By Matthew Furrow
Let me tell you about a newspaper article I just read and what it taught me about history.
Apparently, this week marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War. (The war started because southern forces fired the first shot, although it’s not clear why). This is a “Big Deal,” at least to certain major American newspapers. The Washington Post has set up Twitter accounts so I can follow the words of Abraham Lincoln and an obscure military leader named Anderson. (Apparently, 150 years ago, someone was shooting mortars at him, or near him, anyway.) The New York Times has created a Facebook page for the Civil War, as has the state of Virginia.
History is being brought alive to those who care about it: geeky couch-potatoes (people who watch “reruns of Ken Burns’ documentary”) and weird people who like to dress up in costume (performing “battle re-enactments”). For the rest of us, these projects should be seen as kind of interesting, but also kind of silly (what if General Lee, gleeful traitor to his country, tweeted about it? LOL!).
The Civil War has resonance today, at least to some Americans. Recently the NAACP protested a “Secession Ball” in South Carolina which (at least according to them) celebrates the era of slavery. (What connection slavery has to the Civil War is not clear.) Meanwhile historians, unsurprisingly, complain that there isn’t enough funding to celebrate the past, and that historic battlefields are being encroached by modern development. “Lingering rifts” will be exposed in Americans’ reminiscences of the Civil War over the next five years, although it’s not really clear which ones.
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It was good to see a 460-word article in the Toronto Star acknowledging the anniversary of the Civil War, and describing the efforts of American newspapers to preserve and explore the events of 150 years ago. It’s a shame, however, that the article fails to engage the reader as to why these events are important, and in fact deliberately sets a tone suggesting that its subject matter is trivial at best.
As in so many simplified portrayals of history, events just seem to happen in the article, without any particular cause or agency. The Civil War broke out 150 years ago when Southern forces fired the first shot. Why? The reader is not told. Later in the article, the NAACP’s protests against a “Secession Ball” suggest that slavery may have been a factor in the South’s decision to secede, but this connection is only hinted at. Why should the reader care that the war broke out 150 years ago, if there was no particular reason for it to happen?
On March 21, 1861, speaking in Savannah, Georgia, Confederate Vice-President Alexander H. Stevens made clear the chief reason for the secession of the South: because the new Confederacy, unlike the old Union, was explicitly founded “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.” This is the kind of basic (and provocative) context that makes history come to life, but the article avoids exploring why anyone should care, either now or 150 years ago, about the outbreak of the war.
Little wonder, then, that the Civil War is suggested to be relevant only to battlefield re-enactors and History Channel documentary junkies. The only quoted material after the lede, from “Union military leader Robert Anderson,” describes the firing of a mortar battery near his position. The reader can be forgiven for a mental shrug of the shoulders at this news. Of course, Major Robert Anderson was in command of Fort Sumter, the beleaguered federal-held fort at the mouth of Charleston harbour; it was the firing on his fort that started the war. Every person in the United States had a stake in what was about to happen to Major Anderson 150 years ago, but the article leaves the reader with the impression that the Washington Post just wanted us to read about trivial military minutiae.
A single historian is cited, not to provide context about the war or why we should care, but to lament the loss of its battlefields (presumably so the re-enactors have somewhere to do their re-enacting). Robert E. Lee, who made an anguished decision of conscience to follow his state rather than his country, is imagined “LOL”ing over his “treasonous thoughts.” The whole tone of the article slyly tells the reader: this all may be interesting for the history geeks, but it’s all trivial, not to mention a bit ridiculous, for the rest of us.
Relevance is finally, tantalizingly hinted at in the final sentence: the anniversary of the war may reveal “lingering rifts” in the United States. But the reader is left to imagine what these rifts might be, or why he or she should care.
Good journalism about history engages the reader. It draws connections between cause and effect. It shows that historians are concerned with historical detail not for its own sake, but in order to explore the bigger picture. It invites the reader to explore why the events of the past were significant then, and why they might remain significant now.
The Civil War fundamentally shaped the development of the United States. It redefined racial relations in that country, resulting in the end of slavery and the start of a new struggle by African Americans for political and economic rights. It caused an immense shift in American society, politics, diplomacy, and the American economy. The war saw people leave Canada to fight for both North and South, including African Americans who understood exactly why Alexander Stevens’ vision had to be destroyed. The menace of a newly-reunited, militarily powerful, and potentially expansionistic United States provided a major impetus for Canadian Confederation. That is why the Civil War matters, including to Canadians, and why efforts to re-engage the public in what happened 150 years ago deserve more than a wink and a sneer from journalists.
Matthew Furrow is a lawyer in Toronto.