The Civil War and Polarization Today


In these divisive days, I’m drawn to the U.S. Civil War. Not only are its monuments a matter of debate, but something about that quintessential national division is cathartic to the sense of animosity and alienation that plague me every time I scroll through my newsfeed. Recent events like those in Charlottesville echo many of the motifs that played out in the Civil War, reminding us once again that our history is never entirely buried in the past. As in the days of Lincoln, the United States is in a moment of (re)definition, something David Brooks has referred to as an “national identity crisis.” Although the current crisis is not necessarily about federalism, states’ rights, and slavery, it certainly implicates race relations and the role of the government in legislating morality, and ultimately boils down to what it means to be American. The current contestation and negotiation of these questions may not culminate in war, but the battle lines are being drawn—gay marriage, abortion, immigration, health care, welfare—our own ideological Mason-Dixon lines.

I have turned to the Civil War to learn what I can about a divided America, and its ultimately victorious refusal to remain divided.  As part of this turning, I visited the Shiloh battlefield, site of an early and bloody Civil War battle. The morning of April 6, 1862, tens of thousands of new recruits, confederate and union, equally overconfident and anxious for adventure, had their first (and for many, their last) taste of war’s strange fruit. By the end of the confrontation, nearly a quarter of the engaged troops were killed, wounded, or missing. [For a fuller, but still relatively brief overview of the battle, see this NYT blog post. See also the interesting “Disunion” blog series about the Civil War.]

They say that the field hospital was invented at Shiloh, as army doctors sought to provide medical attention to the unthinkably massive amount of casualties (which surpassed those of all of the United States’ previous wars combined), setting up operating tables under tents to be closer to the wounded soldiers. While generals must think of their army as a single unit, front-line army doctors count the cost of every battle one bloodied soldier at a time. Simultaneously fulfilling their enlistment and hippocratic oaths, those Civil War doctors attempted to triage and provide care that was both fitting and fast, knowing that seconds can all-too-quickly add up to death with the kinds of wounds caused by close-range musket and artillery fire. Those first field hospitals were intimate witnesses to the way the divisions in the body politic had become gruesomely manifest on the bodies of young soldiers.

As I look at the outlines of mass graves, my first takeaway is this thought: The state of the abstract body politic ultimately impinges on individuals’ physical bodies. Speaking of the visceral experience of racism, Ta-Nehisi Coates makes a similar point: “You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the charts, the graphs, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body” (p. 10). What is true of racism may be equally true of extreme division. While political polarization is a collective phenomenon, it is felt and carried in my body and yours. The consequences of our division eventually land, sometimes with great violence, on the body.

My second takeaway is a feeling—a sense of humility before the unthinkable and the men who faced it. I don’t know what spurred the common confederate to fight an outnumbered war, or how his views of slavery figured in his soldiering, but as I stand on the first major battlefield of the war, I am humbled rather than indignant. The Battle of Shiloh demonstrated that the deep-seated disagreements underlying the war were sufficient to motivate soldiers in both blue and gray to repeatedly charge across open fields in full view and within range of the enemy. Both sides possessed enough conviction of the rightness of their cause, courage in the line of fire, and capacity to develop and implement reasonable strategy to propel the Civil War through several more years of increasingly bloody battles. From the sidelines of history in a present moment of relative safety, I do not feel inclined to judge the men who did battle here.

My third takeaway is a series of questions. As I’ve come with an analogical frame of mind, I can’t help but wonder, What will our Shiloh be? Has it already happened? Was President Trump’s election a clarifying moment in the culture wars—a Shiloh-like disruption with no real victor and a portent of greater and bloodier conflicts to come?  As I stand on this battlefield, I am reminded of the terrible cost of division (and of maintaining union) but I also intimate that the cost may sometimes be worth it.  I don’t know how our society will weigh that cost in the days to come. The righteousness of our current conflicts seems so apparent to many (as it may have been to the troops on both sides of Shiloh), but it is not clear to me. Would I fight in a second Shiloh? For which causes would I enlist?

My last takeaway is perspective. There is something slightly uncanny about the peace that pervades this ground where a battle once raged. The disparity between the now-verdant fields and lush forests and the carnage they witnessed 155 years ago leaves me with a kernel of hope: This once-ravaged land is now serene. Humankind may forsake the bonds of fellowship, but Mother Earth quietly tucks in her children and, while they sleep, plants a garden in the ashes of their wars. When people talk about being on the wrong side of history, they do not refer to geological time, which treats everyone (mercifully, obliteratingly) equally.

These four takeaways–a thought, a feeling, a series of questions, and a perspective–do not necessarily provide a map for dealing with polarization, but they feel useful, or at least relevant. As I recognize the eventual consequences of division, approach opponents (past and present) with humility rather than indignation, question my convictions and their righteousness, and appreciate my own (and my species’) smallness, perhaps I will be better able to bind up our nation’s wounds and move forward the work of unity and healthy democracy. It may be that the first Civil War was unavoidable–that there was no peaceful way to resolve the differences between the North and South, especially regarding slavery–but I do not believe a second war is inevitable. In that effort to maintain the Union, Shiloh (which may be translated “place of tranquility”) whispers to us from the dust.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s