Google might be celebrating Franz Kafka’s 130th birthday today. But for us Americans, today’s a bit more significant than Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915). No, today’s the 150th anniversary of the height of the Battle of Gettysburg, the three-day battle that involved nearly 165,000 Union and Confederate troops at the beginning of July, 1863. During the battle, almost 8,000 soldiers died, and more than 46,000 were wounded or maimed. Thousands of Confederates were wounded on the third day, the day of Pickett’s Charge, when Gen. Jubal Early’s troops never arrived to reinforce the charge to take the high ground away from the Union Army.
Of course, there are thousands of enthusiasts who are recreating the battle this week, along with the battles at Vicksburg, Petersburg, and other burghs throughout the South and Mason-Dixon borderlands. Let’s not forget why these battles were fought, though. They weren’t fought over high protective tariffs for Northern industrial interests, as David John Marotta ridiculously asserted in his Forbes article a couple of weeks ago. Nor was the Civil War fought simply over the grandiose ideal of states’ rights from a Confederate perspective or the mere preservation of the Union from a Northern perspective.
Ultimately, this was a civil war to settle the question of a democratic nation with slavery as its central economic and social underpinnings. Southerners were fighting for states’ rights, all right — the right of states to keep slavery legal, a “way of life” that had made White men fortunes. Northerners were fighting to preserve the Union, but one that would be free of slavery as an institution. Any other arguments are ones made by people who have no understanding of the centrality of slavery and freedom to the very identity on which the US had been founded in 1776.
Later that month, in part as a result of the Battle of Gettysburg, there were draft riots in New York, with Five Points Irish mobs beating up and lynching Blacks in the process of destroying their homes and businesses. So we know that there was at least one group unhappy about the real-life rationale behind fighting the Civil War.
What most Americans don’t understand was the incredible distance between believing that slavery was an evil, archaic and hypocritical institution and believing that African slaves were ones worthy of American democracy and equality. Most Whites fighting in the Battle of Gettysburg believed that Blacks had about as many rights to American equality as most of us would believe in a path to American citizenship for Al-Qaeda terrorists today.
Thank God Jubal Early “was late,” or really, had refused a direct order from Gen. Robert E. Lee to be part of some suicidal charge on July 3rd, 1863. Unfortunately, we still have many “Jubal Early” types who are really, really late in recognizing Blacks as equal human beings, American democracy as imperfect, and the South as a supporter of an evil and profit-maximizing institution.