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The chorus and lyrics of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” kept rattling around in my head this week. I’m not sure if it was the Fox News Christmas tree on fire, or refereeing a fight between my daughters, watching the raucous ending to an epic season of Formula 1 racing, teaching about the Civil War, or reflecting on the mystery of Advent. Likely, it was all of the above.

On April 13, 1861, the Fremont Journal reported:
“the treason which has so long been rife at Charleston, has at last culminated in WAR! The rebels will now be treated in a different manner than they anticipated. They have brought down vengeance on their heads. The country waits with breathless anxiety to know the results of this attack. We believe the Government is sufficient for the emergency.”

And on April 13, 1861, the Richmond Dispatch reported:
“it will be seen that, under the military compulsion of the immense fleet and army which the Black Republican President has sent to subjugate Charleston, the Carolina forces have been forced, in self-defence, to attempt the reduction of that fort which so long has menaced their homes and firesides, and which LINCOLN had formally notified them he was about to supply with provisions….The war thus inaugurated by the Executive representative of the irrepressible conflict, South Carolina and the Confederate States have sought, by every honorable means, to avoid.”

For the United States at the precipice of Civil War, it is easy to see the finger pointing about who actually started the Civil War. A newspaper in Fremont, Ohio cites South Carolina as “rebels” and used the term “treason” to describe the “attack” on Fort Sumter which would result in “vengeance” that they “brought down…on their heads.” The Richmond, VA newspaper, however, called out the recently elected (but not yet inaugurated) president-elect Lincoln as a “Black Republican,” saw Fort Sumter as a fort that “menaced their homes and firesides” and claimed Lincoln started this “irrepressible conflict” that the Confederate states “sought, by every honorable means, to avoid.” The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the middle. But both sides of the conflict claimed to be attacked by the other side and both sides claimed to be without fault.

And yet, though 160 years have passed, I can still find Americans who easily fall into the same divisions when discussing the Civil War. The War of Northern Aggression? The rebellion of the racist south? People tell me that winners write history, but I have found that the South, the Confederacy, and the Lost Cause have spent an enormous amount of time, energy, and ink on their side of the story. It’s 2021 and we are still talking about statues of Confederate Generals and slave owners. We’re still figuring out the legacy of race and slavery in our country. And we are still discussing the power of the federal government and the power of individual states in our union.

The Richmond Dispatch claimed the conflict to be “irrepressible” and yet entirely started by the North. Why does it matter who started the conflict, if the conflict was inevitable? And yet it does seem to matter. For Billy Joel, the fires will keep burning, and they’ll go on and on and on. And for human history, that will also be true.

But in this Advent season, I’m grateful for a God that started it. We burned it all down (again, and again), and will continue to do so, and yet God became incarnate and redeemed this burning mess.

Bombardment of Fort Sumter, April 12-13, 1861; Library of Congress (Currier and Ives)

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.


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