I doubt that many people outside the United States understand the continuing relevance of the Civil War of 1861 to 1865. It remains the bloodiest war in the nation’s history, consuming perhaps 750,000 lives, more than all the 20th century American wars added together.
The war can be summarized quickly. The eleven Confederate states left the union, in a process called secession. States called conventions to vote on staying in, or leaving. The states in what is now called the Southeast formed the Confederacy. What precipitated secession was the election in 1860 of the Republican Abraham Lincoln. The South feared Lincoln’s reputation as an abolitionist.
The South’s economy was built on the production of cotton as a commodity for export. Most was grown on plantations that used slaves as the labor force. Cotton was quite profitable. Cotton filled the hulls of Northern ships that carried it to Britain, and cotton was what fueled the growth of Northern factories and financial institutions.
In the South, the social system was dominated by rich slaveholders. At the time of the Civil war, there were 8 million whites and 4 million slaves in the South versus 20 million whites in the North. The 4 million slaves were owned by some 390,000 individual slaveholders, a small portion of the total population. The slaveholders had families, however, and families tended to be large. That means that a substantial number of families owned slaves, more than 40% of families in some areas. There were also some 400,000 free Black people, mostly in the North.
The North had most of the industry, most of the ports, almost all the ships, most of the railroads, most of the canals and was much more economically developed.
There were also several border states where slavery was legal but that did not secede: Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware. The war involved largely Union invasions of the South, and a naval blockade of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and the Mississippi River, designed to strangle the Confederacy. The South had the advantage of what war theorists call interior lines, and had a number of brilliant commanders. Both sides had veteran officers who earned their spurs in the Mexican War. The North began recruiting Black soldiers and sailors in 1863, and about a tenth of the Union forces were Black, about 200,000.
That’s the background. The ancestor part is because the Virginia mountain county (where my mother’s family has been since 1780) decided to go with most of Virginia and secede from the Union. A sizable number of Virginia’s northwest counties voted to stay with the Union. That area had few slaves, and those counties became a new state in 1863, West Virginia.
Two of my grandfather’s grandfathers fought for the Confederacy. They were farmers. Southerners in slave states were most often rural, and were well trained in riding horses and shooting. Hunting supplied useful amounts of food, and all able-bodied men were obligated to participate in patrols that kept slaves in check. There were a few hundred slaves in their county, quite unusual in the mountains.
Their names were Jacob and George. George was in the 11thVirginia Cavalry, and Jacob was in Company K of the 52ndVirginia Infantry Regiment. I have little information about them, but apparently they fought with the legendary Stonewall Jackson in the campaigns in the Shenandoah Valley.
They both survived the war and had families, or I wouldn’t be here writing this. I did have one relative who fought on the Union side. He was a volunteer, who was killed at Gettysburg in 1863, at the age of 17. He was nobody’s ancestor.
The Civil War still resonates strongly through the American cultural landscape. The Confederate flag (the one you see in all the videos is actually only one of several flown during the war) has become a symbol of discontent with the government. The South lost the war; it was devastated, many of its cities burned and most of the infrastructure destroyed. But the South managed, largely through political deals, to in effect win the peace. Slavery was abolished and the South suffered a few years of military occupation. But the Southern states systematically erased the rights of the freed slaves to vote, and set up a scheme of laws that kept economic, political and social power mostly in the hands of whites. The laws became known as Jim Crow law, and preserved white supremacy for almost a century.
The struggle for civil rights and the right to vote is pretty well known. But what does a liberal like me do with those two Confederate ancestors? They probably fought as much out of duty as in support of slavery. But they still fought in a bad cause. They may have fought with courage. They may or may not have killed some Yankees. They probably would detest my own participation in civil rights activities, and almost certainly would be appalled that we had a Black president.
I can’t disown ancestors. Without them. I wouldn’t be here. They’re long since resting in the family graveyard, so I can’t argue with them. About all I can do is honor their courage and be grateful they lost.
Deep knowledge, every day.
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