Getting beyond Republic of Virtue vs. Evil Empire

The Daily Progress in Charlottesville says “America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation” “turns over nearly virgin historical soil.” The Los Angeles Times calls it “a monumental new appraisal of the war.”

Herewith a few (if more than usual) words with its author, David Goldfield, history professor at UNC Charlotte:

You begin, “Can anyone say anything new about the Civil War?” At what point did you decide, “Well, yes, I think I can”?

When I wrote “Still Fighting the Civil War” [2002], the crucial role of evangelical religion in framing memories of the war particularly impressed me.  Considering that evangelical religion was a national movement during the first half of the 19th century, I wondered whether it had played an important role in the origins of the war.

I also had the advantage of not being a Civil War historian.  I’m a Southern historian.  I think when you study a subject for a long time and very deeply, there is the danger of becoming locked into certain patterns of thought and interpretation.

Before the 1960s, the prevailing interpretation of the war was that the issue of states’ rights played a key role in bringing about the war, that both sides fought nobly for their respective causes and that the Reconstruction era was an unfortunate time of Yankee oppression and black misrule.  Since the 1960s, Civil War scholarship has focused on slavery as the major cause of the war, the war itself as a war of liberation – the battle cry of freedom, as one historian called it — and the Reconstruction era as a failure primarily because African-Americans did not achieve equal citizenship.

None of this is wrong, but I get a rash when historians tend to agree almost unanimously.  Rather than reading historians, I read the letters and diaries of the people of that era, and I came away with a point of view that differed from both the older and the newer interpretations.  That, combined with my research on evangelical religion, enabled me to see the origins of the war, the war itself and the Reconstruction era in a new way.

“The infusion of evangelical Christianity” that you see as leading the way to war — how did that play out in North Carolina?

By the 1850s, the three major evangelical denominations – Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians – dominated the Protestant faith for both blacks and whites in North Carolina.   Southern evangelicals, including North Carolinians, emphasized the centrality of individual conversion: the importance of accepting Jesus Christ as their personal savior.  Northern evangelicals believed this, too, but they also believed they had a mission to reform society as a whole, and if this could not be done through religious persuasion alone, then it was incumbent on evangelicals to promote public policy toward that end which, ultimately, would lead to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

Can you imagine a way that North Carolina, given its relative lack of dependence on slavery, could have avoided secession?

North Carolina, of course, did avoid secession until the very last moment.  Even after Lincoln called for troops to put down the rebellion in South Carolina, North Carolinians hesitated for more than a month.  There was considerable Union sentiment in the state, especially in the Piedmont and mountains.  But it was not likely the state would raise an army to invade and kill their neighbors across the border.

Any response yet from the Sons of Confederate Veterans?

The Confederate heritage groups have been more understanding of “America Aflame” than of “Still Fighting the Civil War” [which provoked disruption during at least one bookstore signing].

One of the problems with the newer historical interpretations of the war is that it sets up the North as a Republic of Virtue and the South as the Evil Empire.  This was not true, as I demonstrate in my book and, incidentally, as Lincoln noted in that Second Inaugural Address.

Slavery was a national institution.  The entire nation benefited from it.  And both sides were responsible for bringing on the war and carrying it through to its bloody conclusion.  And Reconstruction wasn’t a failure.  “Failure” implies that bringing full citizenship to African-Americans had a chance after the war.  It didn’t.  Racial prejudice, just like slavery, was not only a Southern phenomenon, it was part of our national culture.

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