This morning I picked up a copy of Andrew Delbanco’s provocative little book The Abolitionist Imagination, just out from Harvard University Press. Delbanco opens the book with a probing essay that rethinks the abolitionists as an “adamant minority” of idealists who essentially rent the nation in the process of demanding slavery’s abolition. There is much to digest (and much to disagree with) in Delbanco’s literary analytical essay, but near the conclusion, he writes:
Despite its vindicated righteousness, abolitionism still compels us to ask what is, alas, a perennial question: how much blood for how much good? In retrospect, it is an easy question. Most Americans today will not hesitate to say that the price of the Civil War, more than 600,000 dead and countless more maimed and mutilated, was well worth paying for the incipient freedom of four million. But, a century and a half after the bloodbath, this kind of easy assent is also an easy form of self-commendation. History is lived by people ignorant of the future, and surely it is a hubris of our own to dismiss all who, living in the darkness of the 1850s, made a different calculation.
Delbanco seems to have his finger on the pulse of contemporary scholarship in this respect. It seems to me that in the politically polarized wake of 9-11, Iraq, and Afghanistan, we are now fully in the throes of a neo-revisionist turn in Civil War historiography. Practioners of this “new” scholarship no longer share the racist presumptions of “needless war” scholars like J.G. Randall and Avery Craven; nonetheless, many recent works share revisionism’s fascination with the deadly and destructive character of the war. The past decade has been devoted to making the “brother’s war” into a fratricidal one again. Think of Drew Faust’s This Republic of Suffering; Daniel Sutherland’s A Savage Conflict; Fanny Nudelman’s John Brown’s Body; Harry Stout’s moral history of the Civil War; Jeff McClurken’s Take Care of the Living; and Jim Marten’s Sing Not War. And, of course, who can forget J. David Hacker’s recent Civil War History article, revising upward the long-accepted casualty count of 620,000? Scholars of my generation no longer find convincing the centennial generation’s reverence for the Civil War. Delbanco certainly makes this point when discussing the neo-abolitionist school of reform historiography in his essay. Thomas Brown’s recent anthology, Remixing The Civil War, meditates on this very question of the Civil War’s meaning for a post-modern, post-Civil Rights era.
What does this neo-revisionist turn signal for the future of the Civil War metanarrative? Is neo-revisionism here to stay? Tom Brown seems to think that the Civil War will become increasingly irrelevant in the twenty-first century, a thesis I am not yet willing to embrace. These are questions that I will be reflecting on in future posts. In the meantime, go out and re-read “The Blundering Generation.”