- The United States marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War
- Americans still argue over many issues that led to war, scholars say
- Scholar: “There are all of these weird parallels”
- Southern historian: Confederate leaders are American heroes
CNN — He stood 5-foot-8 and weighed 145 pounds. His face was gaunt and sunburned. Ticks, fleas and lice covered his body.
Before battle, his lips would quiver and his body went numb. When the shooting started, some of his comrades burst into maniacal laughter. Others bit the throat and ears of their enemy. And some were shattered by shells so powerful that tufts of their hair stuck to rocks and trees.
Take a tour of a Civil War battlefield today, and it’s difficult to connect the terrifying experience of an average Civil War soldier — described above from various historical accounts — with the tranquil historic sites where we now snap pictures today.
But you don’t have to tour a battlefield to understand the Civil War. Look at today’s headlines. As the nation commemorates the 150th anniversary of its deadliest war this week, some historians say we’re still fighting over some of the same issues that fueled the Civil War.
“There are all of these weird parallels,” says Stephanie McCurry, author of “Confederate Reckoning,” a new book that examines why Southerners seceded and its effect on Southern women and slaves.
“When you hear charges today that the federal government is overreaching, and the idea that the Constitution recognized us as a league of sovereign states — these were all part of the secessionist charges in 1860,” she says.
These “weird parallels” go beyond the familiar debates over what caused the war, slavery or states’ rights. They extend to issues that seem to have nothing to do with the Civil War.
The shutdown of the federal government, war in Libya, the furor over the new health care law and Guantanamo Bay — all have tentacles that reach back to the Civil War, historians say.
They point to four parallels:
The disappearance of the political center
If you think the culture wars are heated now, check out mid-19th century America. The Civil War took place during a period of pervasive piety when both North and South demonized one another with self-righteous, biblical language, one historian says.
–William Blair, Civil War historian
The war erupted not long after the “Second Great Awakening” sparked a national religious revival. Reform movements spread across the country. Thousands of Americans repented of their sins at frontier campfire meetings and readied themselves for the Second Coming.
They got war instead. Their moral certitude helped make it happen, says David Goldfield, author of “America Aflame,” a new book that examines evangelical Christianity’s impact on the war.
Goldfield says evangelical Christianity “poisoned the political process” because the American system of government depends on compromise and moderation, and evangelical religion abhors both because “how do you compromise with sin.”
“By transforming political issues into moral causes, you raise the stakes of the conflict and you tend to demonize your opponents,” Goldfield says.
Contemporary political rhetoric is filled with similar rhetoric. Opponents aren’t just wrong — they’re sinners, Goldfield says.
“The erosion of the center in contemporary American politics is the most striking parallel between today and the time just before the Civil War,” Goldfield says.
In the lead-up to the war, political campaigns were filled with religious fervor. Political parties paraded their piety and labeled opponents infidels.
“Today’s government gridlock results, in part, from this religious mind set that many issues can be divided into good and evil and sin and salvation,” he says.
How much power should the federal government have?
Nullification, state’s rights and secession. Those terms might sound like they’re lifted from a Civil War history book, but they’re actually making a comeback on the national stage today.
Since the rise of the Tea Party and debate over the new health care law, more Republican lawmakers have brandished those terms. Republican lawmakers in at least 11 states invoked nullification to thwart the new health care law, according to a recent USA Today article.
It was the kind of talk that led to the Civil War, historians say.
“One of the biggest debates during the Civil War was how far should governments go in dictating our lives. We still debate those politics,” says William Blair, director of the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center at Pennsylvania State University.
The Southern answer to that question ignited the war. When they seceded, their leaders said that they were protecting the inherent rights of sovereign states. They invoked the 13 Colonies’ fight for independence.
–H.W. Crocker III, Southern historian
H.W. Crocker III, author of “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War,” says Southern secessionists were patriots reaffirming the Founding Father’s belief that the Colonies were free and independent states.
“If the Southern states pulled out of the union today after, say, the election of Barack Obama, or some other big political issue like abortion, how many of us would think the appropriate reaction from the federal government would be to blockade Southern ports and send armies into Virginia?” Crocker asks.
He says men such as Jefferson Davis, the leader of the Confederacy, are American heroes.
“Jefferson Davis was not trying to force anything on the people in the North,” he says. “We wanted to be left alone. What actually caused the war is Lincoln’s insistence that no, we can’t let these people go.”