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History Spotlight: States’ Rights and the Sacred Soil of 1860′s America

Created on 07 August 2012

courier603Before the opening credits began to roll on Ron Maxwell’s previous Civil War film Gods and Generals, a quote appears on the screen authored by George Eliot, which was actually a pen name for British novelist Mary Anne Evans, who thought her work would only be taken seriously if the public thought it was written by a man. This quote could be seen as a literary equivalent to the basis of the states’ rights movement, which was one of the many causes contributing to the boiling point and outbreak of the American Civil War. We may laugh at the sentiment today, but land to people in America was once sacred. We take housing for granted—we take being able to walk into our backyard or mow our front lawn for granted. We all own, or live with someone who owns, a house or apartment of some kind, and what our ancestors went through in our family lineage—how they suffered and toiled to make ends meet and survive—is largely forgotten. This is why the states’ rights angle for the reasons the Civil War began is largely ignored by the majority, because no one can relate to just how important land was to the people of the 1860′s. We like to think people up north lived in beautiful Victorian mansions and people down south on vast plantations, but the social structure of the time was far from that. While today, the bulk of American society is middle class, with an unfortunate smaller amount of lower class members, back then, it was much more even on the lower part of the spectrum. This made being able to own land and build a house on it all the more important.

People made it their life’s goal to be able to own land. Immigrants came by the tens of thousand from Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia, among other places, with the hopes of starting a new, better life here in America. The same could be said for free people of color. Land ownership became an inalienable right, one that people would defend to the death if someone dared step foot on it with the intention of starting trouble. These people poured the majority of their lives along with plenty of blood, sweat, and tears into their land. It was almost as if it was holy. To some it was. Women cooked and men plowed just hundreds of feet away, perhaps, from the plots of dead relatives, buried in a small family cemetery. To them, the land had been consecrated. That is why the exertions of passion were so great during the Civil War, and even stronger in the south, because soldiers were fighting literally to defend their land. If you were a southerner, the mean Yankees were coming down and treading on your sacred soil. If you were a northerner, those awful rebels were breaking apart the sacred soil of the greatest country on earth, the United States of America.

It is because America is seen as the center of the free world, even back then, that the issue of slavery was very quickly and inevitably thrust into the limelight. The war was not begun for it’s abolition, but soon, because war prioritizes things, it became one of the goals of the Union. As Gods and Generals brings into the equation the enigma of a group of people claiming to fight for their rights and freedom, while at the same time, denying rights and freedom to an entire race of people, it provoked a student of Professor Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain at Bowdoin College in Maine to ask, “If freedom can only exist as a part of law, how can we continue to tolerate slavery protected by law?” The brilliant professor blinked, at a loss for words. He had no answer.

Pick your causes for war and pick your reasons, but they each boil down to states’ rights and how much leeway they should have. Each state, in essence, became a kingdom. So did every plantation, farm, and plot of land, no matter how small. You worked your life away and finally had a chance to own something. No one could take that away from you. The vast majority of southerners did not even own slaves, they belonged to the minority known as the southern aristocracy. However, just as in today’s world, so it seems, the wealthy minority controls the hardworking majority and has all the power and clout. It was these people, along with the politicians and firebrands who stirred the pot with the nation on the brink of war. The northerners were not coming down here to put an end to the rebellion, no, they were coming for directly for you. For your land. For your family. Better join the army and fight or they will take everything you ever had. That sentiment is no different from modern propaganda that armies around the world use to get people to enlist. Invoke fear and play on the weaknesses of the uninformed, and you have yourself an army. After all, how is a man who has spent his entire life on a farm, never traveling more than twenty miles away from it, supposed to know any better? And so people left their farms and their families, their livelihoods and familiar comforts, and for some, their life in this world. Eliot describes the pleasures of land ownership in a war-free society as follows:

“A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some area of native land where it may get the love of tender kinship from the earth, for the labors men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakable difference amidst the future widening of knowledge. The best introduction to astronomy is to think of the nightly heavens as a little lot of stars belonging to one’s own homestead.”

