Civil War Panel

A panel of esteemed historians reflects on the Civil War on the 150th anniversary of its final battle.

Daina Ramey Berry, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of History and African and African Diaspora Studies and the George W. Littlefield Fellow in American History at the University of Texas at Austin. She specializes in the history of gender and slavery in the United States with an emphasis on the social and economic history of the nineteenth century. Among her widely praised publications include her 2007 book, Swing the Sickle for the Harvest is Ripe: Gender and Slavery in Antebellum Georgia, and her text, Slavery and Freedom in Savannah, published in 2014.

Eric Walther, Ph.D. has taught U.S. history at the University of Houston for over twenty years. His specialty has grown from the Antebellum South and the coming of the Civil War to a broader chronology of Southern history and more varied topics. Before coming to the University of Houston he held a post-doctoral fellowship with the Papers of Jefferson Davis at Rice University and taught at Texas A&M University. Dr. Walther has authored three books, including 2006's William Lowndes Yancey and the Coming of the Civil War, which received the James Rawley Award from the Southern Historical Association.

Allyson Hobbs, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the History Department at Stanford University.  She graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University and she received a Ph.D. with distinction from the University of Chicago. Professor Hobbs has won numerous teaching awards including the Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Prize and the St. Clair Drake Teaching Award. She published her first book 2014, titled A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life, which examines the phenomenon of racial passing in the United States from the late eighteenth century to the present. The book was selected as a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice, a made the San Francisco Chronicle's list of the “Best Books of 2014.”


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

150 years ago today, Confederate General Robert E. Lee signed documents of surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia effecting ending the Civil War. So tonight we’re joined by an esteemed panel of experts to reflect on the causes and consequences of that war and whether time has shaped its narrative.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation 150 years after the end of the Civil War coming up right now.

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Tavis: On the morning of April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee led his army into its final battle at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia. Later that day, General Lee surrendered to the Union Army of Ulysses S. Grant effectively ending the war that had the highest death toll of any in our nation’s history.

Joining me now exactly 150 years later are three brilliant U.S. historians to talk about the causes and the last consequences of that four-year American conflict.

Pleased to be joined tonight by Daina Ramey Berry, Associate Professor of History and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, Eric Walther, Professor of U.S. History at the University of Houston, and Allyson Hobbs, Assistant Professor of American History at Stanford University. Honored to have you all on the program 150 years later.

Eric Walther: Thank you very much.

Daina Ramey Berry: Thank you.

Allyson Hobbs: Thank you for having us.

Tavis: I want to start our conversation with a quote that I wrote down. I have read countless times, I guess, in my life Howard Zinn’s wonderful book, “A People’s History of the United States”. I’m sure you have all read that.

There’s a quote that Zinn has in this book that I wanted to put up to start our conversation. I suspect there’ll be those who will disagree with it and that’s probably why I’m reading it. But it’s a great place, I think, to start our chat tonight. This is from Howard Zinn’s book.

“John Brown was executed by the state of Virginia with the approval of the national government. It was the national government which sternly enforced the laws provided for the return of fugitives to slavery. It was the national government that collaborated with the South to keep abolitionist literature out of the mails in the southern states.

It was the Supreme Court of the United States that declared that the slave Dred Scott could not sue for his freedom because he was not a person, but property. Such a national government would never accept and end to slavery by rebellion.

It would end slavery only under conditions controlled by whites, and only when required by the political and economic needs of the business elite of the North. It was Abraham Lincoln who combined perfectly the needs of business, the political ambition of the new Republican party, and the rhetoric of humanitarianism.”

That’s what Zinn had to say about the Civil War 150 years ago, which leads me to start our conversation, Professor Hobbs, by asking whether or not the Civil War, to your mind, was fought over the ethics of slavery as we’ve all been taught in school, whether or not this was really about economics, not ethics but economics?

