Archive for the ‘Civil War’ Category

America’s Great War…

The marvelous British historian David Reynolds argues in his latest book – The Long Shadow – which explores the lasting legacies of World War I, that every country has a national narrative about its “great war.”

Photo - The Telegraph

David Reynolds author of The Long Shadow. Photo, The Telegraph

For Great Britain the “great war” remains World War I, which is being commemorated right now with solemn ceremonies, television documentaries, a raft of new books and even government financed field trips by school children to France to witness first hand the trenches and cemeteries where many of a generation fought, fell and remain.

War deaths from Great Britain, including those who died from disease and injury, were more than 700,000 from 1914 to 1918. The total reaches nearly a million when the soldiers of the empire are counted. The Great War, more even that World War II, remains a searing event in modern British history and memory.

America’s Great War…

In the United States, by contrast, the Great War remains, in Reynolds’ phrase, “on the margins of American cultural memory.” Our “great war” Reynolds correctly contends – the war that never ends for Americans – is the Civil War. More than three-quarter of a million Americans died. “More than the combined American death toll in all its other conflicts from the Revolution to Korea, including both world wars.” Our great war re-wrote the Constitution, ended slavery, realigned American politics and touched, often profoundly, every family and institution in the re-united nation. It also caused the death of our greatest president and cemented decades of resentment and hatred in a sizable chunk of the population.

Confederate troops under their flag

Confederate troops under their flag

“Both the Union and the Confederacy,” the British historian writes, “claimed to be fighting for ‘freedom’ – defining it in fundamentally different ways…in retrospect the dominant American narrative has represented 1861-1865 as a crusade to free the slaves, yet the unresolved legacies of slavery rumbled through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement, and the ‘Southern strategy’ – not even settled by the election of the country’s first black president in 2008.” That pretty well sums it up.

Yet the legacies of our “great war,” engaged afresh in the wake of the recent horrible events in South Carolina, never seem to be completely acknowledged by our political leaders. The war, many seem to believe, can be rightly treated as a cultural artifact, a historic aberration or a mere blip on the national path to the perfect Union. But the war remains with us in big ways and small, including in the rebel flag.

South Carolina Capitol

South Carolina Capitol

As symbolically and practically important as are the call by the Republican governor of South Carolina to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state capitol grounds and the moves by Walmart, Amazon and others to quit selling Confederate-themed merchandize, the war over our great war, including its meaning and importance, will continue. The battle goes on, in part, because even a century and a half after the war ended our national conflicts about race, civil rights and national and state politics are fueled by two great and hard to combat realities – myth and ignorance.

Losing the War and Winning the Legacy…

Scarlett and her "boys of the Lost Cause..."

Scarlett and her “boys of the Lost Cause…”

The South lost the Civil War, but in very important ways won the war to define the conflict. The still greatest Civil War film, for example, is Gone With the Wind, a glorious piece of Hollywood myth making that helped ensure that Scarlett O’Hara’s love for her southern home, Tara, and her determination to survive evil Yankee depredations would frame our great war as a noble “lost cause” fought to maintain a genteel Southern culture. It’s all hooey done up in hoop skirts. Myth with a southern twang.

The noble Ashley Wilkes, a cinematic stand in for Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson, was a traitor who took up arms against his country. Scarlett, the determined southern belle, aided and abetted the rebellion in order to maintain her piece of the South’s slave dependent economy. One commentator described Scarlett as the “founding Mother of the Me Generation,” unwilling to bother her pretty little head about anything beyond her own self-interest. An enduring line from the film, the Best Picture of 1939, is Scarlett’s dismissive line: “I’ll think about that tomorrow.” So it goes with our great war and its meaning.

As laudable as her actions are in calling for the flag to come down in South Carolina, Governor Nikki Haley still seems to embrace another great myth about the war. She said this week that some troubled souls, like the alleged killer of nine black Americans at a prayer service in Charleston, have “a sick and twisted view of the flag” and that those who simply respect southern “heritage” by displaying the flag are effectively victimized by those who embrace the banner as the ultimate racist emblem. This distinction is another myth.

The American Civil War was fought to maintain a way of life all right, but that “heritage,” that way of life, was all about maintaining slavery and white supremacy. While we’re taking down the Stars and Bars perhaps we ought to petition Turner Classic Movies to send Rhett and Scarlett off to a museum, too.

