Back in Ireland when I grew up, Easter was a very serious affair. In my hometown of Youghal many shops closed for the entire week, as you might expect in a country at that time vying with Poland, Spain and the Philippines as the most intensely Catholic country on the planet. Throw into the mix the Easter Rising of 1916 and you had a very heavy anniversary, albeit a pretty buoyant one, with the churches decked out with spring flowers, and the risen Christ flanked in popular memory by the Easter Rising’s martyrs. The seven who had signed the proclamation of an Irish Republic were all executed along with eight others. De Valera escaped death because his mother was an American and Britain did not want to risk alienating the US, whose entry into the First World War on the British side was — as with the Second World War — their prime concern.
The Easter Rising led to the War of Independence and thence to the Irish Civil War of 1922-24, a very savage affair, fought between Irish nationalists on the issue of the Anglo-Irish Treaty with the British, which established Dominion status for Ireland (a self-governing “free state,” but still part of the British Empire) with the right of exclusion (to be left out) for loyalist Northern Ireland.
The Republicans counted this as a horrible betrayal, committed by Michael Collins, the “Big Fellow,” hero of the War of Independence and subsequently leader of the Free Staters. He famously remarked as he put his name to the 1921 Treaty with Britain, “…I tell you, I have signed my death warrant.” Indeed he had, being killed the following year by Republicans in a roadside ambush in west Cork. Across the months of the Civil War men who had stood shoulder to shoulder in the War of Independence were now consumed with internecine passions, the Free Staters shooting their prisoners without mercy, provoking commensurate revenge. The Free Staters won the Civil War, the Republicans prevailed in the longer struggle, with their political party, Fianna Fail, ultimately degenerating into the government which across the past few months has signed away Ireland’s future to European bankers.
The Irish Civil War left indelible bitterness, as civil wars always do. I remember singing lustily, somewhere in the late 1960s, along with Sean Geraghty — or was it his brother Des? — back in the day,
“Take it down from the mast, Irish traitors, The flag we Republicans claim. It can never belong to Free Staters. You brought on it nothing but shame…
“You've taken our brave Liam and Rory, You've murdered young Richard and Joe. Your hands with their blood are still gory, From fulfilling the work of the foe.
“For we stand with Enright and Larkin, With Daley and Sullivan bold. We'll break down the English connection, And bring back the nation you sold…”
So Civil Wars are not forgotten, but their outbreaks and their conclusions are not really material for collective, national anniversary rejoicings.
Indeed, for a nation that that loves anniversaries, the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the American civil war—April 12, 1861—crept by on tiptoe, like a burglar slipping through a darkened house. This is nothing new.
My CounterPunch co-editor, Jeffrey St Clair, just back in Oregon after a visit to his home state of Indiana, remarked that in Indiana, “the only Civil War memorials I noticed were several odd tributes: Morgan's Raiders, the Confederate forays into southern Indiana led by Col. John Hunt Morgan designed to spark the Copperhead Party to rise up in an insurgency campaign north of the Ohio. This in a state which reared Lincoln!”
Notoriously, the Civil War was, given the size of the population at the time, a fearful killer. All told, at least 630,000 died — 2% of the population — from the three million who fought it; at Gettysburg, the single bloodiest engagement, around 50,000 fell across the three-day battle, more than the entire body count of Americans in the Vietnam war. And of course, the Civil War defined American politics for the next 100 years and is still a potent specter.
The reason for this eerie semi-silence is not hard to find. The Civil War is contested political terrain, particularly in the racist backwash after the 1960s and the civil rights movement which naturally looked back on the Civil War as one in which tens of thousands of Americans gave their lives for the principle that all are born free and slavery a shameful blot on any society.
These days we live in the shadow of Nixon’s southern strategy, which became Reagan’s southern strategy and is now standard issue campaign politics for the Republican Party: Play the racist card, throw money at think tanks to churn out papers containing great onslaughts on quotas, deride all attempts to level the racial playing field. Speak “frankly” about the supposed pathologies of the black family.
Meanwhile, up north, the forthright honoring of a war waged for honorable principles has faded amid revisionist histories of what the war was really about. Add to this a general wan feeling that the fruits for a terrible conflict were the appalling racism of the Reconstruction Period after the Civil War, when the Ku Klux Klan began to burn and lynch, and the migration of southern slaves and their descendants from the Deep South to the slums of Chicago and other northern cities. Ahead lay decades of poverty and oppression that prompted the riots of the 1960s.
So the Civil War is a dangerous football to start kicking around on network tv, bad for the advertising business, except for the deadened hand of Ken Burns. The arrival of a black man to the White House has naturally intensified these divisions.
CounterPuncher Kevin Alexander Gray, a black radical living in Columbia, South Carolina, not so long ago in our newsletter remembered — amid a brilliant evocation of current efforts across the South to honor the Confederacy — burning the Confederate flag a few years ago, outside the state capitol.
