The American Civil War 150th Anniversary: Still the same people

Here is another good reason for me to think about the 150th anniversary of the Civil War: By the time its bicentennial comes up, I will be 108 years old, if still around, and unlikely to be very interested in it, although people who are younger now will most likely follow it, a little like my generation did the American Bicentennial in 1976.

Chances for a 2061-65 Broadway bicentennial musical may be slim, but not out of the question: Ed Sullivan, after all, did once host a live “reenactment” of the Battle of New Orleans.

OK, that one has to be seen to be believed:

In any case, now is the time for me to look at our Civil War. Having started on this, 150 years after the events, I can see some similarities, even though The Hunters of Kentucky would have been the tune most 19th century Americans thought of when thinking of the battle outside New Orleans that ended their grandparents’ war, the War of 1812.

A Personable Past

US Grant and family

U. S. Grant and family at Mount McGregor in 1885. (Source: )

It’s personal, as it is for everybody in this country, whether we all realize it or not.

I have visited Mount McGregor in the late 1960s, north of here, where a dying U.  S. Grant wrote his memoirs in order to provide his family with some income. When I visited, the dried floral displays still stood as they had on that day in 1885 when the man’s mortal remains left by funeral train for the tomb in New York.

In the 1950s, I saw old Civil War ribbons and badges in neighborhood attics, faded but treasured and displayed with pride to curious children.

Vicksburg Blockade

Currier & Ives 1863 print of the siege of Vicksburg (Source: )

After the turn of the 21st century, I got into a conversation with a desk clerk in Vicksburg who told me of a young man back during Grant’s siege of the town in 1863 who reportedly put a bunch of explosives on a raft with a timer and set it drifting down the Mississippi, managing to sink a Union ship with his homemade mine. While unlikely, it’s not impossible and certainly is a stirring story.

The past reaches out to us in so many ways. We are the descendants of those people, all of them, not just the ones who made it into the history books, but we have a hard time seeing them properly, since we have also seen everything that came afterwards.

Close your eyes and imagine

Let’s try to improve our hindsight a bit with a three-part thought experiment.

First, imagine you have printed out these instructions (you don’t really have to do it), so you can keep reading. Now, visualize all the electrical and other energy that keeps this modern society of ours functioning as coming from one central point, a big switch somewhere set to “ON.” Can you see it? Good.

I have just shut it off. There’s no way you can turn it back on again.

The world is not ending. There will be some major dislocations, loss of lives, and turmoil in the streets, but it’s not the apocalypse. Really – it’s not. This is how people have lived for centuries. We will adjust to it surprisingly quickly.

Second, let’s shrink our horizons back to 19th century limits.

That sounds horrible to a generation used to ongoing expanding consciousness, but these boundaries fit surprisingly well. No more rush – the pace of life is slow because it’s either on foot or by horse or mule. No more multitasking – there are no databases any more, because there are no computers or centralized databanks; people care more about the quality of your handwriting than the number of entries per minute you can make in a ledger, so take your time at work.

Indeed, in this world your time is your own in a way unavailable to us moderns: standard time won’t appear on the scene until 1883, when transcontinental rail travel makes it necessary to coordinate clocks across the country according to something they will invent called time zones.

Mansion on the hill

A mansion on the hill in New England (Source: Library of Congress)

If you live pretty much anywhere other than a few of the big cities, you don’t have institutionalized law enforcement. You and your neighbors know each other thoroughly and have common shared values – personified by the local church(es) – so a force isn’t ordinarily needed.

You police yourselves, with some help from the local power that emanates from that mansion on the hill (in the North) or the big house (in the South).

Of course, there is bad to that as well as good; history books are rife with examples from the South, so let’s also keep in mind examples from northern industrial areas.  A very extreme example was shown by D. W. Griffith in his 1916 film, Intoleranceper IMDb, it was modeled on John D. Rockefeller and the Ludlow massacre of 1914.

