The Toxic Vibe at Antietam

A view of "Bloody Lane" from the observation tower.

Every Civil War battlefield is poignant, preserving within itself a base, murderous vibe.  Each speaks to us in its own way of American folly.  Nowhere is the vibe more toxic than at Antietam.

What led Americans to murder one another there in record numbers?  They had lost patience over a complex problem that they failed to solve politically, and each set of murderers would be damned before they would see their opponents prevail.  And so they were.

In a quiet corner of rural Maryland just off the Potomac River, legions of Union and Confederate soldiers—Americans all—converged in cornfields and country lanes outside Sharpsburg, shooting, bombing, and bayoneting one another in a merciless bloodbath.  It was just one day in a civil war that lasted four years and destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands of young men, scarring their families and traumatizing a proud, optimistic nation.  There in the vicinity of Antietam Creek, on September 17, 1862, some 23,000 Americans were wounded or killed.

Masses of dead Americans lying in a field after Antietam in 1862

They were the victims of party politics.  The lofty language Lincoln and others used to give meaning to the Civil War tends to obscure the truth that the war was a travesty, a rebuke to the pretensions of republican government.  The Civil War was the nasty afterbirth of a colossal political deadlock that upended the political system and plunged the nation into catastrophe.  We rarely acknowledge the deeply shameful character of this domestic rumble. The nation’s leadership class so failed the people that at last they and their states lost patience, gave up negotiating, and gambled on settling their differences by force.

When the Civil War broke out, the United States was a young, forward-looking nation.  Its people were migratory and accustomed to risk.  They were experimental, improvisational, adept at breaking with established ways.  Yet, when it came to slavery, their leaders were blinkered.  They were irresponsible and cowardly.  (Historian James G. Randall once dubbed them “the blundering generation.”)  In the first half of the 19th century, when other countries were advancing toward the gradual abolition of slavery (often in their colonial possessions), a generation of American leaders proved incapable of finding a peaceful way past white Southerners’ longstanding reliance on negro slaves.

An enormous literature catalogs the reasons these “antebellum” statesmen failed.  Slavery was deeply rooted in the South’s colonial past. The slaveholding class perceived owning “property” in slaves as vital to Southern prosperity, which was based on export commodities (chiefly tobacco and cotton).  White Southerners also enjoyed more than their fair share of representation in Congress, thanks to the three-fifths clause of the Constitution.

Northern politicians meanwhile turned a blind eye to slavery (the “peculiar” institution), in part because of the North’s own variety of anti-black feeling, but also because agitating for change with respect to slavery threatened the solidarity of the political class across the North-South divide.  No one in power could envision the US with a large free black population.

Northern Democrats, whose party was pro-slavery, were keen to steer clear of the slavery issue because they wanted to remain in power.  They wanted their party to remain dominant and keep control of the White House.  They were committed to preventing the federal government from infringing on the rights of slave-holding states or individual slaveholders.

In short, until the rise of the Republican Party in the late 1850s, slavery was an uncomfortable issue that no mainstream politician wanted to face.  Slavery, that “fire bell in the night,” as Jefferson memorably described it circa 1820, was so potentially divisive a matter that, for many decades, American statesmen conspired to keep it from interfering in national life.

Politically, this strategy of avoidance allowed northern and southern states to enjoy a balance of power.  As territories were settled and new states admitted to the Union, Congress passed various measures in an attempt to ensure that the number of free and slave states would remain equal.  The Missouri Compromise (1820), the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 were all constructed along these lines.

When an initially tiny group of antislavery politicians succeeded in organizing the new Republican Party and putting their candidate Abraham Lincoln in the White House in 1860, Southern legislators were certain they knew what the future held.  They were convinced that the Republicans’ success (though attained solely with the support of Northern states) presaged slavery’s doom—and their own.  Southern leaders who might have stayed in power to mitigate the effects of this untoward political development, recoiled against their minority status.  Fearful and defiant, they withdrew from national politics.  Then they went home and convinced their states to withdraw from the Union.  In doing so, they placed themselves on the wrong side of history, failing their states and fellow-citizens, and spinning a narrative of bitterness and alienation that some Southerners continue to lean on today.

Suddenly, because of all that, the residents who had heretofore ferried back and forth across the Potomac on their daily errands became mortal enemies.  Confederates blew up the bridge at Shepherdstown, Virginia, that was normally used to get to the Maryland side.  Then, after the bridge was gone, tens of thousands of troops who were part of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia waded across the river at night to wage war in what was called the Maryland Campaign.

