Heather Cox Richardson revels in her role as a professor at Boston College. She is a white woman, 58 years of age and a resident with her partner, a lobsterman, in a small fishing village in Maine. A prolific author and essayist, she has written her sixth book, “How the South Won the Civil War.” Therein, she provides a clear analysis of America’s unsettling paradox: Paeans to freedom strike dissonant notes when sounded amidst human slavery and where structural injustices are extant.
On an April morning in 1861, a cannon fired a thundering shot at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, unleashing a bloody freshet over the severed nation for four years. At the start, few Americans expected the conflict to be protracted. Many Northerners especially felt the belligerent rebels would be quickly and decisively dealt with.
That proved erroneous. One year after the shelling of Fort Sumter, the destructive ferocity realized by modernized weaponry was amply demonstrated on the sanguine battleground of Shiloh, Tennessee. 23,000 dead and wounded soldiers lay heaped in the gory wake of clashing armies, a prelude to carnage ahead. Places like Antietam, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor and Nashville would add to the grim ledger of mind-boggling casualty counts.
Militarily, the Confederacy could not indefinitely endure attrition. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant in April 1865. What might have transpired next if President Abraham Lincoln had not been assassinated only two days later is a matter of speculation. The war had been fought to preserve the union and to abolish the enslavement of Black people. The Emancipation Proclamation endorsed the promise inherent in the Declaration of Independence, celebrating the equality of all men, not just whites of European ancestry. The period of Reconstruction aimed to manifest democracy’s vibrant potential throughout the political and social fabric of the defeated South. Tragically, that aspiration collapsed on the reactionary ramparts of oligarchic arrogance and white supremacy.
Noting the hypocrisy endemic to the American paradox, Richardson tells of slave owner and sexual predator James Henry Hammond. In 1858, as a South Carolinian senator, Hammond gave a speech to the U.S. Senate in which he pronounced “Cotton is king!” He went on to claim that the South’s racist feudal order was virtuous and unassailable. Writes Richardson: “Hammond embodied the hierarchy that enabled white planters to dominate their society, and his speech revealed how completely politics, society, and religion had come to spin around the southern oligarchy.”
A few years before he was elected to the presidency, Lincoln articulated a vision of America that was at odds with the supercilious bombast of Senator Hammond. He argued the owners of capital were not responsible for wealth creation. That was the domain of common workers who toiled in the fields and factories. Because of their honest labor, while he was not an antiracist or abolitionist, Lincoln avowed that workers should not be confined to an immovable caste but allowed to rise upward economically.
Lincoln also warned that inhumane exploitation and mistreatment of others based on race was not just morally wrong. For should the tables be turned, the master of today could become the persecuted of tomorrow. It is desirable, he said, that perpetuation of rancor and retribution be astutely avoided from the start.
While Reconstruction proceeded without the assassinated president, white Northern enthusiasm for the radical reform of Southern society diminished over time. By 1877, federal troops that had enforced the Reconstruction were recalled, allowing the resurgence of white supremacy, and the era later known as Jim Crow commenced. Structures in place before the war were reconstituted in different but pernicious guises. Throughout the South, Black Americans were disenfranchised through discriminatory legislation that was abetted by intimidation, mayhem and murder.
This trend was not demarcated by southern borders. Racist attitudes were prevalent among whites who drove into western lands and who subsequently displaced Native peoples. In just one instance, in 1864, American soldiers butchered a peaceful encampment of Northern Cheyenne at Sand Creek, Colorado. As the saga of the American West unfolded in the 19th century, new states replicated patterns of the old South. According to Richardson: “By 1890, a few extractive industries dominated the West. Just as in the antebellum South, those industries depended on poor workers — often migrant workers — and a few men in the sparsely populated western states controlled both the industries and politics. They had far more sympathy for the ideology of former plantation elites — who had ruled much the way they did — than for that of the common man.”
Due to present-day anti-Asian violence, Richardson’s discussion of the virulent bigotry Chinese immigrants faced throughout the West is pertinent. In 1885, white miners killed 50 of their Chinese co-workers in Rock Springs, Wyoming. In 1871, 15 Chinese people were lynched in what was then the cattle town of Los Angeles. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed (and not repealed until 1943) and, thus, “the western legal system that discriminated between individuals based on race became national law. Hierarchies were back on the table and, as always, that idea led to dehumanization. In the wake of the new law, western violence against the Chinese got worse.”
Exploring another perennially appealing aspect of the American legend, Richardson evaluates the iconic solitary hero — always a man — who epitomizes self-reliance and personal freedom. In the 18th century, he was the yeoman farmer, a white man tilling his land, providing for his wife and family with little need of outside help. In tales of the Wild West, he was the range-roaming cowboy who could handle a gun and ride his horse. A rugged and fearless individual, he fended for himself without the government or anyone else.
These archetypes were a fanciful palimpsest obscuring a history fraught with organized violence, interethnic hostilities, political scheming, outrageous swindles and financial rapacity. Richardson explains: “So invested had Americans become in the image of the heroic westerner that when an academic historian proved definitively that Davy Crockett had surrendered at the Alamo rather than fight until the bitter end, he received hate mail.”
Today, in Washington State, there are over two dozen hate groups that are unapologetic in their espousal of racial bigotry and neo-fascist ideologies. This growth is happening as a momentous effort is taking shape within the new Biden administration to reorient this nation’s formidable economic engine to embellish the needs of the working and middle classes and the poor. For decades, the majority has been neglected, as wealth and power have flowed to oligarchs at the top. Should this restructuring go forward, the outcome will be seen in years ahead. Any campaign that will enhance the needs of the masses is a step towards enhancing democracy, as well as diminishing the influence of the moneyed few.
Richardson pens a free daily newsletter on Substack, titled “Letters from an American.” She is a liberal whose compelling analyses are consistently relevant. Her wish is to bring more citizens into the political conversation by providing pithy and informed perspectives on today’s events within a historical context. In “How the South Won the Civil War” she achieves this goal in sweeping fashion.
We are fortunate to have such a fine writer and dedicated teacher in our midst.
Read more in the Apr. 28 - May 4, 2021 issue.