One hundred fifty years ago today, the Civil War began. Please note two things: I said “the Civil War”, not “the War Between the States” or “the War of Northern Agression” or whatever, I said “the Civil War.” The second point is that I am a Southerner. I am a Southerner, who’s always called this war by its proper name since childhood. As a matter of fact, I’ve only ever heard it called “the War Between the States” by one person. That was my fourth grade teacher, and she was a drunk.
I suppose today will mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Even more amazing, is that after all this time, not only are those four dark years in American history still being commemorated, in many ways the war is still being fought.
Let me add a third posit: I am a Southerner, who’s always referred to the conflict as “the Civil War,” and I know, have always known and was always taught that the main reason this war occurred was slavery. No states’ rights, no Southern freedom, just slavery. A fourth posit would be that I learned this fact in every Virginian and American history class I took, and those were taught by Southerners. I have no doubt that, elsewhere in the South, students were taught to avoid the slavery issue at all costs; and if that were the case, they were taught wrong.
I also suppose that today is the day that a great many people in the US, and in particular, on the blogosphere, would love to see most everyone from South of the Potomac, dressed in sackcloth and ashes and doing some sort of atonement. It’s something we live with every day, especially if you log onto the internet and happen upon a usually embarrassing subject concerning Southerners – most generally, concerning people by the name of DeMint or Gomert or Perry or Paul, or – if you’re Virginian – Bob Marshall, which results in a spew of invective from various people who, otherwise, purport to be fair-minded, tolerant and Progressive people, whose mind and hearts don’t contain an ounce, let alone a whiff, of prejudice.
Those fair-minded souls cry out for us to secede again and stay seceded, they deride us for being too dependent on Northern Federal subsidy money. They say we’re dumb. We’re stupid, because most of the states found down this way are red states, whose working class and working poor citizens vote against their interests for the Republican Party. And, dammit, the Democrats want to help them!
Hell, every time a high-profiled Southerner does something stupid, we’re all lumped into one benighted category of shitkicking, inbred inhabitants of Deliveranceland, and the United States should have let us go when we left and be damned.
Please allow me to correct a few misguided assumptions you Northern folk might harbour still about the South. I can’t claim to speak for all Southerners, not even all Virginians, but I’d hazard a guess I speak for a fair few.
First of all, was the Civil War a treasonous act on the part of the South? Most definitely, and its enablers were traitors. Jefferson Davis, an ancestor of the current President of the United States, was imprisoned for several years following the war, and died a citizen of no country, having been stripped of his American citizenship. His widow moved to New York City and became close friends with the widow of Ulysses S Grant.
Robert E Lee, who was also stripped of his citizenship, became president of what is now known as Washington and Lee University. His citizenship was restored, posthumously, by an Act of Congress, during the administration of Gerald Ford. Lee is also a lateral ancestor of the current President.
Many firebreathing Firebaggers today still call for Lee and Davis to have been hung as traitors. You’ll have to blame the United States government of the day, if they weren’t, unless you’d like to see done what the returning English nobility did to the corpse of Oliver Cromwell, and have them disinterred and their bones slung over the boughs of a tree someplace to rattle in the wind. As Lincoln was adamant about wanting as peaceful a period of reconstruction as was possible, it’s highly unlikely he would have called for the blood of either Davis or Lee. Too much had been shed already.
Speaking of which, the United States lost more men in the four years of the Civil War, than they have in any war in which we’ve participated ever since. It’s easy to figure out why – Americans were fighting Americans. Since the Civil War, Southerners have made up a large proportion of the United States army, as well. The great-great-great grandson of Jeb Stuart is an orthopedic surgeon, who served as a military surgeon at Walter Reed. The military offers a career to thousands of young, mostly rural, Southerners – white, black and brown – in dying towns where jobs are few and bad and prospects are even worse than bad. They are the ones who go three or four times to the Middle East and some die there.
Are there people who celebrate a Lost Cause? Probably, but those people are a waning bunch, and most of the ones who truly believe there was any glory and romance in any sort of war are living in Cloud Kookooland and worshipping Aqua Buddha. Anyway, the ones who dress in period costumes and prance about at Secession Balls, most generally vote Republican. How’s that for an oxymoron? The descendents of Confederate Cavaliers and prototypical Scarlett O’Haras are firm adherents of the Party of Lincoln. Jim DeMint’s three times great-grandaddy would most likely beat his ass, did he know of Jim’s party political affiliation.
Most Southerners, however, certainly most Democrats and a fair few Republicans, are pretty sanguine about something that happened so long ago. For most of us, the Civil War ended in 1865. We lost. We’re over it. We just pity the people who cling onto it for something that had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with reality and who still look back upon a time they never knew with nostalgia. Yet, we realists also disdain people who take the moral high ground and lump all of us together in the same boat, as if the Civil War and slavery had nothing to do with anyone in the North or the West of the country.
You need to take a look in your attics.
When the Civil War began, the one city outside of the South who was most sympathetic to the Confederacy and slavery, surprisingly, was New York City. New York was the biggest domestic customer for the South’s main product, cotton. In the heady days leading up to the actual beginning of hostilities, immediatel after Lincoln won the 1860 election, New York’s mayor briefly mooted the idea of New York City actually seceding, itself, as a separate entity; before it saw sense and thought otherwise.
And after the war, Confederates left the South. Like a lot of other people, they moved West to Colorado, New Mexico, Montana, Oregon, California. That’s why you find chapters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans in every state, just like the Tea Party. So a lot of people baying the loudest about supposed neo-Confederates and the traitors of the past, should do a little genealogical research. Chances are, there’s a full-blown traitor someplace on your family tree all decked out in gray.