Myth + Ignorance = Politics…

The myths about our great war also feed directly into a shocking degree of ignorance about the seminal event in American history. Numerous studies have shown that many students have trouble placing the Civil War in the right decade of the 19th Century and some, even at very  good public universities, don’t know who won the war or why it was fought.

The 1948 Dixiecrat ticket

The 1948 Dixiecrat ticket

As ignorance intersected with mythology over the decades the Civil War became about “heritage” and “culture” rather than violent opposition to African-American civil rights. Meanwhile, politicians from Pitchfork Ben Tillman to Strom Thurmond to Richard Nixon invoked “states rights” as a cause as pure as Jefferson Davis’ motives.

Thurmond, a South Carolina Democrat who eventually became a Republican, denounced civil rights and espoused states rights when he ran for the presidency in 1948 on the Dixiecrat ticket. Thurmond’s campaign wrapped itself in the Confederate flag and won four Southern states and an electoral vote in Tennessee.

Even the great liberal Franklin Roosevelt kept his distance from race and civil rights while in the White House even when pestered to take action by his more liberal wife. FDR had no desire to upset the delicate balance of white political power below the Mason-Dixon line that kept southern Democratic segregationists in his party and in position of great power until the last half of the 20th Century.

The sainted Ronald Reagan, the modern GOP’s answer to Roosevelt, skillfully played the myth card when seeking the presidency in 1980. Reagan launched his campaign that year in Philadelphia, Mississippi at the Neshoba County fair. Sixteen years earlier, as New York Times columnist Bob Herbert recalled in a 2007 column, a young New Yorker Andrew Goodman and two fellow civil rights activists Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, a young black man, disappeared in Neshoba County. Their bodies wouldn’t be found for weeks.

Reagan in Philadelphia, MS to launch his 1980 campaign

Reagan in Philadelphia, Mississippi  to launch his 1980 presidential campaign

“All had been murdered, shot to death by whites enraged at the very idea of people trying to secure the rights of African-Americans.

“The murders were among the most notorious in American history. They constituted Neshoba County’s primary claim to fame when Reagan won the Republican Party’s nomination for president in 1980. The case was still a festering sore at that time. Some of the conspirators were still being protected by the local community. And white supremacy was still the order of the day.”

States Rights…

Reagan used his Philadelphia, Mississippi speech – he was the first national candidate to ever speak there – to explicitly endorse “states rights” and blow the dog whistle of racial politics. Reagan made absolutely no mention of the still white-hot struggle in Mississippi for civil rights, while appealing to conservative white voters. Read the speech today with Reagan’s folksy references to “welfare” and “personal responsibility” and it is easy to see why his Republican Party cemented what appears, twenty-five years later, to be a permanent political deal with white southerners.

1964 FBI poster seeking information of missing civil rights workers.

1964 FBI poster seeking information of missing civil rights workers.

“I believe in state’s rights,” Reagan said in Mississippi in 1980. “I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level. And I believe that we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the constitution to that federal establishment. And if I do get the job I’m looking for, I’m going to devote myself to trying to reorder those priorities and to restore to the states and local communities those functions which properly belong there.”

The crowd of 10,000 voters – those who were there recall seeing no black faces in the crowd – knew what the candidate was promising and the “re-ordering” myth, at its heart a plea to return to – or maintain – a culture where the Confederate flag flaps in every southern breeze. It’s a small leap from Neshoba County in 1980 to the leader of the nation’s largest white supremacy group lavishing campaign money on Republican presidential candidates and members of Congress in 2015.

It is a moment to pause and praise the South Carolina governor for taking a decent and important step regarding that old and hateful flag. It would be easy to say the action is about 150 years late, but perhaps as symbols finally fall, even slowly, it will help to both destroy the myths and improve the knowledge about our great war. There is more to do.

Where it Began…

South Carolina in 1860

South Carolina in 1860

The next time you hear some politician proclaim fidelity to “states rights” or argue for the sanctity of the Constitution, remember that South Carolina, where our own great war began, rather skillfully and with no apparent irony invoked the Constitution in 1860 in an attempt to destroy the Constitution and leave the Union.

“A geographical line has been drawn across the Union,” South Carolina declared in seceding from the Union just weeks after Abraham Lincoln was elected, “and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that ‘Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,’ and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.”

