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April 13, 2011

The “New” American Civil War

Kevin E. Dayhoff

At 4:30 A.M. on Friday, April 12, 1861, the first shots of the American Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter, in the Charleston, SC harbor. We’ve been fighting the Civil War ever since.


With the outbreak of the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Battle of Fort Sumter, one may only imagine that we will re-fight the Civil War for the next four years.


According to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 56 percent of Americans believe that the Civil War is still relevant today and 39 percent say the Civil War “is important historically but has little current relevance.”


For me, it was the discussions and events during the 100th year anniversary of the Civil War that, in part, gave me a lifelong passion for studying history – especially economic history.


I tend to agree with Roger L. Ransom, of the University of California, Riverside, who penned “The Economics of the Civil War,” for the Economic History Association on August 24, 2001:


“The Civil War has been something of an enigma for scholars studying American history. During the first half of the twentieth century, historians viewed the war as a major turning point in American economic history.


“Charles Beard labeled it ‘Second American Revolution,’ claiming that ‘at bottom the so-called Civil War – was a social war, ending in the unquestioned establishment of a new power in the government, making vast changes – in the course of industrial development, and in the Constitution inherited from the Fathers’ (Beard and Beard 1927: 53)…”


Dr. Ransom goes on to explain that the Civil War cost “a total of $6.6 billion” in 1860 dollars.”


However, any discussion of the current relevance of the war must explore the financing of the Civil War: “In 1862 Congress authorized the U.S. Treasury to issue currency notes that were not backed by gold. By the end of the war, the treasury had printed more than $250 million worth of these "Greenbacks" and, together with the issue of gold-backed notes, the printing of money accounted for 18 percent of all government revenues…”


The need to codify, organize, and structure the country’s banking system was exacerbated by the war. “In 1862 Congress finally passed legislation creating the National Banking System. Their motive was not only to institute the program of banking reform pressed for many years by the Whigs and the Republican…,” according to Dr. Ransom.


Pew also notes that “[t]here is no consensus among the public about the primary cause of the Civil War, but more (48%) say that the war was mainly about states' rights than say it was mainly about slavery (38%). Another 9% volunteer that it was about both equally.”


For a thought-provoking discussion of why the South seceded, take note of the James W. Loewen piece in The Washington Post on February 26, “Five Myths about why the South seceded.”


Nothing may identify the Civil War as our nation’s cathartic struggle over the institution of slavery more than Mississippi’s secession declaration, which passed on January 9, 1861. It proclaimed: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world… Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of the commerce of the earth. A blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.”


Although the first shots of the Civil War are attributed to have taken place on April 12, 1861, it may be argued that the War Between the States began as early as when the first written record of African slaves arriving in what we now know as the United States is said to have occurred in Jamestown (VA) in August 1619.


According to an account in The Washington Post written on September 6, 2006 by Lisa Rein, “John Rolfe, Virginia's first tobacco planter and husband of the Indian princess Pocahontas, wrote the widely held account of the African landing in a letter to the Virginia Company of London.


“The captain of a Dutch warship that arrived in Jamestown in August 1619 ‘brought not anything but 20 and odd Negroes, wch the Governor and Cape Marchant bought for victuale . . . at the best and easyest rate they could.’ ”


From 1619 to 1861, the study of American history is a narrative over our nation struggling with what to do with America’s “peculiar institution,” slavery.


In the 1860 and 1861 time period, many in the South believed that there would be no war over the “confederation” that had seceded from the Union.


The subsequent conflict, considered by many historians to have been history’s first “modern war,” was immeasurably horrific. The newly minted killing apparatus of the warring parties unleashed a relentless horror and slaughter of unimagined proportions that involved over three-million men in uniform and “resulted in 1,030,000 casualties (3% of the U.S. population), including 620,000 soldier deaths,” according to another thought-provoking essay, “Why Visit a Civil War Battlefield,” by Scot Faulkner.


Fifty years later, like a moth to the flame, I continue to be fascinated by the war many years after I have come to understand that the war is the story of untold suffering.


It seems that not a day passes in which impassioned Civil War enthusiasts engage in disagreements over the who, what, when, where and how of the conflict which draws even thoughtful historians into a rationalized, romanticized and sanitized academic debate.


As we begin to re-fight the American Civil War, let’s hope that 150 years later we make a special effort to respectfully honor the fallen fathers, sons, brothers, and husbands that perished into 620,000 personal tragedies.


The American Civil War is what may have been our great nation’s darkest hour, when our country marched to the precipice and gazed into the abyss of hell and saw our reflection.


. . . . . I’m just saying. . . . .


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