History
10:33 am
Tue November 19, 2013

Essay: The Horror, Not Honor, of the Civil War

A Civil War re-enactment in Pennsylvania
A Civil War re-enactment in Pennsylvania
Credit dfbphotos/Flickr

As the United States marks the 150th anniversary of noted Civil War battles, one form of commemoration – re-enactments – generally leave me with a feeling of discomfort.

For a long time, I didn’t know why.

Civil War re-enactment is a popular avocation for many present-day Americans. I have a friend who is avid re-enactor. I recognize the sense of history and “getting back to the earth and the basics” re-enactment encampments impart, and the feeling of purpose and satisfaction combat play-actors enjoy.

But it wasn’t until I heard historian Thomas Martin Sobottke on WUWM’s “Lake Effect” describing Wisconsin’s 2nd, 6th and 7th regiments’ role in the Battle of Gettysburg that I began to understand what bothers me about these events.

It is the underplaying, and even non-playing, of the horrific lessons that brutal war should have taught us.

What is touted are the glories of the war, the acts of courage, the tales of regiments with more than half of their numbers fallen regrouping to charge and charge again. Yes, that kind of heroism did help the North win the war, but what needs to be highlighted is the terrible toll that war took, not just physically, but psychologically.

Participants, spectators and chroniclers of Civil War re-enactments need to convey the stench of fields strewn with bloated bodies, the image of blown off limbs, the revulsion of gangrenous stumps and wounds, the chest-constricting grief the wives and mothers and children suffered over the loss of their men and the hardship of injured combatants living with forever-broken bodies.

More devastating in the long term than the physical and economic ruin left in the wake of that war, though, is the psychological damage.

“South shall rise again,” was the rallying cry of the defeated Rebels. Growing up near Richmond, Virginia, I was infused with constant reminders that my birth city was the capital of the Confederacy. Instead of feeling any sense of shame, though, or that the South was wrong to try to tear the country apart, I was imbued with a pervasive Southern pride that, although defeated in battle, we actually prevailed because we were right. The Yankees might have declared themselves victors, but we weren’t vanquished. We remained strong, resilient – and relevant.

Our acts of defiance included flying our flag, erecting statues of our generals and demonizing theirs. That was part of what it meant to be a Southerner. But the older I got, the more juvenile that thinking seemed and was something, I believed, the South needed to and eventually would get over.

I was wrong.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry hinted a few years ago that Texans might get so fed up with the federal government that they might want to secede from the union.

Talk like that makes my blood boil! I want to drag anyone who speaks so glibly to the cyclorama at the Gettysburg Museum and Visitors Center, which depicts Gen. Pickett’s Charge up Cemetery Hill during that three-day bloody battle that resulted in more than 50,000 casualties.

Casualties? What a euphemism! Those were people. Human beings. Nearly 8,000 men died in battle and many more from wounds and resulting disease. Those were American lives lost. Is that what secession-mongers want for their loved ones and neighbors?

But the greater lesson for me goes way back before the first shot in the Civil War was fired. It began with Southern landowners, good Christian family men and their “plantation wives” who attended church and quoted from their Bibles, all the while holding other human beings captive, ripping husbands from wives and mothers from babies, and forcing them into hard labor – even though those people were guilty of nothing more than living their own lives a continent away, but were unfortunate enough to be seized by mercenaries and profiteers, shackled in ships and sold at auctions like so much cattle.

The corrosive cognitive dissonance that enabled Americans to justify the most horrendously immoral means to achieve economic gain has metastasized into this country’s most polarized population since that violent, hate-filled, nation-rupturing attempt by one region to prevail at all costs.

Resentment of the federal government not only continues to flourish in the South, it has spread beyond the borders of the old Confederacy. It is a resentment that is as incongruous as professing Christians owning other humans and forcing them to do their work.

Despite its talk of secession, Texas, like most of its Southern sister states, is a major federal funding recipient, and immediately asks the federal government for disaster aid when hit with catastrophes such as the explosion earlier this year in the town of West, and monster tornadoes and landscape-scorching wildfires.

A man who lives in my Milwaukee-area neighborhood flies a “Don’t Tread On Me” flag outside his house. Yet, like separatist-minded Texans who revel in clawing the hand that feeds them, this man and his wife are on Social Security and Medicare and for years their adult son received government disability assistance.

So here we are 150 years after Gettysburg in what seems like anything but a “United” States of America, where some people claim to be “more American” than others, where some say they are “the real Americans” as if others aren’t, where some wrap themselves in and fly the flag from everything they own as if to prove they are more patriotic than those who don’t, where some want the law to reflect their religiosity to the exclusion of other Americans’ beliefs, and where those with white European ancestry perpetuate their sense of American supremacy by qualifying and separating Americans of other ethnicity with hyphens.

Unless Civil War re-enactments and other commemorations start emphasizing the relevant lessons of that conflict, including its origins and realistic consequences, today’s bullheaded, hate-filled, self-righteous polarization could lead the country down the same kind of destructive path that Civil War combatants took.

To thrive as a nation, I think that instead of hyping differences and divisions, Americans need to lose the hyphens and get “united” back into the states of America.