11 May 2011: Strains of Civil War issues echo today

Strains of Civil War issues echo today

At 4:30 AM on April 12, 1861, the attack that led to the war that had the potential to permanently tear America apart began. In 34 hours, Ft. Sumter fell. It would take four years minus three days to crush the insurrection and halt the secession of 11 states.

Casualty estimates range from 618,000 to 700,000. Even the lower figure exceeds the sum of American casualties in every other conflict from the Revolutionary War through Vietnam. In that context, it’s even more staggering. It was, after all, Americans killing Americans.

Some 360,000 Americans died so the stars and stripes would one day and forever fly above Ft. Sumter, with nearly 260,000 dying to prevent that outcome.

Major Robert Anderson, Ft. Sumter’s commander who lowered the flag in surrender to Brig. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, would return on April 14, 1865 to triumphantly re-raise it. Tattered, battered and torn, it now resides inside the fort’s museum, evoking powerful emotions and imagery from those who take time to ponder the events and actions of men who in Lincoln’s words gave the “last full measure of devotion.”

Shortly after the Civil War centennial, I devoured Bruce Catton’s Civil War trilogy—Mr. Lincoln’s Army, Glory Road, and A Stillness at Appomattox—as a high school student. Looking back, I wonder how many were paying attention to its significance, it being pushed into the background by the nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union, the space race, the escalating conflict in Vietnam, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Or perhaps, it was thought to be bad manners to revisit it, like a family feud best forgotten.

Confederate apologists and sympathizers argue the issue of states’ rights was the root cause of the war, but when confronted with the question of whether a war would have started if slavery did not exist, they grudgingly concede the point. From President Abraham Lincoln’s point of view, initially it was about preserving the Union. Issuing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, which had no ultimate legal authority since the 1857 Supreme Court Dred Scott decision defined slaves as property, Lincoln essentially proclaimed the war was about eradicating slavery.

Thus, the Civil War was about human rights, the right to live freely, not in bondage. It was about denying a dominant group who sought to subjugate a people for their own benefit that power. And it was about a nation redefining itself, acknowledging that permitting a bankrupt, perverse, and immoral institution such as slavery made the entire nation morally bankrupt and perverse. Which is what the Dred Scott decision effectively did: made the entire USA a slave nation, for a slave owner had the right to take his/her property across any state line—the commerce clause—as we do with our vehicles.

The president of the ill-fated Confederacy Jefferson Davis stated, “In moral and social condition they (the slaves) had been elevated from brutal savages into docile, intelligent, and civilized agricultural laborers, and supplied not only with bodily comforts but with careful religious instruction. Under the supervision of a superior race their labor had been so directed…to allow a gradual and marked amelioration of their own condition.”

So, they weren’t slaves but “agricultural laborers,” and as such better off in their condition than what they experienced living in Africa. Better to be a christianized slave than a free animist. Such was the “white man’s burden.”

The sad part is that contemporary Americans argue the same point: slavery wasn’t all that bad. But I’ve yet to meet one willing to submit him/herself to abject servitude even if assured a most gentle and comfortable existence.

At this sesquicentennial of the Civil War, I wonder if folks living north of the Old Confederacy are once again dismissing the cultural memory of it. After all, we have our 21st-century woes to be concerned about, from the economy to terrorism.

But “down there,” the “War of Yankee/Northern Aggression” is to be remembered. It’s in their DNA.

Take time over the next four years to explore that region both in person and through literature, including works by great Southern writers such as William Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury) Tom Wolfe (Look Homeward, Angel), and Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God), original-source, first-hand accounts, and historical tomes.

For while it might be of another world, the South is, nonetheless, part of our America, and comprehending it is impossible without a deep understanding of the ante-bellum period, the war itself, from Ft. Sumter to Appomattox, and the aftermath ongoing even unto today.

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