Kurtz & Allison lithograph, 1891 (retouched Adam Cuerdon. Wikimedia Commons)

For several years as a grad student at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, I lived on the site of a Civil War battlefield. My apartment was in a Victorian mansion that had been cut up into private-sector off-campus student housing (and has now been retrofitted as a Ronald McDonald House). I could look out the window and see a monument to the 79th New York, a Union infantry regiment that successfully defended a bastioned earthwork called Fort Sanders against elements of Confederate Gen. James Longstreet’s corps of the Army of Northern Virginia. There’s a lot of history in my old neighborhood

On the morning of Nov. 29, 1863, history tells us (as summarized by Wikipedia), Longstreet ordered his troops to storm the fort, which anchored the Union defenses of the city. Elements of the 16th Georgia, the 13th Mississippi, and the 17th Mississippi fought their way to the top of the parapet, and for about 20 minutes planted their regimental flags there. But the Confederates suffered heavy casualties; the fort held; and on Dec. 4, Longstreet would withdraw to winter camp in Rogersville, 75 miles away in the direction of Virginia where he would rejoin Robert E. Lee’s army the following spring. The siege of Knoxville was over in 20 to 40 minutes of hand-to-hand combat.

We’re not dealing with your typical Gone With the Wind story of invading Yankees and Confederate defenders here.

In Knoxville you had a Confederate army laying siege to a railroad town with connections linking Confederate bastions in the Deep South and Virginia, deep in the Confederate state of Tennessee. But East Tennessee was bitterly divided, and the Yankees — the 29th Massachusetts, the 2nd Michigan, the 20th Michigan as well as the New Yorkers, supplemented by recruits from the local area — were viewed by many as liberators. In fact, Longstreet’s corps was an invading army in all but name.

It’s a reminder that facts on the ground, throughout history and no less today, are more complex and hard to discern than our breezy generalizations and political talking points would have them be.

All of this very local Civil War history came to mind this morning as a I read longtime congressional correspondent Jonathan Weisman’s article “Spurred by the Supreme Court, a Nation Divides Along a Red-Blue Axis” on the New York Times’ website. He cited the court’s recent decisions on abortion, climate change, gun control and human rights for the LGBTQ community. He might have added the separation of church and state.

“On each of those issues,” said Weisman, “the country’s Northeast and West Coast are moving in the opposite direction from its midsection and Southeast — with a few exceptions, like the islands of liberalism in Illinois and Colorado, and New Hampshire’s streak of conservatism.”

Welp, as a Southern expat who grew up in East Tennessee and moved to Illinois 35 years ago, I can relate to that.

I had personal and professional reasons for moving up north, most of them having to do with being stuck in a dead-end newspaper job after a failed marriage. Small-market media people tended to move around a lot, anyway, and I figured it was time to try something new.

But in the last four years or so, I’ve grown increasingly thankful I landed in a blue-state cultural island with a reasonably functioning state government.

I’ve long wondered where the terms “blue state” and “red state” came from. I know Tim Russert of NBC coined the term (at least popularized it), but it’s opposite to most other countries, where red is assigned to the left wing — like the Labour Party in the UK — and blue to the right. But if you look at Civil War battlefield maps, the Union positions are almost always shown in blue and the Confederates’ in red. The source of Russert’s color scheme? A little portent of things to come?

Weisman noted a more substantive parallel between the runup to the Civil War and the bitterly divided reaction to Supreme Court decisions since ex-President Trump and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell managed to pack the court with radical, activist conservatives pledged to overturn Roe v. Wade.

“On abortion,” Weisman said, “history seems to be riffing on itself.” He explained what he meant by that, and his explanation is troubling:

Both supporters and opponents of abortion rights see a parallel to the abolition of slavery.

As states like Illinois and Colorado vow to become “safe harbors” for women in surrounding states seeking to end their pregnancies, abortion rights advocates see an echo of past efforts by antislavery states in the North. But abortion opponents see themselves as emancipating the unborn, and often compare the Roe decision’s treatment of the fetus to the Dred Scott ruling in 1857 that denied Black people the rights of American citizenship.

Here’s another parallel. Both sides think they’re absolutely in the right, and deny all legitimacy to the other.