Lee sought to attack and defeat the Union Army on northern soil, but, even at this early point in the war, his soldiers and he may well have sensed the terrible futility and shamefulness of their resort to violence—the civic degeneration that “freed” them to attack their erstwhile compatriots, whose ancestors had fought with theirs to attain independence in the American Revolution.  Having disavowed their faith in federal politics and the Constitution, Southern “rebels” now poured their energies into slaughtering whomever they encountered in the “bloody cornfield.”

After both sides sickened from their atrocious duties, Lee’s forces retreated back across the river into rebel territory, an admission that their aggressive foray against the defenders of federalism had failed.

In retrospect, we can see how the visceral drama and valor of the Civil War took the heat off “the blundering generation.”  We do not excoriate the political establishment of that time for failing to hang together, for their cowardly abandonment of the federal system.

Because the Civil War at last secured the great goal of emancipation, we can easily be fooled into thinking of it as a noble, progressive event.  It’s blasphemy to admit the war was a terrible disservice to the nation, which would have been better off abolishing slavery by consensual means.  The partisan and sectional conflict leading up to the Civil War exposed frightening vulnerabilities in our Constitutional system, vulnerabilities that are still there, waiting for a freak combination of circumstances to exploit them again.

Sadly, the resort to force did not “settle our differences.”  A vast change in our internal relations occurred when slavery ended, but, as for the necessary change of heart, we’re waiting for it still.  Southern slaveholders never assented to slavery’s end.  Northerners never got serious about the concessions that might have induced the South to give up an immoral labor practice at odds with the nation’s ideals.  Ultimately, enslaved blacks attained freedom despite violent Southern opposition, engendering animosities that confound Americans still.  Still, America lacks consensus on racial equality as a fact and a blessing; still retrograde elements valorize their resistance to modern popular will.

How wonderful it would be

Man cutting out stars in a flag factory (Courtesy Library of Congress)

“It would just be so wonderful if the answers could actually come from the South itself,” Isabella Wilkerson said.  She was talking about the Charleston shootings, the Confederate flag, and the influence the South’s slave-holding past continues to have on the region.  The race hatred that motivated a young white gunman to kill nine African-Americans in their own church is an extreme manifestation of the bitterness and resentment still lingering in some hearts after the Civil War—a conflict whose one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary the nation has just observed.

That long-ago conflict determined the superior power of the federal government over the states, while putting an end to Southern slavery.  The citizens of the sections warred against one another, one side sold on the merits of federalism, the other desiring to preserve states’ autonomy.  The South went to war over the right to pass and uphold whatever laws it pleased—specifically those that sanction chattel slavery.

The Union’s victory invalidated the rebels’ arguments, while setting up an asymmetrical dynamic vis-à-vis the South that persists.  In the wake of this rebuke, the federal government (in the so-called “Reconstruction” era) ruled Southern state governments for ten years, fearing that, if given political autonomy, the states would use it to resurrect slavery.  Later in the century, Southern states achieved something approximate through the Jim Crow laws.  During the civil rights era of the 1960s, the federal government again intervened to help secure and uphold black Southerners’ claims to legal and civil equality.  This legacy of intervention achieved progress by coercion–an achievement very different than that of racial reconciliation and political healing from inside.

When I traveled to Mississippi in the early 1990s, I was shocked to encounter whites who felt they couldn’t ‘win’ because of the weights the Civil War had placed on them.  They still felt diminished and beaten, and still resented and feared the state’s large black population, which could attain hegemony if empowered.  Enmeshed in an archaic social paradigm, they still regarded their black brethren as something other than Southern and equal.

The Southern tendency to predicate the present on this past is a baleful impediment to Southern progress.  It is, moreover, a baleful impediment to the vitality and strength of the entire country.  People of all sections are affected by the conditions prevailing in this one region.  Just imagine the transforming effects upon the entire nation if the South were finally to heal its own historical wounds!

Above: A man cuts out stars for a flag with a machine, in a photograph probably taken in 1909.
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Nullifiers and Cliven Bundy

Nullification . . . despotism (1833 lithograph by Endicott & Swett)Not fifty years had passed before some Americans grew restive under the federal Union.

