Letter: Yankees and stinkbugs

At 4:30 a.m. next April 12, we will begin the sesquicentennial of the crucible of the American experience, the War Between the States. One hundred and fifty years have passed since Southern artillery fired upon Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, beginning a conflict that was so traumatic the nation has yet to honestly address its roots, causes, and lasting legacies. This commemoration would be a good time to more candidly address that history.

A recent letter to the editor in the Rappahannock News didn’t think that comparing the infestation of Asian stinkbugs to the invading Yankee army was the least bit humorous. Well, I thought it was amusing and I found the letter writer’s attitude a bit condescending. After all, we live in the South, and like it or not, there are tens of millions of Americans who are descendants of the Confederacy. My folks fought for the South and some of them died for the South. They owned no slaves. My father’s father was born before the Civil War. The last Confederate soldier died when I was 18 years old. We are not talking ancient history here.

Believe me, it is better to deal with these issues with humor than to discuss the horrible realities of that conflict. That we make light about the devastation of the South shows how much progress and healing has taken place over the generations.

It has often been correctly said that “the winners write the history.” The conventional wisdom would have it that the brave soldiers of the North, led and inspired by the saintly Abe Lincoln, defeated the traitorous, bigoted Southerners and freed the slaves. These comic book nostrums are taught and believed as gospel by those too lazy to study the complexities of the American experience.

Human slavery was an evil that had existed under the American flag since the Declaration of Independence, a document written by a slave owner. Our troops were commanded in the Revolution by another slave owner. The Bill of Rights was largely written by a slave owner. Four of our first five presidents were Virginia slave owners. The New York City of the 18th century was largely built by slaves. Most of the profit from the slave trade accrued to New England and New York. These ironies are a good place to begin a serious study of the divisions we have inherited and affect our civic dialogue to this day.

There is plenty of blame to go around here, and if you are looking for “good guys and bad guys,” well, there were plenty of those on both sides of that war. Vilifying those who “were of their time” merely reinforces the canards that have caused the divisions and misunderstandings which have muddied the realities of that national tragedy.

Ben Jones
Harris Hollow,
Washington

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

2 Comments

  1. As a fan of Ben Jones I was surprised to read that, concerning the Civil War, he thinks that ” . . . the nation has yet to address its roots, causes, and lasting legacies . . .” Nothing could be further from the truth if one bothered to look. Mr. Jones must be familiar with Ken Burns’ immensely popular, and serious, Civil War television series. No other war in American history has generated more serious scholarship — I would point Mr. Jones to James M. McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom” and Shelby Foote’s (a Southerner by the way) “The Civil War” and thousands of other serious works on this subject. Now, did either the North or the South have a monopoly on virtue during the War? No they didn’t. Did non-slave owning Southerners fight for the Confederacy and did black-hating Northerners fight for the Union? Yes they did. But the essential fact of the Civil War is that it was fought by the South to continue slavery — and there is no moral equivalence between fighting to keep a people enslaved and to being on the other side of that fight. Then and now. And for the record, all my ancestors were in Ireland at the time so I have no ancestral dog in this fight.

  2. As a northerner, I have to say that these are wise words. This is serious history, and our “comic book nostrums” bear little relationship to the complicated history surrounding the Civil War. In particular, Mr. Jones does not overstate the importance of slavery to the North or its complicity in that institution, even at the time the war broke out, and his suggestion that Union forces were not engaged in a righteous moral crusade is right on the money.

Comments are closed.