Yet another parallel: Some red-state legislatures are considering laws that would criminalize women seeking an out-of-state abortion and looking for ways to enforce that writ in the blue states. Anyone else reminded of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850?

Passage of a national fugitive woman law — a fugitive handmaid law? — seems unlikely, at least as long as Democrats have majorities in at least one house of Congress. But Weisman notes, “The anti-abortion movement, long predicated on returning the issue of reproductive rights to elected representatives in the states, talks now about putting a national abortion ban before Congress.” He quotes a prominent anti-abortionist:

Roger Severino, a leading social conservative and senior official in the Trump administration, invoked the struggle of Black Americans for equality, saying the 10 years that passed between the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision ending “separate but equal” segregation and Congress’s passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 mirrored the struggle ahead on abortion.

“I cannot see us living in two Americas where we have two classes of human beings in this country: some protected fully in law, some who are not protected at all,” said Mr. Severino, now the vice president for domestic policy at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Women’s rights advocates use similar apocalyptic rhetoric, and the tone of moral absolutism heard at both extremes calls to mind the bitter debate between abolitionists and apologists for slavery over the fugitive slave law, the admission of slate states to the union, civil unrest in Kansas, the Dred Scott decision and the threat posed to the South’s “peculiar institution” by the election of an abolitionist ally in 1860.

Perhaps the strongest parallel between the present moment and the 1850s, and one that Weisman explores in detail, is the increasing willingness of state governments to adopt policies counter to those of the federal government. He cites the different approaches to climate change between the coal- and oil-producing states, on the one hand, and California, Oregon and the East Coast states joining in a Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, on the other. He adds it is not the only such issue:

On guns, the District of Columbia and 11 states, including Delaware and Rhode Island just this week, have banned some weapons and accessories like high-capacity magazines in response to mass shootings across the country. Republican states, in contrast, have passed and continue to pass laws that allow for the carrying of concealed or unconcealed firearms with no permits necessary.

And most troubling of all, Weisman notes that some states are toying with the idea of nullification, first proposed in the 1830s by pro-slavery firebrand John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. He failed to to “nullify” a tariff he deemed harmful to the plantation economy — in other words, to exempt his state from it — but the controversy led to other acts of state government culminating with South Carolina’s secession ordinance in 1860, and it was a direct cause of the Civil War. Says Weisman of today’s legislative initiatives:

The Republican governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, signed legislation last year trying to nullify a decades-old federal ban on silencers. And a new law in New Hampshire is meant to stop state law enforcement agencies from cooperating with federal agencies to enforce federal firearms laws that do not match New Hampshire’s.

“It’s the biggest problem we’re facing now,” said Sean Holihan, the state legislative director at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “If most of the Northeast, parts of the Midwest and all of the West Coast want to pass good gun-safety legislation, that doesn’t mean someone in Chicago can’t go to basically any state that borders his and buy a gun.” [Links in the original.]

Even more ominous are these state-level developments since the court overturned Roe v. Wade:

As conservative states move to bar gender transition therapies for people under 18, California’s Legislature is considering a bill that would void any subpoena seeking information about people traveling to the state for such care. But Alabama’s attorney general, invoking the Supreme Court’s reasoning in its abortion decision, said this week that federal courts must allow the state’s ban on gender-transition care to take effect.

None of this means, of course, we’re headed for another civil war today. Nor are we likely to see any states actually secede from the union (although GOP platforms in Texas call for it from time to time and downstate firebrands in Illinois claim they want to secede from the state or, in the alternative, somehow get rid of Chicago). Nor are our courts likely to uphold bounty hunters from Texas or Oklahoma tracking down fugitive women (although something along the lines of a new underground railroad isn’t outside the realm of possibility). Our divisions today don’t sort out neatly along state lines. Says Weisman:

Jake Grumbach, a University of Washington political scientist who began studying the fragmentation of the nation more than a decade ago, said America was living through a “hyper-drive of state-based dissolution,” but he cautioned against looking regionally, instead locating the fault line between cities and their suburbs on one side and rural areas on the other. A voter in Milwaukee and one in rural Wisconsin, he said, are as different ideologically as one in Oklahoma and one in New York City.

