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Everything You Know About the Civil War is Wrong

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Everything You Know About the Civil War is Wrong

t’s likely difficult for many of us — and nearly impossible for younger generations — to imagine a world without air conditioning, refrigeration, and amply-filled grocery stores. Which is nothing to say of a life without the Internet, smartphones, and Amazon.

Consider for a moment that just over a hundred years ago, many Americans didn’t live to see their fiftieth birthday — and the most common cause of death was dysentery.

Life in 1860 America, the year Abraham Lincoln was elected president, was nothing like it is today.

The Southern states were mostly rural, and agriculture was the primary industry while in the North, the industrial revolution was in its infancy. Few Americans had more than a primary school education, and medicine was one level above medieval.

And yet, too many of us mistakenly believe we can make value judgments about a time of which we know little.

To truly understand any historical event, one must study it within the proper context — what is commonly referred to as “contextualization.” But as generation after generation pass, we internalize notions about why people behaved the way they did in the past.

And often, we interpret stories of events through the lens of popular culture — many of which are not entirely accurate.

The American Civil War is chief among these.

For most of us (including me), we attended public schools where we were provided roughly the same instruction regarding the Civil War: Our country was composed of the North, where people opposed slavery, and the South where slavery was embraced. Abraham Lincoln rose to the presidency and fought against the South to end slavery and saved the Union.

Like most of my high school peers, this story seemed plausible enough to me and after all, it ended happily: Slaves were freed and the Union remained intact.

Plausible enough until I read a couple of books by Charles Adams, a tax historian and author from New England — hardly a Southern extremist with an ax to grind.

In these fascinating books, Adams explores how taxation affected historical events and how the popular interpretation of the Civil War survives in the face of some obvious facts.:snip:

 

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