The American Civil War, Reconstruction, and Iraq: A “Teachable Moment”

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Mr. Kornblith is a Professor of History at Oberlin College.

Every so often one hits upon a way to make past events “relevant” in the classroom only to discover that in doing so, one begins to reevaluate one’s own views about both historical and current events.  I had such a moment on April 12, 2006, in my course on the American Civil War and Reconstruction.  The class was discussing a group of readings on the “dynamics of Confederate defeat.”  I asked if Confederate defeat was inevitable, a pretty standard question.  A student responded that the question was hard to answer because we already knew the South lost the Civil War, and we could only speculate about other scenarios. Opening the way for the study of Reconstruction that we were scheduled to begin the next week, I asked the student if she was sure the South lost the Civil War.  She and her peers looked at me quizzically.  Was I just playing games with them?   After admitting that I was trying to be provocative, I went to the blackboard (the old-fashioned kind in the front of the room, not the electronic software kind), and I said, “Imagine it is April 12, 1865.  Richmond has fallen, and the Robert E. Lee has surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House.  All major military operations have been completed.”  Then I wrote on the board in big letters: “Mission Accomplished.”  I proceeded to ask if the Civil War was really over by April 12, 1865, or whether it was just entering a new phase—one that would turn out differently than the phase of conventional warfare. 

A fascinating discussion ensued, and over the next few weeks the class repeatedly returned to the question of when the Civil War really ended. I began to see more and more parallels between the debates over Reconstruction and debates over American intervention in Iraq—parallels that sometimes made me uncomfortable about my own scholarly and political positions.  Like many other leftists, I opposed American intervention in Iraq from the start. Although no fan of Saddam Hussein, I believed that the U.S. should work through the United Nations rather than take unilateral military action.  I also believed that any attempt to impose Western-style democracy on Iraq from the outside was bound to fail.

Three years after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, I felt vindicated.  Clearly events in Iraq had not turned out the way Bush and his advisors had predicted.  The mission of creating a stable, democratic, pro-American Iraq remained unaccomplished.  So should we get out?  The obvious answer was yes if the mission was -- and always had been -- virtually impossible.

But then I began to think about E. L. Godkin, Horace Greeley, and the Liberal Republicans in 1872.  Hadn’t they called for an end to Federal intervention in the South because the terror and turmoil of Radical Reconstruction proved that biracial democracy was virtually impossible and not worth more northern, white sacrifice?  Like many other historians of progressive bent, I wanted to believe that Reconstruction could have succeeded had the Federal government stuck by the freedpeople and maintained a stronger military presence in the postwar South.   But perhaps making biracial democracy work in the South in the 1870s was no more do-able than making multi-religious, multi-ethnic democracy work in present-day Iraq.  Or, alternatively, perhaps Thomas Friedman of the New York Times was right after all: we should stick with the project of democracy-building in Iraq even if it takes many more years and many more lives because the moral and political consequences of writing off the possibility of democracy developing there would be enduring and awful. 

Then again, the parallels between the American Civil War and the war in Iraq are hardly exact.  There are no “lessons” of history that one can derive from nineteenth-century precedents and apply in simple ways to twenty-first century challenges. I still believe that Radical Reconstruction was a worthy cause – a good mission – and that the invasion of Iraq was not.  Yet my “teachable moment” on April 12 has given me pause.  I feel less confident than before about passing judgment on how others have tried to shape the world.  To this extent, historical reflection has proven personally destabilizing but also edifying. What began as my attempt to disrupt the unthinking assumptions of my students has resulted in my questioning of my own accepted truths and in my recommitment to the value of scholarly skepticism. 

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omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

Any attempt to draw parallel(s) between the American Civil War and the Invasion and Conquest of Iraq would inevitably be utterly misleading unless and until due attention is paid to the fundamental difference between the two wars!
Whereas the American Civil War was fought within the confines of the same nation, the same culture and one/two people(s)living in the same religious/confessional "world" the Invasion and Conquest of Iraq was between two very dissimilar nations, two mutually untrusting cultures and between two, historically, highly antagonistic and hardly reconciled religious/confessional worlds!
Once the basic difference, and significance, between this present conflict and the American Civil War is noted great care should be exercised before drawing parallels between the two.
I fail to see where, if at all, this seminal difference was noted by Professor Kornblith!
Coming after some sixty years of overt and covert bitter enmity and endless obstructions to the legitimate peaceful aspirations of the Arab/ Moslem world the US invasion and conquest of Iraq with the ultimate objective to destroy it will , probably, go down in history as a historical turning point , for centuries to come, marking their declared mutually reciprocated enmity.
The outstanding developments that irrevocably ushered this era would be noted as:
- America’s unconditional empowerment of Israel to the status of regional super power
- America’s declared total and unconditional enmity to Islamism in all its forms
- The unprecedented rise, in scope and depth, of the Islamist movement as the most powerful, publicly supported, political wave of the future.

omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

The (US)King-Crane Commission report!
Failure to implement its recommendations, and the implementation of their direct opposites re Israel etc, marked the start of the parting of ways that has led to the present state of deep distrust and open enmity!

omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

We seem to agree that we have had a "parting of ways" and that we are now in an undeniable state of hostility and deep distrust.
At the end of WWI things were at exactly the opposite situation. The USA was the preferred mandatory power over the ex possessions of the Ottoman Empire as the KING-Crane Commission found out and reported to President Wilson.
What happened after wards?
1-Contrary to the King-Crane recommendations the USA chose to support the establishment of a Jewish St's in Palestine against the express will of the overwhelming majority of the Palestinian people Arab people.
2- The USA acquiesced to and went along with the Anglo-French colonialist carve up of the Middle East drawn in the Sykes-Picot agreement also against the recommendations of the King-Crane Commission which supported the plan of a united greater Syria.
A careful analysis of later developments will show that these two momentous events/policies led to the present situation which could be summed up as:
1-An endemic state of war with Israel that has drained Arab resources and hampered peaceful development.
2-A state of fragmentation that led to the birth of several states none of which truly qualifies as such with the resulting rivalries, feuds AND a great opportunity for foreign intervention and exploitation.
This is not to exclude or deny the presence of inter Arab problems and factors it is to show that the MAIN seeds of instability were sown by the WEST in general and the USA in particular which is the subject under discussion.
The tragedy of the whole situation is that none of those USA policies was warranted by USA interests and considerations and, if any thing, as it ultimately turned out,far from serving American interests has transformed a potential friend and ally into a dedicated foe, to the huge present and future cost of both sides!

omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

From "preferred mandatory power" to "an undeniable state of hostility and deep distrust." is a definite "parting of ways"!
At the end of WWI the USA was the decisive power it chose to side with and support colonialism, Britain and France, and Zionism our main enemies the outcome is the present situation!
The irony is that none of these choices served US interests.

omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

I am very much interested in Arab/Moslem-American relations because I strongly believe a lot depends on it !
If you chose to call that a rant that is up to you ;however you should recall that bad relations between the two is detrimental to their respective interests and ,except for Israel, is bad for the world at large.

omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

Both Mr Heisler and Mr Mahan are strongly for Israel which is "good for human rights ans good for morals"!
Does respect for "human rights" allow for denying others those same human rights?
Does " good morals" condone the dislocation and dispossession of an indigenous people ?
Would either, or both, tell us WHICH Israel they support and within WHICH borders?

omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

It is "working" for now BUT at what cost ? and will it "work" long term?

What you fail to note is that the Palestinian Arab people are NOT a Red Indian tribe and that Israel, and friends, has bitten much more than they can chew.

Israel, by dislocating , dispossessing and supplanting the indigenous Arab people with aliens from all over the world chosen according to racist criteria and friends, for aiding and abetting this colonialist enterprise, have , wittingly or unwittingly, antagonized the 1.5 billion strong Arab/Moslem world and started an inter confessional long term conflict that will be hugely costly to all!

The story of the dislocation and dispossession of the Red Indians tribes will NOT be replayed at the heart land of the Arab/Moslem, Palestine, as unfolding events show!

(Your failure to indicate WHICH Israel, WITHIN which borders, you support is noted and understood for what it is!)

Patrick M. Ebbitt - 9/24/2006


Excellent rebuttal/source document.


Patrick M. Ebbitt - 9/24/2006

The author writes, "maintained a stronger military presence in the postwar South."

When is the last time the author has left he confines of the ivy covered walls of the 'Old Main' at Oberlin, OH to travel the grits/okra covered moonshine runners' roads of the 'Old South'? Obviously, from this shrewd observation at a distance/uneducated assumption I, would venture to say NEVER!

The 'Old South' is the most militarized zone stretching from Virginia through the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida across it's breadth to engulf the whole of Texas in the world. Army/Marine military reservations, naval bases and air stations not only dot the landscape they dominate. Whole economies of scale are subsistent solely based on their local fort. These bases have been established/ operational as a direct result of the CW/reconstruction. Next to the continental Southwest/Federal owned reservations of mostly empty space in SoCal/Nevada/Arizona the 'Old South' is armed/ready/willing/able.


HNN needs to do a better job in the 'liberal/progressive' voices it selects for posting department. A stout rightist/militarist will tear the whole of this poorly written/researched essay to shreds. The actions/discussions within a classroom that "got meist a think'in" should not be the basis of an uneducated bowl of unsubstantiated tripe.

Then to draw 'wisp of smoke' comparisons to Iraq... look out!

andy mahan - 9/18/2006

Whhaaaaaaaaaah! I tire of the excuses of the supporters of terrorism. Over history Arabs have at times had peaceful aspirations and at times not. Currently they have not. The King-Crane Commission Report is no proof of the Arab/Muslim state of “peaceful hopes, dreams." Further, I find it a gross oversimplification that The King-Crane Commission Report “marked the start of the parting of ways that has led to the present state of deep distrust and open enmity” when depending on which terrorist apologist that you might be engaging they would claim, it was the Balfour Declaration or the Husayn-McMahon Correspondence or some other document intending to mollify the extremists.

And what about the failure of the Ottomans to maintain hegemony over the region? Why aren’t the apologists every citing that? Arab/Muslims persist in their perceived condition of being victimized. Essentially, what it comes down to is that the terrorism apologists are incapable of accepting that it is the fault of Arabs/Muslims themselves that they are as they are today, a stark contrast with the Jewish lot.

andy mahan - 9/18/2006


There was no "parting of ways." Prior to WWI the US had virtually no political involvment in the Middle-East. The colonization of the Middle-East was a European squabble. If Muslims are to be angry with anyone the history plainly shows that that anger would be rationally directed at Britain and France. The WZO found themselves courting the US prior to WWI because they felt they had been sold out by the Brits one too many times. Palestinians have chosen to hate the US exclusively because Israel was successful at courting the US. Arabs cry "why didn't you like us?" Simple, the Jews beat em to the punch. Prior to the WZO incursion the US had NO relationship with Arabs, good or bad.

andy mahan - 9/18/2006

It wasn't that the US "preferred" Arabs over Jews. The US was dispationate. Arabs independantly "preferred" America because they were fed up with Britain's political misdirection.

As I said, Arab/Muslim hostility is misplaced. They hate us because we like Israel.

America support colonialism? Predicably inflammatory, just inaccurate.

America's support of Israel is good. Good for America, good for Israel, good for human rights, good for morality. If crazy Arab/Muslims are compelled by their crazier Clerics to hate America because we agree that Israel should have a homeland then we will just have to fight this thing out. Hence, the war on terrorism.

Jason Blake Keuter - 7/12/2006

The problem with disenfranchising old ruling classes rests in the assumption that ruling classes are simply irresponsible parasites feeding off virtuous lower classes who have not only an innate right to self-rule but, presumably, an innate ability to rule responsibly.

In general, "ruling" classes have not been so irresponsible and incompetent and might better be labeled "running" classes. The exception to the rule is the court aristocracy created by Louis XIV. They indeed were frivolous and decadent and parasitic; but their overthrow is a result, first and foremost, of the abrogation of their responbilities towards their subjects. The nobility that didn't go to Versailles and the Clergy that worked in the local Parish were generally seen as the natural rulers of their provinces; and the "revolution" far from a movement to liberate people from their oppressors was just as much a continuation of a long standing war between a centralizing national government and local rule. The centralizing desires of generations of European Kings were realized by the French Revolutionaries, speaking the language of liberty to a people primed to abandon the old order because its guardians had ceased to fulfill their responsibilies.

While Loewen encourages people to plunge the depths of "people's" histories to find that the ruling class stayed in power (a gross simplification of the history of reconstruction that serves his ideological bias), I would encourage people to consider the slave South to be more or less stable until the Cotton Gin gave impetus to expansion, which led planters to continually uproot in search of new profits. This mobility in search of profits affected all of the South - slaves above all.