Our great war really was about ending human bondage and not merely Scarlett’s “heritage.” Both sides knew it then and we should know it now. It should be obvious that the flag hoisted by the rebels represents, even today, the bloody battle to perpetuate black Americans in slavery. The Confederate flag is simply a symbol of racism, bigotry and hatred and having it fly over a state capitol or adorn a license plate is deeply offensive and historically wrong.

A century and a half removed from our seminal event our great war remains shrouded in myth and buried in ignorance, but one need only read Lincoln’s greatest speech to better understand our true history and why we must – finally – come to terms with our great national catastrophe and its roots in white supremacy.

“All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war…”

“One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves,” Lincoln said in 1865, “not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.”

Taking down the flag is important, but hardly the full answer to our troubled racial past and still troubled present. “The Confederate flag should not come down because it is offensive to African Americans,” Ta-Nehisi Coates, an African-American, writes in The Atlantic. “The Confederate flag should come down because it is embarrassing to all Americans. The embarrassment is not limited to the flag, itself. The fact that it still flies, that one must debate its meaning in 2015, reflects an incredible ignorance. A century and a half after Lincoln was killed, after 750,000 of our ancestors died, Americans still aren’t quite sure why.”

Some Americans are still willing to “rend the Union” by perpetuating myths and playing on ignorance often while pursuing votes. That awful war never ends. Taking down the flag is a small step, but a correct one. Myths are dismantled and ignorance overcome, too slowly perhaps, but it must happen.

 

For the People

lincoln_abrahamOne reason, I think, so much has been made of the 50th anniversary of John Kennedy’s murder in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963 is the pervasive sense of political longing for a time when, whether true or not, it seemed almost anything was possible.

Put a man on the moon in the decade of the 1960’s and return him safely to Earth – no problem. Create a Peace Corps and send idealistic young Americans to the world’s poorest nations to deal with hunger, disease and ignorance – done. Reach real arms control agreements that dramatically reduce the threat of nuclear war – possible and likely.

University of Virginia political scientist Dr. Larry Sabato is correct, as his new book The Kennedy Half Century makes clear, that the martyred young president – his style, rhetoric and easy optimism – has had more impact on American politics since his death than anyone else in the last half century. Arguably Kennedy’s 1,000 days lacked enduring accomplishment. His deft handling of the Cuban missile crisis notwithstanding, there is little in JFK’s abbreviated first term to suggest real presidential greatness, yet many Americans regard him as the best president since Franklin Roosevelt. That cannot entirely be written off to the glamour of Camelot.

And before there was November 22, 1963 there was November 19, 1863 – Kennedy’s death and Abraham Lincoln’s great speech at Gettysburg separated by almost exactly 100 years, but at the same time the presidencies of the two great martyred chief executives united in a way by what seems to me a hunger for what we might call a politics of meaning.

A brilliant Washington Post essay by Harvard president and Civil War historian Drew Gilpin Faust recently asked if our government “by the people and for the people” is truly alive and well in the United States. Faust reminds us that Lincoln used his his taut, elegant and enduring speech 150 years ago tomorrow to call on his constituents to “persevere in the ‘unfinished work’ before them.”

Another fearful year and a half of war lay ahead, with yet again as many deaths to come,” Faust wrote. “But Appomattox would not end the work he envisioned. It was the obligations of freedom and nationhood as well as those of war that he urged upon his audience. Seizing the full meaning of liberty and equality still lay ahead.”

Lincoln knew that the awful war had to result in something better, something greater or else all the blood and treasure lost and never recovered would surely condemn the still youthful American experiment to failure. Lincoln used the rhetoric of his presidency, as John Kennedy did a century leter, to summon the country to something greater, something bigger than mere partisan politics.

Is There More than Partisanship…

There is no doubt that Kennedy was late to the struggle for civil rights for black Americans and only came fully to what he eventually termed “a moral issue” after the protests in Birmingham and elsewhere turned ugly and violence. In his now justly celebrated speech in June of 1963 where Kennedy called on Congress to pass civil rights legislation the young president made the issue bigger than partisanship or even politics.

“This is not a sectional issue,” Kennedy said. “Difficulties over segregation and discrimination exist in every city, in every State of the Union, producing in many cities a rising tide of discontent that threatens the public safety. Nor is this a partisan issue. In a time of domestic crisis men of good will and generosity should be able to unite regardless of party or politics…we are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution.”

Near the end of his nationally televised civil rights speech Kennedy began remarkably to ad lib and in doing so his words became even more urgent, summoning images that still haunt America 50 years later.

“Today, there are Negros unemployed, two or three times as many compared to whites,” Kennedy said, “inadequate education, moving into the larger cities, unable to find work, young people particularly out of work without hope, denied equal rights, denied the opportunity to eat at a restaurant or a lunch counter or go to a movie theater, denied the right to a decent education, denied almost today the right to attend a State university even though qualified. It seems to me that these are matters which concern us all, not merely Presidents of Congressmen or Governors, but every citizen of the United States.”

As he had in his first speech as president, Kennedy was calling the country in 1963 to live out its potential and to not merely be content to act as though it were fulfilling its highest moral and legal obligations. Lincoln repeatedly did the same during the Civil War reminding Americans that in their country they did possess the “best hope” on Earth for a better way to live.

“These are responsibilities that belong to us still,” Drew Gilpin Faust wrote in the Post. “Yet on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s immortal speech, where is our stewardship of that legacy? After beginning a new fiscal year by shutting down the government, we are far from modeling to the world why our — or any — democracy should be viewed as the ‘best hope’ for humankind. The world sees in the United States the rapid growth of inequality; the erosion of educational opportunity and social mobility that ‘afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life'; the weakening of voting rights hard-won over a century of post-Reconstruction struggle.”

The Politics of the Short-Term…

Where indeed is the high public purpose in the politics of either of today’s major political parties; parties that are almost entirely focused on short-term tactical approaches designed only to address the next election cycle. With President Obama hopelessly bogged down in health care problems largely of his own making and, so far in his second term, failing to call the country to sustained action of anything the not-s0-loyal minority counters by offering, well, nothing.

“What we have done so far this year clearly hasn’t worked,” a GOP aide involved in 2014 planning sessions for House Republicans recently told Politico. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the Republican aide said, “wants to take us in a new direction, which is good. The problem is we don’t know where we are headed, and we don’t know what we can sell to our members.”

We remember our martyred presidents not just because awful fate took them at the zenith of their power, poised on the cusp of leading us forward, but because they seemed able to give meaning to a greater cause, while urging a nation and its people to a higher calling.

Aspiration and a call to greatness are largely missing from public life today and therefore it is little wonder so many Americans long for leadership – the leadership of a Lincoln or a Kennedy – that is able to give real meaning to our politics; a kind of meaning where the “better angels of our nature” are summoned to do not for ourselves but for our country.

 

The Age of Unreason

urlAs the United States slides into the second week of the “Seinfeld shutdown” – the federal government shutdown about nothing – and edges toward the certain financial disaster that would accompany a government default, who would have thought that one clear voice of reason would come with a French accent.

“If there is that degree of disruption, that lack of certainty, that lack of trust in the US signature, it would mean massive disruption the world over, and we would be at risk of tipping yet again into a recession,” said Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund.

Lagarde, who may find she needs her elegant scarves to protect against the frozen politics in Washington, made her doomsday prediction over the weekend in the capitol of dysfunction where the “wacko bird” fringe of the Tea Party, those who precipitated the shutdown – two first term U.S. Senators, one on the job since January the other for a year longer and the “game changer” from Alaska – demonstrated the range of their intellectual gymnastics by protested that “Obama’s shutdown” had forced National Park Service rangers off the job thereby barricading the World War II memorial on The Mall. Meanwhile, the minority within the minority that is the Tea Party, rallied in front of the White House with at least one protester waving the Confederate flag.

As Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg Tweeted, “in many parts of America, waving a Confederate flag outside the home of a black family would be considered a very hostile act.” But, hey, this is America in the 21st Century, an age of unreason where anything goes, including potentially the nation’s credit and the world’s economy.

By broad and deep consensus from the political right and left, the nullifiers in the Tea Party wing of the one-time party of Lincoln, Eisenhower and Reagan will emerge from the last month of sloganeering with lower approval ratings, less chance to take control of the United States Senate, dimmer prospects for winning the White House in 2016 and more determination than ever to take their party and the country in a new direction, even if it is over a cliff.

The Mind of the Tea Party

The modern Republican Party, at least the one we’ve known since Richard Nixon and until George W. Bush, was routinely defined by its opponents as a Chamber of Commerce country club elite, beholden to big business and responsive to Wall Street. But no longer.

