The American Civil War 150th anniversary: Blind-sided by the recent past

This post is a day late, as what I had planned as a simple photo shoot last week in preparation for Sunday’s blog post about the Civil War turned into something else that needed to be thought about in some detail, and that took time.

Tracking down the past

My plan was simple.  I wanted to photograph the inscription on a local church because it was dated 1860.

Inscription going back to 1860 on a church in Cohoes, New York

Inscription going back to 1860 on a church in Cohoes, New York.

After doing so, I then walked up to the top of the hill near the river for some shots of what remains of Harmony Mills, a factory complex that grew quite big during the 19th century until, after the Civil War, it was so self-contained that cotton delivered to the mill at one end left the other end as woven fabric ready for sale. The cotton, the industrialization and the mill’s location in the north, as well as its importance to the city nearby, Cohoes, down through today, all make it relevant here.

Harmony Mills complex, Cohoes, New York, August 2011

Harmony Mills complex, Cohoes, New York, August 2011.

This vast mill operated without electricity, by the way.  Cohoes Falls is nearby, and they actually diverted and ran part of the Mohawk River through a turbine in the mill basement, which turned wheels that powered all the machinery in the complex.

This will all be explored more in future posts. On the day of my visit, I got blind-sided by a more recent past.

The whole top of the hill has been leveled off.  Harmony Mills was a big deal, and the Erie Canal actually ran past it during the glory days. Part of the old canal out front has been made into the park you’re looking at in the above image.

A little further down the road past the mill complex, heading out of town, is a quaint-looking church. I walked down there to take pictures, figuring it would save me a trip to Waterford the next day (where a stretch of canal remains and nearby  stands a very beautiful church). The economic importance of the Erie Canal and the importance of religion both fitted into my vague idea for this next post of  something along the lines of “In God we trust, all others cash.” It seems quintessentially American to me, both north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line – two shared factors that helped keep this nation together during and after the Civil War, perhaps.

The memorial

There’s a war memorial across the street just before you get to the church. It’s located in a different part of town than the Civil War memorial and is dedicated to veterans of some of the 20th century wars. Like the Tuscaloosa Veteran’s Memorial in Alabama, it has names engraved and set on stones that stand in an open circle, signifying the importance of breaking the cycle of war and ending it forever.

The most sincere and ardent anti-war people I have ever met always were  veterans.

There was another memorial nearby – it’s unusual to see two separate memorials so close together. I decided to visit  that one on my way back after photographing the church. Although I didn’t admit it to myself then, the real reason was that I had begun to feel a little uncomfortable deep inside for some reason.

Bouquets on barbed wire

The church was disappointing.  It had no name, and was for sale, apparently, as there was a phone number on its bulletin board.  What looked like crinkled up Christmas wrapping paper filled the space behind its glass front door, and a couple of strings of little Christmas tree lights glittered there, too.  In August.  It was more than disappointing…downright depressing.

As I went a bit further down the sidewalk, trying to capture the church and the now-distant Harmony Mills buildings in the same shot, it became clear that there was a park across the road where I might be able to get pictures of the the old diversion canal where Mohawk River water still runs to the factory complex, though these days it turns turbines for hydroelectric power.

Bridge at Canal Park, Cohoes, New York

Bridge at Canal Park, Cohoes, New York.

The park’s bridge over the canal was imposing and not very cheery.  I had to carefully line up my lens when attempting  shot with both the canal and Harmony Mills in it.  (Technical note:  This was a bit too ambitious for a Canon A3000 PowerShot.)

The park was large and very neat, though a bit claustrophobic with all the  barbed wire and fencing; a sense of this comes in the first couple of minutes of the amateur video I shot.

Sign at steps leading down to Cohoes Gorge.

So there!

My favorite sign was this one, at the top of the stairs leading into the gorge:

“NOTICE! If you proceed down this staircase, you have to climb back to this location. Be advised the climb can be difficult. Please consider the outside temperature and physical condition before descending this staircase. Thank you!”

You’re welcome!

The river was low enough on this August day that the stairway and paths into the gorge were open and you could go right out onto the floodplain in front of the falls.  Unfortunately I just had loafers on, and the slippery shale bedrock had deep holes carved into it from boulders tossed around when the river was in flood, so I remained on level ground and shot a movie which didn’t turn out too well since it used zooming far beyond the PowerShot’s capabilities.  I’m still learning photography.

On the way out, an hour or so later, after exploring the gorge and the water race behind the power plant, I noticed that there were pansies in pots set on barbed wire next to the bridge.  They weren’t memorials, it seemed, but just put up to relieve the harshness.

Flowers in Canal Park, Cohoes, New York.

This is not a memorial. It's decoration.

It was irritating.  You can either have barbed wire or you can have flowers.  The two don’t go together at all; indeed, it’s that jarring effect that makes some memorials so poignant.

This didn’t belong in a park.

