The Civil War Conundrum, 150 Years Later
by Rachel MacNair
My great-grandfather was born a Quaker, but when he married my great-grandmother, he converted to being Methodist for her sake. His parents were Quakers, and once I took an interest in genealogy, I found that, through them I had Quaker ancestors (that is, members of the Religious Society of Friends) going all the way back to the 1600s. The line got broken, and I picked it up again when I was 14.
My great-grandfather’s father, Hiram Bennet Matthews, was one of those Quakers who thought during the U.S. Civil War that he had to choose between conflicting values: being against war or against slavery. He was one of many Friends who felt this as a quandary at the time. A more famous one was William Jackson Palmer, who became a general and later founded Colorado Springs.
I say to my great-great grandfather: we’ve now traveled in the time machine to see what ended up happening. It’s over 150 years later.
The first few decades after the Civil War, we had sharecropping, plus loitering laws – being imprisoned for being unemployed, and then put to involuntary labor. We had terrorizing and Jim Crow laws. Lynchings were done as public spectacles.
The Civil Rights Movement was an outburst of nonviolence after many decades of nonviolent resistance. It had many great achievements. But it didn’t solve the problem entirely.
Now it’s over 150 years later, and we had an event that brought these points to mind for me: the flag of the Confederacy unfurled through the halls of the U.S. Congress during a riot there – January 6, 2021.
Hiram, your great-great granddaughter still needs to go to protests of police officers killing Black Americans and otherwise targeting them with intense brutality. Along with many other struggles against racism. Over 150 years later.
The violence of the Civil War, including the intense destructiveness of Sherman’s March to the Sea, and all the hatred this generated has been transmitted through many, many generations. Nonviolent action has blunted much of it, but the amount of violence was so overwhelming that the task of genuine freedom for those whose ancestors were enslaved is still not entirely achieved.
Though the war brought about an official government-ordered end to slavery, in the form of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, more quickly than the slow action of nonviolence would have, the historical evidence is more consistent with the idea that genuine freedom for African Americans might actually have been delayed by that war.
Indeed, the 13th Amendment didn’t even abolish slavery, since it made an exception for those convicted of a crime. Just in 2020, voters in Nebraska and Utah finally got rid of that exception in their state constitutions, but it’s still in several other state constitutions.
We can’t run history over again to see how things might have turned out had those Quakers stuck to pacifism and put their lives on the line in nonviolent actions instead of military ones. History is complicated.
But what we do know is that the sense of a quandary was badly over-simplified. The idea that a war would end slavery didn’t pan out.
For more of our posts on nonviolence against war, see:
For more of our posts on police brutality, see:
For more of our posts on consequences of war, see: