These conflicting interpretations are understandable. What seems incomprehensible is how the painting was branded a Confederate victory when brought to Atlanta. Surely, at the turn of the twentieth century, with many Civil War veterans still alive, no one could argue that the Confederacy had won the battle. Jones listened patiently as I became ever more incredulous that Southerners could deny a Union victory they themselves had witnessed. In response, he politely mentioned the controversy surrounding the integrity of the recent presidential election, then offered a quote from Bertolt Brecht: “Don’t yet rejoice in his defeat, you men! Although the world stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.”
As we spoke, a middle-aged woman approached us. “I’m so sorry to interrupt,” she said. “Could you point out where Clark Gable is?” Jones gestured beneath us, to a gaggle of mannequins on the far side. The woman thanked him, leaned over the railing to snap a photograph, and left.
“Clark Gable?” I asked.
As part of the 1939 Atlanta premiere of Gone with the Wind, Gable had visited the cyclorama. Asked what he thought, he said he could find only one flaw: that he didn’t appear in it. So the citizens of Atlanta accommodated him; once again, they reimagined their history, and a mannequin of Gable was added to the floor. Jones pointed out a certain dead Union soldier, with a bloody wound painted in gauzy red on his stomach. There he was, mouth agape and vacant eyes cast skyward, debonair even in death, with that distinctive pencil-thin mustache—Clark Gable, another casualty in the Battle of Atlanta.
Aside from a few roadside markers, little now distinguishes the actual site of the battle. The city’s expansion consumed the old Confederate fortifications. Developers have long since excavated the ravaged fields crossed by William Tecumseh Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee. The lack of physical traces makes it that much easier to shift perspective. I thought of the Syrian civil war, which I covered for several years. Once, when discussing events with a member of the Syrian opposition who had stood against the Assad regime in the early days of the Arab Spring, I made the mistake of referring to the “civil war in Syria.” The offense he took was immediate and sharp. “What is happening in my country is not a civil war,” he snapped. “This is a revolution.” Some weeks later, having overlearned this lesson, I made the mistake of referring to the “revolution in Syria” when speaking to a former government official sympathetic to the Assad regime, who made an equally terse objection: “There is no revolution inside of Syria. This is a civil war.”
America has been a revolutionary society from birth. The continuing right to revolution is written into the Declaration of Independence:
Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.
It was this right to revolution that Southern leaders evoked in the lead-up to secession—an act they cast as faithful to the country’s true nature. The difference between a revolution and a civil war is a matter of perspective and, ultimately, of who wins. Had the Confederacy won, it would not be called the Civil War. Likely, it would be remembered as the War of Southern Independence, or the Second American Revolution, an interpretation favored by many Southerners, including the Confederate president Jefferson Davis, who often evoked the Founders (his 1862 inauguration was held in front of a statue of George Washington, on Washington’s birthday). A refusal to accept the victor’s characterization of the war extended into Reconstruction and is central to Lost Cause mythmaking. Some Southerners call the conflict the War of Northern Aggression, the War Between the States, or anything other than the Civil War. Ultimately, the revolutionaries lost, the counterrevolutionaries won, and so it is the Civil War. These semantic games aren’t simply a relic of the past. Recent unrest, and the hotly debated differences between a “riot,” a “protest,” a “mostly peaceful protest” and an “insurrection,” demonstrate the power certain words hold to legitimize (or swiftly delegitimize) certain types of political behavior.
At Jones’s recommendation, I had lunch at Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q on DeKalb Avenue, which sits along the railroad tracks entering the city from the east, a site hotly contested during the war. On the drive to Fox Bros., campaign signs shifted like battle lines, one neighborhood a ceaseless advance of Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue signs, stalled only when confronted by another neighborhood’s wall of Warnock and Ossoff signs. A few weeks later, when the Senate results came in, it was DeKalb County that delivered the deciding votes for both Democratic candidates.
While I was sitting in my booth, a hauntingly familiar scene began to play out in the street. A pair of police cruisers rushed up and parked on the shoulder, their lights turning silent orbits. A crowd promptly formed in the parking lot and spilled onto the sidewalk. I couldn’t see much except people holding up their phones. Inside the restaurant, patrons moved to the windows to get a better look. Their concerned expressions mirrored my own, collectively anticipating a set of events that have become all too common.
