“With the first year of its Sesquicentennial now under way (the official start is April’s anniversary of Fort Sumter’s bombardment), we’re reminded that our national memory of the U.S. Civil War has long been haunted by the problem of slavery. Despite some renewed suggestions to the contrary, most historians today would argue that slavery was, in fact, the single-most important factor that caused the Civil War.
“The 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln, the first president who had publicly championed an anti-slavery policy, prompted the secession crisis.
“Even a cursory look at the secession proclamations — issued by the states that eventually formed the Confederate States of America — reveals that the decision to secede from the United States was based largely on the desire to protect what Southerners sometimes called their “peculiar institution.”
“Yet, in the postwar era, as slavery became discredited and as white Southerners proclaimed more noble justifications for going to war, few wished to recall the desire to protect racial enslavement as a chief motivating factor.
“Even more, as the former foes in the conflict established a harmonious reunification — one that brought the brave and heroic soldiers of both sides together — talk of slavery drifted even further from the nation’s consciousness.
“And so when the aging veterans of the war came together at Gettysburg in 1913, they clasped hands across the stone wall that marked the high point of Picket’s Charge, and celebrated the passing of 50 years that had brought reunification of the two sections. But few, it any, spoke about the African-Americans who had been enslaved, who had fought for their own liberation, and who in 1913, lived in the segregated confines of a Jim Crow world.
“The question of slavery, and the continued oppression experienced by African-Americans in the 20th century, appeared at the edges of the discussion when Americans prepared to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Civil War in 1961. But with the nation just beginning to grapple with civil rights, the Civil War Centennial continued the tradition of keeping the slavery discussion separate from Civil War commemorations.
“As we launch Civil War Sesquicentennial activities starting in this new year, Americans have a unique opportunity to bring the discussion of slavery out of the shadows and onto the national stage.
“Even more, we have the chance to have a broad-ranging discussion about this central watershed in U.S. history.
“It should reflect on the many dimensions of the conflict, including the horrors of slavery, the triumph and limitations of emancipation, the devastations war brought to Northerners and Southerners — white and black — alike, and the enormous sacrifices made by Americans across both sectional and racial lines.”
Nina Silber is a Civil War historian and professor at Boston University. Silber serves on the Council of Scholars for the Coalition for the Civil War Sesquicentennial.