Notes to understand America’s Civil War History, and the present ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd in police custody
America as we see today was not so before 1865. The country had sharp difference of opinion on the legality, morality, and desirability of the system of slaves. Morally, to treat a black person as inferior and deny them the basic human rights was wrong. Most among the white population of America accepted it, but vested interest clouded the vision of some among them making them feel that the system of slavery was necessary and justified.
The southern states of America grew cotton, sugarcane, paddy and wheat in vast farms owned by whites. In the farms, hundreds of black slaves worked as manual laborers. They were paid either nothing at all or just a pittance for their toil in the fields. They had no freedom, no access to education, and no legal right to claim a decent wage and living conditions. The white owners kept slaves in appalling conditions, and inflicted severe physical punishment if any slave showed even a minor sign of disobedience.
The slaves were brought regularly in ships from parts of Africa as human cargo, and were sold to white farm owners as commodities. There were organized slave markets where slaves, both men and women, were sold, and resold.
A slave remained a slave for generations with no hope of deliverance from bondage. There was no way they could be free to lead a decent life on their own. The legal system permitted no recourse to seek freedom from slavery. Even, the slaves couldn’t approach a court to complain against an abusive white employer. Exploitation and repression of the blacks underpinned the phenomenal farm prosperity of the whites in the southern states.
The white farm owners exported their cotton, wheat, rice etc. to Europe and elsewhere, and made humongous profits. All of them were very rich and lived lavishly. The black slaves who toiled in their fields got nothing from the income of their masters. The slaves who dared to flee their employers were arrested, and brutally tortured in full public view, so that other black slaves never thought of leaving.
The system of slavery continued for centuries, but it also caused great moral horror among whites with a moral conscience. Many white Americans saw it as a degrading practice repugnant to the tenets of Christianity. They began protesting against the continuance of the system of slavery. Soon, their voice gained strength as more and more fellow white Americans joined the chorus to abolish slavery altogether, by putting an embargo on fresh import of slaves from Africa, and freeing the existing slaves. After they were unshackled, they were to be given equal status in society at par with whites. It rattled the southerners.
For the white farm owners in southern states, it spelt economic ruin. If the slaves were freed, who would work in their farms, they pondered. Even paying them decent wages would cut their profits greatly. So, the white farm owners in the southern states rejected the anti-slavery idea outright. They were determined to fight the idea of abolition of slavery tooth and nail, and even take up arms, if necessary.
Thus, the rift between the pro-slavery states in the south and the anti-slavery states in the north began to widen. The more the anti-slavery campaigners pressed for abandoning slavery, vociferously the pro-slavery southern white states resisted. Trouble was brewing within America.
At this point of time, Abraham Lincoln arrived in the political scene. He won the presidential election and became the first Republican president of America. He was a lawyer, an intellectual, and a liberal in heart. He found the idea of slavery revolting, and wanted to do away with this morally abhorrent practice. But, he knew he had to contend with stiff opposition from the southern white fellow citizens. If he pressed hard with his anti-slavery ideas, he could antagonize the southern states and the country’s unity could be endangered. So, he decided to tread very cautiously, and tried all means and persuasions to make the southern states agree to abolish slavery if not outright, but gradually. During this period, when he had to walk a tight rope trying not to annoy the southerners, while sticking to his anti-slavery position, he was evasive in his replies on slavery, and appeared as if he didn’t fully endorse the idea of abolition of slavery. It was not duplicity, but a carefully crafted strategy to somehow ensure the unity of the country. As President, he couldn’t oversee the dissolution of America.
Many historians and biographers cite Lincoln’s ambivalence on slavery issue as his moral failing, and his weakness to stand up to the southern states. His critics portray him as an unprincipled President who sacrificed his principles for political expediency. To be fare to Abraham Lincoln, he was just trying to avert a showdown with the southern states that could break up the country. This is why, on certain occasions, he avoided airing his anti-slavery views unequivocally in public. Many describe his stance as ‘cagey’ for this reason.
However, things came to a head when Lincoln firmly stated his capacity as the President of the country that slavery is a scourge, and must be abolished. The southern states’ patience ended and they started to secede from the country (Union) by passing resolutions in their state legislatures. One by one, seven states separated themselves from the Union. They formed their own country and gave it the name Confederate States of America. Soon four more states joined them. Thus, out of a total of 30 states of the Union, 11 seceded to join the Confederate. They had their own flag, and own constitution strongly supporting slavery. America was falling apart.