A liberal columnist like the Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky suggests the historic “business wing” of the GOP must save us all from the Ted Cruz-Sarah Palin wing because “this is the biggest political issue of our time…because a reasonable GOP would make the country governable again. A critical mass of conservative compromisers, with maybe a few genuinely moderate Republicans thrown in, would end this dysfunction more quickly than anything else.”

But Tomasky and many others, including many Democrats, underestimate the fear – and I use that word advisedly – that has helped create the world view of the current and more populist GOP. The Tea Party not only loathes the president, but also Wall Street, much popular culture, the media “establishment” – other than Fox News – and, most importantly, the leadership of the Republican Party.

Writing in the New York Times Thomas Edsall notes that, “animosity toward the federal government has been intensifying at a stunning rate. In a survey released on Sept. 23, Gallup found that the percentage of Republicans saying the federal government has too much power — 81 percent — had reached a record-setting level.” Combine that sentiment with “the findings of a Pew Research Center survey released four weeks ago. They show that discontent with Republican House and Senate leaders runs deep among Republican primary voters: two-thirds of them disapprove of their party’s Congressional leadership — John Boehner, the speaker of the House, and Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader.” In short, the most Republican of Republicans dislike almost everything about their government, including the strange man in the White House and their own leaders.

Some of the most interesting and insightful research into the mind of the Tea Party voter comes from respected Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg who recently conducted a series of detailed focus groups to try and understand the thinking that has become the driving force in the new GOP politics.

“While many voters, including plenty of Democrats, question whether Obama is succeeding and getting his agenda done,” Greenberg reports. “Republicans think he has won. The country as a whole may think gridlock has triumphed, particularly in the midst of a Republican-led government shutdown, but Republicans see a president who has fooled and manipulated the public, lied, and gotten his secret socialist-Marxist agenda done. Republicans and their kind of Americans are losing.”

And there is this: Tea Party adherents “think they face a victorious Democratic Party that is intent on expanding government to increase dependency and therefore electoral support. It starts with food stamps and unemployment benefits; expands further if you legalize the illegals; but insuring the uninsured dramatically grows those dependent on government. They believe this is an electoral strategy — not just a political ideology or economic philosophy. If Obamacare happens, the Republican Party may be lost, in their view.”

If you embrace the idea, as many Americans quite clearly do, that the country is lost to them, then there is little to be lost from using what little power you have to shut down the government and blow up the economy. It’s the gruesome political equivalent of the U.S. commander in Southeast Asia who infamously declared that the Vietnamese village had to be destroyed in order to be saved.

Nullification

William Faulkner’s great line seems more appropriate than ever: “the past is never dead, it isn’t even past.” And the heart of the Tea Party message – that the country is doomed by the unconstitutional actions of an illegitimate president – is, as novel as it might seem daily on cable television, far from a new phenomenon. Frank Rich is one of the best at connecting the dots of our politics once our tiny attention spans have moved on to the next big thing. He reminds us in his latest New York magazine essay that we’ve seen this movie before.

“The political tactics and ideological conflicts are the same today as they were the last time around [1995].  Back then, the GOP was holding out for a budget that would deeply slash government health-care spending (in that case on Medicare) and was refusing to advance a clean funding bill that would keep the government open. The House also took the debt ceiling hostage, attaching a wish list of pet conservative causes to the routine bill that would extend it. That maneuver prompted Moody’s, the credit-rating agency, to threaten to downgrade Treasury securities, and Wall Street heavies like Felix Rohatyn to warn of impending economic catastrophe. The secretary of the Treasury, Robert Rubin, juggled funds in federal accounts to delay default much as his protégé Jacob Lew was driven to do in the same Cabinet position now. Leon Panetta, then Clinton’s chief of staff, accused the Republicans of holding ‘a gun to the head of the president and the head of the country’ and likened their threats to ‘a form of terrorism.’”

The past that truly isn’t dead is what Frank Rich calls the precepts of the great pre-Civil War nullifier, John C. Calhoun, that have found voice in the 80 or so House Republicans who would destroy the economy to destroy Obamacare and, of course, given the current occupant of the Oval Office there are other factors at play.

