"The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."--Abraham Lincoln
I have ancestors that fought on both sides of the U.S. Civil War. My mother’s kin fought for the Union and my father’s for the Confederacy. Generations later, both families made it to California, one via Kansas, the other by way of Oklahoma. Both came to the Golden State during the Depression, and it was this historic event that I heard the rumbling echoes of as I grew up. The tales of my childhood were of how my great-grandmother, a widow, would have starved if my grandfather hadn’t sent her money home from the WPA camp. And how my grandmother, an independent woman working as a nurse until she was in her thirties, proudly saved a sizeable sum of money before she was married.
If there were stories about battles in my family, they were about my grandfather’s stint on Okinawa (horrific.) I knew nothing of Manassas or Fredericksburg, and I only grew aware of Gettysburg when required to memorize the Gettysburg Address in school. (Thank you, Lincoln, for keeping it short!) Remarkably, I covered the American Revolution four times in my academic career, but never the Civil War. I had a vague notion that the South had slaves and that the slaves escaped on railroads. Since slavery was bad, the North had been in the right and so of course won the war.
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I was six and a half when I heard “a king” had been killed (I asked what country he was king of), a murder shortly to be followed by that of Bobby Kennedy. It was the same year my parents continued their own parents’ migration by leaving California for Washington State. San Francisco’s summer of love in 1967 had been too much for them, and they fled for the calmer climes of suburban Seattle. Little did they know that a mere three years later the bottom would drop out of Boeing and the Seattle economy, creating a exodus so enormous that a billboard near Sea-Tac airport read, “Will the last person leaving Seattle, turn out the lights.” That economic recession colored my entire childhood and, in a way, shaped most of my twenties, though at the time I was relatively unaware how history could be an active participant in a person’s destiny.
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Ah, history. We can’t do anything about it. It’s dead. It’s gone. Doesn’t remembering just evoke pain and recrimination? Why not live and let live, go forward afresh and new? This year, 2011, is the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. It is nothing compared to the bicentennial of our country’s founding. Now that was a party. 1976—seems like yesterday. Stars and stripes were everywhere, on every product, in every ad. Schoolhouse Rock had Saturday morning cartoons about it, and people even sewed their own Martha Washington dresses from Butterick patterns.
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The Declaration of Independence was an unequivocal milestone in human achievement, and our war of revolution (unlike the recent humiliation in Vietnam) was one we could all feel good about. We won. We were right, and through our courage, fortitude and wisdom, we established a precedent for the world to follow. The French fleet who’d really signed the deal for us weren’t mentioned much, and Loyalists who bet on the wrong horse and had to leave everything behind to flee to Canada weren’t brought up at all. The subsequent near annihilation of the native peoples of the continent didn’t get much play, nor did how the legitimization of slavery by the Constitution and our Founding Fathers was a betrayal of the country's founding precepts, not to mention it left a huge mess for following generations to resolve. No, the American Revolution was crystalline in its fife and drum purity and unambiguous goodness.
Compare that national extravaganza to this year. Now, it’s true that a sesquicentennial is fundamentally less exciting than a bicentennial—heavens, the word itself is a pain to pronounce. So what we have are a few new books out, some magazine and newspaper articles on the Civil War, some low-key, local events. But I would posit that this is at least partly because we’re not sure how to view this war anymore. What used to be clear is murky these days. The South’s bitterness has mellowed and developed a different patina; the North’s righteousness has turned into something more ambiguous and wistful. Yes, the Civil War ended slavery, but we’re starting to remember that that had not been its original intent. Yes, the war saved the Union, but if the Constitution had been a contract, both sides had violated its terms, and who was to blame that there was no exit clause? And we’re more aware these days that in every battle, one side’s victory meant the others side’s death and maiming, and as such they can’t be celebrated, only mourned.
618,000 Americans died in the Civil War war, 68,000 of them African-American. That was the cost of that war. Though few understood it at the time, those 618,000 husbands, sons, and brothers were consumed by an epic battle of industrialization wrestling agriculture for the reins of the North American continent. Which is not to say the Civil War was not about slavery—it was. But it was also about the deal that had been brokered by the Constitution that had been unraveling for decades. It was about changing technologies and energy sources, and how society necessarily had to evolve as a result. It was about immigration and conflicting, competing economic models. And, like most wars, underneath it all it was about money and power and who would possess them.
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In the end, the South chose to dig in its heels rather than adapt to the moral, economic and technological pressures demanding it change. In the end, the North couldn’t allow a powerful, hostile country to stretch all the way across its southern border. If they didn’t fight the Confederacy after Fort Sumter, they would’ve inevitably fought them a few years later over control of the western territories. For its security and future wealth, the North had to both defeat and crush the South to remove it as a threat. That this would impoverish and embitter a future third of the country for the next century was either not taken into account or considered an adequate price to pay.
The Civil War is valuable to remember as an example of what happens when patched-together compromises can no longer hold. It’s what happens when adaptive small changes—often known as reforms—are resisted, forcing large changes—often known as revolutions or collapse—to come all at once. It’s what happens when, in the face of historic forces, a people says its way of life is non-negotiable and then finds out that, indeed, history does not negotiate.
There is value in remembering people and events in all their complexity--their good and their bad, their dark and their light. We gain when we comprehend the entirety of a person or an era (or as close as we can get to it) rather than a sanitized, one-sided version. The Civil War, with its suffering, loss, and heartache, should make us sad and even uncomfortable. And it’s important to acknowledge that our leaders, even the ones we most admire, had failings as well as strengths. This approach doesn’t make for a good party. There’s no basking in any nostalgic, rosy glow. But an honest look back lets us embrace both the wonder and the warts of our history and let us know ourselves—our own virtues and our own failings--better because of it. In this way the mystic chords of our nation's memory, dissonant though they may still be, can slowly grow in harmony.