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Posted at 2:42 PM ET, 11/15/2010

Harold Holzer: How should the country mark the sesquicentennial?

By Harold Holzer

Author or editor of 36 books, many on Lincoln, and chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation


Frankly, it may never again be possible to unite Americans around any all-embracing national observance. But even in the face of enervating indifference fueled by dwindling history education, by the substitution of hand-held-device isolation for mass participation, and perhaps, ironically, by our ever-broadening diversity, the Civil War still represents a unique and priceless opportunity for reflection. Having botched the healing opportunity presented by the Civil War Centennial 50 years ago -- even if it did imbue white pre-teens like me with a lifelong passion for the subject -- we have a precious new chance to explore what truly divided us then, and what can better unite us now. We have a chance to learn (at last) how far we have come on the road to true democracy, and how much farther we have to go.

The Civil War is what made this country what it is. It was the dividing line between the inhumane system of slavery that made a mockery of our own Declaration of Independence, and the first steps toward freedom and equality. It replaced the coalition of original, self-interested states with a true and powerful nation. It transformed a government traditionally run by Congress to one dominated by presidential authority.

For all the “romance” of the Civil War -- the brother-against-brother conflicts, the demise of Southern aristocracy -- we need to remember that this was fundamentally a brutal war over a brutal institution -- slavery -- and if we focus on this truth and reflect on it, we will be doing a service not just to the past but to the future.

We’ve already seen some missteps along the way. Recently, the Governor of Virginia ill-advisedly issued a Confederate Heritage Month proclamation without referring to slavery (he apologized). A Virginia grade school textbook claimed that masses of African Americans fought willingly for the Confederacy -- a “fact” the author admitted she got from a “Confederate Memory” website (the board says its teachers will ask students not to read the ridiculous passage!). A Texas school board ruled that Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address could not be taught without granting equal time to Jefferson Davis’ -- a decision that not only showed idiotic literary judgment, but tacitly acknowledged the legitimacy of secession and rebellion.

How to separate fact from fiction? The fact that Congress neglected to establish a national Civil War Sesquicentennial commission has endangered this anniversary unimaginably. We are now at the mercy of extremist and localized remembrance that seeks to redefine and redirect public memory. The responsibility falls on historians to keep the record straight, and to do so in engaging and accessible manner. For that reason alone, this anniversary is worth observing -- and this newspaper is helping to keep it in focus.

By Harold Holzer  | November 15, 2010; 2:42 PM ET
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The South should be reminded about its evil ancestors, much like the world must be reminded of the Nazis of WWII.

Posted by: johng1 | November 15, 2010 6:21 PM | Report abuse

How about a wake? We are reeating the same mistakes that led to that civil war. This cuntry is run by the North York Ciy - Washington D.C. global one-world fuzzy minded nitwits and people are getting furious about it! New York and it's Wall Street pirates should be treated like a criminal enclave and ignored, so far as economic policy is concerned. Most of the country wants free trade ended and trade tariffs reimposed to put an end to job outsourcing but the stranglehold by Wall Street is sinking us ever further into third world status.

Posted by: mibrooks27 | November 15, 2010 6:59 PM | Report abuse

How about by exposing the biggest con job in history?
An aristocratic minority that controlled the Southern economy convinced hundreds of thousands of common men who had everything to gain from the dissolution of the plantation system to fight & die against their best interest.

Posted by: nonsensical2001 | November 16, 2010 11:12 AM | Report abuse

Let's suspend Habeus Corpus, incarcerate the accused based upon single or secret allegations and institute tribunals. Oh - Apparently we've been celebrating since 2002... How about we burn Atlanta again?

Posted by: fnulnu2 | November 16, 2010 11:43 AM | Report abuse

I think it's important to remember that without the Southern revolt, we would not have the country we do today. Military leaders fought for what they believed in, and after losing the war encouraged their men to return home, make peace and obey the laws. It is my belief that most did just that.

Posted by: cleonard3 | November 16, 2010 3:42 PM | Report abuse

What divided us was an overbearing president. He had lawmakers locked up in Maryland, not for what they did, but what they were going to do(Ape lincoln had pro-Southern freely elected public officials locked up in jail for fear they would vote to leave the Union).