The day wasn’t pleasant any more so I crossed the bridge, heading for home, but stopped to see what that second memorial was about.

It was in honor of a local man who had become a national hero in the Vietnam war.

Colonel Robert R. Craner

This video posted at You Tube by his nephew conveys a sense that this was indeed a special man, and a good one:

No wonder Cohoes gave him his own memorial.  It’s too bad he didn’t live long enough to see that Berlin Wall come tumbling down.

Feeling the Sixties hate

I can appreciate the memorial better now, but earlier this week, it was just a little too much.

Vietnam:  my generation just can’t get away from it, seemingly.

Layers of mellowness, willed forgetting, repression and fear of facing negative feelings just peeled away, and it was the 1960s again, and everybody was political and taking sides and shouting at each other and really trying to hurt each other.  Polarized and crazy thoughts appeared as if someone had flipped a switch, and I saw that image of flowers on the barbed wire in political terms.  How strange it seemed, so close to memorials that had been put up to honor men who fought successfully against the whole mentality that inevitably puts people in barbed-wire enclosures.

I wasn’t reasoning any more.  You were either with “them” in those days, or with “us.”  Hearing about Col. Craner made me feel that tug of war inside again:  in those crazy times, you couldn’t see the heroes for the hate you were carrying around.

Fortunately he, and others like him at all levels of American society, inside as well as outside of the military, could see past “them” to E pluribus unum, which has served this country well in all periods of its history. They guided this country as a still coherent whole into more productive, more positive channels.

I’m older now and more accustomed to pain and sorrow, and able to use for reflection the deep channels these things carve into a body’s soul.  The times are different, too…at least for someone who quit watching TV regularly in the early Nineties as I did.  Still, it wasn’t easy to handle all this emotional baggage from the past.

I did recover from it some back home and then saw what the real irritant was.

I had lived for years in different regions of the country, losing the need for signs and guard rails  in the Southwest one afternoon while walking a path along Sandia Crest outside Albuquerque, soon after moving out there from this New York State Capital Region in 1987.  True, there was a drop of many thousands of feet just inches away from my feet, and not a sign or fence anywhere, but for the first time, I had a chance to feel confident in my ability to walk up there safely and then knew the beauty of free and unencumbered contact with nature.

In the South, I knew, people were sensible enough to stay within designated borders, polite enough not to have to be told not to climb on the walls,  and would take the sight of that barbed wire as an insult to their intelligence.

Here in the North, I suppose it’s there in case of law suits.  Nobody trusts anybody here.  In a call to the local bus company, for example, I noticed that they have a selection for complaining about the bus drivers (“Customer Comments”) that’s comes before the general information option.  On a walk to the store this morning, I passed a house that had some statuary in the window and a surveillance camera placed neatly in between them.  This was not one of those “war zone” neighborhoods, either.

To me, this is a terrible way to live.  However, Northerners would be very uncomfortable in the Southwest or the South.  Different people have different ways.

That was the argument on one side in the 1860s, I understand.  The South generally said that they were different from the North and didn’t want people interfering with their affairs.  The North countered by pointing that all people have rights.  Both sides meant it.  The North prevailed.  No one won.  Not really.

It still goes on, and I suspect that several influences from that affected my experiences up on the hill that day. In any event, I could hardly think straight and that showed me that you have to feel the hate before you can let it go and see what’s really around you.

Perhaps this is one big reason why Americans don’t seem to be commemorating the 150th anniversary of the war that tore the nation apart in the 1860s…we’re still too traumatized by the 1960s, not realizing how lucky we all are not to have personally experienced any of the 1860s hate that flowed even more deeply than did American blood during those awful years.


The flags flew everywhere after  9/11. The country united when it needed to. I know that we’ll be okay. Still I have questions that are difficult to articulate, let alone try to answer.

The only one I can even remotely approach today:  Can this generation ever come to grips with its experiences in the Sixties, or will the worst of the hate and trauma finally die off with the last of us? Did the Civil War end, not at Appomattox, but when the last of that generation passed away? Did it ever really end?

Well, these first few posts are going to be just skimming the surface. Next Sunday, I will have more from that “In God we trust, all others cash” direction.

To close for now, I recall paying for some gas at a station in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and giving the man behind the counter (he was the owner, and I knew him a little) a five-dollar bill. The picture of Abe Lincoln on it caught my eye at about the same time I realized this son of the South looked a lot like many of the men you see in old photos wearing the Confederate uniform.

I don’t even want to think of the reaction if this had been the late 1800s and not the 21st century.

That’s good. This country has moved on.


Of note, that gas station was badly damaged during the Tuscaloosa tornado on April 27th, from the looks of the news photo I saw.  The place nearby where I lived was totally destroyed.  It looks like the tornado tracked directly over it.  For more information on that and how people are recovering, see the special Tuscaloosa News website for it.

All photographs in this post are mine and posted under a Creative Commons attribution license.

Categories: American Civil War

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