150 years and 26,000 books later and we, as a nation, still can't look our Civil War square in the eye.
It is a reflective surface that mirrors back to us too much that is dark and ugly in the American heart. And because that war is still so tightly woven into our DNA, every generation we go mad all over again and, once again, try to smash anyone and anything that tries to hold history's mirror up to our soul.
To force some clear, honest light in past our
Very Special Glasses.
Some lovely, tragic writing on the subject can be found in both yesterday's New York Times, and in the moss-overgrown archives of a blogger who died before his time and whose work is slowly fading from memory.
First, as you read this from Edward Ball of the NYT, consider how absolutely relevant his first paragraph is to understanding the specific strain of intractable insanity that grips the Right and will never, ever let go (emphasis mine):
An American Tragedy
By EDWARD BALL
We cannot come to terms with the Civil War because it presents us with an unacceptable kind of self-knowledge. We think, as Americans, that we possess a heroic past, and we like to think of our history as one of progress and the spread of freedom, even transcendence. But the Civil War tells us that we possess a tragic history instead, over which we must continually paste a mask of hope.
Now, you might regard the Civil War as the birth hour of modern liberty and equality. In this view, a quarter of Southern white men of military age, and one in 50 of all Americans, were killed for justice. The war redeemed a barbaric society in which the whole nation tolerated slavery into the salvation of widening rights and freedoms.
Except, of course, that it did not: the stream of blood that started at Fort Sumter passed through Jim Crow and into the civil rights era, right down to the present. Southern whites, having gone down in the fight, turned their recollections into rage and resentment at being displaced — fuel for politicians ever since.
Likewise, for blacks emancipation was not a jubilee, but rather the beginning of a long season of bitter disappointment. Black national memory in some ways is still commensurate with despair. Redemption turns out to be a false idol.
It is said that the South lost the Civil War, but won the peace. That is, while slavery was ended, white supremacy grew into the law of the land. Here is the central scene in the national tragedy, the part we can’t face and can hardly speak about without censoring ourselves.
The 20-year-olds who fired the first shots here at Charleston were less circumspect: they would have seen themselves as warriors on behalf of whiteness; their ministers and politicians told them as much.
And their ministers and politicians and radio and teevee Gods still do.
This is how the late Steve Gilliard plowed the same field six years ago:
The end of treason
Monday, April 11, 2005
I would just add this: the myth of the South is as much a creation of film and literature than anything, anything written during the actual war and it's aftermath.
How did the real war diverge from the image?
The robbers of the post-war period were not heroes in any sense of the word. Jesse James was, in modern parlance, a war criminal. He rode with Bloody Bill Anderson, who specialized in terrorizing Kansas farmers. The guerrilla war in the Mississippi River area was about as violent as the partisan struggle in Yugoslavia. You had groups of people killing their neighbors.
What is the image we get of this war? Take the Outlaw Josey Wales. A great movie, but historically, quite wrong. Wales would have been a confederate guerrilla who probably murdered hundreds of people, farmers, women and `children, destroyed towns. In short, a 19th Century Arkan. He would have been quite unsympathetic to people living at the time.
Then, you have Ride with the Devil, which had a black slave fighting with Quantrill's guerrillas. Which is about the same asx a Jew fighting with the 2nd Das Reich division with a yarmulke on. Impossible isn't the word. These folks killed black slaves when they could. They hated blacks for racial and economic reasons.
What Hollywood has done is moderate the viciousness of the south and the war they fought. The noble struggle crap was revisionism promoted to hide the same of their racial war of conquest.
In the immediate post-war period, to about 1900, it was the Union and their soldiers who defined the telling of the war. The Grand Army of the Republic was the NRA or AARP of it's day, but as America moved on, the South redefined the war as a struggle for a way of life, just as Jim Crow was rising.
The first hit movie, Birth of a Nation, was this kind of ridiculous revisionist history, but with one difference, black soldiers actually existed. In the next 50 years, their existence would vanish from popular history.
But for most of Hollywood's history, the Confederacy has been the perfect foil for Hollywood's image of doomed heroism. Nothing better than showing the losing side of a war to ennoble the characters.
Imagine, however, a story of romance between a German factory owner's wife and an SS officer transferred to the Russian Front. You can't even play German soldiers in FPS games, imagine a movie like that. It wouldn't be made in Germany, much less the US. Yet, American film makers have done the same with the South since 1915. There are two exceptions to this: A series of John Wayne movies where he played Union officers and Glory, which detailed the first black regiment to see combat in the Union Army.
Glory has always been an emotional film for me to see, because it's about the liberation of my family, who comes from Charleston. America's film industry has minimized the cruelty and abuse of slavery. I have never seen Gone with the Wind for that reason. At least Birth of a Nation is upfront with it's racism, Gone with the Wind is just as racist, but hides it in romance and hides the blacks.
The thing is that the reason so many people can believe in the noble cause is because they can see good movies about the Civil War and th South, but movies which so veer from reality, it would be like Battleground, but with actors playing the SS troopers instead of the Airborne troopers from the 101st ABN. Your heart would swell when Shermans were knocked out and US soldiers murdered in cold blood.
Yesterday, I watched Shelby Foote lavishly praise Nathan Beford Forrest for his military skills on the Civil War documentary. What came to mind is that Forrest, postwar founder of the Ku Klux Klan, actively murdered black soldiers. In WWII, he would have been tried and shot, as many SS officers were. The first thing anyone who talks about Forrest should say is this: he was a violent racist who violated the rules of war.
It has taken until the last couple of years for people to say the Civil War was an act of treason. Which it was.
The ignorance of the true nature of the civil war is so great that blacks have been acting as Confederate reenactors. Which is about the same as Jews acting as SS reenactors. Which is a message lost to many people. The Confederacy is little different than the SS. Every time you see a flag or someone talking about the glory of the South, insert the words SS and Nazi and you'll be right. Which is a reality that most Americans have still yet to wrap their mind around.
Blue Gal and I have had a few discussions about what lasts on the web. What has staying power.
Having flung around 3200 essays into the noosphere, I believe none of it endures much beyond the point where it rolls off the front page of the blog and into oblivion.
The wheel of history grinds 99.9% of everything into dust, and on the web that wheel now spins like a pinwheel strapped to a NASA high-gee centrifuge, so unless future generations of grad student have vastly more time on their hands than I believe they will to paw around in the digital midden pile of 21st century bloggy swordfights, sifting the digital bones of unremembered people with funny pseudonyms, we deal in ice sculpture here.
Pictures drawn with a pointed stick in the wet sand at low tide.
Whether this is a good thing or not is anyone's guess, but it is the way of things.
Vast armies have scoured and re-scoured history, leaving behind empires built on the vanities of Men: vanities which, in their time, fell into ruins that poets whittled into the words that gave the enterprise its final, futile meaning.
But there have been other struggles whose importance endures long past the death of the king and the last veteran's widow -- battles over the essential meaning of things: what it is to be human, to be free, to be a citizen, to be a Jew, to be a woman, to be a slave, to be an Irishman, to be the Other.
Lincoln put all of our transient words and fevers into their proper perspective when he said,
"The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here."In the end, it is what we do that matters.
What we did that lasts.