What Would a Modern Civil War Look Like?
It is no secret that the citizens of our great nation are at odds with one another. Tensions are high, with so much at the front of everyone’s minds; stories of racism and police brutality leading to violence, humans suffering from inequalities, COVID-19, and the election. Everyone fears something, or everything, these days. Given the state of things, is it irritational to become concerned about the possibility of a civil war? Is our country already engaged in a cold war? How do we even begin to prepare ourselves for these situations?
The Merriam-Webster definition of a cold war is a condition of rivalry, mistrust, and often open hostility short of violence or sustained overt military action. Based solely on that definition, it would appear we have crossed into that realm of volatility and threats of military involvement. There are daily news updates reporting of riots, violent protests, innocents being harassed and even losing their lives. No matter your opinion, worldview, or political affiliation, it is hard to deny the malice behind the actions. If we take it a step further, a civil war is simply a war between opposing groups of citizens of the same country. What thrusts a cold war into a civil war? Rebellion? Revolution? How fine is the line separating the two?
In the decades prior to 1861, tensions were rising, not unlike they are today. The primary cause of conflict was slavery, but there were other economic, political, and humanitarian issues at hand as well. It was the combination of such divisive issues which gave rise to the reformation movement that ultimately led to the Civil War. So, what is to keep our current situation from evolving into another war between our own citizens?
Whether you feel this country is on the brink of a new civil war or not, the thought of war is still terrifying. When terrifying thoughts seep into the forefront of our minds and take root, many of us want to handle it by preparing for the worst-case scenario. This does not have to turn us into zombie apocalypse doomsday preppers or artillery-building groundhogs, but it does ease our anxieties to have a plan. How do we plan for a 21st century civil war? We can’t all be Iron Man or Captain America with a posse of superhumans. So, we should probably start by performing a comparative analysis between America at the time of the Civil War and now. Believe it or not, the similarities are striking.
Life before the Civil War was turbulent, to say the least. The country was struggling with low wage, arduous and sometimes dangerous jobs; poverty; race riots; slavery; and controversial land expansion throughout the West. These unsteady, uncertain times gave rise to many positive movements, including temperance, women’s rights, and abolitionism, but at the time, they weren’t always seen as positive. From the start of the nineteenth century, people were angry and restless. There were at least 38 documented incidents of civil unrest in the United States from 1800 to just before the start of the Civil War. The primary cause of these events was the disagreement over the lives of black people and slavery. Other incidents stemmed from conflicts surrounding land, religious beliefs, economics, and politics. Although there were plenty of news-worthy cases of instability, many citizens were facing disputes regularly.
People were being run out of or choosing to leave their neighborhoods, and sometimes their states, because they were being threatened or feeling unwanted or unhappy with the local situations. Flags symbolizing respective mentalities and U.S. states were being flown. People were rioting, sometimes taking over whole cities. Neighborhoods, homes, farms, churches, factory and municipal buildings, businesses and schools were destroyed, burned and/or looted by mobs. Business owners and their staff were armed while defending their establishments. People of all walks of life were often attacked or even killed for their opinions, beliefs, or race. Peaceful gatherings, protests and rallies were broken up violently by the opposition. During the election of 1860, voters were attacked both physically and verbally. The rhetoric used in political speeches and press coverage helped to entice violence in the name of political gains. Officials were not often able to stop the incidents, and in some cases, they were forced out or had to surrender. In the instances when police or militias could get involved, they retaliated fiercely, often wounding and killing both innocents and rioters alike. Militia factions were fighting each other, facing off at territory borders or in the streets. Granted, many of these were extreme cases and didn’t reach all citizens or areas of the country. Many reformers revolted using non-violent, positive displays of activism, taking to the streets marching peacefully in protest or going on strike. There were also large chunks of the country that remained dormant throughout the chaos.
Unfortunately, all this friction came to a head when Fort Sumter was attacked. Throughout the course of the war, there were 237 named battles and several other riots and confrontations. Much of the aggression and destruction from before the war persisted; the battles and skirmishes were brutal and deadly. Protests continued and now included demonstrations based on new struggles. The North was much more well off than the South but eventually, inflation, shortages of food and clothing, and inadequate transportation effected nearly every citizen. As so many men went off to war, women had to pick up the slack of responsibilities their husbands left behind. They had to use substitutes for many goods due to the shortages and even had to resort to making their own products and clothes; in some cases, families even had to hunt and gather just to feed themselves. As wages plummeted, some women began supplementing income by selling homemade products and others began bartering and trading.
Cities fell into disarray. Sanitation only got worse and disease ran amuck. What little infrastructure the South had was destroyed. Many cities and towns witnessed battles and guerrilla warfare firsthand. Citizens were being evacuated from their homes in an effort to reduce the number of individuals involved in fights. Despite these efforts, vigilante groups were still popping up to take care of any remaining lawlessness. Martial law was enacted in many areas and at the very least, police and fire presence were increased. The tension rose at such an extreme level that neighbors were turning on each other, using the war as an excuse to settle personal grudges. Slave owners, government officials and police were so afraid of revolts, particularly by slaves fighting for their freedom, that they assigned bodyguards and extra men to act as another line of defense.
Press coverage was at an all-time high and newspaper costs were drastically low, flying off the stacks at a penny a piece. Along with accounts of ongoing battles and relevant news, newspapers were also publishing satirical cartoons, which seemed to help the country cope with the stress of the war.
