The order that I had to visit these locations is out of sync with the actual timeline of events so I decided to wrap them into two megaposts. This one is about the American Civil War, when we defeated the traitorous slavers.
This was the first battle of the American Civil War. Abraham Lincoln won the presidency in 1860 running on a campaign for the abolition of slavery. When he won, eleven southern states announced they were seceding from the Union. This simple fact eludes many who try to tell the lie that this war was about anything other than slavery.
Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to join an Army and serve for ninety days in order to recapture the rebel states and protect the union against the traitors. Another four states then seceded.
Virginia was one of those final four states. Lincoln offered command of the Union Army to Robert E Lee of Virginia. Lee declined, resigned from the Union Army, and instead took command of the confederate army.
The confederates set up their capitol in Richmond, VA just a hundred miles from the American capitol in Washington DC. Bull Run is directly between these two, so it became the site of the first battle of the war.
The early strategy was to end the war quickly without too much damage to the country. 34,000 brand-new and basically untrained Union troops met 25,000 brand-new and basically untrained confederate troops at Bull Run in 1861. Countless tourists and even politicians set up picnics on the surrounding hills to watch the battle.
As you might expect, 60,000 untrained men fighting their first battle was a mess. Neither side suffered significant casualties and it’s difficult to argue that either side won. History records that neither the north nor the south saw public celebration of the outcome. Both sides knew that any hope of a quick end was dashed, and so they would have to build fortifications to protect their capitols and start a much longer strategic plan. To that end, Lincoln immediately ordered the creation of a much larger army of 500,000 to serve three years rather than just three months. Lincoln also immediately replaced the general who had failed to defeat the much smaller southern army despite going into the battle with every advantage.
I camped here for two weeks while visiting all the other sites. What a cool home base for this series!
The Battle of Antietam was the bloodiest battle of the civil war in terms of highest daily casualties (22k). More people died at Gettysburg but that was split across three days where this was all on one day.
It was a major defeat for the confederacy. At the end of this battle, Lincoln announced his Emancipation Proclamation, declaring the slaves held in the south to be free.
Odds are you’ve heard of this battle. This was the bloodiest battle in the war, and the most decisive turning point for the north. It was just four-score and seven (87) years after the signing of the declaration of independence.
The north had enormous advantages during the civil war, and this was the moment when all those advantages lined up and worked like they needed to. Nearly 30,000 men died at Gettysburg. It would end with the confederate vice president himself traveling north under a white flag to negotiate for prisoners, but many historians have also concluded that this was intended as an initial peace overture from a now badly defeated south that knew its days were numbered.
1865: Surrender at Appomattox
There was a man named Wilmer McLean who lived in Manassas at Bull Run. The first battle of the Civil war took place partially in his front yard. His house was largely destroyed in the battle, and so he moved to Appomattox, VA. So it’s only fitting that the final confederate surrender was signed in his new house. He is said to have often joked, “The war began in my front yard and ended in my parlor.”
Reconstruction is what we call the period when the south was reintegrated into the union. Congress sent General Grant to occupy the southern states and dismantle and destroy paramilitary groups like the KKK and protect the rights and freedom of black people who were now free in the south. The period immediately following the end of the war while the south was under military occupation is the only time in history when black people have had representative power in congress. The Union also announced orders to redistribute the wealth of the slavers to the slaves in order to make them whole. Specifically, they would break up the land holdings of the slavers and give that land along with livestock and equipment to the freed slaves.
Unfortunately Lincoln was assassinated and his vice president who then took over was an extreme white supremacist. The business of fixing the problems was immediately abandoned, the troops withdrawn, and Jim Crow and the KKK were set loose. The Freedmen’s Bureau and the commitment to redistribute the wealth of the slavers to the freedmen were abandoned.
This period is also when convict-lease took off. Congress did not ban slavery, the thirteenth amendment simply says people need to be accused of a crime in order to be enslaved. This led to a huge new industry. Locally elected sheriffs had basically unlimited and unchecked power to simply round up dozens of black people and charge them with fake crimes. Then they could be legally sold back to their former owners to work the same plantations for free as now-legal slaves. The only difference was that sheriffs got paid for facilitating this new system called convict-lease.
This system is still in place today. Almost no one who is in prison has ever been convicted of any crime. Instead, they are compelled to take plea deals for reduced sentences under the threat of more severe charges. Then they are sold off as slaves to work for states and industry. For example, the armies of firefighters who work for the state of California are almost exclusively convict-lease slaves.
The Legacy of Jim Crow
In place of those initial efforts at some kind of justice for the freedmen, the south and the nation more broadly adopted a strategy of white supremacy. The entire socioeconomic order was remade to separate and exclude black people from everything from jobs to wealth-building to owning property, living in certain neighborhoods, and of course voting. Many referred to this as “separate but equal,” though as the supreme court would later rule, separate is inherently unequal.
Separate and unequal became the fundamental organizing principle behind American society, and all our institutions reflect that fact even today. generations of gerymandering and voter suppression mean black people still have far lower representation in congress than they did during reconstruction. We see the impact of this legacy when we look at those legal slave armies fighting wildfires and see how extremely overrepresented black people are among their ranks. We see it in the way some parts of the country have gaps in life expectancy between black and white people as high as 14 years. We see it in average household wealth being hundreds of times higher for white families than black families. And yet many today still take the same tone that Andrew Jackson did, that this is how it should be and fixing it is not worthy of our attention and efforts.
Despite the fact that some of the Jim Crow rules were eventually banned, new ones are passed into law every day, and the way these rules defined cities and neighborhoods will last for generations. The legacy of Jim Crow is alive and well and growing, not shrinking.
A Careful Lack of Resolution
There is a fundamental problem with the way the civil war was handled, particularly during reconstruction. The war happened because the nation admitted to the great moral evils that were taking place and affecting everyone, not just affecting the enslaved peoples but also those who slavery benefited. No one in America was not affected by slavery. Black people were enslaved, and white people lived off the economic and social benefits of slavery either directly or indirectly.
Slavery is still legal today, and it continues to affect mostly black people. All our institutions were built on the premise of separate and unequal. Everything from policing to banking to voting is built on Jim Crow, and Jim Crow is as widespread and influential today as it has ever been.
Racial segregation is higher than ever in many parts of the country today, and we see corporations and governments deliberately using those black neighborhoods as dumping grounds for hazards that then impact black people instead of white people.
Despite acknowledging the deep moral evils of the way the nation’s socioeconomic order was constructed, no serious effort has ever been undertaken to make the victims whole or to address the structural imbalance of power which continues to increase and exacerbate the problems rather than ameliorating and repairing the impacts of the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow in this country. Until this fundamentally changes, the strain and conflict we see on a daily basis will only continue to grow.