The dismemberment of his country was happening under Lincoln’s presidency. He concluded that things had reached a point of no return, and a war was inevitable. He drew moral and political support from the anti-slavery campaigners called Abolitionists who were mostly from the northern states. They got their name ‘Abolitionists’ from the way they wanted to abolish slavery. The northern states, who steadfastly supported Abraham Lincoln, were known as Unionists. Thus like the Mahabharata, the Unionists and the Confederates were arrayed against each other, preparing for the epic war on the issue of slavery.
War starts… [In part 2 to be sent later.]
Notes to understand America’s Civil War History, and the present ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd in police custody [Part II]
There is no denying the fact that the election of Abraham Lincoln as the President (16th in U.S. history. George Washington was the 1st.) was the inflection point after which the civil strife took a turn for the worse. Abraham Lincoln’s unqualified opposition to the system of slavery set the alarm bells ringing among the southern slave-owning states who flourished due to their lucrative cotton cultivation.
Abraham Lincoln was elected in November 1860, and was sworn in as President in March 1861. (Unlike India, in the U.S., there is a time lag between election of the President and their formal swearing in.)
Seven southern states saw their bad days coming and seceded from the Union in the intervening period. They felt they should leave before Lincoln assumes power. The outgoing President James Buchanan knew the country was falling apart, but shied away from taking any firm action against the rebellious southern states.
North Carolina, one of the southern such states, was the first to raise its flag of revolt. Its legislature unanimously voted on December 20, 1860 to secede from the Union (or the United States of America). It did so by passing an ordinance, and followed it up by giving a detailed justification of its action of leaving the Union.
North Carolina had some strong legal points in its argument in support of its drastic action to secede. It cited the Fugitive Slaves clause of the American Constitution that gave the power of a slave-owning white farmer to reclaim the slaves that might have secretly fled to northern states in search of freedom. This clause implied that the slave owning practice was approved by the Constitution. The second argument was that the Constitution was a contract between the Union and the States. If either violated the clauses of the contract (and so of the Constitution), the aggrieved State could secede on its own without waiting for permission from the Union.
Thus, North Carolina’s secession stood on firm legal legs, but the moral leg was very weak. That is where Abraham Lincoln stood tall and firm. ‘Slavery was an oppressive and thoroughly degrading practice that could never be reconciled with the conscience of a morally upright human being’, said Lincoln. The Abolitionists (those seeking to abolish slavery) drew the attention of all right thinking and freedom-loving fellow citizens to introspect if exploiting and ravaging a fellow human for one’s material gains could ever be accepted in Christianity.
Following North Carolina, six other states left the Union in quick succession. Later, they were joined by four more.
By the time Abraham Lincoln assumed office in March 1861, the country had virtually split into two parts – the embattled United States of America in the north, and the Confederate of American States in the south. Yet, Lincoln didn’t opt for the military option right away. He pursued some compromise options to retain the Confederates, but none of his moves succeeded.
The spark that started an inferno..
Abraham Lincoln’s counterpart in the Confederate of American States was President Jefferson Davis. He was very belligerent as opposed Abraham Lincoln’s calm and statesman like stance. Jefferson Davis ordered his troops to attack a Union bastion named Fort Sumter in North Carolina (like in India, we have central government offices and army units posted in States). The unprovoked attack met with a swift military response from Lincoln’s administration.
The two sides knew the war was inevitable. Both sides – the Unionists under Lincoln, and the Confederates under Jefferson Davis) mobilized men, arms, and ammunitions on a massive scale. Soon, the armies of the two sides were locked in pitched bloody battles in many points along the line that separated the slave-owning southern states, now known as Confederates, and the anti-slavery northern states known as Unionists, (officially the United States of America).
The war was bloody and very destructive. Many valiant men fought in the Confederate sides, whose statues now stand in the erstwhile southern states. These statues have now become the bone of contention between an overwhelming number of black and white liberals, spearheading the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, and the much smaller number of white supremacists who still don’t feel any guilt about the malaise of slavery.
The strident call to pull down these statues of white men who participated in the running, and perpetuation of slavery now resonates in Belgium, Great Britain, France, Italy and elsewhere.
The war dragged on for four years, and ended in 1865, after nearly 6.5 lakh had died in the Confederate side, and 7.5 lakh in the Unionist side.
By 1864, it had become apparent that the southerners were losing the war.