What is it with liberals? You do know slavery was LEGAL in the United States until December 1865, even in States that did not leave the Union. In face West Virginia, which included Counties that broke off from Virginia, was made a State in 1863, and guess what they had slavery. Kentucky was another slave State that did not leave the Union. So, how was the war only about slavery? If Northern States had it too?

Why not talk about tariffs? Putting tariffs on imports hurt our exports. That was another cause of the war. Southern farmers did not like the fact their goods were likely to face higher tariffs in Europe. But that mattered little to the North. The debate over who should have more power, the States or the Federal Government is still ongoing. It was not settled by the war, as you state.

The same text book also provided the main reason the war started was to end slavery, in fact it was to save the Union. Blacks did fight for the South, the numbers might be in dispute,but there were blacks who did. So, while you go on about teaching the truth, your liberalism blinds you to only what you want to see.

As for diversity, lets talk about American Indians who fought for the South. Or Jews who fought for the South.

The issue of secession was not a settled questioned in 1861, so why not study Jefferson Davis?

Let's also talk about the 1863 race riots in New York City where blacks were killed by Northern whites fed up with the war. I guess that pokes a hole in the notion about the myth the entire north wanted to embrace freedom for blacks.

Posted by: irish031 | November 17, 2010 7:42 AM | Report abuse


You do realize without Southerners, we would not have won WW2? To compare the South to Nazi Germany is just an indication of your ignorance of history.

You also do realize there were plenty of slave and slaver owners in the North. That one of the first threats of secession came from the New England States. In an ironic twist it was the South that voiced the most opposition.

Posted by: irish031 | November 17, 2010 6:13 PM | Report abuse

To call the South Nazi, what a stupid idiot. The Confederate flag never flew on a single slave ship bringing slaves to the USA. And why did the USA's Emancipation Proclamation only free the southern slaves and NOT the northern slaves? On the day Robert E. Lee surrendered, there were still slaves working in the White House and US Capital.
The 13th Amendment Ended Slavery. It was adopted 6 Dec 1865 months after the war ended.

Let's put myths to rest

BALTIMORE--There is a good reason why the Lincoln legend has taken on such mythical proportions: Much of what Americans think they know about Abraham Lincoln is in fact a myth. Let's consider a few of the more prominent ones.

Myth #1: Lincoln invaded the South to free the slaves. Ending slavery and racial injustice is not why the North invaded. As Lincoln wrote to Horace Greeley on Aug. 22, 1862: "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it"

Congress announced to the world on July 22, 1861, that the purpose of the war was not "interfering with the rights or established institutions of those states" (i.e., slavery), but to preserve the Union "with the rights of the several states unimpaired." At the time of Fort Sumter (April 12, 1861) only the seven states of the deep South had seceded. There were more slaves in the Union than out of it, and Lincoln had no plans to free any of them.

The North invaded to regain lost federal tax revenue by keeping the Union intact by force of arms. In his First Inaugural Lincoln promised to invade any state that failed to collect "the duties and imposts," and he kept his promise. On April 19, 1861, the reason Lincoln gave for his naval blockade of the Southern ports was that "the collection of the revenue cannot be effectually executed" in the states that had seceded.

Myth #2: Lincoln's war saved the Union. The war may have saved the Union geographically, but it destroyed it philosophically by destroying its voluntary nature. In the Articles of Confederation, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution, the states described themselves as "free and independent." They delegated certain powers to the federal government they had created as their agent but retained sovereignty for themselves.

This was widely understood in the North as well as the South in 1861. As the Brooklyn Daily Eagle editorialized on Nov. 13, 1860, the Union "depends for its continuance on the free consent and will of the sovereign people of each state, and when that consent and will is withdrawn on either part, their Union is gone." The New York Journal of Commerce concurred, writing on Jan. 12, 1861, that a coerced Union changes the nature of government from "a voluntary one, in which the people are sovereigns, to a despotism where one part of the people are slaves." The majority of Northern newspapers agreed.

Posted by: howell1 | November 18, 2010 6:34 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Holzer: If you think that the Civil War was fought over slavery than you are not much of a historian. You ever heard of States Rights? If the states controled more and the Fed less then we would be in better shape today. You might want to start reading more accurate books.

Posted by: waynecole | November 20, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse

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