Much of what happened prior to the Civil War may sound quite familiar as our country is currently struggling with much of the same. Protests, riots, police brutality, physical and verbal abuse towards people for various reasons, flags flying, businesses being destroyed and looted – just another day in America. There are, however, fundamental differences that set us apart in many ways. One of the monumental differences, lest we take it for granted and forget, is the internet. Digital technology has changed so many lives for the better and has sent this country into an unbelievable space. Yes, it has created problems, but it has solved countless more. The accessibility of and the pace at which we receive information today is extraordinary. The ability we all have to engage online with current stories both domestically and internationally is both a blessing and a curse. The question is, will the internet make things worse or better? Do current technological advances help to keep us secure from threats outside of the cyber world?
Another primary difference relates to the structures of our military and police. The military operates for our country and our people more as a unified organization with orders that come from the top down as opposed to separate militia factions under control of different officials. This is an important difference because it could be a key factor in how the military reacts to a modern-day civil war. In regards to city, county and state police, they still operate under the jurisdiction of their local officials and are not always seen as the good guys here to protect and serve, which is somewhat similar to how they were viewed over 100 years ago; they do, however, have completely different tactics and mandates on how to react to situations we see now that we also saw in the past. We do have to consider the current mistrust between members of society and police though because it presents its own unique situation.
The press is still the press, but with today’s social media and access to news coverage, situations are easily and quickly blown out of proportion. There are always 2 sides to a story and many news outlets play on that.
So, what would our country look like if it were to become so divided that citizens could no longer stand it? First off, in comparison, this would not be a war between two halves of the nation; it would be a war that pits citizen against government and citizen against citizen. It’s probably safe to say incidents of civil unrest will continue, but to what extent?
In the beginning, we would most likely see rebellion; people will want a revolution. We would most likely see a sharp uptick in the number of protests, riots, and violent incidents, possibly for months, in densely populated cities across the nation. This may include both random and targeted attacks on neighborhoods, businesses, and government buildings. With cities seeing so much destruction, inhabitants may choose to evacuate or move entirely. This will surely mobilize local and federal police units, and quite possibly military forces. The cold war we currently face with our police brings its own unique set of challenges and fears, but the truth is that their tactics today, with the use of non-lethal weapons to diffuse riot situations, are vastly different from those of the past. The police and military organizations of the 21st century are much more efficient at containment, even if we don’t always agree with their methods. It is practically guaranteed that the police and military, in conjunction with local, state and federal authorities, would ramp up security measures in large cities, airports, municipal buildings, or any other area that is largely populated.
As a result of these occurrences, it is very possible that we would see shortages of consumer goods and food associated with over purchasing. Cities all over the country would appear to be stocking up for an impending natural disaster. Businesses may also collapse from vandalism, making it impossible for people to get what they need. This may create a domino effect that ultimately leads to inflation. Businesses will most likely not be out of commission for too long though, as a civil war between citizens and government will not have a permanent effect on supply chain and access to goods and services. Our society is much too progressive and the livelihoods of too many people depend upon businesses staying open. Luckily, many of us are already used to working from home so our lives wouldn’t change too much. We also wouldn’t see wages plummet because the foundations of the prominent disputes are not directly tied to a primary source of income, the way slavery was tied to the cotton market. The economy would certainly be affected but it is not likely to impact household income in a considerable or lasting manner, at least not before resolutions are discussed.
Fortunately, our infrastructure is much more advanced and resilient today, providing us with an advantage not seen in the past. There may be damage to some infrastructure in heavily rioted areas, but we probably won’t see a breakdown in our sanitation systems, electrical grid, or transportation systems. Roads and public transportation may be closed temporarily but it won’t become much more than an inconvenience. Even so, with cities seeing so much destruction, inhabitants may choose to evacuate or move entirely.
We can say, undoubtedly, that in the event of a new civil war, the internet would break. Social media would control our lives even more so than it does now. Most of the fighting in this modern-day war would be happening digitally because it gives us the ability to say what we need to and then hide behind the digital veil. Fearmongering would run rampant. If anything were to make us more paranoid, fearful, and angry, it would be from our beloved digital world. The personal lives of many citizens could change as a result. Friends and families may see fallouts over their opinions. People could lose their jobs for things they post on social media. Neighborhoods may become afraid of each other. Groups of individuals could use social media to recruit and rally. On the flip side of that though, social media could create a sense of community, as it has attempted to do in the last few years. Citizens, government officials and corporations could share their sympathies, endeavoring to connect with society and offer coping mechanisms.
It is so important, during any type of tense situation, to remain vigilant of your surroundings while you are out in public and even in your neighborhood. If something doesn’t feel right, get out. You would also want to develop an evacuation plan and discuss it with your family in the case that you need to leave your home or your city. No matter how you prefer to protect your family, be sure your form of protection is safe, secure and operational.
Lastly, while it may be paralyzing to think about the possibility of a civil war in our lifetime, it is a probability that should not be overlooked. It is often difficult to see a situation when you are in the middle of it, but present hostilities amongst American citizens could ignite with the right sparks. A present day civil war would be tragic and extremely impactful to our daily lives if it were to occur, but avoid dwelling on the negativity of the divide in our country and focus on how you would protect your loved ones if this situation were to occur.