Heads up: This article contains strong political views on serious subjects as well as some harsh images of war.
To my reckoning, the American Civil War stands as the most pivotal moment in American history. The revolution is the most defining in that it was the creation of my country. But it was the Civil War that represents the greatest moment of crisis, doubt, and hardship the nation has ever faced. Both Trail and I grew up in the Northwestern US where no battles were fought and where the Civil War is almost purely history. Traveling in the Southeastern US is a whole other reality. Here, you can feel the weight of the war through to the present day and its scars are readily visible wherever you care to look. Both its pain and its hope are kept very much alive.
While we drive around the deep south, we have been listening to a lecture series from The Great Courses: The American Civil War. It consists of 30 half-hour lectures that focus directly on the time of the war itself, both on the battlefield as well as the political and social fronts. I have to say, it is an outstanding course, both in its content, and its presentation by Professor Gary W. Gallagher, Ph.D. It has been incredibly helpful in understanding the context and meaning of the sites we have visited and the role they played in the overall conflict. It has also shed light on the political and social divide that yet fissures culture in our nation today. We get our courses via Audible. This $250 audio course was covered by our $15 monthly subscription. You can get a free trial month here: Audible Trial Subscription.
The Spirit of North and South
Our first tactile encounter with Civil War history was in New Orleans which was captured in May of 1862 by Union forces approaching from the Gulf of Mexico. The Union held it throughout the rest of the war. We were there just before the city started taking down many of its monuments honoring the Confederacy and its heroes. The controversy around that is a good example of how the cultural currents that sparked succession are still with us today. It was an event that long ago passed from living memory but the spirit of north and south are both very much alive in the hearts of many, each with their own view as to what they mean.
In spirit, Trail and I are very much Union advocates. With our modern sensibilities, we’d have been counted among the radical Republicans of the day. I see the Confederacy as standing for elitism, slavery, hypocrisy, and a stubborn resistance to modernity and human progress. Apologists cite states rights and liberty as rallying cries for the Confederacy but history shows these values were often compromised to protect the institution of slavery and with it the economic foundation of southern social hierarchy. To my mind, the liberty they pursued was the liberty to oppress others which to my mind is no liberty at all. Not that the Union forces were angels, far from it, but their path was the one I think our founding principles called for.
As a result, I see the Confederacy, its cause, and it’s heroes as the agents of our darker natures, something to be taken as a lesson on what America repudiate rather than embrace. That said, it is not something we should ever forget. It is a lesson on all Americans should study carefully. Every time someone says, “American politics have never been more contentious.” I boggle as to how they could think our current bickering could be anything but the palest of shadows of the Civil War and its aftermath where Americans took to killing one another wholesale to determine if we were one nation or two.
Of Monuments and History
So when it comes to remembering the Confederacy, I think we have to walk a fine line. I am all for removing monuments that venerate the Confederacy and its heroes. I am, however, not for trying to whitewash or erase the history and memory of it. The most difficult questions surround memorials to the fallen soldiers of the Confederacy. While their cause may be one we shun, their courage and sacrifice for their families and nation were none the less heroic in their own right. And not every soldier is complicit in the politics of the nation they fight for. The Confederacy conscripted a great many soldiers during the war and they often were, in fact, defending their homes from hostile forces from the US. I think it is incumbent upon us to be able to recognize the humanity of soldiers separately from the ideology they fight for.
Most of the sites we have visited are very matter of fact about the battles they commemorate. They do not glorify one side or the other, only tell the tale of what happened and try to give us a picture of the lives of the participants and the meaning of the outcome. It is in the older stone monuments that you will find the kind of veneration and honor for the Confederate cause. It is also sometimes on the lips of people you meet, either tongue in cheek, a habit of culture, or sometimes serious conviction. I don’t think we owe it to the past to preserve their proclamations or their honor for this lost and dark cause. I am heartened that the people of New Orleans decided not to erase the past, but to take down symbols of pride in it. General Lee needs to be remembered, but he does not need to be venerated. What we choose to honor is a choice of the present, not a requirement of the past.
Since New Orleans, we have been to a number of battlefields, forts, and other sites of significance in the war. Most recently we visited Lincoln’s birthplace, and while it is not a site directly related to the war, you can’t really look at Lincoln without the event that defined the whole of his presidency. It was a burden he never wanted, but ultimately his to barely more than any other figure. I’m looking forward to visiting many more sites as we travel and reflecting the meaning of the war as well as simply the human experience of it. As a traveler, I am grateful for these places and all that I can learn from them.
Reflections and Judgements of Division and Unity
My time in the South coupled with the most recent history lessons has given me a more nuanced understanding of what it means to identify with the South and the Confederacy. I can understand where their pride and fascination comes from. I can feel to a small degree how a person growing up here could come to identify with the spirit of the South. I can understand how they very much want to separate the cause of slavery from the cause of the Confederacy because if you strip that away, what is left does have admirable qualities. The hardship the Confederacy suffered was immense and yet they persevered through it and made incredible efforts to fight for their cause. And there is simply a wonderful sense of place and community in the south that is easy to identify as home.
But ultimately I don’t think we can separate slavery from the Confederacy, not in history. And so many of those more noble aspects of southern culture and pride were put whole stock in service to an incredible evil that violates the most essential element of our nation’s justification for being; the essential liberty of all people. We have to recognize that what set the Confederacy apart was not its courage or its ingenuity, or it’s love of liberty; those were qualities all Americans had. It was their steadfast commitment to the institution of slavery that set them apart and caused them to flee from the Union so that they could keep black men in bondage. In my opinion, you cannot honor the Confederacy without honoring slavery.
Fortunately, as I travel the South, I see America, rather than the Confederacy. The ultimate cause of the north was Union, and we have that. While the scars of division are with us today, we are not cleft apart. We all have a great deal more in common that we see if we only look at the political arena. In the myriad parts of life that are separate from that, there is far more in common, especially in virtue, than there is that divides us. I think the more we can come to understand that, the better off we will all be.
Author: Gary W. Gallagher
Length: 24 hrs and 36 mins
Release Date: 07-08-13
Amazon Buy Link: http://amzn.to/2qz0jDl
If you’ve ever wanted to understand the Civil War, this series of 48 startlingly evocative lectures by a leading Civil War historian can serve as both an ideal single course or a solid starting point for further exploration.