In other words, it was the ruling class of the South that destabilized the South. Among the fears the Republicans had was that the old Southern Ruling Class would win black votes, and there is a good deal of history that shows that ruling class placing its hopes for resurrection in the hands of black voters as white voters resented that ruling class for plunging them into war.

Many left wing historians have worked overtime to deconstruct the Mint and Magnolias myth. In doing so, they have invented a history of slavery that projects the antebellum period - which, after the Civil War, was the least stable - backwards to the colonial period. But there is a lot of truth in that myth, and a lot of falsehood in the assumption that freedmen were necessarily looking to exercise the democratic autonomy so many in world history have failed to exercise and not looking for a new Patron.

Does this have much relevance to Iraq? Iraq has been in the throes of a decidedly untraditional dictatorship and is presently choosing between the complex uncertainty of democracy and a reurn to its own mint and magnolias past where tradition and stability ruled the day. Democratic governments, in their infancy, feel like a continuation of the instability of dictatorships (myth: Sadaam's Iraq was at least stable). In the midst of such a prolonged violent crisis, there is a pronounced tendency among all parties to restore a more simple and idyllic order.

And what better way to do that then reinstall the old ruling class and try to unfray the threads torn by dictatorship, war, invasion, civil war and democracy?

The problem is, of course, the old, provincial ruling class is an anachronism, unable to protect its citizens against encroachment and eventual conquest from more centralized states.

Charles Edward Heisler - 7/10/2006

Mr. Baker the dislocation is a done deal and has been for some time. As is the case in all cultures, some are displaced. Is it right? Who knows? It works.

Charles Edward Heisler - 7/9/2006

Mr. Baker, I agree with you that peaceful co-existence is a goal to be focused on, however, Israel exists and will always exist in the Middle East. That existence will always have the support of the United States and that existence will be vouchsafed by the ability of Israel to defend itself against all Arab foes.
The sooner that reality is accepted by the Arab/Muslim peoples the quicker your commendable "peaceful aspirations" will be achieved.

Charles Edward Heisler - 7/9/2006

Silly argument. I don't believe the author of the piece was making a grand analogy between Iraq and the Civil War, only using part of each as a comparison.
But, Mr. Baker, so long as you can build the straw man and then use that straw man to find another entrance to your rant about Arab/American relationships, I guess that is ok.
I am not, however, buying the "peaceful aspirations" of the Muslim world--given the history of the region, even before Israel, there is no evidence to support the claim.

Paul Mocker - 7/7/2006

legitimate peaceful aspirations of the Arab/ Moslem world

Mr. Baker,

In all sincerity I ask this question: What primary and secondary sources do you recommend for learning about the peaceful hopes, dreams and real histories of the Arab and Moslem worlds?

Paul Mocker - 7/7/2006

Hi Adam,

Western Washington University in Seattle, to answer your question. I start student teaching in January 2007 and graduate in August 2007.

When do you graduate and what are the job prospects in your area? Are you studying to teach high school?

Charles Edward Heisler - 7/6/2006

I have to agree that this is a valuable exercise and I see nothing wrong with any of us, left or right, rethinking positions on any topic.
So long as a class is made aware of the political preference of the professor going in to any lecture or topical discussion, we are being fair to our students. What I find unethical is the teacher that seeks to indoctrinate by subterfuge, pretending to be neutral when there is strong bias left or right.
The Civil War is to me a fine way to launch into current understandings although the above is certainly unique.
Want another fine discussion topic? Have your classes discuss the role of the Democratic Party and the Democratic Press in 1864 and 2006 relative to the Civil War and an unpopular Republican President--if nothing else, the discussion will give them that wonderful "Been there done that!" lesson that history so often delights us with.

Adam Shelby Betz - 7/6/2006

Paul, Im also attending college right now to teach History. Where do you go? I'm at Eastern Michigan University currently and they teach us the same thing, to make compare current events to draw attention to the students.

Matthew E. McKeon - 7/5/2006

Prof. Kornblith drawing a parallel between Reconstruction in the South, and the current reconstruction effort in Iraq is an excellent way to excite and engage students. When I teach Reconstruction in September I'll try the same thing.

As an aside, the current military presence in the southern US dates from the build up during the Second World War. As part of the compromise that elected Hayes as president, most federal troops were withdrawn from the former Confederacy.

