Skip to content

History & Politics

Reckoning with the past: the Civil War and its role in current politics

On Thursday, a statue of Jefferson Davis, the second of four Civil War memorials put up in New Orleans, was removed and towed to a clandestine storage facility—part of a plan by city officials to erase the reminders of an era that celebrated white supremacy and racism. But this wasn’t the first time the conflict, which ended more than 150 years ago, has made news in recent weeks and months. The first monument, an obelisk erected in 1891 to honor members of a white nationalist group who fought against the racially integrated New Orleans police and militia, was removed at the end of April. Earlier this month, President Donald J. Trump questioned why the Civil War happened at all. And one need not go back too much further to find other Civil War-related headlines.

So, why does the Civil War continue to have such a big impact on people and politics? We asked Martin Blatt, history professor of the practice and director of the public history program at Northeastern.

Why does the Civil War continue to have such a big impact on U.S. politics?

Most nations have dark, troubled, violent periods in their histories. For example, Russia has the Gulag; South Africa has apartheid; Germany has the Holocaust. In today’s Russia, Putin has thwarted efforts to meaningfully address the memory of the vast prison system known as the Gulag. South Africa and Germany have done better with respect to their histories.

What is the central feature of brutality in America’s past? It is undoubtedly slavery and the oppressive treatment of Native Americans. Slavery has long, deep roots, going back to the 17th century colonies. Slavery was central to the successful development of capitalism in the United States and, as such, was a critical force across the nation. The central cause of the Civil War was the determination of the seceding states to preserve the institution of slavery. The documents of secession make this abundantly clear.

The intellectual and activist W.E.B. DuBois stated in 1903 that “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line,” a characterization still highly relevant in the 21st century. Historians James and Lois Horton identify the “nation’s most enduring contradiction: the history of American slavery in a country dedicated to freedom.”

These terrible pasts can never be fully resolved nor should that be the aim of policymakers or public historians engaged in confronting this history. Rather, what is most important is the ongoing, changing efforts to remember, mark, and commemorate these troubled pasts. There can be no final resolution. The continual unfolding of the conflicts and creative efforts focused on remembrance has great significance for all of us.

The removal of Civil War monuments in New Orleans has prompted a backlash, including demonstrations and threats against crane operators, making it clear that the war still represents different things to different groups of people. What does the removal of these monuments symbolize? How can a community reconcile that with the dangers of erasing history?

If we look at the removal of the monuments in New Orleans, it is necessary to examine this in context. Erika Doss, in her book Memorial Mania, relates that in 1946, Allied forces in Germany issued Directive No. 30, “The Liquidation of German Military and Nazi Memorials and Museums,” within 18 months. In 2003, she notes, U.S. soldiers in Iraq toppled multiple monuments to Saddam Hussein. She asks us to consider the contradiction that “on its own turf, the United States allows—or more accurately, ignores—memorials to the defeated states and underlying white supremacist politics of the secessionist Southern Confederacy.”

Further, there has been longstanding controversy and disagreement about these public tributes to white supremacy in the South, including those in New Orleans. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu has targeted four memorials for removal and possible relocation with the addition of clarifying interpretation. The New York Times reports that the first piece removed, the Liberty Monument, was “taken down on April 24 by workers wearing flak jackets and scarves to conceal their identities.”

Why was a monument with such a benign name so problematic?  It commemorates the Battle of Liberty Place. And who were the combatants? On one side was the White League, which successfully overthrew the elected Louisiana government comprised of white Republicans and newly enfranchised blacks. Several dozen people were killed and injured. The state government was restored by federal troops but with the end of Reconstruction in 1877 blacks across the South were subjected to disenfranchisement, Jim Crow, and lynchings. The 1882 authorization of the 1891 obelisk called for it to honor those who “fell in defense of liberty and home rule in that heroic struggle…” A 1934 plaque funded by the New Deal Works Progress Administration was unambiguous: “United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election in 1876 recognized white supremacy and gave us our state.”

Understandably, the Liberty Monument has been an ongoing source of controversy in New Orleans, especially with the rise of the black population as a political force. There is not one clear path to how to address the issue of the memorial landscape in the South. Sanford Levinson, in Written in Stone, provides an intriguing discussion focused on the Memorial to the Confederate Dead in Austin, Texas. His analysis could apply to other installations. He outlines a series of alternatives from ‘leave it as is’ to destroying it to reallocating the monument to the museum of Texas history where it could be contextualized. He also poses the addition of plaques and-or memorials that provide a counter-narrative such as a tribute to those enslaved by Texans and other pieces that commemorate the African American experience.

The 2016 election revealed a nation deeply divided. Though we are a far cry from civil war, what lessons can elected officials and lay citizens take from the 1861 conflict to help build unity today?

The most important lesson that elected officials and citizens can take from the Civil War is the enduring power of racism in American culture and history. In his powerful message to his son, Between the World and Me, African American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates declares: “You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.” Coates argues: “In America, it is tradition to destroy the black body—it is heritage.” In his important essay on reparations, Coates argues that the United States begins in black plunder and white democracy, “two features not contradictory but complementary.” He defines reparations as “the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences.” Wrestling publicly with these questions, Coates assets, “matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced.”

One key element in President Trump’s electoral victory was how much what he had to say about blacks in the inner cities resonated with many white voters. He deliberately provoked fear and loathing of black communities that successfully translated into votes. That deep-seated fear and associated racial hatred has its roots in slavery and the aftermath of slavery. Trump of course also capitalized on other fears that he parlayed into votes—fear of women and fear of immigrants.

From the debate over the Confederate flag in 2015 to the more recent conversations, how has the issue of the Civil War evolved in the political sphere in the last decade or so?

The Civil War continues to have a major impact on American cultural life and controversies still are prevalent. I worked for 24 years for the National Park Service, leaving a few years ago to come to work at Northeastern. The NPS, significant keepers of American heritage, has experienced and continues to experience conflict over the history of the Civil War.

For several decades, public interpretation at Civil War battlefield parks focused on the smallest details of the battles but failed to identify the single, most significant cause of the war—slavery.  A variety of factors led to the implementation of major changes in the 1990s, beginning at Gettysburg, but not without major pushback from the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

In his last week in office, President Obama used his presidential authority to declare a national park dedicated to Reconstruction in Beaufort, South Carolina. It had been an embarrassment that until that time the agency had no parks focused on Reconstruction, a crucial moment in United States history that is widely misunderstood. Given the power of this symbolism and history, it is extremely unlikely that President Trump and the Republican Congress will authorize any funding for this new park. At some point in the future, we can anticipate funding and then a struggle about how to interpret Reconstruction as the NPS and the nation continue to grapple with the powerful legacies of slavery and the Civil War.