There is a reason why I am posting such a blurry image of a Civil War Memorial with storm clouds in the background.
The first time I saw this, last year, it seemed a piece of triumphalist architecture, although I was born and raised in the North in the second half of the 20th century. Indeed, after moving to the South in 1999, I used to think of myself as a thrice-damned Yankee: born in New England; a northerner living in the South; and being American, as some overseas call us Yanks.
However, the seriousness of that conflict and its remaining wounds came home to me one Sunday afternoon in an Alabama library, as I looked at a display from the war that contained, among other things, the bugle and strap used, as I recall, by a cadet in Tuscaloosa during General Craxton’s occupation of the city and its environs in March 1865.
Next to the bugle was an old-time photograph of a young white couple. Their eyes just jumped out at me – wide and desperate, although they were smiling and trying to make a nice impression. That’s how a lot of people must have looked during the winding down of the war, when they knew they were going to be on the losing end, and then afterwards, during the struggles to survive and hold on to what they could.
What did the descendants of those people think in the 1960s, when some noted publicly, in connection with the Vietnam war, that America didn’t know what it was like to lose a war? Some did, and they also knew what it was like to rejoin after secession and to rebuild after loss. But do we realize any of this is going on today?
My emotional reaction to the Cohoes civil war memorial was spurred in part by that emotional connection and also by a multi-year acquaintance with the South from 1999 to roughly early 2008. Yet clearly I don’t know what I’m talking about. As unfamiliar as I am with the people and the facts, I can’t. And this is why I snapped the picture above, from a moving city bus: it can’t be seen any more clearly than that until I get off the bus and go over and take a closer look.
Very few Americans know much in detail about the Civil War. There hasn’t been much national hoopla heard, as far as I know, about the ongoing 150th anniversary of the thing, which could be said to have started on February 4, 2011, 150 years after the day when the Confederate States of America first came into existence. In that tumultuous month of February 1861, a quarter of America’s army, the entire garrison of Texas, surrendered and its general joined the CSA.
Can you imagine if that happened today? The furor, the arguments, the shock? It’s something tremendously important to commemorate and remember. We don’t seem to be doing that.
Fort Sumter fired upon
A little over two months after active secession began, the shelling of Fort Sumter, out in Charleston Harbor, began, on April 12, 1861. Federal forces in the fort surrendered 34 hours later, and the fort would remain in Confederate hands for almost four years after that.
I didn’t hear any big mention of it in the news back in April. We were too busy fighting among ourselves about external things, and perhaps too willing as a nation to do much more than try to sweep those bad times under the rug.
How we view the Civil War today
They were horrible times, it’s true. The suffering, carnage and lasting changes in this country were massive. It’s of note that those who actually experienced them, and the first few generations that came afterwards, were quite serious about building bridges, healing old wounds, and memorializing the conflict for all time.
Never again, many all over the newly reunited nation must have thought after it ended. Never again.
And yet today, we hardly know much about it and how it influences us. It happened. It’s over. It’s not big problem any more.
That is, unless you believe Santayana when he said in The Life of Reason, “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute, there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained…infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fulfill it.”
Let us remember
Those words about absolute change and lack of direction resonate strongly today in my experience of American society since I was born in 1953. So does being put into perpetual infancy. This is all very complex, and I don’t have the training, knowledge, or (as of yet) the writing ability to address it adequately.
Yet it seems important to try to remember this painful part of America’s past, our Civil War, in order to fulfill it properly.
There are plenty of authoritative sources out there for details and analysis. I’m not one of them, but like every American, I can look back at what they say happened and then try to identify relics and influences in modern life, my life. In doing so over the next three-plus years as I try to work my way out of the north and back to the south again, perhaps I can bring that memorial into as much clarity as this one that stands a little further down the road.
The winter of 1775-1776 is long past, and we are far enough removed from it to have been friends with the British for a while now. We are well enough distanced emotionally to just feel awe at General Knox’s considerable achievement (especially considering the terrain he had to drag those cannon across).
But to the generation that fought the Civil War, that war was still close in time, and it had to influence their actions in many way.
I wonder how they viewed it. They certainly set out to fulfill it, north and south, each according to their own lights.
Over the next few years, I’m going to just try to take notes like this once a week, and see if I can clarify that memorial and that war a little better in my own mind. You are invited to join me for the ride.
(Note: Both the above photos were taken by me and posted here under Creative Commons attribution license.)
Categories: American Civil War