There’s another thorn in my side, as well, I’d like to extricate, regarding the South. One of the most vocal people who propagates the myth about the Southerner-as-shitkicker is Bill Maher. To Bill, all Southerners are named “Billy Bob,” are toothless, have sex with their sisters and are Civil War enactors. Maher reserves special scorn for the latter, but neglects to recognise the fact that thousands of people from his home state of New Jersey are also reenactors. That also stands to reason – Civil War military buffs are found everywhere. Who the hell do you think reenacts the part of the Yankee Army?
Most of these people are military history geeks, out for the authenticity. They’re universal. In England, the Cavaliers and Roundheads reenact battles at country fairs and fetes annually. There’s about as much harm in what Civil War reenactors do as what is done by their counterparts in the UK, reenacting another Civil War fought two hundred years previously. In fact, in London, there are two predominant statues in front of the Houses of Parliament.
One is a statue of Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector, who committed the ultimate act of treason in removing Charles I’s head from his body. The other is the statue of another traitor, George Washington. The sculpture was given as a gift to the British government by the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia – the sort of gift, you imagine the former first colony giving the old imperial power as a proverbial raspberry, whilst the recipients smiled politely through gritted teeth.
I don’t know why there are statues of Confederate soldiers in every Southern town. I suppose such statues denotes honouring traitors, but a lot of the men killed, both North and South, were little more than kids, somebody’s children, brothers, husbands, sweethearts, the usual human fodder from every war. Maybe they were somebody’s memories.
A lot of historians have attempted to talk about this war as more of an exaggerated family quarrel, when in fact families were literally rent asunder during the war. Theodore Roosevelt’s father served in the Union army; his Georgia born-and-bred mother supported the Confederacy in which both her brothers served. One of my great-great-great grandfathers was a Virginia born-and-bred Unionist, who sent his sons North to serve in an Illinois regiment. Another great-great-great grandfather was killed at the age of 30, whilst serving in the Confederate Army.
Heritage is a funny thing. You can’t really do anything about it. You can apologise for it, but how long does an apology last when one apologises for actions done by relatives so far in the past, no one living even remembers the person?
The Civil War was a tragedy. It had the potential to destroy a relatively young country, one founded on the principle of liberty, and whilst it gave liberty to millions of people unjustly shackled in slavery, we all know that another century passed before real equality was achieved, if ever. And if people would stop spitting so much invective, they’d actually see how much the South really has moved on and progressed since those times, although there are forces at work within the United States now, who’d like to take, not only the South but the rest of the nation back to antebellum times.
In the 20th Century, every Democrat elected to the White House, bar FDR and Kennedy was a Southerner. Woodrow Wilson’s father owned slaves, as did both sets of Harry Truman’s grandparents. Lyndon Johnson’s grandfather fought for the Confederacy. As mentioned, Barack Obama has Confederate as well as Irish roots. The South has given us Bill Hicks, Ann Richards and Miss Molly Ivins. It’s given us Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and George Clooney. The South gave America its first African American governer before Derval Patrick was out of grade school. The South was responsible for Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Sam Ervin. It’s given us Elvis and R E M.
That doesn’t mean everything good is Southern. We still have our assholes. We still have the legacy of Bull Connor, George Wallace and Lester Maddux. We had Jerry Falwell and Jim Bakker. Now we have Terry Jones. We also have to claim Pat Buchanan and Ed Schultz.
We have Jim DeMint and Joe Wilson. And the anomaly that’s Alan West. We have right-to-work, and we promoted nullification – and both those concepts seem to have taken hold elsewhere in the US, so I suppose we’re all Mississippi or South Carolina now. I’d really love to be able to hang my head in shame and say we have Virginia’s version of the Three Stooges in Bob McDonnell, Ken Cuccinelli and George Allen, but these fools are Yankee Carpetbagger remnants. I’ll leave the honour of their upbringings and attitudes to Pennsylvania, California and the Jersey shore, as they were men when they set foot in the Commonwealth, but it doesn’t do anything positive for the South that these men are promoting attitudes and ideas which really should be deader than a dodo.
We have Huck and Newt.
Would I love to see the Democratic party take back and reclaim the South? Of course, I would. The rural poor and working poor in the South were a tranche of the Democrats’ most loyal supporters, until a new breed of Democrat decided these people weren’t worth the bother. Some still think that way today. Books have been written specifically to show the Democratic Party could control government without ever considering the South, as if we are an irrelevancy, as if Southern liberals – liberals, because I think it’s important that Democrats embrace that reliable word once again – hide in the shadows and only make the ubiquitous appearance when their self-proclaimed saviour, Bill Maher, strolls into town.
The Southern working-class and working poor have suffered a thirty-year con by the Republican party, who walked the walk and talked the talk realistically enough to convince this demographic that the Republicans were the real guardians of their values. They effected this with operatives who were local to the areas in which they peddled their political wares. Maybe it’s time we took at least one leaf from the Republicans’ books. It’s going to take time, and it’s going to be a long slog; but it’s a price worth paying and it will pay dividends. The people the Democrats left languishing in the political wilderness forty years ago were the sons and daughters of New Deal Democrats. Maybe if we can get some of those New Deal Democrats back into the fold, we might be able to reap some New Deal legislation.
All we have to do is learn to talk and, more importantly, to listen.
And we all don’t like NASCAR either.