The (New) Civil War
If you’ve passed 2011 without taking note of the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, it’s not Matthew Warshauer’s fault.
The history professor at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain wrote about it, spoke about it, organized special events around it, and even took up needle and thread to alert us to Connecticut’s relevance to the War Between the States and why the lessons of the era still haunt our nation.
Speaking in April at the state Capitol in a commemoration of the siege of Fort Sumter, he warned, “We are faced with a deceivingly simple question: What is the value of our union? I do not mean 150 years ago. I mean today.”
He compared the hostile public discourse in the lead-up to the Civil War with contemporary politics—“partisan strife at a fever pitch, and distinct efforts to turn us toward what divides us.”
In October, he made his argument visible in front of the West Hartford colonial where he lives with his wife and three daughters. In recent autumns, he has used traditional Halloween images to make political commentary. This year, the yard became “The Cemetery of the Living Dead.”
He made Union and Confederate uniforms out of old karate outfits (“It’s the only time of year I sew,” he told me), but the scene—with plywood cannons and battlefield images created by family members—also offered contemporary juxtaposition.
Here, for example, was a photo of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has talked of his state’s right to secede, above a quote from Jefferson Davis, “The principle for which we contend is bound to reassert itself, though it may be at another time and in another form.”
The case for the connection of past and present—and the idea that our union is once again threatened by demagoguery—is the inevitable conclusion one draws from Warshauer’s newest book, Connecticut in the American Civil War, published by Wesleyan University Press. In this narrative, researched with the help of several graduate students, passages seem to jump out of history and into the pitched battles on today’s cable-news networks. The book also shows that our state was a microcosm of national issues.
We think of Connecticut as firmly planted in the Union cause. To be sure, we sent nearly half our men between the ages of 15 and 50 to war, and weapon manufacturers such as Colt, in Hartford, were key factors.
Our state was where the crazed abolitionist John Brown was born, and where Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It is where the Africans who’d been chattel of the Amistad bound for slavery were set free, and where the courageous Prudence Crandall established her school for “little misses of color.” These add up to what seems like a proud heritage.
The harsh reality of Connecticut’s position on slavery and secession is known primarily by scholars. A convention in Hartford in 1814 was organized around the push for New England’s split from the Union and a separate peace treaty with Britain. Indeed, the campaign for secession was highly visible in our state even as the Civil War began.
The Rev. George A. Oviatt, a Congregational minister in Somers, warned Gov. William A. Buckingham: “There are many in Conn. who favor the South, and such men in rural districts talk openly of secession and do much in demoralizing the people.” Attitudes that contributed to division and to the prejudices that fueled slavery were always here.
We may like to think of Andrew Judson, Canterbury’s Democratic town selectman at the time Prudence Crandall opened her school in 1833, as unrepresentative of otherwise civilized Connecticut society. Miss Prudence’s nemesis argued, “Colored people . . . are an inferior race of beings, and never can or ought to be recognized as equal of whites.”
But Judson represented the view of the majority here at the time. Warshauer writes, “Most Connecticut residents were ambivalent or outright hostile to blacks in their midst.”
The Connecticut Constitution, written in 1818, made ours the only New England state to bar all blacks from voting. And when Prudence Crandall was forced to close her school because of acts of violence, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison wrote that our state was “the Georgia of New England.”
To verify that view, one needed only to read the newspapers of the time. The New Haven Register, for example, insisted that the federal Constitution “recognized the right of slaveholding” and denounced the Civil War as “abolitionist humbug.”
In his public appearances, Warshauer finds most people are unaware that Connecticut was a slaveholding state. In 1800 there were still 931 men, women and children held as slaves here. Slavery was not banned until 1848.
Even then, it didn’t mean the debate had ended. As the Civil War reached its latter stages, the vote on an amendment to grant voting rights to blacks resulted in more ugliness. Judge Harris Munson, a state representative from Seymour, argued in 1865, “The Constitution ought to stand without mutilation . . . our fathers regarded the mingling of the black man with the white race with abhorrence.” The Hartford Times urged denial of voting rights, and thus the saving of our society from “mongrelism.” It stated that blacks were “inferior—made so by the hand of the Creator.”
A century-and-a-half later, Connecticut has learned to embrace multiculturalism, but nationally there are still offensive arguments being made in the name of the Creator. Readers of Warshauer’s book will recognize the connection between the prejudices of the Civil War era against blacks and today’s anti-Muslim sentiment and debates over who the “real Americans” are.
Clearly, posturing for political gain is still with us.
The timing of my interview with Professor Warshauer was itself an indication of just how relevant the lessons of the past remain. Several states were considering (and South Carolina has since passed) a voting bill barring those without photo IDs from casting ballots. This is seen by opponents as a move by Republican legislatures to secure their majorities by in effect barring poor and elderly voters, who might be more likely to vote for Democrats.
Today, party positions are reversed. Citizens have to be reminded that the president who freed the slaves was a Republican and that most of the opposition came from Democrats. Yet even then it was the Republicans who stood to benefit from a change in the law.
From Warshauer’s book: “The Hartford Courant insisted that the primary reason for Democratic opposition to the amendment was that the party would not benefit from black suffrage. Democrats, of course, charged that the principal reason why the Republicans were pushing the amendment was the potential benefit at the polls, with increased Republican voters.” In the end, the amendment failed.
Yes, the French (we are forced to admit) are right: The more things change, the more they stay the same. History, as Warshauer argues, is the first thing we must know. It shows us how intolerance, fear and prejudice can threaten even the greatest of nations.