Soon I was outside, standing at the back of the thickening crowd. For a moment, it seemed possible that the election and the country’s future could hinge on how the police handled this situation and the crowd. The officers, with outstretched arms, insisted that everybody step back. People raised their cameras higher. Many of them ignored the officers and pressed forward. Then a caravan of black SUVs whipped by. Everyone craned their necks and crushed against one another. They all wanted the same thing: a glimpse of the president-elect, in town for his campaign event.
At a get-out-the-vote rally that afternoon, Biden spoke about Georgia’s future and that of the nation, and railed against Trump and Texas, which had challenged the results of the presidential election in the Supreme Court. “The only thing that can tear America apart,” he declared, “is America itself.” The words harked back to Lincoln, who said, “If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide.”
The following day, I visited the site of one such suicide pact, the Old Governor’s Mansion in Milledgeville, the Civil War–era capital of Georgia. It was here that the state’s leadership deliberated over whether to throw in their lot with the Confederacy. The mansion, built in a Greek Revival style, boasts a portico sustained by four Ionic columns, a gold-inlaid rotunda, and living quarters spread across two ample levels. But when I met Matt Davis, the curator in charge, he took me in not through the front door but through the basement. “This is the workroom,” he said as the door creaked open on brass hinges into a cavernous room with a sturdy wooden table at its center. “At any given time, between four and seventeen slaves lived on the mansion grounds.”
Georgia, like the nation, was founded on contradictions. James Oglethorpe, who settled the colony in 1733 under a charter issued by King George II, envisioned an agrarian society worked by freemen, and explicitly banned slavery. That ban was short-lived. By 1750, Georgia’s burgeoning plantation class had overturned Oglethorpe’s restrictions. A century later, the idea of returning to a slave-free Georgia proved incomprehensible to the state’s leaders. “Slavery,” Davis observed, “was the last unfired shot of the American Revolution.”
At the end of the Mexican-American War, in 1848, power between free and slave states was delicately balanced. Of the thirty states in the Union, fifteen allowed slavery and fifteen did not. Each side feared becoming a minority. Westward expansion and the admission of new states into the Union threatened to undermine the balance. After settlers discovered gold in California that year, the federal government, eager to secure this wealth as a source of tax revenue, rushed the territory into the Union as a free state. The resulting tilt spiraled the country into the series of crises and ill-fated compromises that led to the Civil War a decade later.
“Neither side thought it would come to a shooting war,” Davis explained. “Ultimately, the nation came to divide over a single issue, and single issues kill.” He led me through a door separating the sparsely appointed workroom from an opulent state dining room. The long table was set for Christmas dinner, with a candelabra, fine china, crystal goblets, and seating for nearly twenty guests. A plush carpet of geometric design ran wall to wall, and affixed to each chairback was a red ribbon and a sprig of holly. Davis pointed toward the back of the property—the site of the slave quarters. Then he opened and closed the door behind us that led to the workroom. “See this side?” he asked, pointing to the glossy mahogany that faced the state dining room. “Now look at this side,” he said, showing me the other. It was painted a dull tan. “Slavery permeated every aspect of the South.”
In this dining room, Davis explained, slaves shuttled in and out as leaders at the governor’s table conspired about the future of slavery. The scope of Southern blindness and complicity is humbling. If you believe that human nature remains consistent through the ages, and that humanity retains an inherited capacity for evil, the experience of standing in that dining room can only cause you to wonder what our blind spots are today, what societal sins we refuse to see (or willfully ignore), and how, generations from now, we might be judged for them.
Upstairs, in a smaller family dining room, portraits of the leading men of Georgia’s antebellum past hung on the walls. Above the sofa was a brooding likeness of Howell Cobb. When war broke out, Cobb was serving as U.S. secretary of the treasury. Despite speculation that his career would culminate in the Oval Office, it ended instead with the founding of the Confederacy. He was, at first, a staunch Constitutional Unionist, believing that the Union should remain intact but that the Constitution afforded states the right to determine whether to allow slavery.
For many such pro-slavery “moderates” in the lead-up to war, secession wasn’t so much a goal as a tactic, a threat that Southerners brandished to strengthen their hand in negotiations with the North. Radicals on either side of the aisle staked out ever more extreme positions while moderates attempted to rein them in, until the chasm between the sides gaped too wide to bridge.
