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America’s divides have never been simple. Neither was Pennsylvania’s Civil War history. | Opinion

Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, like other Northern states, were not innocent of profiting from slavery.

This photograph of a Confederate veteran in United Confederate Veterans shaking hands with a Union veteran at a 1913 reunion of the Battle of Gettysburg is called "All enmity forgotten," spreading a message of postwar unity that's just one of many false narratives spread about the Civil War. A black-and-white cultural divide between north and south is another.
This photograph of a Confederate veteran in United Confederate Veterans shaking hands with a Union veteran at a 1913 reunion of the Battle of Gettysburg is called "All enmity forgotten," spreading a message of postwar unity that's just one of many false narratives spread about the Civil War. A black-and-white cultural divide between north and south is another.Read moreLibrary of Congress

Clement L. Vallandigham’s name is probably not well-known to most Pennsylvanians, but in the 1850s and 1860s, he was a celebrity-politician with close ties to the state. Elected to represent Ohio in Congress, Vallandigham was a Confederate sympathizer who empathized with Southern slave owners. In an 1855 speech, he called abolitionists “zealots” and “traitors.” He led raucous rallies in Northern cities demanding peace with the South, denouncing the U.S. government as a tyrant, and mobilizing what he termed to be patriotic resistance to President Lincoln’s unconstitutional actions. Vallandigham was a son of the North: His father was born in Pennsylvania, and Vallandigham attended Jefferson College — today Washington & Jefferson College in Western Pennsylvania.

With Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and Quaker traditions, it is an attractive narrative that Pennsylvania has always been on the “right side of history.” But a fuller accounting of the past always paints a more complicated picture.

Quakers participated in the slave trade. William Penn owned slaves throughout his life. Early Pennsylvania Assemblies rejected the idea of freeing enslaved laborers. Benjamin Franklin disparaged German immigrants, and worried they would degrade the Anglican character of the colony. Anti-Catholic rioters in Philadelphia beat, shot, and stabbed Irish immigrants in 1844. In 1854, a nativist candidate won a House seat in Pennsylvania’s Fourth District. That same year, a Southern newspaper reported there were 13,000 “Know-Nothings” in Philadelphia — a secret society unified around hatred of immigrants and, often, African Americans.

Philadelphia, and Pennsylvania more broadly, was not unique in this regard. Such sentiments were common in Northern cities. New York City in particular — which just last month unveiled artist Kehinde Wiley’s revised Civil War monument in Times Square — had strong commercial ties to the South, as did Philadelphia. Equipment for Southern plantations was forged in Northern commercial centers; insurance companies out of New York, Philadelphia, and other cities insured ships that brought cotton, tobacco, and other goods from the South to trading partners in the North and overseas. Northern investors poured huge amounts of money into the plantation economy. In cities such as Philadelphia, industrialists and merchants had tremendous fortunes to be lost if the South seceded permanently or if the plantation economy, built on the back of slavery, crumbled.

The point is not to condemn Philadelphia or Pennsylvania. The point is to state that the past is always more complex than we anticipate. It can also be contradictory. Simultaneous to these histories, both Philadelphia and Pennsylvania have a rich history of abolitionism, including Quaker activists; opponents of slavery like Anthony Benezet and William Still; the Pennsylvania Abolition Society; the women of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society; and the more than 300,000 men who fought in the Union army first to suppress the Southern rebellion, then to preserve the Union and eradicate slavery in the U.S. once and for all. Historians have labored tirelessly to preserve these stories via scholarship, museum exhibits, National Park interpretations, and in schools. Many preeminent Civil War historians reside in Pennsylvania, including three who will speak on “Revising the Civil War” at Villanova University’s Lepage Center on Wednesday night: Rachel Shelden, Jill Ogline Titus, and Judith Giesberg.

The Civil War was brutal. The rhetoric was as violent as the battlefield — bitter and abusive attacks by Americans against each other, accusing either side of insurrection, despotism, aggression, disloyalty, and sin. It ended, finally, with the abolition of slavery and acknowledgment that keeping human beings in bondage contradicted the fundamental belief that all men and women are created equal.

How we as a nation have attempted to heal from this awful conflict is a story that is still unfolding. Revising our understanding of what the war meant to the people who lived it, and how it has shaped America today, is part of our cultural heritage.

For some, the argument has been to portray the Confederacy as victims of Northern aggression, a valiant and scrappy set of underdogs who fought for their way of life, even if ultimately to fall to a more powerful force. This is colloquially known as “The Lost Cause,” and it is largely mythical. For contemporary historians, the argument has been to demonstrate that the Confederacy was inherently unjust, its wealth and foundations dependent upon a racial hierarchy that included profound abuses of human rights and human dignity.

It may be tempting to believe these competing “revisionist histories” fit neatly into North vs. South geographies. But in Pennsylvania today, one can still find remnants of the Confederacy, be it Confederate flags outside people’s homes, or sites that mark Confederate presence on Pennsylvanian soil. In McConnellsburg, out toward where Clement Vallandigham attended college, there lies a marker for the last Confederate camp north of the Mason-Dixon Line. It was dedicated by the Pittsburgh chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1930, during a period when Confederate monuments and markers were erected nationwide.

Twenty years earlier, the site was already part of town lore. A front-page story from the Fulton County News in McConnellsburg, in December 1910, printed a speech read aloud at a meeting of the Pennsylvania Scotch-Irish Society. It told of a local church site that had served as a crossroads through generations of the American past: a horse trail through the mountains connecting to an Indian trading post; a trail where covered wagons and stagecoaches once passed; a junction for the Philadelphia-Baltimore turnpike; and, in 1864, the spot of “the last camp fires of the confederacy north of the Mason and Dixon line.”

Like the church, the American story is perpetually at a crossroads where the past and present collide. Ninety-five miles north of Center City, a new statue of an African American man posed as a Confederate general — now on display in Times Square — puts that collision on full display. In the statue, the horse points forward while the rider looks behind him. To know where we want to go, we must always understand where we’ve been.

Jason Steinhauer is the director of the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest at Villanova University and senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He will moderate a panel on Revising the Civil War at Villanova on Oct. 30 as part of Lepage’s “Revisionist History” series.