With white Christian nationalism and racist hate surging to dangerous levels, the US braces for the worst.
The American Civil War is still far from over.
A powerful metaphor for this worry was the violent insurrection Jan. 6, 2021, at the US Capitol, during which a Confederate battle flag was carried triumphantly, by an aggrieved Southerner, through the hallowed confines of Statuary Hall.
Many, if not most, in the Jan. 6 mob were aggrieved Christian nationalist/white supremacist zealots, many from Southern states.
It’s been a long time coming.
The promise of Reconstruction dashed
A period of national renewal known as Reconstruction, which began when the Civil War ended with the Confederacy’s defeat in 1865, failed to bring lasting equality to African-Americans because the need for Southern votes in 1877 caused Northern politicians to throw Reconstruction out the window (i.e., the Compromise of 1877).
Although slavery remained outlawed, Black oppression in the South continued unabated, as it still does to this day.
The U.S. History website summarizes how the 1877 Compromise played out:
Many Southern whites could not accept the idea that former slaves could not only vote but hold office. It was in this era that the Ku Klux Klan was born. A reign of terror was aimed both at local Republican leaders as well as at blacks seeking to assert their new political rights. Beatings, lynchings and massacres were all in a night’s work for the clandestine Klan. Unable to protect themselves, Southern blacks and Republicans looked to Washington for protection. After ten years, Congress and the radicals grew weary of federal involvement in the South. The WITHDRAWAL OF UNION TROOPS IN 1877 brought renewed attempts to strip African-Americans of their newly acquired rights.” [emphasis theirs]
Jan. 6 attack and the Compromise of 1877 related
Uncannily, the Jan. 6 Capitol assault in 2021 and the Compromise of 1877 are intimately related. Both involved an attempt by the losing side to overturn a federal election.
In the former, enraged supporters of defeated President Donald Trump—further incited, in person, by Trump—stormed the Capitol in an attempt to stop final certification of the 2020 election results.
In the latter, Southern Democrats disputed 1877 presidential election returns in several states, threatening to fight certification—and allies of the winning candidate, Rutherford Hayes, a Republican (Abraham Lincoln’s party), then met secretly with Democrats to negotiate Southern acceptance of the vote results.
The U.S. History article explained that,
The Democrats agreed not to block Hayes’ victory on the condition that Republicans withdraw all federal troops from the South, thus consolidating Democratic control over the region. As a result of the so-called Compromise of 1877 (or Compromise of 1876), Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina became Democratic once again, effectively bringing an end to the Reconstruction era.
And that ended fledgling Black equality in America at the time.
Even after Civil Rights advances for Blacks in the 1960s and with subsequent Supreme Court-mandated education integration in the South, Southern states sidestepped those requirements by opening new private Christian academies where white parents could send their kids. Many obstacles to Black voting, from gerrymandering of districts to onerous voter registration rules, continue to disenfranchise Southern Blacks in today.
John Brown’s Harper’s Ferry attack a harbinger of war
The Jan. 6 assault also melds with another incident in Civil War historiography: the infamous 1859 attack on a federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), by a small Northern radical abolitionist gang led by John Brown, a bankrupt businessman.
Brown’s goal was to spark an uprising of slaves against their masters. The Jan. 6, 2020, attack was meant to spark a popular insurrection against Democratic rule by blocking certification of the 2020 presidential vote.
If the Capitol insurrection may be remembered as the first volley in a new civil war to remake American government, Brown’s raid has been variously viewed as the figurative “first shot” in the original Civil War.
Both insurrection attempts were slipshod failures, if deadly.
Eventually, local police and federal law enforcement, and National Guard troops put down the rag-tag Capitol mob last year.
John Brown’s doomed attack was crushed the following day by a company of US Marines, ironically led by two men who would become icons of the Confederacy: then Col. Robert E. Lee and then Lt. J.E.B. Stuart. Lee would become a storied commander of Confederate forces in that horrific war, and Stuart, his top intelligence gatherer.
The Marines led by Lee and Stuart overran Brown and his men on Oct. 19 wounded Brown and killed 10 of his men, including two of his sons.
Brown was arrested, later tried for treason and convicted, and hung on November 2.
He handed a guard a piece of paper just before his execution. It read: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”
Is a new Civil War looming over the horizon?
As evidence buttressing fears that the old Civil War may be brewing anew, Southerner Stephen Berry, the Gregory Professor of the Civil War Era at University of Georgia, wrote a recent mournful, alarming piece for The Nation (available only by subscription), titled “Confederates Take the Capitol.”
Berry, who is white, laments that, while most of his close boyhood pals in South Florida were Black, eventually, “in that way peculiar to the South, we were pulled apart.” He added,
I didn’t have the words for it then—self-segregation, peer pressure, cliques, structural racism, social sorting. All I knew was that something profoundly sad was happening. I saw my friends as across a great divide. “The South” would never be my friend, because it had never been a friend to my friends.
He said it “broke my heart” to see a Confederate flag flying inside the Capitol dome on Jan. 6:
As a child, I had always believed that there was some far-off somewhere where things were different, where I hadn’t lost my Black friends, where I hadn’t needed to be pissed on, where I hadn’t been so weak.
Instead, 40 years later, I watched on television as the all-too-familiar banner of my childhood wafted freely through Statuary Hall. Kevin Seefried, the man holding the flag, was gleeful and paunchy—receding hairline, baggy clothes, bad beard, bad boots—and I instantly knew him. …
Instantly iconic, the image of Seefried carrying that flag captures the whole of the day, the whole of American history, in a single tableau.
Just to the left of Seefried in the now iconic photo of him is a painting of Charles Sumner, “an ardent abolitionist senator from Massachusetts” in the mid-1800s. The Atlantic magazine also noticed the photo’s historical convergence, writing:
On May 22, 1856, Sumner was attacked by Preston Brooks—a pro-slavery member of the House of Representatives from South Carolina—for a speech Sumner had made criticizing slaveholders, including Brooks’s cousin Andrew Butler, a senator representing South Carolina. Brooks attacked Sumner on the Senate floor. “Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine,” he said. Before Sumner could fully respond, Brooks began beating him over the head with the golden head of his thick walking cane, trapping Sumner under his desk as he tried to escape, until two representatives were finally able to intervene and bring him out of the chamber. Sumner did not return to the Senate for three years, and would experience ongoing, debilitating pain for the rest of his life.
‘Nancy, where are you?’
If the Jan. 6 mob had ultimately found Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, whom they actively sought—“Nancy, where are you?” they chanted ominously—and if any of them had had a gold-tipped cane, it’s easy to envision she would have suffered the same fate that befell Sen. Sumner, or worse.
Is this the undeclared start of Civil War II?
After all, FBI Director Chris Wray has said repeatedly in the last couple of years that domestic Christian nationalist, white supremacist grievance in the US has reached such unprecedented levels that they represent the nation’s most severe current threat of internal violence and of danger to national security.
Add searing racial hatred to that and adding Donald Trump’s continuing tsunami of political lies being fed to his adoring right-wing zealots, and you have a very combustible cocktail.
Was Jan. 6 just a one-off spasm of political grievance or a dress rehearsal for something far more ominous?