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Complexities of Civil War Deserve Discussion

The Confederate flag reflects slavery and other Civil War causes. Slaveholders and non-slaveholders fought for both the Confederacy and Union. Lincoln said if he could save the Union by either maintaining or abolishing slavery, he would. Lincoln’s belated Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves where he couldn’t (the deep South), and didn’t where he could (Maryland, Delaware, Missouri, Kentucky, Washington DC). Lincoln issued the Proclamation to inject a moral cause into the war, and keep Britain out of it.

Lincoln removed Gen. John Fremont from command (1861) for freeing Confederate slaves.

Lincoln claimed he didn’t have the power to end slavery, but could stop its geographic expansion.

If “offensive” icons should be banned, what’s next? The Mexican, Islamic, Israeli, U.S. and Rainbow flags? Christian cross? Communist flags?

Some Union generals had owned slaves. Confederate General Robert E. Lee freed his family’s slaves, and believed slavery was morally wrong and would die out from “the influence of Christianity.” Lee was fighting for Virginia sovereignty.

Slavery was a background cause of the Civil War. Among the immediate causes that sparked Southern secession were: Lincoln’s election; states rights; tariffs and other economic issues; cultural, political and demographic differences; the Confederate firing on Ft. Sumter in Charleston Harbor; and belief in the precedent of a confederacy of independent states like the first United States government was under the Articles of Confederation when America seceded from Britain. South Carolina nearly seceded in 1832 resisting Congress’s Tariff of Abominations until President Jackson sent the U.S. Revenue Marine into Charleston Harbor. New England threatened to secede from the U.S. During the War of 1812-15 over trade embargo policies.

The South believed it legally seceded from the Union, and the U.S. invaded the South. The Rebels had to protect their families and homeland. Most Southerners did not own slaves. The initial and primary Federal objective, and the motivation of most Union military and naval personnel, was to preserve the Union by crushing the Confederate rebellion.

Historian Kenneth M. Stampp’s classic study, The Causes of the Civil War, required 244 pages to explain the origins of the bloody conflict. Professor Stampp chronicled the immorality of slavery; uncompromising agitators and politicians; economic sectionalism; religious conflicts; the plantation aristocracy; nationalism and patriotism; geographic and regional differences; and the conflicting cultural histories and demographics that prevented compromise. That slavery stimulated the war is undisputed, but Professor Stamp details a myriad of other motivational and causal factors.

As did the eminent Civil War historian James McPherson in his book, What They Fought For. McPherson listed slavery; the desire to preserve the Confederacy and Union; economic geography; peer pressure; male bonding; coercion; vengeance for killed and wounded comrades and civilians; religion; ideologies; preservation of historical legacies; patriotism and nationalism (loyalty to a Southern state or the Union); constitutional and political liberty; freedom and independence; protecting “home and hearth;” racism; and personal pride and devotion to duty.

History is political, ideological, and difficult to teach as instructors and textbook authors respond to politics, markets, and interest groups. But history is a rigorous academic discipline. It needs to be researched, studied, analyzed, written (historiography), and memorized.

History should be taught in a balanced and objective way to assess cultures and nations by the standards of the period being studied, and not contaminated by ex-post facto judgments using contemporary standards imposed on past cultures. Ex post facto legislation and laws are unconstitutional. Ex post facto history is academically problematic.

It is difficult to learn sophisticated history if politically correct crusaders isolate, destroy, or ban controversial cultural artifacts. Different historical interpretations and scholars should be treated with civility and respect, not censored or demonized.

The Confederate flag could be used to stimulate discussions of the following questions: Was the Civil War only about slavery? Which political party led the Confederacy, owned slaves, and advocated segregation up through the 1970s? Discuss the Democrat and Republican legislation and court decisions that ended slavery and segregation? South Carolina’s compelling decision to remove the flag from government property. Should that flag fly in schools and museums? And, the evolution of the “Blue” state South to “Red.”

The blending of historical and contemporary issues would provide enriching teachable moments.

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