What was the root cause of the American Civil War ...
American Civil War slaves In a new three-part Sunday Feature series on Radio 3, Dr Adam Smith, Senior Lecturer in American History at University College London looks at the American Civil War
American Civil War slaves
In a new three-part Sunday Feature series on Radio 3, Dr Adam Smith, Senior Lecturer in American History at University College London looks at the American Civil War
I’ve been researching and writing about the American Civil War – on and off – for ten years but making these programmes has made me think about it in new ways. It is 150 years to the week since South Carolinian artillery opened fire on a Federal fort in Charleston harbour and the war to establish a separate Southern republic began. More than 600,000soldiers were killed in a four-year war that led, in the end, to the emancipation of four million black slaves in the American South.
History, of course, is always re-written by each generation and as a professional historian myself I am fascinated by those issues where scholars disagree and consensus seems impossible to reach. But approaching this subject anew with the producers of this series brought home to me the fact that these areas of disagreement are really about details – on the really big questions, scholars are now in complete agreement. None of the historians we spoke to for these programmes – and no others that we could have found – dispute the fact that the war was caused, fundamentally, by slavery (although they disagree vehemently about precisely how slavery caused the war).
There were other issues, to be sure, that agitated northerners and southerners in the years leading up to the war, but all are related pretty directly to slavery. Slavery was not the prime motivation for most northern soldiers when the war began, but most of them came to the view that in order to end the rebellion and prevent such treason from happening again, slavery had to be uprooted. Most southern soldiers were not slaveholders and they were fighting for hearth and home, yet the society of which they were a part depended on slavery. It was bound up into their way of understanding the world. So there is no getting away from slavery as the core issue – its role in creating the circumstances in which war could happen and the way in which it shaped the way the war unfolded.
But one of the things we wanted to do in this series was not just talk to historians – interesting though someone like me would think that is – but also to get a measure of how the Civil War still echoes in American culture today.
And here we came upon an interesting problem. Scholars may be in agreement about what the war was ‘about’ but, as one of our contributors, Ed Ayers, put it, there is a ‘folk memory’ out there that is very hard to shift. Despite the best efforts of many popular historians and National Park Service rangers, the scholars’ war remains detached from the public memory of the war to a remarkable extent. At a Civil War site in Virginia we spoke to a southern white man who told us quite movingly about his need to honour his ancestors who had died for the Confederacy. He wasn’t a racist and he certainly wasn’t defending slavery, but somehow the analytical categories used by academic historians couldn’t capture his sense of the need to square what seems an impossible circle – turning a bitter, fratricidal war into a process of nation-building and thus giving meaning to the sacrifice even of those who died for the losing side.