The Civil War is a fascinating subject for historians. This sample research paper explores the knowledge surrounding the Civil War, with particular emphasis on the narrative of America’s troubled history with race relations.
A common meta-narrative surrounding the American Civil War deals with each side’s motivation for fighting: the North fought to preserve the Union, while the Confederacy fought to preserve “states’ rights,” which tends to deemphasize the role racial slavery played in the nation’s history. Furthermore, when slavery is discussed, it is depoliticized and the North is often glorified for fighting for black American interests, subsequently minimizing the racial tension that fraught the United States, in both the North and South.
This paper will thoroughly describe the non-racial knowledge that has been subjugated around the Civil War, connect this knowledge to the grand narrative of this nation’s history, and discuss how it problematizes general knowledge by downplaying its significance in America’s history, ultimately outlining that ignorance of race relations in this country has only led to more racial tension.
First, dissecting the story behind Northern and Southern motivations for the War shines light on how and why the knowledge subjugated around the Civil War commonly whitewashes issues like slavery and racism, pun intended. Deemphasizing slavery by focusing history on the idea that the North fought to keep states united and that the South seceded in the name of states’ rights does two important things:
- it diminishes the role racism played in American history
- it allows racism to be hidden behind states’ rights rhetoric rather than discussed in honest terms
So, what was the reason for the conflit of the Civil War?
The North did fight for unity among states, but such unity called for an economy that did not rely on slave labor (Zinn 177). The South did secede claiming state’s rights, but those “rights” were to own “property” as they wished, i.e. human beings of African descent. Thus, this meta-narrative serves to keep history one-degree removed from the heart of the matter: slavery’s legacy has conferred social and economic inferiority upon black Americans and instilled cultural racism in white Americans (Loewen 143).
This subjugated knowledge even goes a step further in hiding the ball regarding race relations in the United States by romanticizing the role the Union played in African American’s change of social status. When discussing this topic, it is important to look to common historical texts that are used to tell the story of the American Civil War–school textbooks. Textbooks tend to describe history in terms of the “right” people, armed with the “right” ideas, winning almost all of the time (Loewen 173).
Rasism and slavery just a part of the Union cause
This misguided conception of history certainly applies to the knowledge subjugated about the Civil War, particularly when humanitarian rhetoric is attached to the narrative that the North fought to free slaves. In this narrative, the heroism attributed to the Union serves to deny the reality that the majority of Northern whites contested, just as Southern whites would during the Reconstruction, with the unprecedented opportunities of freed slaves to elevate their political, economic, and social status (Coker 3).
In reality, just as John Hope Franklin states,
“No American can be pleased with the treatment of Negro Americans, North or South, in the years before the Civil war.”
It is important not to lose the understanding that the Union went against slavery only so far as slavery went against its own interests (McPherson 9). America would only end slavery under conditions carefully controlled by whites, and only when required to by the political and economic needs of the business elite of the North (Zinn 176).
Change in the social status of African Americans caused white workers to protest bitterly against the freed slaves’ newly found competitive position in the work force (Litwack 5). In fact, “bitterness” is an understatement. For example, in response to the legendary Gettysburg Address, the Times declared that dead Union soldiers
“were men possessing too much self-respect to declare that Negroes were their equals, or were entitled to equal privileges” (Goldberg 79).
This is hardly the picture of the romanticized story of the humanitarian North fighting against the barbaric South to end the anachronistic evil of slavery in the name of freedom.
Subjugated knowledge of the Civil War
This story, or the knowledge that has been carefully subjugated to craft this story, lends itself to the ultimate grand narrative that the repercussions of slavery are fully in America’s past, not attached to the present. Treating the issue of slavery in the United States without discussing the racism tied to it serves to separate the two entities and deny that racism is a legacy of slavery that must still be dealt with today. After all, understanding the past and why the Civil War began is critically important as it informs virtually all of the attitudes about race that are wrestled with today. Since ideas and ideologies played an especially important role in the Civil War era (Loewen 173), presenting the complicated racial history of the United States with such a rudimentary view of the struggle reveals why the relationship between racism and slavery is so poorly understood in society.
Civil war leads to civil rights
Unfortunately, subjugating knowledge in this manner has had significant impact on history, problematizing general knowledge in many ways. As one result, unlike thedisgraced Nazi swastika, certain Americans still proudly display the Confederate flag (Loewen 196) and promote the symbol as “heritage not hate.” Instead of feeling shame for slavery, it is as if racism against blacks can be remembered with a certain sense of nostalgia (Loewen 197). Furthermore, America’s failure to allow African Americans equal rights after the Civil War eventually led to the need for the Civil Rights Movement a century later (Loewen 137). Even today, racism can still be couched in terms of the preservation of “state rights.” Take for example the recent gutting of the Voting Rights Act and the Supreme Court’s justification for it.
In conclusion, the struggle over racial slavery may be the predominant theme in American history (Loewen 137) and should not be ignored or downplayed in any degree. Although the causes of rcism are a complicated historical issue, it is important to understand the dynamic interplay between slavery as a socioeconomic system and racism as the overlying ideological system (Loewen 143). The ideological system of racism has long outlived the socioeconomic system of slavery (Loewen 144) and learning from history in this way helps to prevent repetition of it.
Coker, Paul E. Is This the Fruit of Freedom? Black Civil War Veterans in Tennessee. Diss. University of Tennessee, 2011. Print.
Franklin, John Hope. Journal of Negro Education. 1961.
Friedman, Ben. “Confederate flag as a symbol of culture, not hate.” The Crimson White. Web. 22 Nov. 2010.
Goldberg, M. Hirsh. The Book of Lies. New York: Morrow, 1990. Print.
Litwack, Leon F. North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States 1790–1860. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009. Print.
Loewen, James W. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. 2nd ed. New York: Touchstone, 2007. Print.
McPherson, James M. The Negro’s Civil War: How American Blacks Felt and Acted During the War for the Union. New York: Random House, 2008. Print.
Zinn, Howard. “Slavery without Submission, Emancipation without Freedom.” History is a Weapon: A People’s History of the United States. New York: HarpersCollins, 2005. 171–211. Print.