Unable to “raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home,” Virginian Robert E. Lee turned down Abe Lincoln’s offer to command the Union Army in 1861 and prepared to fight against the country he had served so well for three decades.
His decision made sense for many Americans living in the 19th century when “home” trumped “country” and the two words were far from interchangeable. On Saturday at the Schenectady County Historical Society, Union College professor Melinda Lawson will talk about how the Civil War changed those sentiments in the minds of many, creating a new and stronger national identity in the American consciousness.
“There were new conceptions of the nation after the war, and a new understanding of what loyalty to that nation would mean,” said Lawson, whose presentation, “Patriot Fires: Forging a New American Nationalism in the Civil War North,” is based on her doctoral dissertation while at Columbia University and published as a book in 2002.
“We’ve come quite a distance since Robert E. Lee was saying how he had to fight for the Confederacy because Virginia was his nation. How rare that sentiment is today. The nation has assumed a much larger role in our personality identity since the Civil War.”
‘Patriot Fires: Forging a New American Nationalism in the Civil War North’
WHERE: Schenectady County Historical Society, 32 Washington Ave., Schenectady
WHEN: 2 p.m. Saturday
HOW MUCH: $5 for nonmembers; members free
MORE INFO: 374-0263 ext. 3, www.schenectadyhistorical.org
Before the middle of the 19th century, Lawson will argue, most Americans didn’t appreciate their history.
“There was no public relations bureau for the Civil War that set out to define patriotism for people in the North,” she said. “There were no national museums, nothing that said to this young nation, ‘You have this wonderful history that is sacred and meaningful.’ ”
All that began to change for Northerners during the Civil War, according to Lawson, who points out five significant reasons or agents of change during the four-year conflict. One was Jay Cooke, an American banker who helped finance the Union war effort through $500 million in war bonds.
“He was granted exclusive rights to market the nation’s war loan, and he was telling Americans that a nation can be a source of economic well-being much better than a state,” said Lawson.
“He talked about nationalism and patriotism, and he told the people, ‘Let the nation be your bank,’ and it will protect you and help you.”
Other agents included events called “sanitary fairs” and Union Leagues.
“The fairs were held throughout every major northern city between 1863-65 and were designed to raise money for the soldiers, and Union Leagues were essentially gentleman clubs that provided the elite with the opportunity to help out and be patriotic,” said Lawson. “These were all ways for the Union to rally Northern citizens for the war.”
The two remaining agents Lawson talks about are the Abolitionists and the Copperheads.
“If a nation does not represent freedom, then it’s not a nation worth saving, the Abolitionists said, and the Copperheads were interesting because they were objecting to the war because they believed it had moved away from its original meaning, to preserve the union, to a war about emancipation,” said Lawson.
“There is a continuing discussion on what kind of impact the Copperheads really had on the war. Did they really threaten the Union? Were they bordering on treason? Historians today still don’t agree on the goals of the Copperheads. Did they not have the right to make their point, and if they did, did it really do damage to the Union cause?”
Lawson wasn’t always asking these kind of questions.
“I went to school thinking I was going to be an engineer,” said Lawson, who attended Ulster Community College and the University at Albany before heading off to Columbia. “But then I took a history course and I fell in love with it.”
Her next book project will focus on how the North viewed slavery.
“I’m going to look at how Northerners looked at the peculiar institution, and how men like Lincoln and [Republican Congressman] George Julian felt about being ‘dedicated to the proposition that all men are equal,’ ’’ she said. “I’ll be looking at slavery and its representations in the popular culture.”