Union and Disunion - Lessons from Civil War Tennessee


As I see it, there are two principal reasons to study the past: for the safe, godlike pleasure derived from immersing yourself in another time, and to learn lessons that might inform us in the present. Particularly in respect of the latter, any representation of the past therefore needs to be approached with care. 

As a writer of historical fiction I am constantly fearful of misrepresenting the past. In practice, it’s impossible not to. Even where I have first-hand accounts, written at or close to the time, they all have their own bias. Absolute truth is impossible to recover; you can only try to edge nearer. One issue I’ve struggled to understand is what Union meant to soldiers fighting for the North in the American Civil War. It’s very evident that while the long standing irritant of slavery was the underlying cause of the war, preservation of the Union was a far stronger motivation than abolition for the early volunteers in the Union Army. It was also the principal objective of the government. Lincoln famously said, ‘If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.’ This was written well over a year into the fighting. Only later would an end to slavery get equal billing with saving the Union.


But what did Union mean to the soldiers of the North? It’s hard to get at, especially for someone who’s British, where we have our own – often conflicted – ideas of Union. When the young America partially dissolved and went to war with itself, it was only eighty-seven years old. The very identity of America was bound up with the idea of Union, with a hard won rejection of old European pseudo monarchical democracies. Union represented a new consensus about freedom. An end to that Union – Disunion – meant backsliding towards something they believed they had surpassed. A lot of soldiers were first or second generation immigrants, whose first language was other than English. Their escape from the European experience was not so distant. Many believed that preserving a Union where freedoms for the individual were so fundamental was worth dying for.


There are lots of ways to see how the war came about. One is to see the Civil War as America crashing into the imperfections in its constitution, certainly as it pertained to universal freedom. Or you can take a hard economic view and say it was a fight over access to a cheap labour supply – namely slaves.  There are parallels with freedom of movement in the European Union of today, which can also be seen as a means to underpin access to cheap labour.


I was researching in Tennessee the day the my own country voted to leave the European Union. I was reading firsthand accounts from the 1860s in the archives of the East Tennessee History Museum in Knoxville.  Disunion – secession – came in via democracy. Each southern state voted to depart, leaving American patriots, notably in Eastern Tennessee, high and dry, forcing them to leave a Union they fervently believed in. What came after was horrific. Outside the killing of a generation on the battlefields, at home there was imprisonment, murder and fratricide. The grief and the strife lasted for decades beyond the war. If you go there, even today, over a hundred and fifty years later, you can still hear the war’s faint echoes.


As I sat in Eastern Tennessee, the day of Brexit, reading the voices from America’s time of disunion, the parallels with the problems in the Europe of today were frightening: a Union coming to terms with its own imperfections, existential threats from the democratic mechanisms of its member states, freedoms of the individual confused with economic imperatives.


Different sorts of Union often only come about after schism: the United States after the war of independence, the League of Nations after World War I, the European Union has its roots in the ashes of World War II. Sadly, disunion is rarely any less painful.


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Comments: 2
  • #1

    Roger Shadbolt (Wednesday, 04 January 2017 17:02)

    A very interesting and coherent linking of the past to the present. Who was it who said 'Those who ignore the mistakes of the past are destined to repeat them'? (Or words to that effect). It wasn't me but I wish it had been!

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