The American Civil War 150th Anniversary: Building on a rift zone

No one wins a civil war.  Things start to change immediately afterwards, imperceptibly, inexorably, and soon all that the triumphant side gained with blood and tears has lost its original meaning.  The agony of the defeated, though it can never be fully assuaged, lessens as time brings new concerns and eventually some joys.

Of course, that’s only true in some places, including America.  In other places, losing factions immediately start plotting the overthrow of the winning faction, then revolt, and the process repeats itself, resulting in a cycle of violent instability – no one ever wins that sort of thing.

At least, in the American type of civil war, there is some healing that comes with time for everybody.  Maybe nobody should win the whole pot, ever.  Winners and losers – it’s the American way, the underpinning of a country designed for constant change, overall, of the positive type.

All of us here today owe a special debt to our Founders for the design that has allowed this nation to continue and thrive for 150 years, so far, after our civil war broke out.

The scars from the wound that opened in 1861 still linger, though.

The Rift

It appears mostly in fairly good-humored putdowns today – when sophisticated urban types say something demeaning about country music, for example, or when a country music star comes back with something along the lines of “kiss my country a**.”  People stick to others who share their point of view (I am a big Blake Shelton fan, by the way), and everybody has a pretty good time, as long as people don’t get too deep into the serious stickiness that underlies it all.

We can afford to do that in post-WWII America because there has been (and still is) plenty of room both physically and economically for most people.  We all find our own social group, where we can kick back and relax a bit.  So far in our time there has been plenty of room for everybody.

Of course, sometimes it has been necessary to delve into the stickiness, most deeply, perhaps, during the 20th century racial civil rights movement.

To keep with the music imagery, there was also that whole business of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama as a reaction to two Neil Young songs, Southern Man and Alabama; however, some people can put even that into perspective nowadays.  In the words of Thrasher in “Lynyrd Skynyrd and Neil Young“, “Rarely has such a widely popular hit song been so vastly misunderstood by so many for so long.”

Not all those who commented on Thrasher’s post agree with him, but it’s okay.  We can be goodnatured about our differences, always putting our best face forward, as long as others don’t disturb the placid surface under which lurk many unpleasant fears, resentments and other dark things.

The rift deeper before World War II

Something FDR said in his State of the Union speech on January 6, 1941 (it’s sometimes called the Four Freedoms speech), hints at deeper tensions over the old rift, when things were tougher in America:

Since the permanent formation of our Government under the Constitution, in 1789, most of the periods of crisis in our history have related to our domestic affairs. Fortunately, only one of these–the four-year War Between the States–ever threatened our national unity. Today, thank God, one hundred and thirty million Americans, in forty-eight States, have forgotten points of the compass in our national unity.

FDR wasn’t the first, nor would he be the last leader to try to create unity by talking as if it already existed.

In 1941, it didn’t.

There was a tremendous disunity in America at that time over our  involvement in the troubles overseas, one that is fairly well and, I think, objectively described in A. Scott Berg’s Lindbergh (New York: Penguin Putnam, 1998. Print.)  Charles Lindbergh had the kind of public presence that gave weight to his principled (not fascist) opposition to Roosevelt’s efforts and Mr. Berg explores that whole issue from Lindbergh’s viewpoint in interesting depth.

There was even disunity over when to celebrate Thanksgiving.  At the time of Roosevelt’s January 1941 speech, twenty-two states were ignoring his 1939 declaration of Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November and instead were still celebrating it traditionally on the last Thursday of the month.  Other states, like Texas, couldn’t decide and had both days as holidays.

It’s interesting that the president brought up the Civil War in the opening part of his 1941 State of the Union speech.  Whatever one thinks of his policies, the man had great insight.

Besides political differences, he could have addressed social rifts – after all, for a few decades now, cities had been growing in political and economic importance at the expense of the American countryside, and a big push was on to extend technology into rural areas and bring these formerly isolated areas into the national arena.

I think that FDR instead wisely chose to address something deeper.  After all, it’s the nature of people to reconstruct themselves slowly, over generations, regardless of the pace of change that goes on around them.  While the Civil War had ended with clear-cut winners and losers 76 years before FDR spoke that night, the scars left from the Unpleasantness of 1861-1865 were slow in healing, and may also have begun to fester a little during the tight times of an economic depression that was orders of magnitude worse than anything we post-war generations of Americans have known during our lifetimes.

I also think that by opening with the mention of the Civil War and closing with a ringing call to protect the freedoms of other people, President Roosevelt intentionally used a very similarly structured argument to the one used by the winning side in the War Between the States.  However, some 11 months later, the attack on Pearl Harbor would render such nuances irrelevant.

Then and now

But I’m no scholar and don’t want to get into depth here on FDR or anything not directly related to the Civil War years of 1861-1865.

It is worth mentioning only as another example of the difficulty we have nowadays.   The 150th anniversary of the Civil War now nears the end of its first year.  Where are we?

We’re still ready with the good humor and jokes, not wanting to delve too deeply just yet. Not even now, a century and a half later.

This brings me back to those concerns, mentioned at the start of this series, about what the future holds for a people unable to comprehend and then let go of a troubled past.

However, there are very substantial parts of the past that have come down to us – the buildings erected during those times – and the way we recognize this inheritance says much about the difference between North and South even today.

Categories: American Civil War

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