Campus News

April 11, 2011

Civil War anniversary: Lessons to learn

On the eve of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, historian James Roark says Americans still have lessons to learn from that era.

"As we're dealing with issues of race, we ask questions about the Civil War," says Roark, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of American History. "As we're dealing with questions of state sovereignty and federalism, we ask questions about the Civil War."

Historical misperceptions

Among those questions are misperceptions that still persist, says Roark.

"Some people even fail to mention the role slavery played in the South seceding. [They] feel uncomfortable with [discussing slavery], and they prefer to create an interpretation of the war that has nothing to do with slavery," so instead they blame the war purely on the issue of states rights.  "Fact is, no slavery, no war," Roark says.

"Economics, politics, culture and religion were braided with the institution of slavery," says Roark, "and it was that distinctive society that white Southerners fought for as they supported the Confederacy."

Conversely, Northerners did not initially fight for the liberation of slaves, says Roark.  "[For Northerners] the war was about union," he says.  "[Lincoln] said time and time again ‘I'm not fighting to abolish the institution of slavery,' and he meant it.  And so for the first 18 months of the Civil War, Northerners were fighting for a single cause, that is, the salvation of the union."

Rewriting history

In this age of the Internet and its endless forums of thought, it's not just historians who are trying to rewrite history, says Roark. He concedes that "history is inevitably rewritten according to the interests of the present."

"Historians are people who live in the present, of course, and the questions we ask about the past are in part generated by issues of the present," says Roark. "We want to know about things that are happening to us now, and history is one way to do that."

Yet, distorting history to suit particular opinions or agendas has a cost, he says.

"If we get the Civil War wrong, it has consequences for us today, serious consequences," Roark says. "I'm not suggesting that we're on the verge of Civil War, but it is to remind us that the fabric of democracy is fragile. When [President] Obama calls for civility and quiet and compromise and listening to one another, historically there is a case for exactly that."

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