The Civil War: A [True] American Horror Story

The Civil War has long struck me, in a certain way, like a horror movie. In a horror movie, a dreadful something — something no reasonable person could expect to genuinely exist — suddenly arrives and savages the comforts and predictability of everyday life. Terrible and irreversible acts of violence upend the status quo. The unthinkable becomes reality. The unconscious set of assumptions and expectations that allows people to peacefully go about their affairs utterly vanishes, and they find themselves facing choices and sustaining harms they never even thought possible.

Between 1861 and 1865, a dreadful something drove neighbors living in the same land to kill each other. Those neighbors, generally speaking, spoke the same language, believed in the same God, and shared the same racial makeup. Moreover, unlike in the English, French, or Russian civil conflicts, those murdering neighbors gloried in a common vision of what a just and enlightened political and economic system should be. (The U.S. Constitution, and the constitution drawn up by the states of the Confederacy, were, after all, nearly identical in substantial ways. More on that in another post).

It goes without saying that the Civil War was not a horror movie. It was horribly real. And that makes it horribly and immeasurably worse than the most jarring and terrifying Hollywood fantasy (which, for my money, happens to be this). And a case can be made that a capacity for killing each other is a disturbing legacy we as Americans have in common

That cold fact fascinates and terrifies me. And I believe that cold fact also lies at the heart of everyone who continues to be intrigued by the Civil War — as linguist Geoffrey Nunberg recently and memorably put it when riffing about battlefield reenactors, “All those optometrists and computer programmers with their impeccably accurate uniforms…”[i]

If it can be said to be true that a history of violence is part of our legacy as Americans, it’s difficult, or at least it is for me, to shed the thought that perhaps some set of circumstances could make it happen again.

Now, believing that to be inevitable, or imminent, would be the basest paranoia. And for the record, I don’t subscribe to it. One of the points I believe to be most potent in The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation is the argument about why the most troubling and bitter days of the Civil Rights Era — days marked by race riots, saber-rattling political rhetoric about states’ rights, and federal troops deployed on Southern soil — failed to set off another Civil War. (See

But even acknowledging the barest possibility that neighbors in this land could once again take up arms against their neighbors leads one back to that horror movie quality of the Civil War. What was that “dreadful something” that proved the foundation of peace and mutual respect to be not a fortress but a sandcastle?

It might be nice to believe — and it would fit a popular narrative among many in this country — that it was the base immorality of one section of America that drove it to assail the ethical superiority of the other. That it was either cruel and racist slavers at war with a population of gallant abolitionists on the one hand, or the petty minions of big government tyranny putting the crush to the defiantly courageous defenders of true freedom on the other

But I don’t buy that the “dreadful something” was purely political or ideological. Although I do think it’s inarguable that both of those criteria, as well as the concepts of honor, manhood, and morality, had much to do with it.

Why doesn’t the idea that the Civil War was just about politics and ideology hold water?

The North had far too much of its own racial bigotry, for one thing. Ohio, in the first half of the 1800s, barred blacks from living in the state if they could not post a steeply expensive bond to guarantee good behavior. Even a state in abolitionist and progressive New England — Connecticut — in 1818 officially forbid blacks to vote[ii]. New York, which sent more soldiers to fight for the Union cause than any other, had throughout its history imposed all manner of restrictions on blacks voting.

And the South, with its historically outsized influence over the federal government (in terms of Southerners always having had presidents, members of Congress, and Supreme Court justices aplenty) was far too complicit in making Washington what it had, over the years, become.

So what was, in the end, that “dreadful something” that took Americans’ differences with each other and amplified it to the point where it could excite entire sections of the population to actual bloodshed?

I would say, at the core, that it was the threat to their livelihoods — whether that threat was real or perceived.

Look at how you live your life. Look at your assumptions about — and, especially, your sharpest, middle-of-the-night worries over — how you are going to provide for yourself and your family. Think about how you would feel if higher civil powers, ones that you have very little control over, were working behind the scenes to utterly strip you and your children of decent opportunities for the future. Ponder the frustration and sense of failure you might feel if all you had worked for and all you might gain in the years to come were to begin sliding away, pushing you into ever sharper degrees of indignity and desperation.

It’s easy to couch the story of the Civil War into a “clash of two rival economic systems, slave labor and free labor” as I’ve heard pundits and professors sometimes put it. Here’s my problem with that language. An obtuse phrase like “economic system” disregards the quality intimacy of how economics impacts an individual human life. It deemphasizes how very real anxiety about the future can shape a person’s attitudes and decisions.

To portray it in simplified terms, Southern slaveholders saw and were reacting to a threat to their livelihoods: to what they felt they deserved, to what their civilization had promised them, to the quality of life and prosperity that they had justly earned and expected to leave as a legacy for their children.

And many Northerners similarly felt that the screws were tightening on their livelihoods. They anguished over that belief that the chance for a decent and acceptable quality of life was flying away from them. Part of this was due to a great shift in how Americans lived and worked. Increasingly, industrialization had been making tradesmen’s time-honored skills superfluous. More and more were forced into wage work — with the bottom dropping even on that. Events in the decades leading up to the Civil War ramped up their uncertainty, making many believe that free men might eventually have to compete for work and opportunity with slaves. One such event was the 1857 Dred Scott decision, which by some — and not unsound — analysis essentially made slavery once again legal everywhere in the United States. One thing was clear to these worried Northerners: competition with slaves was no competition at all. Their lives and futures were on the line.

So there you have it. My argument is that most human beings can tolerate all kinds of injustices around them, and can exist, however uneasily, in the face of all kinds of disagreeable politics and ideology. But when it comes down to the bread on the table, the slashing of the last purse string — that’s when a critical mass can be pushed towards violence.

Again, fascination with the Civil War comes — even if it’s on a subconscious level — with the tiny but nagging dread that something like that could happen again. I hardly think that’s going to happen anytime soon. I pray it never happens at all. I also believe that every American should live and make decisions as if they had a stake in preventing it.

And I will say this. I believe that changes in how Americans live and work over the last several decades threatens the livelihoods of many of us. Without concluding that this is sure to lead to another neighbor-against-neighbor conflict, let’s take some crucial lessons from the antebellum period. Let’s take a hard look at how we can steer the course of our country towards as high a quality of life for as many Americans as possible.

And leave our horror movies where they belong, only on movie screens.

[i] NPR, Fresh Air Weekend, March 3, 2013.

[ii] Although there was a tiny loophole about permitting those who had been previously admitted as “freemen” to continue to vote, it’s dubious that this applied to any blacks. Wesley, Charles H. “Negro Suffrage in the Period of Constitution-Making, 1787-1865.” The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Apr., 1947), p. 162.

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