“People took counsel of their fears,” explained Davis. When, in response to Lincoln’s election, South Carolina left the Union on December 20, 1860, secession became a binary choice, and, without a center to stand on, increasingly radicalized Constitutional Unionists such as Cobb became staunch Confederates. “Could the Civil War have been avoided? Perhaps,” said Davis. “A negotiated settlement could’ve placed a sunset date on slavery. But emotion is key to understanding the war. To Southerners, their belief structure was their way of life, it was their sense of home, and it taught that slavery wasn’t wrong. Now an outsider is going to come change all of that? Is going to change their sense of home? Secession is an emotional decision, not a rational one.”
Rational is certainly not a word one would use to describe the events of January 6: the riot at the Capitol didn’t make a lot of sense. Its participants descended on Washington from around the country by chartered bus, car, and private jet. They included a hodgepodge of far-right militia groups—Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, Three Percenters—as well as individual citizens blitzed out on QAnon prophecies or lured by the thrill of action. Trumpist members of Congress had in the preceding days hailed a “1776 moment”; on January 6, one man paraded a Confederate battle flag inside the Capitol as part of an insurrection that was—ostensibly—in defense of American democracy. Mixing with clearly seditious symbols (camp auschwitz T-shirts and neo-Nazi hand gestures) were other, traditionally patriotic symbols of the American Revolution, which radicals on the right have appropriated, such as the Betsy Ross and Gadsden flags. There seemed to be little overall plan beyond disruption; it felt less like a political act than a tantrum. This isn’t to diminish its importance—quite the contrary. Political significance doesn’t require political coherence.
Underscoring the emotions that drove secession, Davis noted that seven of the eleven Confederate states had left the Union before Lincoln even took office, in March 1861, out of fear of what he might do, not what he had done. When I mentioned the idea that a conflict is remembered as a civil war or a revolution according to the winner’s preference, he wasn’t so sure that our Civil War fit that framework. “By the end of the war,” he said, “both sides are beaten. The South obviously fails in its bid to secede. But the North is beaten, too. It doesn’t fully change the Southern way of life.”
Davis was more optimistic about our current situation. “One of the great advantages we hold today is that there isn’t a single issue like slavery dividing the nation.” On this point, I supposed he was correct. It’s hard to think of one single issue that divides us, as much as a miasma of different attitudes and opinions. Our electoral system tends to stifle new parties, encouraging a perpetual two-way division, but there have been signs of nascent alliances on individual issues, such as tech regulation and criminal-justice reform. Could these narrow areas of cooperation be enough to prevent the destructive catharsis of the nineteenth century from recurring?
As if to emphasize the cost of division, Davis pointed out a small framed portrait on an end table as we wandered out of the parlor. When compared with the large oil paintings of Georgia’s leading men, it was almost unnoticeable, but he wanted to make sure I saw it: a portrait of Sherman, dressed for campaigning, much as he was in the weeks after he burned Atlanta to the ground. This room had been his headquarters for a single night during his March to the Sea, in which he’d made “Georgia howl.”
The Cobb family is memorialized across Georgia, with buildings, roads, convention centers, and the state’s third-most-populous county still bearing the name. The Confederate Constitution is in the handwriting of Thomas Reade Rootes Cobb, Howell’s brother. In Athens, T.R.R. Cobb’s antebellum mansion sits in the shade of a leafy intersection. Like the Old Governor’s Mansion in Milledgeville, the renovated manor has a columned facade in the Greek Revival style. Most striking, however, is its color: seashell pink.
Sam Thomas, the curator of the T.R.R. Cobb House, met me on the front porch. When I asked him about the décor, he was quick to note that when a renovation began in 2006, skeptics thought it improbable that a man like Cobb—a deeply religious, well-regarded conservative lawyer—would have painted his house so gaudily. But Thomas had the records, and the house had indeed been pink. “Colors,” Thomas observed, “had different meanings back then. Such a bright shade would have been quite expensive to paint and maintain. It was a signal of Cobb’s prosperity and success.”
In the decade leading up to the Civil War, T.R.R. Cobb had established himself as one of the most prominent legal minds in the nation. Then as now, the legal profession produced skilled apologists, and Cobb’s 1858 treatise An Inquiry into the Law of Negro Slavery in the United States of America codified pro-slavery legal theory and was quoted no fewer than twenty-seven times in state and federal courts. Unlike his older brother, T.R.R. Cobb was not a career politician, but he soon found himself assigned to the judiciary committee that drew up the Confederate Constitution, a task he undertook largely on his own. Much of the document is a word-for-word copy of the U.S. Constitution, with the most notable departure being the enshrinement of slavery: “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.”
