The American Civil War, fought between the years of 1861 and 1865 has often been called the first “modern” war, or as Richard Brown (1976) termed it, “the conflict of a modernizing society” (Brown, 1976: 161). Contemporary debates continue to flourish, although there is a pronounced tendency to “cherry pick” and distort the historical record. Partial truths, half facts, myths and in some instances bold-face lies animate the longest running trauma narrative in the history of United States – the history of the Civil War.
Traditional timelines date the beginning of the Civil War with the attack on Fort Sumter in 1861. As for the ending of the war, many point to the December 1865 ratification of the Emancipation Proclamation, whereas others cite the date Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865 at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia. And for reasons that I will explain here, there is a strong argument to be made that the war never really ever ended, despite the fact that almost 150 year of time have now passed since the last rifle shot was fired.
Although its duration was a mere four years, the Civil War established the high water mark for combat casualties. With well over a million casualties, a number which includes soldiers as well as civilians, it still stands as the bloodiest and most costly war fought in American history. According to Howard Zinn, “the United States government’s support of slavery was based on an overpowering practicality. In 1790, a thousand tons of cotton were being produced every year in the South. By 1860, it was a million tons. In the same period, 500,000 slaves grew to 4 million” (Zinn, 2010). Put another way, 4 million slaves represented almost one out of every three residents residing in the region at that time (Ransome). To put that number in perspective, the figure is representative of almost one out of every three residents residing in the region at that time. When the war was effectively over and done, the economic impact devastated the North as well as the South.
Roger L. Ransom’s analysis supports the statistic cited by Zinn, as he notes “in 1805 there were just over one million slaves in the United States worth about $300 million dollars; fifty-five years later four million slaves brought the total worth closer to $3 billion. In the 11 states that formed the original Confederacy, four out of ten people were slaves in 1860, which accounted for more than half the agricultural labor in those states. In the cotton regions, the importance of slave labor was even greater (Ransome).
The value of capital invested in slaves roughly equaled the total value of all farmland and farm buildings in the South. Though the value of slaves fluctuated from year to year, there was no prolonged period during which the value of the slaves owned in the United States did not increase markedly. In the seven states where most of the cotton was grown, almost one-half the population were slaves, and they accounted for 31 percent of white people’s income; for all 11 Confederate States, slaves represented 38 percent of the population and contributed 23 percent of whites’ income” (Ransome).
In the book Crucible of the Civil War, Edward Ayers estimates that the monetized value of Southern slaves was greater than the combined value of all the railroads and factories in the North (Ayers et al, 2006). Historians have further argued that the war marked a major turning point in American history, particularly its economic history. Often referred to as the “Second American Revolution,” historians like Charles Beard and Louis Hacker noted how the Civil Wat war altered the balance of power between the North and South; that it effectively paved the way for the rise industrial capitalism in the years after the war.”
The term “Second American Revolution” remains a trope in the literature of Civil War historians. Hacker summarized what eventually became known as the Hacker-Beard Thesis, where he says:
“The American Civil War turned out to be a revolution indeed. But its striking achievement was the triumph of industrial capitalism. The industrial capitalist, through their political spokesmen, the Republicans, had succeeded in capturing the state and using it as an instrument to strengthen their economic position. It was no accident, therefore, that while the war was waged on the field and through Negro emancipation, in Congress’ halls the victory was made secure by the passage of tariff, banking, public-land, railroad, and contract labor legislation.”
Disagreement continues to fester in regards the specific causes for the war. While the vast majority of scholarship recognizes the saliency of slavery to the war – there are nonetheless different versions of the Abraham Lincoln wanted to “free the slaves” argument ― some subscribe to what is referred to as “Lost Cause” mythology, where they continue to argue the war was about cultural issues and states’ rights of nullification and secession. While it is not my intention to “split the difference” here, I do want to point out that the narrative is a good deal more complicated than this and that there are, in fact, different important points of overlap. Empirically, however, there can be no doubt the U.S. Civil War was indisputably about slavery.
Fast forward to the present day time period and we find states’ rights arguments continue to hold sway in contemporary public discourses in the United States. States’ rights were invoked during the 1960s civil rights movement and have more recently been raised in connection with issues of governance that address ongoing discrimination (i.e. religious discrimination as this pertains to LGBT issues, access to birth control, in addition to other forms of gender and wage discrimination). Legislation aimed at curtailing the discriminatory actions of employers and corporations has also been opposed recently on the basis of the states’ rights arguments originally used to justify slavery.
The Biopolitics of the U.S. Civil War
The Civil War was the first U.S. war fought both over and on a distinctly human terrain. Going to war was deemed both logical and rational because keeping the South in the union was the only way Lincoln could ensure the legislative program to not only simply contain but to also control slavery could be accomplished. Social stability―or what some are prone to otherwise refer to as keeping the “peace” ― was only ever achievable through an act of war. This means that the “perfect union” Lincoln dreamed of achieving was founded as much on the idea of the unification of states as it was a vision for achieving a unified labor pool of physically dominated and subordinated laboring bodies. Consequently, economic practices of human subjugation didn’t stop with slavery; these practices were merely refined as they acquired new targets.