“I was talking on the phone to a white, liberal friend a day or so before we burned the rebel flag. She asked me, ‘Why are you doing this?’ and ‘Who’s putting you up to this?’ I said it’s what I think of the flag and what it stands for — slavery, racial oppression, a privileged, landed class, white supremacy and patriarchy and a deep-seated belief in the very existence and rightness of the Confederacy. Those who fought and died under the Confederate flag were willing to die for the expansion of slavery. This, not some vision of mint juleps and ladies in ringlets and lace, is the ‘heritage’ that modern Confederates defend when they champion this flag and the Confederacy. For most Americans, let alone most African Americans, the men who died under the Confederate battle flag were not heroes; they were traitors to the fundamental notion of human freedom’.”
Incidentally, Kevin advises that, “If you’re going to burn a flag make sure it’s cotton — not that synthetic, man-made, plastic-like material. The synthetic material melts and drips little fireballs. Whatever the material, soak it overnight in kerosene or lighter fluid. The cotton Nazi flag went up in a flash. The store-bought synthetic Confederate flag burned so much slower that we had to keep squirting it with Zippo lighter fluid much to the delight of the rednecks surrounding us who sang ‘Our flag won’t burn, our flag won’t burn’ to the tune of Dixie. A middle-aged, long gray hair, white guy in the crowd yelled out, ‘We’ll see you in hillbilly hell.’”
These days many southern states have celebrations of “Confederate History Month,” basically a glorification of the Confederacy and thus, in Gray’s words, “about white resistance to black advances.” Nonetheless historians of an emphatically leftist bent make the argument that it’s quite legitimate to ask whether the Civil War was worth it, in terms of destruction and the questionable outcome, so far as African-Americans were and are concerned. Former New Left Review editor Robin Blackburn, author of the classic Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, also the recent An Unfinished Revolution: Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln, pointed out on our CounterPunch site recently that slavery remained legal in Union states for months after the Civil War broke out and that Lincoln grudgingly gave his support for a Constitutional Amendment, never ratified, that would have renounced any right or ability to challenge slavery and reserved to the slave states themselves the entire responsibility for regulating slavery.
It wasn’t until 1863 that the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment clearly put the Union in the right.
Blackburn says flatly that
“In the US case acquiescence in secession would have allowed the North and the West to become a large and progressive state, a sort of vast and diversified Canada, hospitable to free labor, social protection and gun control. The Confederacy meanwhile, would have become a republican version of the ramshackle Brazilian Empire, a major slave society that eventually managed to shed slavery in a largely peaceful manner… In this context a willingness on the part of the United States to admit the possibility that the war was not the best response to Secession would be a healthy sign.”
Like other major historical turning points, “what ifs” hang over the Civil War. Winston Churchill once wrote an amusing essay, “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg,” actually premised on a victory by Lee and exploring the consequences. On one of the Civil War historical websites I ran across this optimistic posting:
“If the Confederate States of America had won, North America would be made up of 3 countries, Canada, USA, and CSA. I suspect USA would not have joined WWI against Germany and as a result it would have been a stalemate: no humiliating Versailles Treaty and Hitler would be a footnote. Without Nazi Germany and WWII, no Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Because CSA lacked manufacturing capability, it would have been forced into creating manufacturing industries by importing European technologies and immigrants which in turn would have changed their agrarian society into an industrialized one similar to the one North. Slavery would have died but at a pace dictated by economy.”
Robin’s equable suggestion that the war could have been avoided by the exercise of dispassionate predictive estimate of the ultimate costs seems to me to be off, as do efforts to demonstrate that the Civil War was somehow not about slavery. Karl Marx, Lincoln’s great admirer, saw that it was. Compared to the tinny, often hypocritical squeals for “humanitarian intervention” these days, the abolitionist cause was a mighty chorale, consuming national debate for decades, prompting duels in Congress and amid the people, an intensity of passion that prompted all white juries in the north to nullify laws requiring return of runaway slaves. These were not op ed disputes between Washington think tankers.
Indeed the Abolitionists, a hugely powerful moral force, far more potent in lobbying power than the Tea Party today, preferred to argue against slavery on the basis of Biblical moral injunction, rather that the US Constitution, which recognized the right of secession.
In fact one of the aims of Robin Blackburn’s piece is to retrospectively attack the idea of humanitarian intervention and re-establish the right of secession, so if Vermont or Alaska wants to proclaim independence, the leaders won’t suffer the same fate as the Branch Davidians. Don’t bet on it. Todd Palin would be toast, just like David Koresh.
There’s a coda here, the deteriorating lives of millions of Americans of all races, the very reverse of Blackburn’s hopes for his hypothetical “large and progressive state,” as Made-in-the South phenomena like runaway, union free factories, Walmart, plus a prison gulag of around three million, advertise what capitalism has delivered. The first act of the Republicans in Congress, after the Southern delegations quit Washington on the outbreak of the Civil War, was to set up a national banking system, anchored in New York. The first use of fiat money — Greenbacks — in the United States was in 1862, created to pay for the Civil War’s enormous cost. The nation was on its way to the rise of the robber barons, to gold bugs, to the military-industrial complex, to JPMorgan/Chase and Goldman Sachs and Quantitative Easing.
Alexander Cockburn can be reached at email@example.com.