Time To Lose Civil War Nostalgia? Some Heresies For The Sesquicentennial

Jan. 12 2011

I remember the Civil War—Centennial, that is. I was a kid when all the commemorations began and of course thought it was all pretty cool with the blue and gray forage caps made of cardboard and fake felt, and all the other memorabilia you could acquire; I seem to recall plastic bags of minie balls. We lived in the North and my team was blue, of course: Go Yankees. We held our own reenactments in the back yard.

Having now passed the half-century mark myself, a hundred years doesn’t seem like such a big deal. Yet it’s startling to now realize that there were doubtless many alive back in 1961, in their nineties or even their hundreds, who actually did remember the Civil War, including many who had experienced slavery as small children, being among the last born into it.

Now the Civil War Sesquicentennial is upon us, officially beginning this April on the anniversary of the bombardment of Fort Sumter, and it’s much harder to pronounce. And much harder to parse in terms of the legacy and meaning of what it commemorates.

For instance, when the Wall Street Journal trumpeted the increase of population in the South shown in the latest census and the supposed rise in congressional power of conservatives, I stopped and thought: The population increase must include many African-Americans who presumably wouldn’t be sending Republicans to power. But isn’t it sad we still must think in these terms?  Are we still living out the aftereffects of the Civil War?

We are. It’s reflected in the continuing red state-blue state false dichotomy, which loosely follows the outlines of the Civil War matchup, somewhat expanded: Maybe we should just revert to calling it gray states versus blue states and then consign it to history. Virginia, North Carolina and many other so-called red states voted for Obama in 2008. Shouldn’t that have been the final nail in the coffin for this facile intellectual gerrymandering?

In upcoming months, old Civil War schisms in the country will be reheated, rubbed raw and overinflated. Some predictions:

There will be controversies about the display of the Confederate flag.

There will be arguments over whether the Civil War was more about states’ rights versus centralized government, and industrialization versus agrarianism, than it was about abolishing slavery.

There will be howls of outrage among many when it’s suggested that Robert E. Lee was in fact a traitor to his country—and shouldn’t be so widely honored. (I also predict “howls of outrage” will continue to be used as a clutch/crutch phrase by pundits to caricature the behavior of whatever “other side” is being designated/denigrated.)

As for what I wish would happen over the next few years:

I’d like to see it pointed out that, far from being bucolic family estates aided by a “peculiar institution” in which the help didn’t have to be paid, plantations were the 19th-century equivalent of slave labor camps. The workers in these places could be and were routinely brutalized and if they were at all defiant even murdered. This lessens the idea there should be so much good will extended to those who fought to the death to defend this system. In the next few years everybody should read or reread Frederick Douglass’ and other slave memoirs if they have any doubts about the horrors of slavery.

I’d like it to be more universally acknowledged during the Sesquicentennial that the slaves in the South and free blacks elsewhere helped build this country. With hard work, brains, determination and all those other good virtues. I think there’s a tendency to think African-Americans, especially in the antebellum era, were a problem to be solved as opposed to vital participants in the American experiment from the very beginning.

A couple of other thoughts on the subject:

I would like to perhaps heretically suggest that keeping the Union together was a moral imperative and not a legal one. Given the evil of the southern slave economy the idea that the northern states needed to be legally bound to the slave states seems uncompelling from the perspective of 150 years. I might further heretically suggest that if it weren’t for the issue of slavery, it would be hard to argue that thousands of people should die to maintain the Union: It’s still debated whether it’s implicit in the Constitution that joining the U.S. had to be permanent, like joining the Mafia. But this only goes to show that human laws are but guideposts: Americans as a people needed to get rid of slavery, legal niceties or not.

As for Robert E. Lee: He was indeed and “in deed” by any standard definition of the term a traitor. He was a colonel in the U.S. Army when he defected to the enemy forces who’d just attacked his country. And he was the greatest military defender of slavery, one of the great blights on humankind. Let’s not romanticize him any more.

Regarding the ultimate cause of the Civil War: Though there were other issues dividing the North from the South besides slavery, even added together all of them would not have led to war. Slavery was the overarching issue, the raison d’être of the Civil War. And because of it any idea of the nobility of the southern “lost cause” simply doesn’t wash.

Given that there had been no tradition of a confederacy of southern states, why canonize its brief existence? It was around for all of four years. Certainly, there was tragedy that many Confederate soldiers went to fight simply because they were forced to. But that the rebels’ struggle was full of sacrifice and risk-taking  doesn’t automatically confer nobility on it—what nobility is there in the struggle of today’s Islamic terrorists, who sacrifice life and limb for their worthless goals?

Which brings us to the matter of the Confederate flag. The design usually thought of as the Confederate flag, i.e., white stars on a blue crisscross against a red field, was used for a brief two years. Divorced from its meaning, it’s a pleasing-enough configuration of decorative elements. But two years is a very short time to earn such a hallowed place in so many hearts—especially when the tradition it represents is of a “country” that barely lasted at all. A country that existed almost solely to protect the institution of slavery.

I suggest that a new flag be designed to represent the rich heritage of the South. I don’t know what all should be included—maybe clichés like magnolias should be avoided–but I think there should be a guitar in it somewhere, maybe crossed with a pen. To me the great tradition of the South will always be more Elvis, Otis Redding and Flannery O’Connor than Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis.

On The Web:   http://blogs.forbes.com/craigsilver/2011/01/12/time-to-lose-civil-war-nostalgia-some-heresies-for-the-sesquicentennial/


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