There is nothing better than standing outside of your house at night, preferably with a nice cigar, relaxing on the back patio like I was last night, which made me think to write this article, than looking up at the sky and seeing all of the stars. It was an unusually clear night. It was beautiful and the air was crisp. There, in the privacy of your land, wherever you may be, you can look toward the “nightly heavens” and think to yourself, “Those are mine.” Perhaps it is a misleading claim of ownership, but it is a peaceful one nonetheless. When I sit outside at night to relax, all the worries of my world are gone, if only momentarily. I am in my place, either by my fire pit, reading a good book, or simply closing my eyes to think to myself. No one can take that away from me, which is exactly how people felt in the 1860′s, only much more vehemently, because that was all they had. It was this fierce defense of “home and hearth” as Thomas J. Jackson put it, one that if anyone dared pollute, the owner of that land had the right to give the “black flag” to. “No quarter to the violators…”

This is perfectly illustrated in the opening scene of The Undefeated (Andrew V. McGlaglen, 1969), in a small battle between Union and Confederate forces, fought after the Civil War had ended. John Wayne, playing a fictional Union colonel, upon winning the battle and capturing several Confederate soldiers, receives a telegram that the war had just ended, and all the bloodshed was for nothing. He looked around at all of the dead soldiers, from both sides, in a very upsetting glance. He then informed the Confederate in charge about the situation, and the man tells Wayne’s character that he already knew. The stunned colonel then asked the broken but proud soldier why they still insisted on fighting. The response was rather blunt: “Because this is our land, and you’re on it.”

That sentiment was not isolated to the Deep South by any means. Though the war effort was generally supported by the majority of both regions, you still had groups here and there that spoke out against the popular ideals. Ride with the Devil (Ang Lee, 1999) shows the brutal in-fighting between pro-Union Jayhawkers and pro-Confederate Bushwhackers on the ever volatile Kansas-Missouri border. The film Copperhead is going to show something a little bit different, as there are no battle scenes, but still a share of aggression. Just as those in southern states felt the federal government was growing too controlling, some people up north felt that the Union army did not have a right to recruit or draft young men into service, because to them, such as people in a small Upstate New York farming community, the war was irrelevant. These are people who probably would have only joined a local militia if the enemy was an immediate threat to their community, something that was not going to happen with the majority of fighting occurring in Virginia and the Deep South. Make no mistake, most Copperheads were not so pro-Confederate as they were simply just pulling for failure on the Union side, or anything at all that would end the war. No matter what happened, win or lose, their lives were not going to change, and the casualty reports and first battlefield photographs making their way to the general public were enough to prompt people to speak out, or in cases like the New York City Draft Riots of July, 1863, get violent.

The political philosophy that goes along with this way of thinking would be localism, and as screenplay author Bill Kauffman wrote in his book Look Homeward, America (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2006), this is how everyone should act, because it will ensure that you will stay on your land, with your family, and having the ability to live out your natural life, without it being cut short by a war that you have little to gain and nothing to lose by. “Stay with your family. Your tribe. Your neighborhood. Your town. As Joe Strummer of The Clash hummed, ‘It’s up to you not to heed the call-up.’” Kauffman writes, before adding, “Don’t feed the war machine. You are not expendable, in your family’s eyes or in God’s. The soft young men in three-piece suits who write their little pamphlets proving that whatever slaughter our government is currently engaged in is a ‘just war’ should be laughed back to the seminaries they quit. Thou shalt not kill means us, too.”

From 1861-1865, millions heeded the call, and approximately 600,000 fed the “war machine” with their lives. Though it may be something we cannot fathom today, for them, in their time, it was a most noble cause, despite the glory and romance of war being torn away, and the nation never being the same again. General William T. Sherman famously said, “War is hell.” That it is. Whether you are on the battlefields or waiting at home for a loved one to return, you are experiencing your own personal hell. That is what destroys families, and corrupts once sacred land. War is the one thing that can draw hopeful young men away from the place they spent their entire life, to have them return in a pine box, with a missing a limb, or mentally scarred from the horrors they witnessed. Eliot’s quote captures the mindset of a turbulent and violent time in such a peaceful way. Imagine what would have happened if people stuck to it. Imagine if people stayed in their own holy kingdom and did not go to war. Where would we be today? Perhaps the Civil War was necessary. The pot was simmering for years and needed to boil over. Perhaps we needed it as growing pains to become the nation we currently are. The only question is, even in these much different times, will we learn from it?