17 January 2011 by Published in: General musings 8 comments

Harold Jackson is the editorial page editor for The Philadelphia Inquirer, the paper that I grew up reading. He is an African-American, and here is his take on whether to celebrate or commemorate the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War:

Commemorate, don’t celebrate Civil War’s 150th

By Harold Jackson

Inquirer Opinion Columnist
A number of years ago while in Biloxi, Miss., on assignment for the Baltimore Sun to report on the Gulf Coast’s casino industry, I took advantage of some down time to visit Beauvoir, the final home of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy.

Only a handful of other visitors were there on that chilly, early fall day. They stared at me as much as they did the antique furniture and memorabilia in the antebellum house built in 1852. No doubt they were curious as to why a black man might be paying homage to Davis.

I wasn’t. I was there to see if there were any signs in Davis’ artifacts of his mentality in leading a rebellion to preserve an economic system based on the capture, sale, and further subjugation of fellow human beings who just happened to be of a different skin color.

I didn’t find any answers. But that day comes to mind now as I look at the ways the former Confederate states are observing this year’s sesquicentennial of the Civil War. Adding poignancy to the moment is the fact that they are making plans to commemorate the rebellion fought to perpetuate slavery even as the nation celebrates the 25th anniversary of the Martin Luther King’s Birthday federal holiday.

Special events are being held in at least 21 states, including Pennsylvania, to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, which officially began when secessionists fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C., on April 12, 1861.

A week ago, cadets from the Citadel, South Carolina’s historic military college, fired cannons on Morris Island in Charleston Harbor to reenact the January 1861 shelling of a ship that had tried to reinforce U.S. troops at Fort Sumter. That’s another site I visited years ago, looking for answers in the ruins to explain the war that had begun there. I didn’t find any.

In my home state of Alabama, Civil War reenactors are planning to parade through Montgomery to the state Capitol on Feb. 19 to re-create the swearing-in of Davis. They will also raise a Confederate flag, but not on the main pole of the Capitol dome, which is only a stone’s throw from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955.

The Confederate flag did fly on the dome’s pole for about 30 years until 1993, when black legislators won a lawsuit that ended the practice that had begun during the civil-rights era. “I’d love to see it up there, but that’s not going to happen,” said Thomas Strain Jr., a board member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Mississippi began its commemoration of the Civil War this month with a reading at Vicksburg National Military Park of that state’s Ordinance of Secession and a reenactment of rebels in 1861 firing from the bluffs of Vicksburg on a commercial steamboat that they believed was carrying U.S. troops.

In observing the war’s sesquicentennial, Virginia is taking pains to note that although Richmond succeeded Montgomery as the capital of the Confederacy, the state originally voted by a 2-1 ratio not to secede. Paul Levengood, president of the Virginia Historical Society, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that the moment of secession should be recognized, but not celebrated.

Commemorate, don’t celebrate. I like that perspective for how the former Confederate states should observe the war’s anniversary. I know, however, that there are people who will use this opportunity to again try to spin history to perpetuate the lie that the war wasn’t about slavery, that it was about states’ rights.

OK, but the right that the rebel states wanted so badly was to continue slavery.

It’s understandable that people want to justify their ancestors’ participation in a war. Even today, people are trying to rationalize their sons’ and daughters’ fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan when they’re not really sure they should be over there.

Some months ago, I was on an airplane leaving Killeen, Texas, home of Fort Hood, and heard two fellow passengers discussing the wars we are in. The women were very proud of their husband and son in the military. But the wife, almost in the same breath in which she declared they “are fighting for us,” admitted she didn’t know why our troops were still there.

The answer will be left to the writers of history. Let’s hope they do better than the numerous book writers who romanticized the Confederacy and made slavery seem like a benign institution in which the benevolence of good masters kept people who otherwise were incapable of fending for themselves from dying of starvation.

A recent article in the Anniston, Ala., Star noted that for decades after the Civil War, the United Daughters of the Confederacy had provided an approved list of textbooks for Alabama public schools. Students were taught that the Confederates had fought for a noble cause but lost. “The South lost the war, but they won the history,” Jacksonville State University professor Jennifer Gross told the Star, quoting a past teacher.