Hobbs: It’s a great question. I mean, the quote is really a fascinating quote. And just to say a couple of things about the quote, what I find so interesting about it is the way that Zinn is explaining to us the role of the national government and how the national government is playing such a major, critical role in supporting slavery and in protecting slave owners’ property.

Because, regardless, we know that enslaved people were human beings, but of course, to Southern slave holders, they were billions and billions of dollars of property. So when the Civil War came, this was an incredible threat to a whole way of life, to millions of dollars.

A lot of historians have argued that Southerners didn’t invest in other forms of infrastructure like railroads or like manufacturing because they had so much money tied up in slavery. So I think that I would say that it’s both, that it’s both about economics.

But I think that the morality and the issue around slavery and slavery as a system of human chattel cannot be ignored and that we’ve spent a lot of time sort of looking away from the issue of slavery because we are so kind of scared to talk about race and to really face those issues around slavery and race.

But it seems like to really get a broader understanding of why the Civil War was actually fought, we really need to bring the issue of slavery into the conversation.

Tavis: Professor Berry, ethics, economics, neither or both?

Berry: Well, I would argue it’s a combination of all because slavery is an economic institution. So I think that, when people don’t want to deal with slavery, they’ll say it was economics, but the primary institution that the Southern economy was based upon was slavery.

When you look at the numbers, when we look at the actual dollar values, in 1805 there were about one million enslaved people in the United States worth $300 million worth of money in their value.

On the eve of the Civil War about 50 years later, it was about four million African Americans that were enslaved, worth $3 billion. That’s a lot of money and it’s a large growth over time. So there are economics involved in this, but the economy was the body of enslaved people.

Hobbs: And just to build on that point, the fact that by the eve of the Civil War, slavery accounted for 70% of the United States GDP. So it really gives us a sense of just what a large percentage is accounted for.

Tavis: Professor Walther, I wonder what your take is 150 years later on Abraham Lincoln where this particular anniversary is concerned. There are any number of narratives that one could write about the role that Lincoln played or didn’t play, what he did do, what he didn’t do.

He started out on the wrong side of the slavery question, took him a while to get on the right side. So what’s your sense of–what’s your Lincoln narrative 150 years later?

Walther: I find him quite admirable because–I guess it goes hand in hand with being a college teacher and wanting to see people improve. He improved. He knew he was a racist. He admitted it freely.

I mean, not bragging about it, he admitted it and was a racist. Did not believe that Black people were white peoples’ equal on the eve of the Civil War. But various events changed him.

The war itself–matter of fact, if you’ll allow me to quote. I came across a quotation that fits so many occasions, but definitely pertains to Abraham Lincoln. And that is, “We come to know who we really are in the darkest and most difficult days of our lives.” That sound familiar?

Tavis: Yeah, I’ve heard that before.

Walther: Yeah, it was Tavis Smiley on The Daily Show September 11 of last year.

Tavis: I remember that, yeah [laugh].

Walther: But that is right, and Lincoln grew and probably came really close to completely purging his mind and heart and soul about racism.

Tavis: And one could argue, I think legitimately, that as much progress as has been made 150 years later, these are still dark and desolate, dreary days. I say that because 150 years later when you’re still fighting about citizenship and about rights and about democracy, what does that say about where we are 150 years later?

Berry: We have not been free as long as were enslaved. African Americans have not been free as long as we’ve been enslaved. So when you think about that on a temporal perspective, it makes sense that we’re still struggling and trying to find ways to interact with all groups of people.

You have slavery lasting about 246 years, depending on when you date it, and then you look at how long we’ve been free. We’ve been free since 1865, and the Reconstruction Era was short-lived.

We tried to find ways as a country to heal ourselves from slavery, but there were 700,000 lives lost in this war. Parts of the South were completely devastated or destroyed and you had a complete economic destruction of the South. So you have to rebuild from there and the race relations were very tight after that.