Being bad is a human problem, not a regional one.  As such, in our newly discovered 19th-century-type world,  you might now find yourself quite comfortable with the mindset toward local crime that Robert Frost described in his poem, The Star-Splitter:

After such loose talk it was no surprise
When he did what he did and burned his house down.

Mean laughter went about the town that day
To let him know we weren’t the least imposed on,
And he could wait—we’d see to him tomorrow.
But the first thing next morning we reflected
If one by one we counted people out
For the least sin, it wouldn’t take us long
To get so we had no one left to live with.
For to be social is to be forgiving.
Our thief, the one who does our stealing from us,
We don’t cut off from coming to church suppers,
But what we miss we go to him and ask for.
He promptly gives it back, that is if still
Uneaten, unworn out, or undisposed of.
It wouldn’t do to be too hard on Brad
About his telescope. Beyond the age
Of being given one for Christmas gift,
He had to take the best way he knew how
To find himself in one.

Finally, there is a new technology around that’s affecting your livelihood as well as the country’s social stability. If you’re a farmer or local artisan, the local people may not need to buy your stuff any more – they can get it more cheaply elsewhere, thanks to improvements in transportation. Of course, the opposite could be true, as well: you may be able to make more money selling your stuff in distant markets now, and the locals are going to just have to live with it, even if it gives them shortages in vital things like foodstuffs, clothing and metal ware.

However, people are also inventing newfangled machinery that can replace your skill with cheap factory labor. You think this is a challenge nowadays? How would you have dealt with the new Industrial Revolution when it came knocking at your door the very first time? It was threat to your way of life, but one that might have silver linings, if you could figure out how to take advantage of it.


Americans have always been ones to figure out ways to take advantage of a situation.

Painting of the flood of Providence, RI, by a hurricane in 1821.

"The Great Gale of 1815 inundates Providence, Rhode Island," by John Russell Bartlett. (Rhode Island Historical Society by way of )

Providence, Rhode Island, is doing fine today.

No time is perfect. The 19th century wasn’t an American idyll. Even leaving aside for other posts the contentious issues that led to the Civil War, there were tremendous disadvantages to American life then, including much less social and economic equality than today, disease and other chronic pains of the human condition, and little effective protection from the forces of nature. However, there was also opportunity, if you knew how to find it and were also lucky.

The fundamental differences

The power switch is back to “ON” for the moment.

Having put ourselves in the position of a generic 19th century “American,” let’s look a little bit at a few particulars that influenced the relics of the Civil War that have come down to us today.

There were separate realities for Americans who lived in different parts of the country as it was in 1860 (basically, everything east of along the Mississippi River, plus California, Oregon and modern Texas). To comprehend the fundamental differences, all you have to do is live for a while today in the Northeast and the Southeast. It’s difficult to put into words, but it has to do with power, as well as climate and geography.

The power I will deal with in the next post, but the climate and geography are obvious.

A Southerner will be miserable up in the dark, rather puritanical North, while a reserved Northerner will find easy-going Southern hospitality difficult to comprehend as she slowly melts away in the bright heat of the South (even with air conditioning!).

Both regions have abundant water, but the North is pretty much completely composed of topographical height falls that hydropower needs; as well, it has a climate that makes work in big, closed-in factory buildings tolerable for most of the year.  Parts of the South have height falls, but the entire region also has the vast stretches of rich soil and a long growing season that are ideal for agriculture.

It could have been an ideal setup as the Industrial Revolution got going: the North had the ideal conditions to operate textile mills, while the South had all the cotton those mills required.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.

From the little bit I’ve read so far and thought about, I think the differences began to flare when people had more contact with one another through improvements in transportation and business expansion away from local venues to more distant markets. Then things got negative pretty quickly and we fought because we had suddenly discovered that we hated Americans from other regions to a degree that’s hard to imagine today.

It’s rather reassuring to think that modern Americans aren’t anywhere near that point of combustion now, but let’s not get too complacent about it.

After all, we are still the same people, deep down inside.

(Next post: “Power, or the unintended consequences of getting your piggy to market”; also, by the end of this year [2011], a brief review of major Civil War events of 1861.)

Categories: American Civil War

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