Back then, in 1832, the unhappy ones were called “nullifiers.”  They hailed from South Carolina, and their leader was the redoubtable John C. Calhoun, a senator and out-going Vice President with a good head on his shoulders and plenty of determination.  (In the cartoon above, he is the central figure, reaching for the despot’s crown.)

The nullifiers argued that because the states had existed before the federal Union, the states had the right to “nullify,” or say no to, a federal law.  Nullifiers believed that the states, which had ratified the Constitution, retained a kind of sovereignty, despite having empowered the federal government and established the Constitution as “the supreme law of the land.”

The down-side of federalism

By the 1830s, Americans were having to grapple with the fact that, under the federal system, their point of view would sometimes be in the minority.  Congress would sometimes craft federal laws that defied individual interests or the interests of individual states.  The preferences of a state or region could be perennially disregarded unless it could persuade a majority to share its view.

Slave states, in particular, became deathly afraid that, if slave-holding became a minority interest, the federal government could legislate slavery out of existence.

So radicals in South Carolina got busy inventing a school of thought that would justify their disobeying federal laws they didn’t like.  As it happened, a political controversy over tariffs rather than slavery furnished their first test case.

Unhappy radicals nullify a federal law

The uproar came over what they called “the tariff of abominations.”  Battles over tariff policy were to 19th-century politics what tax issues are to Americans now.  In the first century or so of the country’s existence, tariffs, not internal taxes, supplied most of the federal government’s revenue.

Tariffs protected America’s developing economy, which, though burgeoning, was in danger of being cannabalized by mature economic powers like England.  So the US imposed many tariffs on imports, both manufactured goods and commodities.  Congress drafted and debated tariff legislation every few years, occasioning intense negotiations and bad feelings.

Inevitably, tariffs affected southern and northern interests differently.  Tariffs forced southerners, who engaged mainly in agriculture, to pay more for manufactured goods or imports they needed, whereas northerners benefited from the protection given to their emerging industries and to internal trade.  In the long term, the South stood to benefit from more goods being produced domestically, but it was not inclined to see it that way.  The system of tariffs imposed through federal legislation in 1828 and again in 1832 roused the radicals to defy the so-called “Tariff of Abominations.”

South Carolina’s nullifiers got serious and, on November 24, 1832, used their majority in the state legislature to pass a Nullification Ordinance declaring the national tariff law void.  Their action posed a threat to the entire federal system, for what would remain of the Union if every state were allowed to defy a law it didn’t like?

Andrew Jackson, who was president at the time, might have been thought sympathetic to the nullifiers.  After all, he was a Southern slave-holder who opposed certain forms of centralized power, such as a national bank.  His response to South Carolina, however, was swift and uncompromising: he had Congress pass a Force Bill, empowering him to enforce the federal law by military means if necessary.  In the meantime, Henry Clay obtained some concessions in the tariff legislation that made it easier for South Carolina to retreat from its dangerous position without losing face.  Jackson never had to use the power the Force Bill gave him.  The crisis passed.

Nullification’s baleful legacy

The desire to break free of federalism’s limits continued to disorder the political culture of the Palmetto State.  Its radicals never disavowed the anti-federalist temptation.  Their principles were still doing damage a generation later, when fire-eaters in South Carolina were the first to take their state out of the Union, claiming that this was every state’s right.  Eleven states eventually followed their lead.  It took the Civil War and four years of bloodshed to lay to rest the nullifiers’ dangerous doctrines.

When I hear of Cliven Bundy and others who do not wish to abide by federal law, I hear the echoes of the nullifiers.  These are Americans ignorant of the tragic consequences of the doctrines they mouth.  Federalism, however imperfect, has secured to every American benefits that never would have been attained under a weaker system.  Cliven Bundy subverts the values of the flag that he loves to wave.  “From the many, one?”  He’s forgotten what that means.


Image: An 1833 lithograph by Endicott and Swett correctly envisions the consequences of nullification’s doctrines.  Calhoun and other nullifiers mount a pyramid at whose base lie two slain figures, draped in the American flag and the motto “E Pluribus Unum.”  They represent the Constitution and the Union.  At right is Andrew Jackson, pulling down the nullifier who would ascend from nullification to treason.  The kneeling figures at left are modestly circumstanced Southerners, forced to endure whatever may come of the nullifiers’ rash and self-serving deeds.  Beyond the top step of the pyramid, labeled Disunion, lies Anarchy.


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