You have tensions that kept going even until today when we look at some of the Black Lives Matter movement. So I would argue we’re still trying to figure it out. We’re a nation that has not really liked to talk about race and we’re now at a point where we talk about it when we have to.

Tavis: Professor Hobbs, I wonder your sense of the argument that we hear all the time, certainly African Americans, we hear this all the time, that when it comes to race, we ought to just get over it, you know.

I was thinking about that in preparation for our conversation because, to your point, Professor Berry, we have not been free as long as we were enslaved, number one. Number two, the last soldier to die who fought in the Civil War just died in 1959. The last soldier just died in 1959.

And, further, we’re just now celebrating 50 years since the Civil Rights Act and 50 years since the Voting Rights Act. I am 50 years old and we’re just now celebrating 50 years since the Voting Rights Act basically, 50 years since the Civil Right Act. And I wonder whether or not people don’t really have a proper perspective on how near to slavery we still are.

Hobbs: That’s absolutely right. That’s absolutely right. I think that, one, there is a kind of disconnection that people have with our history generally. And I really was moved watching “12 Years a Slave”. In the very beginning, there’s a scene where Solomon Northup is on a boat and there’s a man who’s sitting next to him who’s also enslaved.

And there is a horrible act of violence that occurs where another enslaved person is stabbed brutally. And Solomon Northup kind of jumps and the man sitting next to him says, “You have to look away. That’s the only way you can survive. You have to look away.”

And it seems like throughout that film, there are these reminders of in order to be able to survive this, you have to look away. You can’t look at it straight on because it’s too devastating, it’s too traumatizing. And I almost feel like that’s the way that Americans have been socialized to think and to understand or not to understand issues of race.

That we look away, we turn away, and that seems to even widen this distance or that seems to kind of create even more distance between us and our history. It is so much closer and it’s so much more connected to our present day than I think a lot of people realize.

So for example, you know, the 14th Amendment passed in 1868 which, along with the Civil Rights Act of 1866, was what codified birthright citizenship. So meaning if you’re born in the United States, you are a citizen. I don’t know if that could pass today and that’s really terrifying to think about.

If we think about these current issues that our country is going through when it comes to immigration, that perhaps we couldn’t even pass a law today that we passed in 1868. So I feel like that history is much closer to us than we know and I feel like it’s much closer to us than we want to see.

Tavis: Professor Walther, as you teach this stuff every day, what misconceptions–I know there are many–but is there a particular misconception about this anniversary 150 years later that most concerns you, that you tell your students all the time? If there’s one thing that I need to set the record straight about, it’s this.

Walther: In a nutshell and getting back to one of the first questions that you asked, it was all about slavery. The economics of it, also for white Southerners. It was their sense of esteem and honor was to be literally the master class, “The Ruling Race” as Jim Oakes wrote about many decades ago.

And, again, you go from the horrors of slavery from 1619 to 1865. You go through the terror of Reconstruction that really was, on to lynching later in the 19th and early 20th century, and on and on and on and on. And I remember right after the Supreme Court last year gutted the Voting Rights Act.

I don’t remember who the guest was on MSNBC. It was a young African American man and he was just looking at the person who was doing the interview and all he could say was–his elbows on this table and said, “It’s been 400 years” and just stopped like this, and that was it.

It’s like how many more fights for all who are created equal, for the Constitution, for Southern conservatism and rule of law? I can’t really imagine that.

Tavis: What lie most grates on you, Professor Berry?

Berry: That Lincoln’s the Great Emancipator. I’m probably the outlier on this panel here because my students feel like Lincoln freed all African Americans, so I have to clarify that the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in the state of rebellion. There were those in the Confederacy, but those that lived in those states did not believe Lincoln was the president.

So there was this notion of Lincoln as being this great liberator. African Americans in the 1930s and 40s when they were interviewed as the last living descendants of former slaves, they had photographs of Lincoln on their wall. That’s an attitude about Lincoln that’s prevailed, I would say.

