Why We’re Not Studying the Civil War


Today marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the battle which turned the tide of the Civil War…or the War Between the States.  Here, in New York City, there is no feeling that the war ever happened.  We sent our troops to fight for the Union, and many of them marched on New York a few weeks after Gettysburg to put down our Draft Riots.  Most of what stood during the Draft Riots of 1863 is no longer standing, including the entire neighborhood of Five Points.   Incidentally, I bet that most New Yorkers don’t even know about the Draft Riots unless they watched the movie Gangs of New York.

Most Americans don’t know the details of the Civil War.  They know it happened, that the South lost, that slavery is bad, and that Lincoln was President and was assassinated sometime around the Civil War..maybe during?  maybe after?  Southerners still like to wave Confederate flags, this we hear in the news.  The Civil War was the war which defined the United States of America.  This is the war which we are still, in many cases, fighting.  Why don’t we study it more intensely?  Here are some thoughts:

– We are still passionately concerned about the rights of the states versus a centralized government.  The Civil War, like no other event before, brought these concerns to the table.  That the concerns turned into secession is a frightening reality to face, and one best kept in remote history.  We like to think that history does not repeat itself, so it’s better not to teach it.

-The South seceded and the South was armed.  Soldiers brought their own guns and Bowie knives to the field.  We laugh about this up North.  We also make statements about gun control which anger Southerners, and we mock Southerners who are arming themselves for the next Civil War.

-Southerners do this because the war never ended for them.  One still feels the reverberations of Sherman’s march in the South, and Southerners still feel the sting of having been invaded.  To walk in the south is to walk through the Civil War, where every town has its remembered heroes and open fields were once battle grounds.  For many, history should be facts to be repeated, and not living realities.

-Paula Dean.  We have not learned the parameters of respect.  And considering that those genteel Yankees set a targeted fire to a Colored Orphanage during the Draft Riots, we also had our issues with respect up here.

– This is a complex war.  Robert E. Lee opposed slavery yet led the South.  Abraham Lincoln did not want to end slavery initially. We like very clear answers, not complexity which may, gods forbid, result in discussion and not ready test answers.  This type of thinking may pull down a  hero or two and expose them as complex human beings.

-We have class issues.  During the drafts, the poor were pulled in to fight, whereas the rich could buy their way out. Divisions of class were very evident to the soldiers, just as divisions of class are very evident today.

-Americans, both Yankee and Rebel, have an affinity for showing the atrocities of other nations but not the atrocities committed here.  American slavery was one of the most brutal systems of slavery the world has ever seen. Nat Turner massacred white men, women, and children because he felt that a bloody revolt was the necessary path.  John Brown also felt this way.  He and his followers pulled slavery-supporting men from their beds, leaving their wives and children to find their murdered bodies in the morning on the lawn.  Sherman’s march was total war:  a scorched earth terror campaign.  Terrorist acts were quite common on both sides.

So, think about Bloody July this year and all those who died 150 years ago.  I’m willing to assert that every soldier who served felt that no one would forget the Civil War, regardless of whether they lived or died.  It would be “one for the history books” ….books which no longer exist, at least in most New York City Public Schools.

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