When I first began to research my book, Beaufort 1849, I was under the naïve impression that the Civil War ended in April of 1865, when Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Boy, was I a Civil War noob!
|Persistence of memory?|
With so much water under the bridge, I blithely assumed there was a general consensus on the war’s W’s and H--where it was fought, when it was fought, how it was fought, who fought it and why. As I read and read, I came to understand that none of these questions have a definitive answer yet, not among scholars and not among average Joes. Indeed, from slavery to states’ rights, the question of why the war was fought is still contentious enough to provoke tantrums, if not actual fistfights. (In contrast, when’s the last time a Brit brawled with an American over the Troubles in the Colonies?)
|Still in the fight|
Which leads one to wonder whether the Civil War actually ended at all. An alien visiting our planet (not knowing our penchant for re-enactments) after witnessing battles between men in blue and grey uniforms with their cannons and explosions of gun powder and then reading heated and vituperative rhetoric on internet blogs might be forgiven for concluding that the Civil War has stretched centuries. The war’s significance and origination are still debated endlessly, from the depths of doctoral theses to the scratchy static of call-in talk radio. On discussion boards, William Tecumseh Sherman is characterized anywhere from avenging angel to Genghis Khan and Hitler rolled into one. Further evidence of passions flying high is that one particular symbol of the war, the Confederate flag, is still so inflammatory and carries such heightened meaning that rational discourse about it is just not possible.
|Like it was yesterday.|
In general, Americans tend to have amnesia about their own history. (Spanish-American War—what’s that? A foreign army once burned the White House to the ground? Not a chance.) But when it comes to the Civil War, memories are fresh. Even the names we have for the conflict reflect on-going contention: “War Between the States,” “War of Rebellion,” “War of Northern Aggression,” “War of Southern Independence.” That trauma creates scar tissue is to be expected, but when people are still arguing over flags, definitions, and names a hundred and fifty years later, something is clearly unfinished. Reflection and analysis are always valuable; choler and bitterness reflect a festering wound still unhealed.
No, this war isn’t over, and the cannons, even after a century and a half, are not yet silent. Not by a long shot. Happy sesquicentennial, America.