So I talk to the students about the nuances, about how he’s changed over time, and about how he’s not the sole person that liberated African Americans in that African American spot for liberation from the moment they were captured, every single stage of enslavement and even beyond in freedom.

Tavis: There’s another issue I want to come back to after you get a chance to sound off about the thing that most disturbs you. I want to come back to this notion of self-liberation and the role that Black folk themselves have played, not like somebody was just being nice. We’ll come back to that, but what most disturbs you?

Hobbs: That would absolutely–I would definitely agree with that, that what I try to teach my students is that African American history is, of course, deeply a part of American history and that the African American freedom struggle is so much longer and so much wider and deeper than I think we sort of understand. That we often think about these moments and we don’t sort of see this longer struggle.

We don’t see the idea that in the middle passage there were acts of resistance and rebellion. That then those acts of resistance and rebellion continued in small towns and on plantations and on farms.

And then it was really the slaves that freed themselves by running to the Union Army and by creating the conditions that forced the federal government to have to take measures to eventually write the Emancipation Proclamation, for Lincoln to eventually write the Emancipation Proclamation.

And then during Reconstruction and during all these other turning points that we think about in American history, that there’s always some resistance that’s going on among African Americans. Think about the Great Migration as a part of the freedom struggle.

So the freedom struggle is not–of course, the civil rights revolution is an incredible watershed moment, but to sort of look at it in the context of this much longer history of rebellion and revolution.

Tavis: How do we think of the period of Reconstruction that followed all these years later?

Berry: It was too short.

Tavis: Too short. Well, yeah.

Berry: You can’t heal a nation that quickly. You also have the Freedmen’s Bureau workers coming into the South trying to help negotiate labor contracts and whites that did not want to pay Blacks for their labor, not willing to deal with the social situation that was a result and the aftermath of the Civil War. So I would say that it was short-lived and it was, being blunt, it was unsuccessful.

Hobbs: I think Reconstruction for me is an incredibly rich period to teach. And I think it actually goes back to your previous question that it’s another moment that is also very misunderstood and sort of under-taught.

And I think that one of the really fascinating pieces about Reconstruction is that it’s this moment of incredible hopefulness and incredible optimism.

There’s this sense that who know what could happen? This is a new world. There’s been a revolution. You know, people change their names. They changed their names to things like Deliverance, Begin. You know, they changed their last names to Freedman.

So it’s this moment of incredible expectation and anticipation. And I completely agree that the tragedy of it is that it’s short-lived, but it turns into–well, actually, it begins with just explosive violence which continues throughout the period.

The federal government does not do enough to protect former slaves and freed people. But also, I think the real problem is that the federal government doesn’t offer land, that if freed people had had land, that that could have really changed everything.

And there’s a quote that I would love to read. It’s very brief, but it’s a freed man named Bailey Watts and he’s at a political meeting which then these meetings would then turn into the Union League meetings that occurred throughout the South during Reconstruction.

He’s in Yorktown, Virginia and he speaks very powerfully about economics, but also about land and about the relationship between land and freedom.

He says, “May I state to all of our friends and our enemies that we has a right to the land where we are located. Why? I’ll tell you. Our wives, our children, our husbands has been sold over and over again to purchase the lands we now locates upon.

For that reason, we have a divine right to the land. And then didn’t we clear the lands and raise the crops of corn and of cotton and of tobacco and of rice and of sugar and of everything? And then didn’t them large cities in the North grow up on the cotton and the sugars and the rice that we made? I see that they have grown rich, yet my people are poor.”

So this really beautifully poignant, powerful message from a man who likely had not had formal schooling, had not taken an economics class, had not taken a political philosophy class, but yet understands these very complicated concepts about the labor theory of value and about the necessity of land and, without land, could African Americans truly be free?

Tavis: That’s a powerful quote. I want to ask a question that is unapologetically loaded, but I’m curious as to what might come from this question. And that is, any parallels you would draw between the politics of then and the politics you see being practiced in Washington today? I don’t want to color the question any more than that deliberately.

