As a teenager, the sheer bloodiness of the Civil War blew my mind. Over 600,000 people died of war-related causes (mostly dysentery from tainted water) during those four years. The number of dead, and the youth of so many soldiers, boggled me. Being a creative writer, I spent hours hammering out stories on the trauma faced by friends breaking apart to enlist on opposing sides. I wanted to probe deep into the emotional core of the conflict, figure out how brothers, fathers, and sons could take up arms against each other. I even wrote from the point of view of personified states, imagining how they might react to being torn away from each other.
What didn’t strike me until much later is that the Civil War was not the only grand, incomprehensible tragedy of the nineteenth century. It’s only framed that way because traditionally, discussions of the war have focused on white trauma. In his famous documentary on the Civil War, which I had watched and rewatched obsessively, Ken Burns gave one individual more screen-time than any other commentator: Shelby Foote. Yeah, the guy who called KKK leader Nathan Bedford Forrest one of the “true geniuses” of the war. Shelby Foote, the full-grown adult man who said he would fight for the Confederacy given the choice. Shelby Foote, who is openly racist and thinks “failure to compromise” actually caused the war, got more time to talk than any genuine, honest, unbiased historian. Combine that with Burns’ focus on diary entries from soldiers and from Mary Chesnut, a wealthy Confederate planter’s wife, and you have the perfect storm: a whirlwind of white poignancy, a deep study of white emotions about the war with far less emphasis on Black experiences. Yes, Burns did include a few segments on slavery, but they were always secondary to the main point: that the war devastated the lives of millions of white Americans across the nation. Furthermore, the amount of time he allotted to people like Chesnut and Foote (whose great-grandfather was a plantation owner and slaveholder in Mississippi) served to disproportionately emphasise the losses the rich white South experienced during the war, without paying much mind to whose backs those people had gotten rich off in the first place.
Why do periods of struggle and trauma for white America draw so much more attention, so much more valuation, than the grief of Black America? Six hundred thousand dead is a tragedy––but relatively few pieces of popular historical media bother to acknowledge the almost 4,000,000 Black people who lived in bondage when the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter in 1861. Barely anyone discusses the unofficial decades-long war which started after Appomattox in 1865: the Nadir of American Race Relations, a period during which nearly 6,500 Black people, including children, were brutally lynched by white mobs across the nation for reasons ranging from false murder accusations to “insulting a white person”. The wonderful Equal Justice Initiative has posted a detailed report on this horrific phenomenon, and Patrick Phillips’ Blood at the Root is a heart-wrenching look into the lasting effects of a lynching in North Georgia.
Fewer people still acknowledge that the Union has blood on its hands, too. Union soldiers are often seen as the “good” side since they fought against slavery, but the truth is that many white Northern men––Lincoln included––weren’t exactly bastions of unreserved tolerance. Most of them clung to the view that Black people were inherently inferior to white people. And many of them went on to participate in genocides after the Civil War ended. Take one of the most famous military personalities from the mid-nineteenth century: George Armstrong Custer. Custer, who fought on the side of the Union, was an unabashed racist who supported plantation owners in claiming ownership over enslaved Black people as late as 1865. He acted in support of a white man who murdered a Black child, arresting and then releasing the man despite having clear proof of his guilt. In the 1870s, he was critical of federal efforts to subdue the Ku Klux Klan. And of course, let us not forget what he is best known for: the federally-sponsored murders of Plains Natives which ultimately led to his (poetic) death on the battlefield of Little Big Horn.
So here’s the question I now ask: why is the pre-Civil War era known as “antebellum”, when there were already wars sewn tightly into the fabric of American society?