The Dangers of Heroism

In the Civil War, there were two sides with many names: the North and the South; the Union and the Confederacy; the winners and the losers. These sides were formed over years of territorial disputes, power struggles, and conflicts over their differing economies. Both sides, as is the way with conflicts, knew they were in the right. As we read about this

In the Civil War, there were two sides with many names: the North and the South; the Union and the Confederacy; the winners and the losers. These sides were formed over years of territorial disputes, power struggles, and conflicts over their differing economies. Both sides, as is the way with conflicts, knew they were in the right.

In the past, I had decided based on basic knowledge that there was a good side and a bad side. The North was good because they were fighting to end all slavery and free the blacks out of the goodness of their hearts. Their leader, Lincoln, was a hero because he made emancipation possible. The evil southerners shot him in the head because they cruelly wanted to keep their slaves in terrible conditions so they could sit on their porches and drink whiskey without a care in the world. These are the ideas (albeit rather exaggerated) that I learned to accept based on information from films, books, and teachers.

However, as we went through this unit, I was constantly reminded of how this war, like nearly every war I’ve ever learned about, is not so simple that it can be separated into good versus bad. Yes, the North fought for emancipation and the South fought to keep slaves, and yes, slavery is terribly inhumane, but there are so many layers to each side. For example, the North supported and fought for emancipation, but that part of the conflict was almost an afterthought. The real reason for the war was to stop the South from seceding from the Union. The Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves from states that had not yet been conquered by the Union, so it was really more of an attempt to weaken those states and gain soldiers for the Union army than it was an act of goodness to free the slaves. The South had more than one reason for keeping slaves, one being that their economy depended on slavery. The North failed to offer them an alternative to slave labor or compensation for the losses they would surely suffer due to emancipation, so it is no wonder the South would not free their slaves without a fight.

Both sides had many aspects to their positions, and the war was over much more than the question of the morality of slavery. We cannot assume that either side was wholly right or wrong because to do so would be to project current values and opinions on past events. It is dangerous to assume that one side is the hero and the other the villain due to the irrefutable complexity of conflict.

image address: union_vs_confederate_by_thedragonspetznaz-d36gxth.gif




10 thoughts on “The Dangers of Heroism

  1. Actually, this is something similar to the thought process and the reactions that I went through too. Like, I used to think that North was good and South was bad because of slavery. Seeing the fact that war wasn’t fought for moral grounds in the first place and that the Emancipation Proc. was more of a way to make one side stronger and the other side weaker, not because slavery is bad, makes my heart melt. It just isn’t as simple or black and white as I thought because it was all part of tactics, not on whats truly right and whats truly wrong. It’s sad, but true. 😦

  2. Yes, I also agree that it is perilous to take sides in history. Y our statement of preconceptions of the Civil War is very true for many people.Often times, the one’s who write history usually are influenced by their past experiences. The winning side (Union) wrote the history that was obviously biased towards the South. Many of these biased opinions eventually become accepted as common knowledge and that is very dangerous. That’s why it is imperative to completely look at history from a neutral standpoint.

  3. This is a very insightful post, and something that I think most of us in this APUSH class can relate to. It’s easy to look at history, and therefore life, with a black and white perspective. There is the good and the bad, the light and the dark, the positive and the negative, the hero and the villain, and it’s reinforced by our childhoods, where we grew up believing that, yes, Batman will beat the Joker and save the day. But as we grow up, it’s evident that our world is much messier than that, and that somebody accidentally hit the paint palette and mixed everything up, and instead of black and white it really is a strange shade of gray. We move on from the Batman cartoons and we watch Nolan’s The Dark Knight, where Batman sacrificed his morality for his own twisted justice. Once we realize the world is gray, we can be enlightened, and, for the context of our humble history class, see our past with true sight.

  4. I, too, agree that taking sides in history can alter the way you view facts, but being proved wrong or finding out things that don’t support your original thoughts is what makes it great. The Civil War, being such a controversial topic, has always had different views on who was good and who was bad, but I think that there’s no right answer to either side. Noticing that no one went unharmed shows that both sides were equally as “good” or “bad” and both sides, but the way we see it is based on many things like where we were raised, and the bias towards a side from previous teachers.

    • Like Diana, I think this is a critical nuance that you’re picking up on that’s really important in all academic analysis. It’s hard to refrain from judgement of the past- but the paradox is that while we’re supposed to avoid “presentism”, it’s less fun when we do.

  5. This post actually portrays my thoughts on the Civil War when I was younger really accurately. Like many, I thought the Civil War was simple enough to be labeled as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, when in actuality, the Civil War was much more complex than that. When you learn about the cruel treatment of freedmen in the North, compared to the treatment slaves got in the South, it makes you really think about what the North truly intended to fight the war for. This was a great post – very perceptive, and you were willing to look from the Confederacy’s perspective, something that rarely happens.

  6. I really agree with this. I think that we are taught that there is always a good side and a bad side in war. We aren’t told that both sides can share the blame. It’s important to note that the North and the South were both at fault for the Civil War. I think that makes them both bad.

  7. This post explains so well what most people think. I too thought that there was a good and evil side to the war, but now I also realize that there is so much more to it than that. Not enough people think things through like this.

  8. I agree. Most people view the North and South as the good side or the bad side. I like how you pointed out that there is so much more than that; it is not the fault of one side but both sides are at fault in the situation.

  9. I agree with what you said very much. It is insanely easy to get caught up in labels, and then never look beyond them. While slavery is a terrible thing, the South did rely on it to support their whole economic and social system, and to label the entire Confederacy as pure evil isn’t fair. I think both being raised in the North and having the North be the winners of the war hugely affected our perception of good vs. bad, and while their belief system was undeniably terrible and wrong, we can not praise the North for being heroes looking to free the slaves because of their rights as humans, and instead see them, too, as flawed people.

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