Berry: For me, I think about Congress and about some of the issues that President Obama has had with getting Congress to move on topics that he was trying to get them to move on.

You see some of those challenges with Lincoln and even in the Emancipation Proclamation and even dealing with issues of colonization. So I think that Congress can sort of tie things up and we’re seeing some of those same tactics today.

Walther: And actually, during the Civil War, one of the problems, one of the many obstacles Lincoln had that his adversaries didn’t really have to deal with, was a vigorous two-party system in the North during the Civil War.

You had politicians demanding and getting generals named by their political party. I mean, George McClellan was thrust on Lincoln. That was not Lincoln’s choice, but he knew he had to stick with McClellan to keep the Democratic Unionists unionists.

Tavis: Professor Hobbs, any parallels you draw between the politics then and the politics we see being practiced today?

Hobbs: It’s a great question. I mean, I think that one thing that I wish we had more of today is that Lincoln, I think, I agree that he evolved and I agree that there was this sort of transformation in his thinking. But I also think that part of what happened was that he had a lot of people really putting a lot of pressure on him.

Tavis: Oh, yeah.

Hobbs: He had abolitionists, you know, he had William Lloyd Garrison who immediately says, you know, you’re not doing enough. You’ve got to go farther. This isn’t strong enough. Even the Emancipation Proclamation, you know, it’s not strong enough. We have to move farther.

He also had a number of senators and congressmen, someone like Salmon Chase, someone like Trumbull. So there really was a lot of pressure and a lot of sort of support that Lincoln had to kind of push him farther.

And I sort of wish that we were moving further to the left today, you know, and that there was more pressure to push us further to the left.

Tavis: I’ll start with you, Professor Berry. If there is a particular takeaway that the American people ought to focus on 150 years later, what do you want us to consider?

Berry: I think we need to talk about race. We need to talk about slavery…

Tavis: Still?

Berry: Yes, I do. I don’t think we’re done. I think we need to understand the ramifications of slavery and the wealth that was generated from slavery and what that means and why there’s such a large economic disparity today. I think that’s the main takeaway for me. But I’m a scholar of slavery, so I’m going to say that [laugh].

Tavis: I accept that. Professor Walther?

Walther: That slavery still matters. The Civil War still matters. That, as you said in the beginning, you take all of the battle death from the American Revolution, War of 1812, Mexican War, Indian wars of the 19th century, on and on and on, right through World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and it’s still a little bit under all of the deaths from the Civil War combined.

And we’ve actually just broken through that by a few thousand just recently within the last few years. And that matters and the scars from that are still there. From the Reconstruction Era, we have a lot of Southern states and other Midwestern states just kind of ignoring the Constitution, not kind of, but literally doing it, challenging Supreme Court decisions right now. The controversy in Indiana, it’s about bigotry.

Tavis: Professor Hobbs, takeaway for you?

Hobbs: Just very quickly, I would say that I think that it’s very important for us to know our history and that history allows us to understand our past. It allows us to understand our present and it also allows us to imagine a different kind of future.

And I think that, in those dark hours, that history for me becomes very kind of healing in a sense because I see the possibility of something different. And that’s why I think the Reconstruction Era, while it didn’t go far enough and it didn’t last long enough, it still offers us the sense of the possibility of something different.

So I guess I would say that I think that we need to know our history and we need to sort of immerse ourselves in our history so that we can see that history is linear, that it’s never a story of, you know, slavery to freedom, slavery to Obama, that there are always these fits and starts.

There are always these moments of devastation and then there are these moments of hopefulness and optimism. And I think that can sort of keep our spirits kind of buoyed when we do face these moments that are difficult and challenging.

Tavis: It’s a wonderful conversation, never long enough. But thank you all for coming on and expressing your insights 150 years after the end of the Civil War. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: May 22, 2015 at 2:47 pm