As we approach the midpoint of "Confederate History Month" here in Virginia, the almighty ruckus kicked up by Governor Bob McDonnell's proclamation shows merciful signs of slowing from full-on boil to a gentle simmer.
Unfortunately, the heat has been turned back up a couple of degrees, thanks to a talking point being relentlessly pounded by CNN contributor Roland Martin for the last several days: that Confederates were terrorists, Al-Qaeda in gray uniforms.
"Even if you're a relative of one of the 9/11 hijackers, that man was
an out-and-out terrorist, and nothing you can say will change that," he says in an essay on CNN.com "And if your great-great-great-granddaddy was a Confederate who stood up for outhern ideals, he too was a terrorist. They are the same."
This idea of the Johnny Reb Jihad has found some predictable traction in the blogosphere, and some predictable backlash by people who don't particularly like hearing their great-great-great-granddaddy equated with Joseph Goebbels or Mohammad Atta.
But the whole thing has probably been most exhausting and depressing for those of us who love the study of history in general, and Civil War history in particular.
Over at the excellent Civil War Memory blog, Kevin Levin points out that, despite days of following the story on multiple news channels, there were virtually no professional historians invited to try to bring some context or insight to the audience. "More often than not," he says, the audience was treated to the same talking heads who clearly do not understand the relevant history."
This is not to say that "professional" historians are the only valid gatekeepers in discussions of the past...but they are a damn sight more informative than red-faced, screaming Chris Matthews and Pat Buchanan. I would like to think that if someone had thought to book Simon Schama, or David Blight, or Gary Gallagher, they might have been able to guide us into some deeper waters.
At the risk of throwing a lit match into a damp gasoline tank, I would argue that slavery hasn't been the most important issue in this debate.
Understand, I would never deny, or argue, or in any way marginalize the importance of slavery as the key issue in the secession crisis of 1860-61 and the war that followed. But slavery was the one thing unequivocally settled by the Civil War.
We are dogged today by the things that went unsettled.
We still struggle with the idea of African-American equality, which is related to slavery, but not entirely. Slavery was held in place not just by the law and the lash, but by the attitude, promulgated by nearly 260 years of white rhetoric, that people with black skin were inferior, sub-human, and simplistically happy with their lot in life. Patterns of legal discrimination of free blacks was remarkably consistent over time: when Northern states moved to abolish slavery beginning in the 1770s, most also passed laws that restricted the rights and freedoms of the newly-freed that were only slightly less odious than many of the "Jim Crow" laws of the post-Reconstruction South. Techniques used to marginalize and ghettoize urban African-Americans didn't vary much between Boston or Atlanta and LA, or between 1790 or 1890 or 1990.
Over the last 145 years, particularly in the last few decades, we've managed to shake off a lot of this reflexive racism and right a lot of wrongs, but it's still there, and not all that far under the surface.We have a depressingly long way to go.
(Our experience also begs a much larger question: how does a society evolve out of long-held cultural beliefs? CAN a society evolve out of long-held cultural beliefs? When we wonder why Sunni and Shia Muslims....or Israelis and Arabs....or Koreans and Japanese...or Pakistanis and Indians...don't just put aside their differences and give each other big ole sloppy kisses and join in their regional versions of "Kumbaya," maybe we need to take a look in the mirror and adjust our expectations accordingly.)
We still struggle with the relationship between states' rights and federalism. Our Revolution was predicated on the belief that the local government was better equipped to set and enforce laws for their populations than a King or Parliament sitting 3,000 miles away. Even when we agreed to join in a centrally-controlled representative government, the states retained an ill-defined level of control, thus setting up countless jurisdictional debates long before the Civil War was a glimmer on the horizon. The War showed what would happen should a state choose to secede -- i.e., they'd get the snot kicked out them by the states that disagreed with that choice -- but it did not end the desire of states to test the boundaries of their rights.
Think of it this way: we still talk about state secession, but you almost never hear anyone talk about abolishing the states. Life would be a lot easier for all of us if we had uniform laws, uniform taxes, uniform schools, police and fire departments, and a single bureaucracy to manage it all. Yet, even the most patriotic of Americans generally see themselves in terms of a state or regional affiliation. We are New Englanders, we are Southerners, we are Californians, Alaskans, Utahns, and so forth.