Through the end of this year, we will see various attempts to win the history, to obscure the truth that led to the Southern states’ secession, to ignore that the Civil War’s aftermath included a brutal backlash against black Americans for having been the catalyst for the South’s pain, to glorify soldiers who fought on the wrong side of glory.

Speaking of glory, one of my most prized possessions is something I bought during my Charleston visit, which included a guided tour of Fort Sumter – a copy of a Thomas Nast engraving for Harper’s Weekly depicting the 54th Massachusetts regiment’s ill-fated charge at Fort Wagner. Led by white officers, the 54th was an otherwise all-black unit.

In this sesquicentennial year of the Civil War, my thoughts will be on those who, like the men of the 54th, fought to preserve the Union and end slavery. And I’ll celebrate the soldiers in the civil-rights movement who followed them, including King, many of whom also gave their lives in the fight for freedom and equality.

In reading this, I can understand Mr. Jackson’s viewpoint. As an African-American, his focus on slavery as THE cause of the Civil War is completely understandable, and I completely agree with his statement that it is appropriate to commemorate but not to celebrate the Civil War. However, I have some different thoughts on this issue.

There is no question that slavery was probably the most important issue that triggered the Civil War, but it surely was not the only one. To say that the war was about slavery alone simply does not do it justice, nor does it reflect the feelings/sentiments of the many Southerners who fought not to perpetuate slavery but to defend their states and to pursue a vision of states rights that they shared. There certainly were plenty of Southerners who fought for the Confederacy who never owned slaves. To simply lump all Southerners into a single category of advocates for slavery is unfair and is likewise historically inaccurate.

I do agree that there was nothing to celebrate in our great national blood-letting. However, the sacrifices of both sides should be commemorated, and the moment of secession needs to be commemorated as the turning point in the development of this country. As a member of the Governor of Ohio’s Advisory Commission on the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, I can attest to the fact that we have wrestled with this issue as recently as last week, when we had a spirited and lengthy discussion about what role the Confederate flag should play in events that have the imprimatur of the Commission. This is an issue that should intrigue anyone with even a passing interest in these events.

This op-ed column plainly shows that there are many ways in which we Americans remember the Civil War. I’m not saying that he’s wrong, as he’s entitled to his opinion. I will, however, say that I disagree with some of what he says. My disagreement, though, does not make his opinion any less valid than mine. Let us hope that as the Sesquicentennial unfolds, we can have civil discussions about what it means and commemorate the event that made this nation into the United States of America.

Scridb filter


  1. RichardS
    Mon 17th Jan 2011 at 5:14 pm

    I am finding myself agreeing with both Mr. Jackson and Mr. Wittenberg. We need to commemorate the Civil War, but celebrate the ending of it and the start of the nation we now know as the United States of America. What part should the Confederate flag play? It needs to be included, but not given a special place above/beyond the US (Union) flag. The Confederate NATIONAL flag has not been co-opted by hate groups the Battle Flag has and since we’re really talking about the Confederacy and not simply the Confederate Army perhaps that is the way to go?

  2. Richard Pruitt
    Mon 17th Jan 2011 at 5:57 pm

    I have no problems with the ideas expressed by Mr Jackson or Mr Wittenberg. Both have valuable opinions. Too bad Mr Jackson does not leave a plug for the 1st Battalion Corps d’Afrique, or the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry. Both of these were fine Black units that had excellent service records. If it had not been for the Mathew Broderick/Denzil Washington movie would people be aware of the 54th Massachusetts? I wish more people would study up on famous Civil War units. There many fine examples out there.

    Richard Pruitt

  3. Chris Evans
    Mon 17th Jan 2011 at 10:32 pm

    I agree. Excellent thought provoking response to Jackson’s column by Eric. I totally agree that the sacrifices of both sides should be recognized. It is so hard to imagine being in their shoes. The soldiers that were in the battles were essentially experiencing hell on earth certainly deserve are respect. I can’t begin to imagine the privations experienced on both sides.