When Thomas underscored the centrality of slavery, I mentioned my discussion with Matt Davis at the Old Governor’s Mansion, and his conclusion that the polarity in America’s political life represents less of a threat today than in Cobb’s time because there isn’t such a singular issue dividing us. Thomas granted that interpretation, but added an observation of his own: “It depends on the perspective being taken on slavery.” Thomas said that, yes, a certain type of Northern abolitionist objected to slavery primarily on moral grounds, but this wasn’t the central concern for many others. The broader argument to abolish slavery was often a product of the same racism that sustained it. Free states had few black residents. When contemplating westward expansion, many whites didn’t want to live alongside blacks. And they knew their free labor couldn’t compete in an economy that included slave labor. “Slavery exists in our present consciousness as predominately a moral issue,” said Thomas. “That wasn’t so much the case in the 1800s. For people living then, it wasn’t the morality around slavery that enticed them to civil war; it was the economics.”
Slavery as an economic concern has become a popular topic among historians, with works such as Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton mapping the intersection of the slave system, industrialization, and international relations. If it’s true that slavery was not a unique moral issue but part of America’s broader economic dysfunction, it doesn’t bode well for us. The divisions between red and blue on everything from the climate and energy to immigration, race, and gender dovetail with deep anxieties born of an economy that no longer works for most Americans. The financial interests of the relatively small class of slaveholders were the wedge that cracked the whole country. Today, the pandemic has widened the gap between the comfortable and everyone else—to say nothing of the exhaustion, desperation, and disillusion with government it has brought, which are potent fuels for conflict.
As I followed Thomas deeper inside the mansion, I asked how it was that T.R.R. Cobb came to write the Confederate Constitution alone. One of the two other committee members, he explained, had a tendency toward drink, so he was of little use; as for the other committee member, Cobb released him to care for a sick child at home, a situation to which Cobb was sympathetic. In 1858, the year he published his treatise on slavery, his eldest daughter, Lucy, died at thirteen of scarlet fever. Cobb would mourn the loss until his death four years later, at the Battle of Fredericksburg.
We soon arrived at a side parlor, where a posthumous portrait of Lucy hung above the mantle. It is rife with symbolism. By her side, a black dog with a white tuft of hair on its chest stands vigil. Folklore held that dogs were the only creatures that could cross back and forth between the living world and the world of the dead. In Lucy’s hand is a book, and it was well known that she and her father had loved to read together. She also holds a hat with a blue ribbon and wears a pink dress. Thomas pointed out that the color of the dress would have caught the attention of visitors, immediately signaling to them that the Cobbs had lost a child. “Pink,” he explained, “wasn’t then a color associated with femininity, as it is today. It was considered either a masculine color or a color for mourning. Pink was the color of war and the color of blood.”
I leaned forward, taking a closer look. The portrait of Lucy, her loyal dog, and the little book she carried was striking, so much so that I didn’t initially notice the setting. Lucy is standing on the lawn of this very house, which is also pink, the color of mourning, the color of blood, but also the color T.R.R. Cobb had selected to signal his wealth.
A recent poll conducted by Ipsos showed that only 12 percent of Americans consider the country “unified” and concluded that “political party identification has become the chief dividing line in this new American ethos.” Meanwhile, Ray McClendon, the chair of the Atlanta NAACP’s political action committee and a veteran community activist, told me, “The electorate is changing. We have allowed a minority to build an impenetrable wall to protect their power. The more that a minority can be in power by making sure they redistrict in a way to keep power, the more frustrated the majority becomes when they don’t see the fruits of their labor. It drives us toward tribalism. And then we don’t have the ability to compromise.”
Although today’s geographic divisions are not quite as stark as the divisions between free and slave states in the nineteenth century, geography matters less in our atomized and hyperconnected society. This year we’ve seen how activists, and even insurrectionists, are able to organize and surge anywhere from coast to coast. The storming of the Capitol will likely prove the high-water mark of Trump’s demagoguery, but it seems unlikely to spell the end of a sensational, bare-knuckle politics that has captured the American psyche. Incoming Republicans in Congress included Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who basked in the attention she got for promoting QAnon delusions. In his inaugural address, Biden pleaded for “unity” as hard-line Republicans scoffed; the same day, black-clad protesters smashed a Democratic Party office in Oregon, carrying a banner that read we don’t want biden—we want revenge! Such groups remain a minority, but they reflect a fog of bitterness that grew thick under Trump. While Republicans organize for electoral gains in 2022, Democratic officeholders may have limited patience for Biden’s glad-handing moderation. Many are calling for the abolition of the Electoral College and the Senate filibuster. In Biden’s first week in office, the leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus warned him about pursuing “compromise for compromise’s sake.”
