All for the Union…and Emancipation, too: What the Civil War Was About

All for the Union…and Emancipation, too: What the Civil War Was About

One hundred fifty years after Confederate shots bombarded Fort Sumter, President Barack Obama officially proclaimed April 12, 2011, to be the first day of a four-year-long Civil War Sesquicentennial and called “upon all Americans to observe this Sesquicentennial with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities that honor the legacy of freedom and unity that the Civil War bestowed upon our Nation.” Anniversaries can bring out the schizophrenia in a body, and this Civil War Sesquicentennial of ours, lasting through 2015, is no exception. On one hand, observance seems to pop up everywhere from battle reenactments to traveling exhibits to specially crafted heirloom china plates, but at the same time, serious public discussion of the causes and effects of the war remains strangely absent. Through our commemorative efforts, threads run parallel but resolutely separate from each other: we see museum displays that feature black people and mention slavery, and we also see so much Confederate nostalgia that the proverbial Martian could be forgiven for not realizing that the Union actually won the war. Meanwhile, we are also seeing reiterations of a tradition that separates the cause of Union from the issue of slavery and insists that the Civil War changed little and achieved less. Only rarely do we see acknowledgment of the hundreds of thousands of casualties, so many that we would need a loss of life equal to that sustained on September 11, 2011, every single day for four years to recreate the scale today. If in fact the war meant so little, then there would have been no good reason for those loyal to the Union to resist secession in 1861, no purpose to all those deaths, and therefore there would be good reason for indifference to the Union cause today.

But the men who fought in blue would not recognize their war in that interpretation. To them, the president’s exhortation to remember the “unity and liberty” achieved by the war would mean something, because to them, Union victory was necessary for the survival of representative government based on ideals such as liberty and equality, was inextricably bound up with emancipation, and marked the redemption and transformation, not simply conservation, of the United States.

FIRST, SOME caveats. Trying to understand how soldiers viewed the causes and reasons for the war is not the same as, and cannot explain, why individuals chose to enlist in the Army. Individual men chose to enlist in the Army for all manner of reasons—ridiculous, sublime, and everywhere in between. Many were outraged by an armed attack on a U.S. Army installation at Fort Sumter. Some hated slavery. More than a few sought adventure or assumed that a spiffy uniform would clear the way to a young woman’s heart. If any enlisted for money they were surely disappointed, because an enlisted man’s pay was low and always in arrears, usually by many months. Some were just adolescent boys who thought that anywhere ...

Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

For insights and analysis from the longest-running democratic socialist magazine in the United States, sign up for our newsletter: