“The Merits of This Fearful Conflict”: Douglass on the Causes of the Civil War

by David W. Blight

Quote written out by Frederick Douglass (ca. 1880) recalling speech given May 30, 1871, at Arlington National Cemetery. (GLC07926.01)In the spring of 1871, Frederick Douglass was worried. Six years after Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Grant was now President of the United States, the Union of northern and southern states was restored, and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments were the law of the land. But a growing indifference toward the freedpeople among northern whites, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the South, the resurgence of the Democratic party and its openly white-supremacist politics, and a wholesale amnesty toward ex-Confederates put all questions of black rights and security in a cloud of uncertainty by 1870–1871.

Douglass, the former abolitionist, and now editor of a newspaper, the New National Era, in Washington, DC, was at a crossroads in his career. He would soon move permanently to Washington after a fire destroyed his home in Rochester, New York, the probable act of an arsonist. He set himself up in the nation’s capital as a stalwart Republican, an advisor to several presidents, and the leading spokesman of black America through a dizzying lecture schedule. But perhaps the central concern of Douglass’s postwar life (he died in 1895) was his fight, through advocacy and the weapon of rhetoric, to sustain an abolitionist-emancipationist vision of the meaning and memory of the Civil War.[1]

By the time Douglass stepped to the platform to speak on Memorial Day, May 30, 1871, in Arlington National Cemetery, he was already concerned that he and his people, as well as their white allies, were losing the struggle over who would control the nation’s memory of slavery, the war, and its consequences. Standing at the mass grave of the unknown Union dead, on the former property of Robert E. Lee and in the shadow of the Custis-Lee Mansion, with President Grant and members of his Cabinet in attendance, and looking down on the Washington Monument and the United States Capitol across the Potomac River, Douglass raged against forgetfulness and false reconciliation: “We are sometimes asked in the name of patriotism to forget the merits of this fearful conflict and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation’s life and those who struck to save it—those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty and justice.” Douglass stood tall with indignation and called the nation to remember its dead not through shared glory and sacrifice alone, nor with mere sorrow, but through the meaning of the cause in which Union soldiers died. “I am no minister of malice,” he announced. “I would not strike the fallen. I would not repel the repentant, but may my right hand forget its cunning, and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I forget the difference between the parties to that terrible, protracted, and bloody conflict.”[2]

Douglass demanded, in season and out, that Americans never forget that slavery lay at the root of the Civil War, and that the nation only survived and experienced a rebirth of freedom through the liberation of the slaves. Douglass now witnessed the emancipationist historical memory eroding in a sentiment and a politics of sectional reconciliation spreading throughout American society. He feared a national reunion achieved at the costs of the very liberty and equality African Americans gained from the blood of Gettysburg and Fort Wagner, and from the verdicts of Appomattox and the Reconstruction Acts.

Were Douglass’s worries justified? From the context in which he spoke that day at Arlington we can only conclude yes. At the heart of Douglass’s indignation was the rise of Ku Klux Klan violence in the South. In winter and spring of 1871, he filled his newspaper with stories about “Ku Klux outrages.” Douglass documented how the Klan’s purposes were essentially political: it sought to destroy the Republican Party, to maintain white supremacy through the resurgence of the Democratic Party, and to restore labor discipline and economic dependency among the freedpeople. By whippings; rapes; the burning of houses, schools, and churches; and hundreds of murders and lynchings, the Klan used terror to win back as much of a status quo antebellum as it could achieve. One estimate suggests that at least 400 murders, the majority black, occurred at the hands of Klansmen in the period 1868–1871 alone across the South. To this must be added countless acts of torture and intimidation committed in the name of establishing white self-rule and the elimination of federal authority under the Reconstruction governments.

Douglass saw this reign of terror as a revival of the “brutalizing . . . debasing effect . . . of the barbarism of slavery” among defeated Southerners. He declared southern violence a new “rebellion . . . far more difficult to deal with than that suppressed, but not annihilated, in 1865.”[3] Douglass did rejoice that in the same month as his Arlington speech, Congress had begun its Ku Klux Klan Hearings, an unprecedented investigation conducted in seven southern states and which left thousands of pages of testimony to a record of terror most Americans would prefer to ignore. He was also heartened by the passage that April of the Ku Klux Klan Act by Congress, which made offenses against the political rights of individuals punishable by federal law and enforceable by federal troops.

But already the former abolitionist could surmise that the shuddering savagery of the Klan had achieved many of its political aims and was likely to leave a deep emotional legacy of fear in black communities. Indeed, mob violence injected poisons into Civil War memory that only resistance, decades of time, and turns in history could begin to eradicate. To Douglass, the Civil War was hardly over; former Confederates had achieved the safety to “carry on the war within the Union.” Hence, the power of Douglass’s admonitions against the reconciliationist brand of forgetting on Memorial Day at Arlington in 1871. He waved the bloody shirt in its ideological, not merely political, form, and begged his audience to “never forget that victory to the rebellion meant death to the Republic,” and to “never forget that the loyal soldiers who rest beneath this sod flung themselves between the nation and the nation’s destroyers.”[4] Amidst the flowers of late spring’s splendor, Douglass asked the nation to worry with him about how Americans would remember their Civil War.

[1] See David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).

[2] “Address at the Grave of the Unknown Dead,” Arlington, Virginia, May 30, 1871, Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress, reel 14; “Decoration Day,” New National Era, June 1, 1871.

[3] “Barbarism Against Civilization,” and “Demands of the Hour,” New National Era, April 6, 1871.

[4] Ibid.; “Address at the Grave of the Unknown Dead.”

David W. Blight is Class of 1954 Professor of American History at Yale University and Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale. He is the author of A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including Their Narratives of Emancipation (2007); Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001), which received the Bancroft Prize, the Abraham Lincoln Prize, and the Frederick Douglass Prize; and Frederick Douglass’s Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee (1989).

This essay was originally written as a Gilder Lehrman Institute keepsake for the 2002 Frederick Douglass Book Prize dinner in February 2003.


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