  4. jldinkelaker
    Mon 17th Jan 2011 at 11:00 pm

    Thanks for posting this op-ed, I found I agreed with most of Jackson’s argument. Whenever you mention the Civil War and slavery, there is going to a discussion. But I couldn’t agree more that slavery was THE cause of the Civil War. The secession conventions that voted to leave the Union specifically stated they were leaving over slavery – Mississippi’s Declaration of Causes for her leaving the Union states that, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.”

    You say that, “Many Southerners fought not to perpetuate slavery but to defend their states and to pursue a vision of states rights that they shared. There certainly were plenty of Southerners who fought for the Confederacy who never owned slaves.”
    And while I agree that many southerners never owned slaves, that statement does exclude the war from being about slavery. You cannot deny that when a man donned the rebel gray, he was fighting for the Confederate government, a government that was based on the right to own slaves. Personal enlistment reasons aside, even if a soldier didn’t own slaves, he was still fighting for that right.

    To say anything but the institution of slavery was THE cause of the Civil War does not do the conflict and slaughter of roughly 620,000 men justice.

  5. Raphe A. Whaley
    Tue 18th Jan 2011 at 7:52 pm

    I couldn’t agree more with your analysis. To deny the fact that slavery was a leading cause of the war is basically ridiculous, but there is no question that there were a myriad of reasons that the war was fought for. We simply cannot accurately understand the people of that time and the decisions they made based on our 21st century ideals and beliefs. Thanks for the posting and keep up the great work!

  6. kevin a kearns
    Tue 18th Jan 2011 at 11:31 pm

    they might not have known it but even the non-slaveowners were fighting at least over slavery.

  7. Wed 19th Jan 2011 at 6:39 pm

    I think we have to keep in mind that there are a lot of separate issues that are usually lumped together here. They are related, but not the same.

    The first issue is why did the South seceed? Simply, they stated that the primary reason was the preservation of slavery. Many other issues were included as justification, including tariffs and state’s rights. State’s rights is the one that is quoted most often, but is also the least valid, for the southern states had no concern whatsoever about state’s rights when it came to the Fugitive Slave Act. If one were to argue that the South seceeded in order to preserve it’s political power (having been the dominant region for much of the history of the country), that would bear more weight, but that argument isn’t often presented as the main motivation to retain that power would be to preserve slavery.

    The Union, however, didn’t go to war to end slavery, but rather to preserve the Union. If the southern states had been allowed to leave when they thought they might no longer get their way, the central government would have become powerless. Any decision that displeased a single region would be grounds for that region to leave the Union. That it ended up ending slavery tends to confuse the issue.

    However, the cause of the war or the reasons his side was fighting were not always the reason any particular soldier was fighting the war. Protecting their homes, proving their manhood, seeking excitement, showing their patriotism, fighting for what was right, state’s rights and hundreds of other reasons were motivators for enlistment.

    I don’t think that identifying slavery as the cause of the war makes Confederate soldiers into individual advocates of slavery. It merely identifies why the war happened. If slavery had somehow disappeared before 1860, none of the other issues would have brought about a war.

    There were, of course, at least 180,000 men for whom ending slavery was a main motivator….

  8. John Foskett
    Sun 23rd Jan 2011 at 12:34 pm

    Valid points are made by both Jackson and Eric. I do think that there are two problems which Jackson’s editorial properly targets. First, there is zero question that but for slavery, Lincoln’s election, and the perception throughout at least the deep South that his election meant a constriction of slavery’s expansion if not outright abolition, there would have been no secession – and, therefore, no war. Whether any individual enlisted to fight for slavery or for other reasons really doesn’t matter because there can be no doubt as to why there was need for enlistment in the first place. (And Chandra Manning’s What This Cruel War Was Over shows that many more enlistees saw defense of slavery as a reason to fight than has always been assumed). Second, Jackson’s point about “celebrating” the War reflects the fact that there are still a lot of “Lost Cause” types who simply refuse to acknowledge some simple truths about why there was a war – understandably, because nobody in his or her right mind wants to defend an inherently evil institution. It’s a fine line between “celebrating” and “commemorating”, to be sure, but I understand the point. I do see a difference between recalling the sacrifices of soldiers on both sides at a Gettysburg or a Shiloh, on the one hand, and commemorating secession, on the other. The first honors something only indirectly connected to the “peculiar institution”. The second honors an act which was clearly intended to preserve that institution.

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