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Ta-Nehisi Coates: The Civil War Was Not a Tragedy


The Civil War Isn't Tragic: one thing struck me about the conversation, which inevitably comes through any time smart people gather to discuss the [O]ivil War. The conceded common ground was the following--The Civil War was a tragedy.... Six hundred thousand people died in the Civil War, a shocking figure which doesn't really capture the toll that this sort of violence took on the country at large. And yet when I think about the Civil War I don't feel sad at all. To be honest, I feel positively fucking giddy. And I don't think I'm abnormal because of this. Twenty-two thousand people died in the Revolutionary War, and we celebrate that with hot dogs and hamburgers every year. I'm sure that while Jews feel fairly horrible that the Holocaust happened, very few of them consider the fighting it took in order to liberate the death camps, "tragic." The Holocaust is tragic. Ending the Holocaust is not.

In that fashion, from my perspective, the most trenchant facts of the Civil War are not that it turned "brother against brother," or that it produced a plethora of great military minds, or even that it produced arguably our greatest leaders. In sum the most trenchant facts, for me, as always, emanate from this:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.


Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, 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 normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth...

And this:

You cannot make soldiers of slaves, or slaves of soldiers. The day you make a soldier of them is the beginning of the end of the Revolution. And if slaves seem good soldiers, then our whole theory of slavery is wrong.

It's really simple for me. One group of Americans attempted to raise a country on property in Negroes. Another group of Americans, many of them Negroes themselves, stopped them. As surely as we lack the ability to see tragedy in violently throwing off the yoke of the English, I lack the ability to see tragedy in violently throwing off the yoke of slaveholders. For most Americans, the Civil War is a sudden outbreak of a existential violence. But for 250 years, African-Americans lived in slavery--which is to say perpetual existential violence. I don't know what else to call a system that involves the constant threat of your children, your parents, your grandparents, being sold off, never for you to see them again. That is death. Malcolm X was fond of saying that that there was no such thing as a "bloodless revolution." I don't know if that's true, but it surely was true of black people. The Civil War is our revolution. It ended slavery, and birthed both modern America, and modern black America. That can never be tragic to me.

There is some sense that the unpleasantness could have been avoided... a peaceful resolution [was] at the ready. I find that notion self-serving. It's really depressing to acknowledge that large portions of this country were so bound to the right of property in Negroes that they would counsel horrific violence, not simply to protect it, but to expand it. The "compromise" notion allows us to elide that reality and see the Civil War as some sort of terrible mistake, something out of our control, instead of a statement on the American core. As if slavery isn't in the Constitution. As if the three-fifths clause never happened.

On the facts of the thing, I've spent the past few years digging through the history books. South Carolina seceded in reaction to a democratically elected president. It then formed a rebel government which fired on, and subsequently, occupied a federal fort. These are facts. I've yet to see a definitive case that they were avoidable. With that in mind, I am forced to live in the world of the actual instead of the "could of."

Finally, the "compromise" theory rest on a comfortable fiction wherein no actual people are suffering under the yoke. Let us not obscure this. We are talking about a compromise born by my forebears, and frankly, if less literally, yours too. We are talking about the majority of the people then living in South Carolina, and Mississippi. We are talking about a significant minority of the people then living in Georgia and Virginia. We are talking about a compromise based on forfeiting the lives of the enslaved. I don't know how anyone asks a black person to wish for that "better" world.

I don't expect most people here to match my feeling, or even agree with me. We aren't the same. But what I am asking is for you to take a moment, and live outside your own skin. I'm asking you to do what I do every day on this blog, and what all black people who have any hope of succeeding in this society, are forced to do daily. I'm asking you to see the world through someone else's eyes.

There are very real reasons for why the broader country remembers the Civil War as it does. But my concern isn't for the broader country; it's for those who came up us a I did. It's for those who experienced their history as "whip/chain/rape/free." Who avoid Petersburg. Who avoid the Wilderness. Who avoid Shiloh, because they've bought the myth of "brother vs. brother."

But we have myths too.