Finally, we struggle with how to deal with the aftermath of civil war. Most countries have witnessed periods of civil strife at one point or another, and if the country survives, it has to somehow come to grips with what happens. Some 800,000 Rwandans were brutally hacked to pieces in the space of weeks in 1993...not by foreign invaders, but by friends, neighbors, schoolmates, colleagues, people they passed in the streets and smiled at while queuing up at the grocery or the movie theater or the soccer match. For there to be a Rwanda after that, without mass retribution, without more violence, without more bloodshed, people have to agree to bring it into a collective consciousness that assigns the minimum amount of blame.
The Civil War was obviously nothing like Rwanda. It was, however, a massive trauma. Over the last 145 years, we've gotten so good at building our collective consciousness that we tend to forget how amazing it is that we came through the 1860s as an intact nation.
At least 625,000 people died as a result the military mobilization. Tens of thousands of others were left with lifelong physical and psychological injuries. The Southern economy was laid waste, both though the destruction of property and infrastructure and the loss of capital embodied in the four million slaves freed by emancipation. Defeated Confederates faced years of humiliating military occupation by Federal authorities. Victorious Yankees were perturbed by the utter lack of Confederate humiliation in the face of their defeat. And millions of freedmen were caught in the middle, hated in their native South, unwanted in the North, given no economic role and very little help in building new lives.
Ex-Confederates quickly built a mythology big enough to let them move forward. Dubbed the "Lost Cause" by a Virginia newspaper editor in 1866, it was durable enough that we've been hearing variations of it for the last ten days. According to the Lost Cause, Southerners had gone to war for a noble cause -- the defense of their states' sovereignty -- only to be defeated by an overwhelming military force. It allowed Southerners to pull from a variety of classical and historical themes to tie their story to everything from the ancient Greeks to the patriot armies of 1776. It was a story told not necessarily to convince the world, really, but to give some form and meaning to their defeat.
While non-Southerners (understandably) never totally accepted this moonlight-and-magnolia version of history, they also didn't necessarily have much interest in totally disavowing it. By not letting the Southern states leave the Union in the 1860s, Americans could hardly turn around after the war and exclude all the South from all civic life. Reconstruction wasn't a benign or easy process, but in the broadest strokes did managed to restore the voting and representational rights of former Confederate states and their citizens with relative speed. Only a couple high-ranking Confederate military officers and political figures were arrested, and none were tried for their rebellion. After Reconstruction, and particularly once veterans on both sides began to grow old, there was more of a willingness to romanticize the War as a fight between two equally honorable sides.
It's easy to sit here, smugly, nearly a century and a half later and say: "Southerners were terrorists who should have been rounded up after the War. We should be like post-war Germany, where Nazi symbols and rhetoric are forbidden by law." Certainly there were people in the late 19th Century who probably would have agreed wholeheartedly (after you explained what "terrorists" and "Nazis" were). But, the reality is, first you have to win the war, then you have to win the peace. Over the very long haul, we won the peace of the Civil War by agreeing on a interpretation that allowed all participants at least a little bit of victory. It was the only way to move forward together.
Historians have, and will continue, to write whole volumes about the Civil War and it's political, social, and cultural aftermaths. Once the Sesquicentennial begins next April -- when every month becomes Confederate History Month -- we'll hopefully be able to push beyond the shouting and the screaming and move into a more fruitful discussion about the legacy of the Civil War, how it can continue to inform our view of what it means to be an American, Northern or Southern, black or white.
With no good conclusion, I'll let YouTube play me off stage. The video below is archival footage from the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, in 1938. By this point, there were only about 10,000 Civil War veterans still living, most of them well into their 80s and 90s, but at least 1,800 of them traveled, from all over the country, for this last major reunion. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was on hand to dedicate the Eternal Light Peace Memorial. Two veterans, one Union, one Confederate, unveiled the monument. Emblazoned across the front are the words: "Peace Eternal In An Nation United."