Ichabod's Kin
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It Was A Most Un-Civil War

Map of the division of the states during the C...

Image via Wikipedia

    It was a hundred and fifty years ago and we still aren’t over it. Less than a century after Independence to create a nation, we were at each other’s necks in a Civil War of “father against son and brother against brother.” Keep in mind that included mothers and daughters too. The accompanying graphic shows states of the Union and the Confederacy.

   My maternal grandfather fought in it. He was forty years older than my grandmother and but a boy when he charged across that field at Shiloh and took a Yankee bullet in the upper leg. A little higher and I’d not be writing this column.

   Mini-balls, so called, were terrible things and he was lucky that both he, and the leg survived the conflict. So many others, with only a pre-surgery shot of whiskey and a stick shoved between their teeth, were held down while field medics sawed off shattered limbs of the more unlucky.

    John Wesley Stone of the Kentucky Seventh died long before my birth. And he had been a statistic: like most southerners he fought less than a hundred miles from home. Cconfederate military pensions came much later than their Yankee brethren and he finally got a measly pension only two years before his death.

    My grandmother never knew that War and by the time I was a kid she had little to say or remember, except for one thing that became a family legacy: though he was willing to fight for his “country,” the Confederate States of America, she said, he always thought the slaves should be free.

    But extremist rhetoric is what we best remember, as from from the other kind of Southerner–the “Hell, no we ain’t fergittin’” sort. But my grandmother and most of her generation, that war was over and done, and she always referred impartially to “Mr.” Lincoln and “Mr.” Davis, Mr. Grant and Mr. Sherman. She gave her husband only daughters but one, my mother, and her own daughter bear the middle name “Lee,” after the great Robert E.

    More people died then than in all other wars, before or since, against our common enemies. But all of them brought out the worst in otherwise sensible people because they got personal. This is true of groups large and small, political parties and even churches: people finally want the destruction of those with whom they disagree. Call it temporary insanity.

    I grew up in Missouri, a Border state, where we were assured that the Civil War was not a pretty sight and regaled with stories of how families sent their sons to fight, then changed sympathies after and shot them dead when they reappeared in the wrong uniform.

    The great American novel, Gone With the Wind, relates no actual fighting, but captures the folly of that infamous “Lost Cause” waged by the South. They believed their men were superior and each worth a hundred Yankees. Rhett Butler is representative of the rare solitary cynic and opportunist, the only kind of man in all the South who was a realist, and one with a sense of humor, at that. All others were given to the lethal self-righteousness of the True Believer.

    We are wrong to glorify that conflict. Lines were never clear cut, and each side had many citizens who were enemy sympathizers. Thousands of Northerners opposed Emancipation and abhorred the thought of black soldiers fighting alongside their white sons.

    And as with all wars before weapons of mass destruction, the North won despite poor generals and too many unnecessary battle losses because they had vastly superior numbers. That’s what Lincoln meant when he redeployed Grant with the words, “He fights,” meaning that Ulysses had no problem throwing thousands to their deaths in order to overwhelm a smaller enemy. Sherman agreed: “War is hell,” he said: “a cruelty, and there is no way around it.” That means no war is “civil” only un-civil.

    And we know the outcome of that one: slaves were freed but with no program to assimilate them into larger society, and at best were doomed to sharecropping where they were cheated of their wages and kept in debt.

    In ancient Greece and Rome, there was more humane treatment of slaves and after years of service they were often given freedom along with enough wealth to have comfortable retirements. But slavery is corrupt in principle, where freedom must be given. Thus over centuries it twisted into what we know was the worst of plantation cruelty and the Jim Crow South.

    Such does not die easily. Racism still abounds. A black man who becomes president is a mistake; he cannot be a real American. Surely he is a Kenyan, thus illegitimate, deserving of the worst and to be banished to defeat and humiliation.

    Sounds like the Old South doesn’t it? Hell, no, such folks ain’t fergittin’, and never will.

    Thank god, it’s still a Lost Cause. But the fight goes ever on.

One Response to “It Was A Most Un-Civil War”

  1. A recent article in Time suggested that we are still fighting over the cause of the civil war [slavery vs. state rights] because of denial and our apparent inability to learn from our history and repent. It is well documented in our history that slavery compromise was the fatal flaw from the beginning. It was even recognized the the slave owning Thomas Jefferson, author of the Constitution. He and others hoped it would die of natural causes, but it didn’t. The Illinois Democrat, Stephen Douglas proposed the states rights solution of popular sovereignty. The Illinois Republican, Abraham Lincoln, debated the issue on the principal of individual rights equal rights as defined in the Declaration of Independence. In the meantime the two parties have reversed positions on this issue and now the Republican party champions states rights [except in laws concerning marriage] and has become the party of the solid south, and racism and secession movements are still alive.
    The same kind of denial and inability to learn from our mistakes continue in the aftermath of Vietnam and Iraq [oops, that one is not over]. We have recently witnessed George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Don Rumsfeld, all saying they have no regrets; that they did the right thing under the circumstances. Not much room for learning from mistakes and repenting there. Lincoln identified slavery as a national sin and called the nation to repentance at least nine times during his years in office. Any president calling us to repent of national sin today would be attacked as un-American.

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