A History Lesson on the Civil War, Because Apparently Our President Needs That

Okay, so, I know most of us learned a bunch of stuff in school and then promptly forgot it.  I know I’m guilty of that.  And I like to think I’d be pretty forgiving if the president of the United States revealed in an interview that he didn’t know something like the quadratic formula or the chemical symbol for magnesium or who Robert Browning was, even when that president is Donald Trump.  But I feel like there are some parts of your grade school education that you just don’t forget, like what the Civil War was and when and why it happened.  Apparently, I am wrong about this.  At least, that’s the only logical explanation for Trump’s bizarre comments on the subject:

I mean had Andrew Jackson been a little later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War.  He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart.  He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War, he said, “There’s no reason for this.”  People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why?  People don’t ask that question, but why was there a Civil War?  Why could that one not have been worked out?

Okay, so, first of all, what the actual fuck?  Has Donald Trump never taken a history class?  Since Donald Trump clearly does not know anything about the Civil War, allow me to explain American History 101.  I realize that this may seem like kind of a pointless blog post to make: Donald Trump will almost certainly never read this blog, and I doubt I have many readers who need a review of the Civil War (primarily because I don’t have many readers, period).  Still, as a proud history nerd, I feel I have an obligation to clarify any misconceptions people might have about the Civil War.  So let’s dive right in, shall we?

The Civil War was an armed conflict between the United States military and an army of secessionist insurgents that was fought on American soil between 1861 and 1865.  The Civil War was about one thing: slavery.  Some people may try to tell you that it was about states’ rights.  They are referring to the fact that some states wanted the right to allow white people to literally own black people as property.  Some people may try to tell you that it was about economics.  They are referring to the fact that wealthy plantation owners in the South depended on slave labor in order to keep their cotton and tobacco plantations running.  This map shows how the cotton boom in the South and the Industrial Revolution in the North expanded slavery in the US and divided the country into free states in the North and slave states in the South:


By 1860, the country was so divided between the Free North and the Slave South that no candidate was able to shore up support on both sides of the Mason Dixon Line, and in fact the Democrats were so divided that they basically ended up with two candidates: Stephen Douglas in the North, and John Breckinridge in the South.  The 1860 electoral map ended up looking like this:


With significantly more of the American population, the northern states that voted for Lincoln carried the election.  This upset the southern states very much, and rather than settle their grievances like mature adults or, I don’t know, stop owning slaves, the southern states decided to secede.  South Carolina was the first to secede in 1860, and they were quickly followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas in January and February of 1861.  In April of 1861, the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter, which prompted Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee to secede with the rest of the South.  They broke off from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America.  There were four slave states which did not secede, but instead chose to remain part of the Union.  They were Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri.  If you went to school in Maryland, there’s a good chance you learned this fact, and also that it was very important that Maryland did not secede, because that would have put the United States capital in an enemy country.  There were also a few counties in Virginia that did not want to secede, and in 1863 they broke off from the rest of the state and rejoined the Union, and that, kids, is the story of how we got West Virginia.

Here is a map of Union states vs. Confederate states:

Image from Scholastic, Inc.

And now just for reference, here’s a map of free states vs. slave states:


Notice any similarities between the two?  Support for secession was strongest in the places where there were lots of slaves, like South Carolina and much of the Mississippi Delta, and weakest in areas where slavery was less common, like eastern Tennessee.


If you still think the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, the only conclusion I can draw is that you never learned how to read a map.

In case you were wondering: Yes, secession from the Union was an act of treason.  The people who fought for the Confederacy committed treason.  All of them.  Even your great-great-grandfather.

In April of 1861, Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter, which set off four years of civil war.  I guess it was difficult to “work that one out” when one side was literally willing to commit treason just so they could keep owning other human beings as property.  Major battles of the Civil War included the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861, Antietam in 1862, Vicksburg and Gettysburg in 1863, Sherman’s March to the Sea in 1864, and Appomattox in 1865.  On April 9, 1865, Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Union general Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, effectively ending the Civil War.  And because, amazingly, there seems to be some confusion about this: The North absolutely, 100% won the Civil War.  And really, with the North’s enormous economic advantage, the South never even stood a chance.


Although the Civil War was absolutely fought over slavery and anyone who tells you otherwise is whitewashing history, it did not actually end slavery.  It just stopped the southern states from breaking off from the rest of America and forming their own country where they could own as many slaves as they wanted.  In 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves in Confederate territories except for Tennessee and parts of Louisiana and Virginia.  The Emancipation Proclamation was less a triumph of human rights and more a strategy for depriving the South of crucial human capital.  It may have freed most of the slaves, but it did not end slavery.  Slavery was not abolished in the United States until the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865, which guarantees that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

That’s basically Civil War 101.

This man is Andrew Jackson:


You might know him as the guy behind the Trail of Tears.  He was the seventh president of the United States, and served from 1829-1837.  That is not when the Civil War happened.  He was a Class-A racist and one of the worst presidents this country has ever had.  He is also one of Donald Trump’s favorite presidents.

Andrew Jackson had absolutely nothing to do with the Civil War, primarily because he had been dead for over a decade.  If he had been alive, he almost certainly would have sided with the secessionists.  He was a Tennessee slave owner who despised the abolitionists and ordered that the US Post Office stop publishing and distributing abolitionist pamphlets.  Jackson would not have stopped the Civil War.  In fact, he probably would have fought in it.  For the South.  His protege, James K. Polk, was also a Tennessee slave owner, and was responsible for campaigns in the 1840s to increase the influence of slave owners in the US and expand the parts of the country where slavery was allowed, campaigns which eventually led to–you guessed it–the Civil War.

Trump’s comments about Jackson and the Civil War are not only baffling; they’re dangerous.  They present a very whitewashed, revisionist version of history.  It’s a narrative that is used to ignore our country’s legacy of white supremacy and human rights violations.  At best, it leads to misguided folks idolizing traitors and flying the flag of a losing army that no longer exists.  At worst, it leads to acts of horrific violence against people of color.  It’s a narrative that’s been allowed to fester for way too long, and the fact that the current leader of our country is promoting this narrative is absolutely unacceptable.  So, my fellow history nerds, like just about everyone else in this country, we have a moral obligation to stand up and fight back.


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