As a historian who has written and taught about the Civil War era for several decades, I know that current divisions pale in comparison to those of the mid-19th century.
More than 3 million men took up arms, and hundreds of thousands of black and white civilians in the Confederacy became refugees. Four million enslaved African Americans were freed from bondage.
After the war ended, the country soon entered a decade of virulent, and often violent, disagreement about how best to order a biracial society in the absence of slavery.
To compare anything that has transpired in the past few years to this cataclysmic upheaval represents a spectacular lack of understanding about American history.
Caning, secession, assassination
A few examples illustrate the profound difference between divisions during the Civil War era and those of the recent past.
Today, prominent actors often use awards ceremonies as a platform to express unhappiness with current political leaders.
On April 14, 1865, a member of the most celebrated family of actors in the United States expressed his unhappiness with Abraham Lincoln by shooting him in the back of the head.
Today, Americans regularly hear and watch members of Congress direct rhetorical barbs at one another during congressional hearings and in other venues.
On May 22, 1856, U.S. Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina caned Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts into bloody insensibility on the floor of the Senate chamber because Sumner had criticized one of Brooks’ kinsmen for embracing “the harlot, Slavery” as his “mistress.”
Four of the remaining eight slave holding states followed suit between April and June 1861.
Internal fractures, furious war
Americans were thus forced to face the reality that the political system established by the founding generation had failed to manage internal fractures and positioned the United States and the newly established Confederacy to engage in open warfare.
The scale and fury of the ensuing combat underscores the utter inappropriateness of claims that the United States is more divided now than ever before.
Four years of civil war produced at least 620,000 military deaths – the equivalent of approximately 6.5 million dead in the United States of 2020.
The institution of slavery – and especially its potential spread from the South and border states into federal territories – was the key to this slaughter because it provoked the series of crises that eventually proved intractable.
No political issue in 2020 approaches slavery in the mid-19th century in terms of potential divisiveness.
Dr. Gary W. Gallagher is the John L. Nau III Professor in the History of the American Civil War at the University of Virginia’s Corcoran Department of History. One of the foremost experts on the American Civil War, he’s authored numerous books and articles, including Becoming Confederates: Paths to a New National Loyalty (University of Georgia Press, 2013), The Union War (Harvard University Press, 2011) and Stephen Dodson Ramseur: Lee’s Gallant General (University of North Carolina Press, 1985).