If the Trump Administration proved one thing, it’s that laws don’t enforce themselves. Our political system is sustained by a constant succession of individual choices. As partisan identity begins to outweigh civic identity, Republican leaders might determine that it’s good politics to openly defy the implementation of Biden’s agenda, much as sheriffs in some counties have refused to enforce mask mandates. Would Democratic leaders follow suit? Would they defy rulings passed down by a conservative Supreme Court? And while a full reprise of the Civil War is unlikely, it’s easy to imagine more militia-style plots like the attempted kidnapping last year of the Michigan governor, encouraged by rhetoric that casts opponents as illegitimate and even inhuman, or the establishment of more autonomous zones like the one in Seattle last summer, which also featured gun-toting radicals.
“To heal,” McClendon told me, “it’s going to take people talking to each other to get things done. The only way that’s going to happen is when both sides see they have something to lose.” But what if that doesn’t happen? I asked. The upheaval we’re seeing across the country is profound. It doesn’t have to yield more violence. A civil war, by definition, is violent, but often a revolution is not. Both parties have a history of passing major, even revolutionary legislation—on infrastructure (the Federal Highway Act of 1956), on civil rights (the Civil Rights Act of 1964), on the environment (the Endangered Species Act of 1973)—with the majority of the other party supporting the legislation. That was how the government used to deliver for the American people. Could we get back to that?
“Maybe,” McClendon said when I put the idea to him. Yet he was far from certain that we could avoid the violent mistakes we’ve made before. “Everything has always been predicated on people keeping their wealth. Slavery and economics were once one and the same through the South. It’s no different today. Why is it that the people who have benefited the most from America are afraid of sharing in that ideal on an equitable basis? Other than they know that they are not going to have preferential treatment in that construct? What are all these people trying to get back to?”
I didn’t have an answer, and I don’t imagine he had one either. For a moment the phone line went silent. Then he asked, “Do you know what the most interesting word is in ‘Make America Great Again’?”
I confessed that I didn’t.
When Inauguration Day arrived, it was with unprecedented security. I live six blocks from the Capitol, and the layers of fortification—ten-foot-high steel gates topped with razor wire, concrete Jersey barriers, police officers and National Guard members—made it difficult to believe that we were witnessing a peaceful transfer of power. As I walked out my front door, I wasn’t searching for an answer as to whether this was an antebellum moment so much as an assurance. I wanted to see whether I could get close enough to the Capitol to hear the new president’s speech. Part of me was thinking that if, despite our dysfunction, a citizen could still approach the seat of government and listen to the inauguration with his own ears—not broadcast by some intermediary—then we’d be okay. Perhaps that sounds sentimental, or even like magical thinking, but as I passed out-of-state National Guard members posted two to every corner, it felt consequential.
I made it within four blocks of the Capitol before soldiers at a checkpoint turned me away. The streets were deserted. I looped behind the Library of Congress and tried to get onto Independence Avenue, but it was blocked by military vehicles. I wandered even farther, toward I-695. Eventually, I walked down D Street until it intersected with New Jersey Avenue. By now I was half a mile away and able to glimpse only the top of the dome. Soldiers and police officers stood shoulder to shoulder behind the barricades, armed with assault rifles, batons, and riot shields.
I checked my watch: it was a little after eleven o’clock. The speeches were going to start soon, but I couldn’t hear, let alone see, a thing. In ones and twos, people had begun to congregate quietly at this intersection, which was about as close as you could get to the Capitol. I was about to give up and head home. But then I heard something. It was a muffled voice, and from its cadence I could tell it was someone giving a speech, but I was much too far from the Capitol to hear the proceedings. Then I saw that behind me an elderly woman had taken out her phone. She was listening to a livestream of the ceremony. The crowd around us was thickening, and more people took out their phones. There was little else any of us could do. So in the end, we stood there, in the cold and among strangers, choosing to listen together.
Elliot Ackerman is the author, most recently, of the novel 2034, co-written with Admiral James Stavridis, which was published in March by Penguin Press.