Put another way, the purpose of the Emancipation Proclamation was not what many continue to believe it was –that it was proclamation conceived to serve the interests blacks. Quite the contrary, Lincoln himself admitted it was intended to accomplish two objectives: 1) further the economic interests of the Union; and 2) maintain control over the South. Alternatively, had the South had been permitted to leave the union of states, scholars have argued the North could not have leveraged the means necessary to control slavery (Ransom 1989; Ransom and Sutch 2001; Weingast 1998; Weingast 1995; Wolfson 1995).
Slavery helped to institutionalize social relations that were based on notions of domination and subordination, which were paramount to efforts to secure the life and livelihood of all Southern whites —not just the ones who owned slaves. This explains then why people regionally affiliated with the South (and even some now who reside outside of the South) believe the war constituted an existential threat to a preferred lifestyle. Slavery was the glue that held the social order together. North and South were to some degree bound together as a union on the basis of the collective willingness of a people to either advocate for/ignore the contradiction of supporting freedom through slavery; both regions maintained an interest in structurally legitimizing, through force of organized violence and law, the linking of property rights with white identity, white bodies, and white privilege.
Much as was the case with Southerners, Northerners also saw themselves fighting the good fight. In their view, they were reprising the Patriots’ struggle of the 1776 Revolutionary War. Unlike their neighbors in the South, the North was, ideologically, more invested in the idea of maintaining the American union at all costs. Even though many among them benefitted from slavery, there remained a wide-spread consensus among Northerners that slavery was antithetical to democracy and good governance. Nevertheless, if there was one idea that both sides could get behind, it was the idea that the principals of egalitarianism—life, liberty, freedom, and self-governance— ideals that breathed life into American governmentality, were in terms of design and intent dedicated solely to protecting the interests of property-holding white men.
White property rights were thus, by decree as well as declaration, institutionalized in the legal documents that established the founding of the U.S. republic. This basic sensibility was and remains sacrosanct, as we see even in our present era there are contested narratives about who “built” and thus “owns” the property that is the nation.
Mapping Social Inequality
As it stands today, more than a century and a half after the U.S. Civil War was ended, racial inequalities in America are staggering by any measure. To put this in perspective, let’s first take a look at a map that highlights the states of the old Confederacy in relation to the states around it.
Keep this in mind as you continue to scroll down and look at the other maps that reflect social inequalities for income, health, and social welfare benefits.
Income (still working on this)
The median income for nonwhites is only 65 percent that of whites.
The wealth gap is even wider, with white families’ net worth six times that of non-whites.
Income Inequality – 2000 Census
Social Welfare Benefits (SNAP) (still working on this)
Health: Obesity and Life Expectancy (still working on this)
So why did I make you read all this Civil War stuff? Why does it matter in a course on race, crime, and justice? Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news – that’s because the Civil War never really ended. “Everything about the Civil War is present tense,” says author C.R. Gibbs. “This is not settled. Ferguson and Baltimore are just match flares on a long historical fuse.” If we are going to talk about race, crime, and justice, you have to have some minimal level of competency when it comes to understanding the war history of the United States.
For example, you can’t understand what is happening in the world of policing – why it’s not working and why black men seem to always be targeted – if you don’t understand that policing in America has a history founded in Civil War Reconstruction and the founding of “slave patrols,” which were hired by wealthy plantation owners (the first privatized police force) to catch runaway slaves.
If you want to understand why some neighborhoods are poor and crime-ridden (or to use the impolitic term – ghettos), then you have to understand the history of racial segregation in America and how these so-called “ghettos” were made by powerful wealthy white people.
If you want to understand why some groups are marginalized and on welfare, then you have to develop some competence around Who Is Poor and how people become poor.
If you want to understand riots, you have to understand all of these things. Keep in mind, the Civil War led to the passage of the 14th Amendment; an amendment designed to ensure that the U.S. federal government would protect African-Americans, even if (when) states did not. People don’t feel safe in their cities and towns today; they don’t feel protected. And this is not happening only in the South; the North too has problems. This helps explain on some level why people are in the streets.
Put another way, if you don’t understand the history of these social problems and how they find their roots in the Civil War, then you will find it difficult to understand some of the major problems that currently afflict our justice system – police brutality, disparate arrest and sentencing outcomes, the drug war, and mass incarceration.
Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States 1492 – Present. This citation is the opening paragraph of Chapter 9: “Slavery Without Submission, Emancipation Without Freedom,” Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2010).
Roger Ransom’s analysis is posted at EH.net, a publication of the Economic History Association. Last accessed Jan 16, 2018.
Edward Ayers, Gary W. Gallagher, and Andrew J. Torget (eds.), Crucible of the Civil War: Virginia from Secession to Commemoration. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006.
Charles and Mary Beard. The Rise of American Civilization. Two volumes. New York: Macmillan, 1927.
Louis Hacker, The Triumph of American Capitalism: The Development of Forces in American History to the End of the Nineteenth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1940), p. 373.
Sandra L. Trappen, “Empty Metal Jacket: The Biopolitical Economy of War and Medicine,” 2016.