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 Civil War Issues


1: Causes and Arguments

Section Index

  1. Perspective
  2. Causation and Coincidence
  3. What Lies Beneath
  4. The Beginning

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1. Perspective

History is made from a hindsight perspective, it is made in the aftermath of events, mostly not even in the immediate aftermath but with a certain amount of time having elapsed between occurrence and reportage. This may further emotional distance and with it objectivity, but it also creates more room for interpretation. An immediate relation of the events, however, would seem to be nearer to the source, to the truth, but it would suffer from too great an implication into the events themselves, the speaker's perspective would be more detailed, but also more limited.

Doesn't this somehow remind us of something else, something belonging to literary theory? Speaker's perspective, knowledge, distance? And indeed, what is true for literature can be true for history: For this is not necessarily about a story or about facts, it is rather about the narration of these. Narration is a means of relating something to a perceptor, be it in written form, be it audio or video. But you still have an apparatus of reportage coming with it, being attached to the mere facts, to the "truth", thus modifying the related material into something else, into a mixture of facts and form[1].

A direct experience often claims to be subjective, emotionally close to the topic, emotionally involved with the story, thus closer to the immediate truth. That's what we can see on the Jerry Springer Show or, as something even more melodramatic, on Oprah. In relation to the topic, this would mean something like Civil War letters, music, contemporary writings or writings written in relation to the event, the most prominent of that kind being Uncle Tom's Cabin or also Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

Perspective can be true or fake. The difference, however, doesn't seem to matter at all if we take into account how biased an allegedly true perspective already is. As soon as events are told by a human narrator, and even as soon as they are experienced by a human being, they are subject to interpretation and modification, be it in a conscious or unconscious way, be it nocently or innocently. Events are never seen without relation to the speaker's experience and world view. Events are never reported unbiased. There is nothing like reporting the bare facts.

2. Causation, Coincidence, Chaos

The division of events into cause and effect[2] is no easy one, not just because of strenuous philosophical and scientific deliberations, but much more because of the difference between causation and coincidence, which is much too often blurred or ignored.

A mere sequence of events is not yet a causal argument. Not necessarily leads A to B to C, but much more happens A to be followed by B, which happens to be followed by C. Some events just take place and are not directly caused by other events, some things just coincide. Just coincide? So it is the element of chance I am alluding to? Not quite. There may be connections anyway, but these need not be direct ones, also may other factors be involved. Causality means the direct connection between a cause and an effect; coincidence means a seemingly accidental sequence of events - which may still follow a larger, inobservable plan or logic in behind.

Clear-cut causal schemes can become erratic and chaotic systems[3] once the factors involved are simply too much. Such systems may follow a stable path until a breakdown occurs. Change can be incited in the system by whatever irregular influence there may be, but it can also simply occur seemingly out of nothing. This makes chaotic systems basically unpredictable over a long term period. Classic examples for chaotic systems would be the weather, the various gravimetrical fields holding together our solar system, as well as the stock market.

History, however, can be seen as a chaotic system too - not from the aftermath, of course, when all paths chosen lay bare, but from the point of view within historic time, the future is virtually unpredictable, although there are certain influences which may serve as constants, which can be calculated with. For an inhabitant of the Mediterranean region two thousand years ago, Rome indeed was eternal, and her demise virtually unthinkable (Rome is a very good example which I tend to (ab)use quite often, also in the following text).

The fall of the Roman Empire illustrates very well how a once so stable system turned unstable until it finaly broke down. The might of Rome fell victim to small mistakes of ignorant leaders, to an internal separation between the Latin West and the Greek East, a separated empire artificially glued together in a time without mass media, without mass transportation, without modern means to create unity. The commonly asked question is wrong. The question is not how the Roman Empire was able to disintegrate after such a long time of observed stability. The question rather has to be how such an odd mixture was able to sustain itself for so long. In stability may lie ruptures, but ruptures can be defied. Differences can be dealt with.

3. What Lies Beneath

It is not the Roman Empire this paper is about. It is about the American Civil War. Civil Wars usually incite a certain fascination. These are not normal wars, these are amongst the most complicated and most heinous events in history, for it is, so to say, a war about family. The people involved are known to each other, they will be friends, siblings, offsprings, parents, spouses. So it is the more difficult to grasp the causes for such a war, the mere possibility that it has taken place at all.