“It was inevitable that when a black president took office, the racial fevers of secessionist history would resurface and exacerbate some of the radicals’ rage,” Rich says in helping us understand that rebel flag waving protester yesterday in front of the White House. But he also correctly notes that “to brand this entire cohort as racist is both incorrect and reductive. It under­estimates their broader ideological sway within their party. The unifying bogeyman for this camp is the federal government, not blacks or Hispanics, and that animus will remain undiminished after Obama’s departure from the White House.”

“We are upholding the true doctrines of the Federal Constitution,” the former Senator from Mississippi Jefferson Davis said in 1861 when he took the presidency of the eleven southern states who thought they could leave the Union after the election of a president the rebels considered illegitimate. It is not merely an historical oddity that today many of the highest profile leaders of the Republican Party from Cruz and Rubio to Cantor and Graham represent those eleven states – the true base of the GOP – in the U.S. Congress. Mitch McConnell’s Kentucky never seceded, but rather as the great Civil War historian Gary Gallagher once quipped, “joined the Confederacy after the war was over.” The great geographic outlier in the current GOP leadership is the embattled John Boehner from Ohio, a state that has produced eight Republican presidents, five of whom fought on the Union side in the War of the Rebellion.

Still the nullifiers have had some success because, as Thomas Edsall says, “a determined minority can do a lot in our system. It has already won the battle for the hearts and minds of the Republican House caucus. That is not a modest victory.” The same movement, we should remember, caused state legislatures from Idaho to Arizona to flirt with legislation to “nullify” the federal “tyranny” of Obamacare and many of the reddest states have refused to accept a key aspect of the law, the expansion of Medicare. It will be another victory for this philosophy when the Tea Party selects the next GOP presidential candidate, a Republican disciple one suspects far removed from the party’s last two candidates – John McCain and Mitt Romney.

No one knows the impact of the victory for the hearts and minds of the House Republican caucus more than the combative Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic leader, who has been calling the shut down audibles for the Democrats. Knowing that this great civil war likely won’t be over any time soon, Reid – the former boxer – would love to go for a knockout, but will settle for a split decision. When your opponents think you’ve lied your way to power and believe the country is being destroyed it is not a great leap to say that the Founder’s Constitution is on their side, while they wrap themselves in the battle flag and fight, as another southerner used to say, “until the last dog dies.”

The elegant and precise International Monetary Fund president, Madam Lagarde, a member of the Socialist Party in France, must find all of this enormously confusing, not to say frightening. Like the rest of us, she’d better get used to it. True believers, after all, don’t often change.

 

The War That Never Ended

51cdd5f23e6e9.preview-300Hard to believe but as recently as 1938 veterans of George Gordon Meade’s Army of the Potomac and Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia embraced each other in the sultry summer heat of southeastern Pennsylvania at the site of the pivotal battle in the awful war that keep the United States a nation. The old boys in the photo had fought at Gettysburg in 1863 and showed up for the 75th anniversary of the battle in July of 1938.

What lives they must have led. As young men, boys really, they had participated in battle that both saved the Union and served as the High Tide of the Confederacy. They had lived during the time that Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse defeated Custer at the Little Big Horn. Custer had lead his Michigan cavalry volunteers at Gettysburg. They had seen three presidents assassinated, the battleship Maine sunk in Cuba, the Panama Canal completed, the Great War fought, prohibition tried and abandoned and they confronted a Great Depression. All that history seen and lived and one suspects that the first three days of July 1863 were still the defining hours of their lives.

As historian Allen C. Guelzo, author of a respected new history of the battle, writes in the New York Times: “It took no more than a few days after the Battle of Gettysburg for the men who had fought there to realize how important it had been. ‘The Battle of Gettysburg, like Waterloo, must stand conspicuous in the history of all ages,’ wrote a staff officer, Frank Aretas Haskell, who himself would die less than a year later in a much less conspicuous battle at a place called Cold Harbor. And even by the most remote measure, Haskell was right.”

If the Civil War is the war that never ended, and in so many ways it is, then Gettysburg is the battle we can’t get enough of. Well more than a million visitors will tour the battlefield this year, new books and new scholarship continues to explore every aspect of the fight and during these first days of July “reenactors” swarm across into the little college town in Pennsylvania to “pay tribute” to those who fought and fell 150 years ago this week. (I admit to a life-long fascination with the Civil War as, in my view, the pivotal event in our history, but I find the reenactors, in all candor, to be just a little creepy. There was little or no glamour in Civil War soldiering and, while the history of the conflict is critical to understanding our country today, we are well served to avoid any myth making or romanticizing of the war and its meaning.)

