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.