The war ended in 1865, and America was united, and stood tall and proud. The United States of America under Abraham Lincoln proclaimed to the rest of the world that the practice of slavery had been consigned to history, and all men black or white would enjoy equal constitutional rights.
The Gettysburg Address and the Proclamation of Emancipation
The Proclamation of Emancipation .. It was made by President Abraham Lincoln in September 1862, nearly 18 months after he becoming President. It stated that all black slaves in the Confederate states will be deemed to be completely free on January 1, 1863. It was a historic declaration that broke the centuries-old chain of bondage of the blacks in the southern states. Curiously, this bold and epoch-making proclamation remained silent about the slaves inside the Unionist states. The Proclamation further infuriated the Confederates.
The Gettysburg Address.. This stirring 3-minute-long 275-word stirring speech of Abraham Lincoln is considered to be the best and the most impactful address by any President in U.S history. Like Jawaharlal’s Tryst with Destiny freedom-eve speech on August 14/15, 1947 in the Parliament Hall, this speech is cited by men and women as a testament of America’s commitment to justice, equality and freedom.
The Gettysburg Address was delivered during the American Civil War at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on the afternoon of Thursday, November 19, 1863. Just four and a half months earlier, the Union armies had defeated those of the Confederacy at the Battle of Gettysburg.
The speech started with the words “Four score and seven years ago,”. Lincoln was referring to the signing of the Declaration of Independence 87 years earlier when 13 British-administered colonies in America declared their independence from British colonial rule.
In the short and succinct speech, Lincoln described the United States of America as a nation “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,”. He saw the Civil War as a test that would determine whether such a nation, battered by the secession crisis, could endure. He extolled the sacrifices of those who died at Gettysburg in defense of those principles, and imploreed his listeners to resolutely stand by the principles of justice that their conscience told them to be inherent to human nature.
Some of the many Confederate heroes (now disgraced), who face public wrath today (whose statues are being pulled down)..
Robert E. Lee
General Robert E. Lee was the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia and is known as the most accomplished Confederate general.
General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson fought boldly and with great success from Bull Run to his death from a mistaken shot from a Confederate sharpshooter at the battle of Chancellorsville.
General J.E.B. Stuart was an accomplished cavalry commander known for his skill at reconnaissance.
Nathan Bedford Forrest
Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest was one of the most feared Confederate leaders. He was an innovative cavalry commander who started the war as a private.
General James Longstreet was Robert E. Lee’s most capable and consistent generals. He led the First Corps of the Army Of Northern Virginia.
Some disturbing features of both armies..
In modern day armies, and even in civilian administration, insubordination to seniors, flouting of orders, and acts of defiance are very sternly dealt with. Such discipline ensures smooth functioning of armies, governments, and managements.
However, this was not so during the Civil War days.
Army officers, particularly among the Confederate forces, bitterly squabbled with each other, defied seniors, and were guided by their own vanity than by the interest of the army they were part of. Such disarray of command severely undermined the effectiveness of their armies. The Unionist army suffered from such bickering among its officers, than the Confederate forces.
The Americans lost nearly 14,00,000 lives, and scores were wounded. The loss to property was gargantuan, but the country purged itself of the sin of slavery, and set itself as a nation to emulate.
Abraham Lincoln etched a name for himself in world history as a towering statesman who ensured America’s unity, and banished the abominable practice of slavery.
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, how it is related to America’s troubled history…
Araham Lincoln gave the blacks their much-deserved equal rights, and constitutionally abolished slavery. Howevr, after 155 years of such momentous hist orical change in the status of the blacks, they continue to suffer discrimination in society. They have less access to education, jobs, healthcare and all other amenities that their white fellow citizens get. More tragically, they are looked down upon by the white-skinned Americans, and the police illtreats them routinely. Even the judges overtly despise the blacks. For the same crime, a black person gets far stiffer punishment than the white American. Such discrimination angers the blacks, but they can’t do much about it. The whole system appears to be tilted against them because of their skin colour.
The sad death of George Floyd in police custody was the triggr to arouse black anger against the prejudice they endure. Quite happily, many white Americans sided with them opely. The protest gathered strenth and swept through the United States, and even reached Europe, Australia and New Zealand. It got the name Black Lives Matter (BLM). The BLM agitators see the statues of the Confederate generals as relics of an unholy and dark past. Their very existence in public places jars the minds of the blacks reminding them of the sufferings their forefathers endured silently. In anger, they are trying to pull down the statues.