Two years ago the Pew Center for the People & the Press undertook a major survey to gauge the Civil War’s impact on modern America. Fully 56% of those surveyed said they thought the war was still relevant to our politics and political life and, somewhat disturbing to me, 48% said the main cause of the war was “states rights,” while only 38% said the war had been mostly about slavery.

No less an authority than Abraham Lincoln knew that the Civil War was fundamentally about slavery. As Lincoln recounted the foundations of the war in his famous Second Inaugural in March of 1865 he spoke explicitly of slavery. “One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves,” Lincoln said, “not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.”

It is a testament to how completely the sons and daughters of the Old Confederacy prevailed in the post-war public relations battle that 150 years after the war, with all the intervening history of Constitutional amendments, segregation, Jim Crow laws, the civil rights movement and groundbreaking legislation in the 1960’s, many Americans still say the Civil War was – or should we say is – about “states rights.”

Think the Civil War is no longer relevant? Last week the United States Supreme Court made rulings in affirmative action and voting rights cases that, it can safely be argued, are a direct legacy of the war that never ended.

As Louis Menard writes in The New Yorker, “The [Voting Rights] act is celebrated because it was enormously effective in giving African-Americans the vote—far more effective than Brown was in integrating schools—and because it gave African-Americans something desegregation alone could not give them: political power.” Indeed.

The 15th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, passed in the days immediately after the Civil War, says it simply and yet eloquently. “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” And then the phrase the Court seems to have overlooked, “The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” In 1965 that “appropriate legislation” became the Voting Rights Act.

“Our country has changed,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., said in his majority opinion putting, as Georgia Congressman John Lewis said, “a dagger in the heart” of the Act by ending the so called “pre-clearence” provisions of the 1965 law. This provision requires the Justice Department to review proposed changes in election law before they take effect in the mostly southern states with a legacy of voting rights abuses. But in carefully cutting out that section of the landmark law could the learned Chief Justice really believe that race and efforts to limit voting rights are no long issues in America, even 150 years after that great battle in Pennsylvania?

As Menard notes in his fine piece The Color of Law, “The Times reported that one place eagerly awaiting the Court’s [Voting Rights] ruling was Beaumont, Texas, where the Justice Department has blocked several attempts by a group of white citizens to change voting regulations for the explicit purpose of unseating a black-majority school board. What’s so changed about that?’

As we think about the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg, the 20th Maine’s bayonet charge down Little Round Top, the slaughter at Devil’s Den, the Virginians, Alabamans and Mississippians walking briskly to their death under George Pickett’s orders, we best also reflect on the notion that our country has changed, but also ask what must still change.

The country has changed, of course, in so many ways, but the fact that after a century and a half we still cannot agree on the cause of our great national trial is all the evidence we need – or the Supreme Court should need – to prove that we still have battles to fight to “prefect a more perfect Union;” battle to wage and win in order to guarantee full citizenship for those who still live the legacy of what Lincoln called our “peculiar and powerful interest.”

 

The Defining Event

The author and historian Shelby Foote, his narrative history of the Civil War  – all 1.5 million words of it – remains one of the masterpieces of American letters, once told the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns: “Any understanding of this nation has to be based, and I mean really based, on an understanding of the Civil War. I believe that firmly. It defined us. The Revolution did what it did. Our involvement in European wars, beginning with the First World War, did what it did. But the Civil War defined us as what we are and it opened us to being what we became, good and bad things. And it is very necessary, if you are going to understand the American character in the twentieth century, to learn about this enormous catastrophe of the mid-nineteenth century. It was the crossroads of our being, and it was a hell of a crossroads.”

The crossroads of American history? Indeed.

Do we really need to understand the Civil War to understand the current debates over the role of the Supreme Court or whether the president has the authority to legally detain a person thought to present a threat to the nation? The short answer is a resounding – yes. Issues of race, the roles and responsibilities of the states in relation to the federal government, whether a state can “nullify” a federal act, our very notions of freedom and equality all have roots in the Civil War. Later this month The Andrus Center at Boise State University will welcome a distinguished group of American scholars and historians to a conference to commemorate the 150th anniversary of our defining event. We’re calling it “Why the Civil War Still Matters.”