Well, we’ve been there before. And it doesn’t augur well for the future.

During the Civil War, East Tennesseans who supported the Confederacy tended to live in town or in rich bottom land near the rivers and the railroads connecting Knoxville and Chattanooga to Virginia and Georgia. (I hadn’t focused till now on just how important the railroad was, but Meredith Anne Grant’s master’s thesis “Internal Dissent: East Tennessee’s Civil War, 1849-1865” makes a convincing case. Railroads tied the region into the wider Southern economy.) Subsistence farmers living up on the creeks and hollows were more likely to support the Union, and when the war came, much of the region devolved into a form of guerrilla warfare known as bushwhacking. None of it, in my opinion, makes a happy precedent for us today.

It’s hard to tell where the current divisions will end, especially now that the Supreme Court has issued the most divisive raft of opinions since Chief Justice Taney handed down Dred Scott v. Sandford in 1857. Ron Brownstein of The Atlantic, in an article posted to the internet the same day the abortion decision was handed down, guesses at best we’re headed for something that looks like the Jim Crow South before Brown v. School Board and the Civil Rights Act of 1965. (That’s the South I grew up in, and I tend to agree.) But Brownstein worries about the similarities he sees with the expansionist tenor of Southern rhetoric of the 1850s:

Through the courts (the 1857 Dred Scott decision) and in Congress (the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854), its principal aim was to authorize the expansion of slavery into more territories and states. Rather than just protecting slavery within their borders, the Southern states sought to control federal policy to impose their vision across more of the nation, including, potentially, to the point of overriding the prohibitions against slavery in the free states.

Brownstein’s headline says it all: “America Is Growing Apart, Possibly for Good.” He believes things could go either way, but he notes that “[s]ome red-state Republicans are even distantly echoing [John C.] Calhoun in promising to nullify — that is, defy– federal laws with which they disagree.” He isn’t unduly optimistic.

Nor am I.


Ron Brownstein, “America is Growing Apart, Possibly for Good,” The Atlantic, June 24, 2022 https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2022/06/red-and-blue-state-divide-is-growing-michael-podhorzer-newsletter/661377/.

Meredith Anne Grant, Internal Dissent: East Tennessee’s Civil War, 1849-1865, MA thesis, East Tennessee State University, Johnson City, 2008 https://dc.etsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3314&context=etd.

“House History,” Ronald McDonald House Charities of Knoxville https://knoxrmhc.org/about-us/house-history/.

Paula Kamen, “Creating a Haven State,” Chicago, June 27, 2022 https://www.chicagomag.com/chicago-magazine/creating-a-haven-state/.

Edward McClelland, “If Downstate Illinois Seceded,” Chicago, Oct. 15, 2020 https://www.chicagomag.com/news/october-2020/illinois-secession/.

Amy McRary, “East Tennessee’s Civil War: Pro-Union with divided loyalties,” Knoxville News-Sentinel, Aug. 26, 2017 https://www.knoxnews.com/story/news/2017/08/26/east-tennessee-civil-war-pro-union-divided/599123001/.

“The Monument to the 79th New York Highlanders at Fort Sanders,” Major William A. McTeer Camp No. 39, Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, Maryville, Tenn. https://mcteer39.wordpress.com/preserving-history/the-monument-to-the-79th-new-york-highlanders-at-fort-sanders/.

Texas Tribune, “No, Texas Can’t Legally Secede From The U.S., Despite Popular Myth,” Governing, June 26, 2022 https://www.governing.com/now/no-texas-cant-legally-secede-from-the-u-s-despite-popular-myth.

Jonathan Weisman, “Spurred by the Supreme Court, a Nation Divides Along a Red-Blue Axis,” New York Times, July 2, 2022 https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/02/us/politics/us-divided-political-party.html.

Wikipedia articles on the Battle of Fort Sanders, John C. Calhoun, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Knoxville campaign, Nullification and Dred Scott v. Sandford.

Ben Zimmer, “Thinking about Tim Russert, Red States and Blue States,” Visual Thesaurus, June 17, 2008 https://www.visualthesaurus.com/cm/wordroutes/thinking-about-tim-russert-red-states-and-blue-states/.

[Published July 4, 2022]

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