Union and the Confederacy, and another between southern partisans in Missouri (the “Bushwackers”) waging a guerrilla campaign against Union troops from Kansas. Missouri, of course, was a border state which officially sided with the Union, but the Confederacy also recruited troops here. Missouri also illustrates the ambivalence towards slavery common in the Union: Missouri was a slave state until 1865, and even many Union supporters expected to continue owning slaves after the war.

For another look at a divided Missouri during the early days of the Civil War, see yesterday’s installment in the New York Times‘ “Disunion” series, “How St. Louis Was Won.”

3 Responses to “Civil War 150th for May 12, 2011”

  1. Just Think says:

    Slavery! Slavery! Aren't most of the products Americans purchase today that are made in third world countries, expecially China, actually products made by slave labor?

    Do those people of the East get a fair wage at all? Americans hate slavery but rush to the stores to get a good cheap price. When young men are drafted into War, isn't that the worst form of slavery, where life itself is sacrificed and torture can be suffered both during the war and for decades after in physical terms or mental anguish?

    Why are Americans so obsessed with slavery in one time and place and blind to it all around them. Could it be politics?

  2. James says:

    I frequently speak and lead programs about the history of slavery, and in my experience, people who care about the history of U.S. slavery also tend to care, very much, about modern-day slavery (and economic inequality) throughout the world.

    So I don't agree with you that Americans are obsessed with slavery in one time and place, while being blind to it elsewhere.

    Moreover, when you respond to a discussion about U.S. slavery with the suggestion that it's all about politics and that people should pay attention to other, similar issues instead, I think you risk leaving the impression that you're looking to divert attention away from the issue on the table.

    The history of U.S. slavery has powerful ramifications today, and there is a long tradition of privileged people looking to deny the significance of that history for racial inequality in contemporary society. This is a history that is very much present for all Americans today, and is the legacy of their own society's misdeeds. So there's nothing wrong with Americans wanting to address that history, and in fact I trust you would agree that Americans shouldn't turn a blind eye to the legacy of U.S. slavery, any more than they should ignore global economic realities.

  3. bobbo, says:

    Gosh, I'm two months late to this post. James–I don't know why I want to argue with you. I think because I disagree with you and so far you have vanquished me with every exchange. I soothe myself by thinking somehow we just haven't connected. You've seen those studies about people becoming more convinced of their positions when presented with evidence to the contrary?

    But because of this blog and you, I have changed my mind: The USA did not fight the Civil War to end slavery. I agree.

    But it is all extremely definitional, and you know your words as well as I do BUT the subject matter so much more. You have the advantage, but as the student I learn only with "a boot to the head."

    I think last time we both agreed that slavery was inextricably intertwined with the (cause of) CW? I thought that was close enough to call it "the cause" but you continue to demur. Hmmmm. Without slavery there would have been no CW but its not the cause of the civil war. Thats an awful close discernment there, if there is one. I guess we really should define what "causation" is? There are two standards of causation: "but/for" and "necessary and sufficient". Slavery as the cause of the CW meets the first test but fails the second. Took me this long–writing the past sentence, to see it. Meets my own definitions. Amusing. How Obama of me to give away my position before the negotiations have even started?

    So—the North was putting pressure on the South to end Slavery, or at least to not have it extended into the new territories. The South saw this as an infringement of their State Rights. In the Lincoln Special running on PBS right now, they recounted that after secession the Northern Forts and facilities were taken over/given over to the South without resistance by the North. It was only the firing on Fort Sumter that "forced" the North to take action. I think it is fair to say then that the South attacked the North to keep slavery, while the North defended itself/attacked the South to maintain the Union? Is that fair/accurate James?

    Assuming so, we have a nice "set up" for what causation in the political arena is………..Yes, that is a fair and accurate description of the setup for the CW. Interesting.

    It all interacts with what you irritate me with above when you say: "In fact, as we show in the essay, northerners were deeply complicity in southern slavery and profoundly ambivalent about abolishing slavery after the war." I think that overstates your case by multiples, not degrees. One example about the support in New York City does not the case make. There were Northern sympathizers in the South, and Southern sympathizers in the North–not to mention a whole lot of immigrants who did care a fig about either side and just wanted to earn a living? The passage of several Constitutional Amendments is NOT done in the face of profound ambivalence. 2/3rds is great dedication to an issue–just the opposite of what you claim.

    Would the North have allowed secession if the South had done so in order to do something totally unrelated to slavery? I'd have to think: probably not. Who doesn't fight back when attacked? If the South had separated and then contested the North for expansion into the West, NorthWest and even invaded Mexico for how long could the North and South co-exist then? Another Canada or something entirely different?

    All to the issue of "What caused the CW?" The South fighting to maintain slavery ((as the PBS Special said: as a "positive good"–much like Bachman just averred)) or the North to maintain Union. Why is that not causation?==because the North could have given up the Union and it matters little what the cause of the moment was? But then–what was that cause? And the cause was slavery. Is the cause always viewed from the winners perspective? I suppose so.

    Yep–I see my tail, its right in front of me. If I only run faster. A good editor would delete the above and start from here:

    /////// and I wrote more but deleted it as I am only chasing my tail. I have agreed to your main point and have referred to my continuing disagreement. but now, to bed.

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