Also, Mr. Hughes described the question of when the Civil War ended as "abstract." Actually, scholars working currently argue that the end date would be 1877, the end of Reconstruction. Taking a longer view, I would argue the war ended in 1965, not 1865, with the march from Selma to Montgomery and the passing of Civil Rights and Voting Rights legislation that made the 14th and 15th amendments a reality.
When the civil rights marchers entered Montgomery and Martin Luther King said "the arc of the moral universe is long, but bends towards justice," then quoted the Civil War era Battle Hymn of the Republic it wasn't a random comment.

Also, its "Sumter", not "Sumpter"

Paul Mocker - 7/5/2006

I'm a future educator. We're being taught to use the students' interests as a way to motivate and hook students to the study of history.

In my opinion, it is entirely justifiable to compare the past to today if it creates or builds on the interest students already have.

Adam Shelby Betz - 7/5/2006

"In addition, Kornblith ought to admit that he really wants to talk about Dubya and Rumsfeld in the classroom every day, not the Civil War."

I don't find anything wrong with a professor creating comparisons to what is happeneing in our lives today. What better way to get the class involved and into comparing their own feelings with their American ancesotrs? Obviously, you are not an educator and have not worked with young adults anytime in your life.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 7/4/2006

Professor Kornblith frankly tells us he is a leftist, for which he should be commended--both because he recognizes what he is and for telling us so. It gives me the friendly feeling that he has been watching the election returns since 1994, and thus is a person worthy of agreeing to disagree with.

My guess is a good many of his students come into this class without much or any knowledge of the events between Fort Sumpter and the election of 1876. And if that is the case, he has no business wasting their time discussing what might have been different had the facts been other than they were, or having his class "repeatedly" return to the abstract question of when the Civil War "really" ended. It is fine for HIM to return to the question which transfixes him, but not good for all those young and empty heads.

There are far too many music professors and chemistry professors now spending their days talking about how much they hate George W. Bush, and the Iraq War, instead of inculcating what they are paid to inculcate. By his own admission, Kornblith has this hangup in spades, and he needs to kick the habit and work on his own beliefs on his own time. He owes that to Oberlin and the students. One can study the Civil War and Reconstruction for a lifetime and still learn something new, and each hour wasted is gone forever. In addition, Kornblith ought to admit that he really wants to talk about Dubya and Rumsfeld in the classroom every day, not the Civil War.

James W Loewen - 7/3/2006

Frederick Thomas has made an amazing statement, one commonplace between 1890 and 1970, but rare after 1970 and almost unheard-of before 1878. Let us examine two points:
"the post Civil War period was characterized by the disenfranchisement of the majority of Southerners for a prolonged period..."
What period was this? Surely Mr. Thomas knows that 5 states -- GA, FL, NC, SC, and TX -- disfranchised almost NO white Southereners. LA, MS, and AL disfranchised a few Confederates in the high leadership, plus those who would not sign a loyalty oath -- nowhere near a majority of WHITE Southerners, let alone ALL Southerners.
"... combined with the enfranchisement of former black slaves who has little previous experience, and so were easily controlled by criminals from the North for their own enrichment."
Obviously Mr. Thomas has not read period newspapers from Mississippi, for example, as I have done, or sound secondary work, such as "Black Power USA" by Lerone Bennett or "Reconstruction" by Eric Foner. Anyone who studies Mississippi history with an open mind, for example, as Vernon Lane Wharton did decades ago, comes away realizing there was no band of criminals misleading black voters and getting rich.

Frederick Thomas - 7/3/2006

We cannot really compare the postwar periods of the US Civil War and the Iraqi war.

First, there was no overwhelming outside force in the case of the US Civil War.

Second, the post Civil War period was characterized by the disenfranchisement of the majority of Southerners for a prolonged period, combined with the enfranchisement of former black slaves who has little previous experience, and so were easily controlled by criminals from the North for their own enrichment.
The bitterness of this policy still rankles in the South. In Iraq, availability of the vote was pretty universal.

Third, the whites of the North and South shared a culture: langauge, education, religion, ethnicity, etc. In Iraq, Arabic Sunni are in conflict with Iranian and Arab Shia and Kurds. Nothing unites them.

How do we compare these? I'd say we don't.

Cary Fraser - 7/3/2006

Perhaps, the more important lesson that needs to be highlighted is the fact that the American military was unable to institutionalize democracy in the South, and it would be appropriate to ask whether the US military is any more capable today of so doing in Iraq.