Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Civil War, 150 years later

Much will undoubtedly be made of the fact that today is the 150th anniversary of the opening shots of the American Civil War being fired upon Fort Sumpter.  Many historians (Shelby Foote comes immediately to mind) have written eloquently about how, even today, that conflict remains crucial to an understanding of American culture and politics.  Of course, I have my own thoughts.

I'm something of a history buff, particularly with respect to the American Civil War.  When I was in middle school, I was given a book, The Civil War Battle Atlas, full of maps and pictures and orders of battle, that I read and looked through so often that today the binding is virtually destroyed, and the pages are literally falling out.  Any list of my favorite books would have to include such works as Foote's The Civil War (especially the excerpted books, Stars in Their Courses: The Gettysburg Campaign, June-July 1863, and The Beleaguered City: The Vicksburg Campaign, December 1862-July 1863), James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom, and novels like The Killer Angels.  Lee Kennett's biography of William Sherman is probably my favorite example of that genre.  Ken Burns' PBS documentary ought to be required viewing.  Having lived in the Midwest my whole life, I haven't had the opportunities to actually see the places where the war was fought to the extent that I would like, but I've had the pleasure of spending days at the Antietam and Gettysburg battlefields, as well as Arlington National Cemetery, which owes its very existence to that war in general, and the enmity of General Montgomery C. Meigs toward Robert E. Lee after the former's son was killed in battle - prompting Meigs to seize Lee's Arlington estate and begin burying Union dead on the grounds so that no one could ever live there again - in particular.

I'm not listing all of this to be vain or boastful, but to demonstrate just how even a bratty 20-something living in the 21st Century can be steeped in the history of America's bloodiest war.  In fact, considering all the time spent documenting the history of the Civil War, its causes and its consequences, you would think our country would have found a way to move past it.  You would think, in other words, we would have come farther than to see garbage like this:

Ah yes, the Confederate battle flag.  On this subject, I do not even pretend to be objective, and with good reason.  The fundamental fact of that flag is not, as those who defend it so disingenuously claim, its historical importance or symbolism of Southern heritage and culture.  The truth is that the flag represents, at a basic level, a treasonous uprising against the United States (which failed), that was entirely brought about because of reactionary fear of the coming abolition of slavery, upon which the Southern economy, culture, and lifestyle was entirely (and unjustly) based.  Imagine, and entire part of our country was economically and culturally dedicated to the proposition that one man's life and freedom was worth less than that of someone whose skin was a different color.  What a hateful concept.  That is what that flag represents.  It is entirely analogous to the swastika.  Fundamentally, they are both symbols of just how cruel, just how inhumane, and just how evil human beings can be when they are convinced that Group A are the true human beings, while Group B are less than human.  The only difference is the scale of that evil.

In short, anyone who tries to separate that flag from the institution of slavery, from the notion of white supremacy, and ultimately from disloyalty to the United States is simply talking nonsense.  The Confederacy itself would have been completely unintelligible without those core ideas.  A Confederacy without slavery would have been no Confederacy at all, because there would have been no reason to secede and no reason to fight a war.  Few things are more pathetic than the revisionist "Lost Cause" historians who try to separate the institution of slavery from the Confederacy, as though the one had nothing to do with the other.

More to the point, although I don't want to be entirely dependent upon "might makes right," this t-shirt does seem to communicate the appropriate stance with respect to the battle flag:

I'm not suggesting that we should do what postwar Germany did with the swastika and ban the Confederate flag.  That would run afoul of the First Amendment.  But I will maintain that anyone who flies the Confederate flag is endorsing a message of white supremacy.  If nothing else, we should at least be able to agree that our moral faculties have evolved in the past 150 years to the point that no one in their right mind feels that it is moral or acceptable to believe that one person is less of a person than another.  History teaches fairly clearly that the summa of human evil is never far away when we start thinking that way.

The end of the war brought about the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, effectively settling with law those matters which had already been settled with steel and wholesale quantities of blood.  But neither the law, the bloodshed, nor the victory are really what prove the wrongness of the Southern cause.  The only argument one need make to firmly establish which side of the Civil War was in the right, and which wasn't, is the one immortalized in the Declaration of Independence: "All men are created equal."

And so, 150 years after Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard commanded the batteries in Charleston Harbor to open fire, I do wish we'd relegate the Confederate flag, once and for all, to the dustbin of history.

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