One of those historians is Dr. Joan Waugh who teaches history at UCLA and has authored a fascinating and important book about one of the central characters of the Civil War; a dated and dusty figure who most of us only vaguely know – U.S. Grant. Waugh sat out with her book – U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth – to understand the importance of Grant, the general and the president, to his times. I hope most high school students know that Grant was the fighting general who Abraham Lincoln ultimately turned to to win the Civil War and perhaps we have some hazy notion that he eventually became a mediocre president whose administration was dogged by scandal.

But in his time, Grant was much, much more; a figure considered by his fellow Americans as worthy of mention in the same breath as Washington and Lincoln.

“From April 9, 1865,” Waugh writes, “Grant emerged as the top military victor, but importantly as a magnanimous warrior of mythic status to whom the people of the re-United States turned for leadership time and again in the years after Lincoln’s assassination.” Think for a moment of the importance of Grant the military victor who brought defeat to the rebel southern states and then helps advance the long cause of reunification by virtue of him magnanimous attitude toward the very people who had tried to kill him and the country.

As difficult as our national challenges of race, equality and sectional division remain today, it is not at all difficult to imagine that without Grant, the magnanimous warrior, our national reconciliation may never have happened. This is the kind of story that Shelby Foote knew defined American character down to the present day. Today politicians from across the political spectrum toss around illusions to the Constitution like so many focus group tested sound bites, but the Civil War was all about the Constitution and the enduring meaning of the words to create “a more perfect Union.” For that reason and so many more our generation must confront again and again this national history and its meaning today.

More information on The Andrus Center conference on the Civil War – Why the Civil War Still Matters – can be found at The Center’s website: www.andruscenter.org.

 The conference will take place on October 25, 2012 and is open to the public. It promises to be a day of enlightenment, entertain and relevance.

 

 

The Defining Moment

It has always fascinated, even confounded me that hundreds of thousands of young men from farms and factories, Irishmen and Germans, rich and poor put on the Northern blue and fought a devastating Civil War for four years for the idea – the concept – of “Union.”

Of course the great and terrible American Civil War – across the country we are commemorating its 150th anniversary – eventually became a war to end slavery, but it certainly didn’t begin that way. The war that it is now believed claimed the lives of 750,000 Americans, North and South, was, as University of Virginia historian Gary Gallagher has argued, a war to preserve the very idea that a still new nation could survive – in one piece.

Gallagher’s latest book on the war – he’s written seven himself and co-authored or edited twice again as many – is called The Union War. Gallagher makes the case that as vital – and morally correct – as ending slavery was, preserving the idea of the still young nation was pretty important, too and that idea of Union is worth considering anew.

Gallagher quotes Abraham Lincoln early in the war as saying: “For my own part, I consider the central idea pervading this struggle is the necessity that is upon us, of proving that popular government is not an absurdity. We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose. If we fail it will go far to prove the incapability of the people to govern themselves.”

I’m delighted that Professor Gallagher and half a dozen other distinguished historians of the Civil War will be in Boise on October 25th for what proves to be an interesting, provocative and enlightening conference on the war organized by The Andrus Center at Boise State University.

Gallagher will keynote the conference with a talk entitled: “The Civil War at the Sesquicentennial: How Well Do Americans Understand Their Great National Crisis?”

Gallagher’s recent book has sparked some controversy because he has sifted the evidence in search of the real motivation for the fighting on both sides and re-interpreted much of what we have long taken for granted about the war. Such is the nature of the great conflict. It has been said that we have never stopped fighting – or debating – the war.

For example, slavery ended with the war, but racism hasn’t ended. We have the first black president in the White House, but his presidency has been haunted by age-old demands for greater “state’s rights” on many things and our country is now as politically divided as at any time since, well, the Civil War. Arguments persist about displaying the “Stars and Bars,” the Confederate battle flag, over southern state capitols and there is plenty of room to debate Lincoln’s arguably unconstitutional crack down on the partisan press and suspension of habeas corpus.

I would argue that the Civil War is the defining event in our national story. It was fought from 1861 to 1865, but in some respects the personalities, the impact, the controversy, the relevance are with us still. I’ll offer more thoughts on the great American trial this week and hope loyal readers might consider devoting a day in October to thinking anew about the Civil War at a conference we’re calling – Why The Civil War Still Matters.