Decades of growing strife between North and South erupted in civil war on April 12, 1861, one and a half centuries ago today, when Confederate artillery opened fire on the Federal fort in Charleston Harbor. Fort Sumter surrendered 34 hours later. Union forces would try for nearly four years to take it back.
Understanding Americans and America can be difficult. Ask someone who has been naturalized. In my life, I have observed three seminal watersheds in our history (not first hand, mind you), profound and absolute in their change on our political and social destiny. The first would be our Revolution, the second the War Between the States, and last the Second World War.
Is it odd that conflict has mostly defined our character, both personal and national, and not technology or other factors?
We, as a People, chose hard cruel routes when other more comfortable ones could have been taken. Says much that is flattering and disturbing of our history and what it means to be an American. In a few hours, the we will mark 150 years ago that our Nation was plunged into four years of war and would forever be changed.
The attack on the Federal battery at Fort Sumter formalized what was already in motion; that of a people divided on the nature of slavery, economic self determination, and the rights of those to dissolve a political relationship per our Declaration of Independence. I hope that some will give consideration to what our forebears fought, bled, and died for, never understanding the full impact of their conviction and sacrifice.
On the day the war began in 1861, four million humans lived in bondage, whose value as property equaled a substantial portion of our national wealth. The nation was divided with national governments both North and South, one cognizant of 11 states affirming their Confederation and secession and another adamant that the aim of northern Abolitionists would not impair the economic and social order that they understood to be righteous.
It is arguable that the war began as a contention between a minority of extremists on the issue of slavery. Regardless, in the South 75% of whites did not own slaves and half the free black population of 400,000 lived in the new Confederacy, while in the North racism and the treatment of blacks displayed a gross hypocrisy. The war began as a measure of our principle and integrity regarding the foundation of our Republican values, none of which were clear at the time. Fear of northern hegemony was the catalyst that severed a united citizenry who never failed to remain committed to our Revolutionary ideals.
Most consider the four years that followed important in terms of iron ships, telegraphs, balloons, submarines and the slaughter of men in single battles the likes of which would not be seen until the next century of losses. They are wrong. The Civil War, or as some still refer to it, the War of Northern Aggression, was an evolution of understanding that started deeply murky and ended crystalline clear. It would take two years for the northern president to put in context the moral basis for such horror and atrocity. Perhaps I'm mistaken, but the initial charge for the preservation of the "Union," and those same Union Soldiers, to prosecute hostilities on the grounds that a people do not have the right to determine their political destiny, seems anti-American and unconstitutional. But they were right even without properly rationalizing the call to arms.
Four million soon-to-be Americans never voted to secede from the United States. Four million would-be-citizens never cast their lot to remain enslaved. The war was a Just Cause due simply to the fact a small minority, through political conventions, had no right whatsoever to dissolve that which was the hope and blessing for a silent majority, a Union dedicated to the original Constitution, instituted less than 70 years earlier. That same Constitution recognized slavery as a reality, with acknowledgement that some inhabitants would not enjoy or be recognized as having political rights, yet would be represented as if they had such. The Founders saw a time that such would sunder or be reconciled as a painful destiny for a fragile, fledgling republic. They were not in error.
In a few hours we mark the 150th anniversary of the beginning of a terrible war begun with the bombardment of an island battery. Though no lives were lost during this opening engagement, it would end four years later with a Citizenry liberated and an overdue 14th Amendment to our Constitution, the eventual evils of Reconstruction resulting from the assassination of thoughtful leader, and the rise of a powerful party in the South that would embody the preservation of segregation and manipulation of race politics for more than a century.