Lessons from the Civil War

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Lessons from the Civil War

Carey Latimore, assistant professor of history, reflects on the meaning of America’s Watershed Event

By Russell Guerrero '83


Carey Latimore

May 2011 - As America marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War this year, discussions, some of them heated, have renewed over the causes of the conflict and the lessons to be learned from this defining moment in the nation's history. Assistant Professor of History Carey Latimore IV, who specializes on antebellum life, welcomes the conversations.

Latimore has an abiding love of history which he says comes from being a native Virginian, where the past is never really the past. "Growing up, the Civil War was the war we always heard about," he said.

His personal history is also tied to the War Between the States as he is the descendant of both free blacks and slaves. One of his motivations for studying American history is to help understand his own past and his identity as an African American from the South.

While Latimore believes it is good to ponder the roots of the Civil War, he warns that a fundamental truth has to be acknowledged: the primary reason for the war was slavery.

Earlier this year, Virginia's governor received criticism from around the nation for issuing a proclamation declaring April to be Confederate History Month in his state and neglecting to mention slavery. The outcry eventually led the governor to revise his statement.

Some have argued that the cause of the war had more to do with states' rights and that most whites in the South did not own slaves. However, Latimore points out that the strongest part of the South's economy was tied to slavery. "Nobody who lived in the South was unaffected by slavery. It was tied to the food you bought, the produce you sold, and the labor you used. It was all predicated by slavery in some way, shape, or form," said Latimore. Studies also have shown support for the Confederacy was the strongest in areas which had the highest concentration of slaves.

The Civil War's outcome had a deep effect on the United States with changes still resonating 150 years later. Four million slaves became U.S. citizens and federal powers, especially over issues of race, rights, and equal protection under the law, were expanded.

As for the lessons learned, Latimore says that the war is important to understand the relationship between blacks and whites. "We have to see that the black experience and the white experience are intertwined. You can't study one without the other."

Latimore said the relationship is much more complicated than most believe. He said that in the aftermath of the war, "understandings" developed between races that were not explicitly talked about.

For example, Latimore said that his family had contact with white relatives who sometimes visited his home in the evening to talk about family matters. When his grandfather passed away, several white relatives attended his funeral to pay their respects, with the tacit approval from Latimore's family.

Latimore also warns about over-romanticizing the past. "You will not understand it correctly and will draw the wrong lessons. You will not have a clear understanding of the challenges of the past and that will hinder you as you proceed into the future," he said.

History is not the only passion in Latimore's life. He is also an associate minister at Mount Zion First Baptist Church in San Antonio. As a clergyman, Latimore is very connected not only to the congregation of Mount Zion but also to the community in general. Last year he organized a youth forum with San Antonio city councilmember Ivy Taylor.

"It hasn't always been easy to combine roles as a minister and a professor. I wasn't always sure I could do both," said Latimore. "But here I have the best of both worlds."

In May, Latimore will bring his pastoral talents to Spring Commencement. He will lead the Baccalaureate Vespers and deliver the invocation and benediction at the graduate and undergraduate ceremonies in place of University Chaplain Stephen Nickle, who will be attending the graduation of one of his own family members.

Courses Taught

  • The Old South
  • Free Blacks in America
  • Black Images in Film
  • American History Seminar: Civil War

Selected Publications

"A Step Closer to Slavery? Free African Americans: Industrialization, Social Control, and Residency in Richmond City 1850-1860," Slavery and Abolition. Accepted for publication in 2012.

"Young Black Men, Where do we go from Here?" African-American Reflections, June 2, 2010.

Review of "Slavery on Trial: Race, Class and Criminal Justice in Antebellum Richmond, Virginia, by James P. Campbell, Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 1887, no. 3, 2010.

Review of "What Shall We Do with the Negro?: Lincoln, White Racism, and Civil War America," by Paul D. Escott, Journal of Southern History, vol. 76, 2010.

"Surviving War and the Underground: Richmond Free Blacks and Criminal Networks During the Civil War," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 117, No. 1, 2009.