We don’t deny history but take a future view
Wednesday, Apr. 13, 2011
Charlotte is officially neutral in the Civil War.
It is a status that few other sites aspire to, North or South.
Most places celebrate their role in the great conflict with monuments, markers and – in the case of Charleston on Tuesday – re-enactments of hostilities by grown men in period garb.
You have to dig deep in Charlotte to find vestiges of its war history, though it has vivid chapters.
But by its geography, Charlotte was on the side of the defeated, and it has never been a city to celebrate its lost causes.
Charlotte’s ambitions have always been for modernization and prosperity. We have always picked ourselves up after collapses – in textiles, furniture manufacturing, financial institutions – and staggered on to the next big thing.
So it was after the Civil War. We just don’t much talk about it.
When it comes to explaining our conflicted past, the victory against Cornwallis that turned the tide of the Revolution is the tale most often told.
It is undeniable that part of the reason for our Switzerland status is business. Everything here that is not about religion is about business.
Maintaining a fervid, flag-waving connection to the Confederate cause can be defended as honoring history. OK, but it also hurts recruiting.
Biloxi, Charleston and Natchez can dress in hoop skirts and carry parasols all they want. That’s their thing. Charlotte is about gawking at a BlackBerry and buying a BMW. That’s our history, and our future.
Our city came through the turbulent civil rights era largely unblemished. White business leaders, taking the long view, began integrating uptown restaurants by inviting prominent black businessmen and ministers to lunch.
There would be some whispering in the back for a while, but no one was going to deny Mayor Stan Brookshire a table, no matter who was with him.
Even now, a generation later, cities like Selma, Birmingham and Memphis carry with their names a subtext of racial violence. We don’t bear that burden. We don’t want it. Bad for business.
Divisive feelings are still felt over the Civil War. Slavery, racism, states’ rights and personal independence remain passionate topics in the national conversation.
But when the Democrats gather in Charlotte in 2012, they’re more likely to hear how building the uptown arena hosting the festivities was a controversial decision back in the day. You can bet they won’t be told they are holding their convention on the former site of the Confederate Navy Yard, where torpedoes and arms were manufactured and shipped by rail 200 miles to the coast.
If you stare at your feet while walking down South Tryon Street, you’ll find a plaque buried in the pavement noting an odd chapter in the city’s Civil War history. It’s the spot where Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president making haste southbound, learned by telegram that Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated.
Davis held his last full Confederate Cabinet meetings here (one in a bank building that later became the home of the city’s fledgling newspaper, the Charlotte Observer). Technically, Charlotte was the last Confederate capital, but no one is selling that to tourists.
Davis rode off into history, and the pursuing Yankees rode in. Contemporary accounts of their arrival say that the soldiers were wary of entering a hostile city, but conflicts here have a way of working themselves out.
Those Yankees, you see, had money. And a willingness to spend it.
Our age of neutrality had begun.