I have an opinion article up today at CNN.com, co-authored with Katrina Browne, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War at Fort Sumter.

The subject is the mythology about the war that still lingers on both sides. For the South, that mythology has received ample attention over the years; it’s the myth of the “Lost Cause,” which centers on a romantic vision of the rebellion which excludes slavery as the primary motivation for southern secession.

For the North and the rest of the country, myths about the Civil War, and particularly about the role that slavery and race played in the conflict, remain less well explored and are therefore worth examing.

Here is how the article begins:

This week marks the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War, a war that redefined national and regional identities and became an enduring tale of noble resistance in the South and, for the rest of the country, a mighty moral struggle to erase the stain of slavery.

On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces opened fire on the beleaguered Union garrison at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. By April 14, the fort had fallen and the war had begun in earnest.

By the time Fort Sumter was again in Union hands, following the evacuation of Charleston in the closing days of the war in 1865, the war had become the bloodiest in the nation’s history — and has not been surpassed. Yet the relationship of the North to the South, and to slavery before and during the war is not at all what we remember today.

The reality is that both North and South were profoundly complicit in slavery and deeply reluctant to abolish our nation’s “peculiar institution.”

To read the rest of the article, go to “Civil War’s dirty secret about slavery” at CNN.com.

Today is the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War.

On January 9, 1861, shore batteries in Charleston, South Carolina opened fire on the steamer Star of the West as that merchant ship attempted to reach Fort Sumter with fresh troops and supplies. The Star of the West was hit and forced to retreat, setting the stage for a wider conflict to break out in April, when Fort Sumter would run out of food and be forced to surrender if not reinforced.

Click here to read the rest of this entry

Today marks the 150th anniversary of another Civil War milestone: the proposal by Mayor Fernando Wood to the city council that New York City secede from the Union, in order to continue its relationship with the South, just as southern states were beginning to declare their secession.

I’ve co-authored an opinion article coming out soon describing this event, and discussing its broader significance for our understanding of the Civil War and the role that slavery and race played for the North and the South. In the meantime, I’d like to offer a quick picture of the role of slavery in New York up to the time of the Civil War, as a counterweight to the myth that the North at the outbreak of the war consisted of free states eager to abolish the scourge of southern slavery.

First, a side note: I’m currently attending the four-day American Historical Association (AHA) annual meeting in Boston, and in particular, a multi-session workshop on slavery and public memory. I plan to report back here  on some of the latest scholarship related to slavery, race, and public history, all themes directly related to this blog and my work at the Tracing Center.

Click here to read the rest of this entry

Exactly one hundred and fifty years ago, South Carolina was on the verge of seceding from the Union over the issue of slavery.

At the same time, New Yorkers were preparing to make a dramatic statement in support of the southern cause and in favor of southern slavery, which had long been the backbone of the northern economy and society. At a meeting held near Wall Street on December 15, 1860, a crowd of more than 2,000, including many of the city’s most prominent citizens, would gather to voice their opposition to both civil war and abolition.

Why does the response of so many in New York, and throughout the North, to the threat of secession surprise many Americans today?

All these years later, on the eve of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, northerners are generally portrayed as anti-slavery and eager for abolition—or else as basically opposed to slavery, but grudgingly willing to compromise in order to preserve the Union. In fact, however, the North was largely not abolitionist, and most northerners still depended on southern slavery for their livelihoods. The Civil War broke out as a result of southern fears about northern interference in the institution of slavery, and northern insistence on keeping the Union intact. It was not even remotely the moral crusade to end slavery that is often hinted at today.

Click here to read the rest of this entry

“Quick Takes” features brief summaries of recent news, opinion, and research related to race, privilege, and inequality, with a special focus on the history and legacy of slavery and race, which are at the heart of The Living Consequences.

Today’s “Quick Takes” includes items on remembering the Civil War, immigration laws in Arizona and New York, voting by felons, single black women, college debt and U.S. poverty.

Readers are encouraged to share these stories and to comment at the end of the post.

Click here to read the rest of this entry

Harry ReidSenate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has been taking heat since yesterday for his remarks on the Senate floor comparing the opponents of health care reform to those who opposed ending slavery.

As I’ll explain below, I believe the criticism over Reid’s remarks is misplaced at best, and political gamesmanship at worst. However, I also think his comment was not merely impolitic, but an unfortunate contribution to our overheated political climate and, more importantly, mischaracterizes our nation’s history on slavery and race.

I am saddened at Reid’s perpetration of a damaging historical myth about our nation’s involvement in slavery, and as the sesquicentennial of the Civil War approaches, I believe it is imperative that we combat such false narratives about our nation’s past.

Click here to read the rest of this entry