On the other hand, if this is a brothers' war, and if we were to exploit that analogy: Siblings do fight. Children fight with their parents, parents with their children. If this is about family, it is about intimate relations and about the problems arising out of them. The more difficult, however, will it be for an outsider to understand it, for there may be reasons, but not always reason behind it.

If we look for causes, we must look on both sides. If we look for evidence, we must also look for subjective evidence. Even if no objective evidence of failure of one party existed, the mere thought, the suspection of its existence can be a dividing issue. Paranoia is a factor which has to be taken seriously; paranoia can also be spurred and nourished, by action or by inaction.

Differences are not necessarily a dividing issue. Differences can be productive, can be of value for either side, they need not turn out to be dividing. Most separations do not take place because of differences amongst the partners, but rather out of a growing inability to cope with these differences. Inertia is a critical element here: Something changes its course only when it is incited to do so. Normally, change is abjected and continuity preferred. Continuity allows for a certain predictability, which is a decisive factor for business management considerations.

So there needs to be some cause, some inciting elements which made this war possible, something else beyond the simple yet somehow redundant and formulaic reiteration of differences which are said to have just been too much.

It is not enough to have differences between two more or less opposing sides, as can be seen time and again in the Middle East. Differences exist, that's nothing new, nothing singular, nothing out of the ordinary. Of course there were decisive differences between the industrializing North and the more plantation-based South. Of course there are differences between people living in colder regions with rather harsh weather conditions, and those living in seemingly eternal sunshine. Of course there are differences between a rather ethnic diverse society with a constant flow of European immigrants adding to the diversity, and a society which is rather secluded and whose more or less sole ethnic oppositions are black and white.

The task is just to deal with these differences, to make them work for the common good. Ethnic diversity is one of the many strengths of America, no weakness, and so is regional diversity. So the question rather has to be, how could these differences be played out in such a way that unity was lost and a secessionist move take ground in the population. Maybe it is part of this game of chance which history is. Maybe. Maybe it's all part of a giant conspiracy. Maybe. Or perhaps it is a mixture of both: A sufficient amount of distrust and suspicion on both sides being used by those kinds of factions who - either out of ignorance, out of ennui or out of deliberation - made it possible for the conflict to erupt.

4. The Beginning

It is plain to see that the North had been making concessions to the South time and again, as for instance regarding the expansion of slavery into newly formed federal states. It is plain to see that the government was not clearly in favor of the militant Abolishionist movement threatening the peculiar institution. Yet still it is somehow strange and perplexing that Lincoln didn't campaign in the South. He remained a stranger to the people in the South, to people who may or may not have voted for him, but clearly to people of which he was about to become President. Maybe this could just have been a mistake. But it was a fatal one, sending the - supposedly - wrong message to the wrong people and increasing the already visible gap between North and South.

Such an ignoring of the Southern people by the Presidential candidate could have meant only one thing to the South, even in the most benign interpretation: He doesn't care, he isn't interested in our problems and needs, and he doesn't want to deal with us.

Is it wrong to assume that a Presidential candidate should have at least that much intelligence as to recognize such a major fault? Is it wrong to assume that - even if the President's campaign was ill-conceived - that he would have had advisers to tell him so? He should have known about the growing dissension, and he should have taken action. In such a case, there cannot be mistakes. There mustn't be made any mistakes. So it probably isn't wrong to assume that the President didn't only not care about the conflict arising, but that he - either through gross negligence or with intent - worsened the situation and accepted grave consequences to happen, let alone provoking them.

While Lincoln's role in the tragedy to enfold may not have been such a glorious one, the South surely didn't do anything to ease the situation as well. Conflict can also be provoked by creating and nurturing a climate of constant suspicion and paranoia. The South had become accustomed to except only the worst from the North, while a more objective approach would have been much more justified. But the regional governments didn't ease the growing discontent, they used it to profit from it politically. They helped create the impression that there was a certain growing difference leading to the North's discriminating the South - the constant concessions made by the North being ignored or accepted as a matter of course.

The South surely was panicking, fearing for some action to be taken against slavery. Lincoln's disinterestedness in Southern affairs led them to believe he would make a move against them. The atmosphere was poisoned in such a way that the most important thing was lost: Trust. Trust on behalf of both sides. With trust gone, the basis for partnership or even peaceful cooperation is lost. In such a climate, anything can turn order into chaos.

October 9th-12th 2000

previous: introduction   ·   next: part 2

Endnotes - Part 1

[1] cf. Hayden White. "The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality"

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