The Atlantic

The Civil War Isn’t Over

150 years after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Americans are still fighting over the great issues at the heart of the conflict.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

On this 150th anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox, Americans mark the end of the Civil War. The questions at the heart of the war, though, still occupy the nation, which has never truly gotten over that conflict. The great issues of the war were not resolved on that April morning at Appomattox. In this sense, not only is the Civil War not over; it can still be lost.

“It is easy to proclaim all souls equal in the sight of God,” wrote James Baldwin in 1956 as the Civil Rights Movement took hold in America; “it is hard to make men equal on earth in the sight of men.” Philosophically and theologically, claims of human equality are as old as the hills. But the real struggles for genuine equality of natural rights, of equality before law, and of equality of opportunity are much more recent in historical time. And such a profound—sacred and legal—quest as equality is not a destination, a place over the horizon, but a long, grinding process of human striving. In short, equality is process of historical change. It forever tacks against the trade winds of individualism, self-interest, material accumulation, and widely varying notions of the idea of “liberty” from which it draws momentum.

Americans often begin conversations about equality with Thomas Jefferson’s invocation of it as one of the four first principles in the Declaration of Independence. Americans like being “first” with ideas. But as Abraham Lincoln reminded us, more than four-score years later, the nation founded in a revolution against monarchy had to fight a second revolution against itself in order to determine whether the “proposition” of “equality” had a future in any republic. And that second revolution—the Civil War—was so bloody, so devastating, a “result so fundamental and astounding,” as Lincoln put it, that ever since, Americans of all backgrounds have yearned to declare, or at least feel, its deepest issues over and resolved. Americans may love the epic story of their Civil War, but would, by and large, prefer its nightmarish causes and consequences to fall quiet, to rest in peace.

Over time, the Civil War became the subject of great romanticization and sentimentalism in cultural memory. For veteran soldiers on both sides, reconciliation required time and the pressure of political imperatives imposed by the larger society on them and on the conflict’s memory. In the wake of this war, Americans faced a profound and all but impossible challenge of achieving two deeply contradictory goals—healing and justice. Healing took generations in many families, if it ever came at all. Justice was fiercely contested. It was not the same proposition for the freedmen and their children as it was for white Southerners, in the wake of their military, economic and psychological defeat. And in America, as much as it sometimes astonishes foreigners, the defeated in this civil war eventually came to control large elements of the event’s meaning, legacies, and policy implications, a reality wracked with irony and driven by the nation’s persistence racism.

Much of America’s devastating failures with race relations and the origins of the Jim Crow segregation that took firm hold across the South by 1900 can be traced to the nation’s failure to face the unending legacies of emancipation. The bitterly contested Reconstruction policies of the federal government of the late 1860s, at the heart of which stood the unprecedented participation by blacks in southern political life, and the violent counter-revolution by the former Confederate states in the 1870s, laid the groundwork for such a debacle. In his modern synthesis of the period, Eric Foner called this revolution, and the counter-revolution

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