Friday, April 9, 2010

Song of the South

On this day in 1865, the South surrendered to the North, bringing the Civil War to an end.

Well, that's the way it reads in the history books. It's too bad that most history textbooks don't seem to tell the most inspiring part of the story.

As Robert E. Lee rode to Appomattox Court House to meet with Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, he couldn't know what his fate would be. He was a rebel, and military tradition called for executing rebels.

In fact, as he left his troops, Lee said that he expected to be Grant's prisoner before the day was out, but he stoically rode to his rendezvous, presumably hoping that Grant would be merciful, prepared to sacrifice himself for his men. What he didn't know was that Grant had discussed this possibility with Lincoln, who wanted to welcome the South back to the Union with open arms. And, when Grant and Lee sat down to discuss the terms, Lee was pleasantly surprised to learn that Grant would insist only that the Confederate soldiers promise not to take up arms against the United States again, and they could return to their homes.

It was an incredibly generous gesture, virtually unheard of in the 19th century. A relieved Lee was only too eager to agree to the terms and told Grant they would have a "happy effect" on his men — as indeed they did. But less than a week later, Lincoln was dead, and the Northerners who were in control of the government gave in to the desire to punish the South in the form of Reconstruction. And that contributed to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the implementation of the Jim Crow laws.

Realistically, I suppose, a kind of a civil war raged on for another century. Most of the casualties were blacks, who continued to live a second–class existence, segregated from whites in schools, restaurants and all public facilities and transportation, systematically denied basic privileges, like the right to vote. Those who dared to resist were quickly silenced.

I grew up in the South — in Arkansas. Today, many people speak of the landmark moments in the civil rights movement as if they were the dates when things changed. They were the dates when things started to change where I lived. Central High School in nearby Little Rock was integrated in the late 1950s; segregation went on for many more years in Arkansas' country towns. The schools in my hometown remained segregated for several years. I have vague memories of segregated water fountains and bathrooms. I don't remember when the theatre in my hometown was desegregated, but I do remember going to the movies with my parents and seeing black patrons being ushered in to a separate section of the balcony.

I remember seeing Confederate flags — not on public buildings but just about everywhere else — on homes, in yards, flying from car antennas, draped across the rear windows of pickup trucks. Folks took pride in their heritage — not necessarily what it sometimes stood for.

"Separate but equal" was always more of a concept than a reality in the South. There were isolated pockets, communities that sincerely tried to make sure that schools and other public facilities were of the same quality. But, mostly, it was something white Southerners told themselves and each other to justify separating the races, to assure themselves that blacks were not being denied anything that whites had, they were just being denied the company of whites.

That, of course, was absurd.

I've been thinking about this in the aftermath of Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's decision to declare April "Confederate History Month." McDonnell's failure to mention slavery in his proclamation provoked quite a public outcry, prompting him to relent, apologize for his "omission" and add the following to the language of his proclamation:
"WHEREAS, it is important for all Virginians to understand that the institution of slavery led to this war and was an evil and inhumane practice that deprived people of their God–given inalienable rights and all Virginians are thankful for its permanent eradication from our borders, and the study of this time period should reflect upon and learn from this painful part of our history ..."

Revisionist historians, perhaps overly influenced by the modern political correctness movement and the manner in which certain words and phrases (like Confederacy and states' rights) have become code for racism and bigotry, view the 19th century through 20th– and 21st–century lenses. They believe the Civil War was always about slavery — more to the point, they believe it was about ending slavery.

But, like most armed conflicts, it began as one thing and ended up being about something else. Isn't that what happened in Iraq? America invaded in 2003, intent upon ridding both the region and the world of the threat of Iraqi "weapons of mass destruction." When the alleged stockpiles of such weapons were not found, attention turned to liberating the Iraqi people.

If you have a conversation today with someone who supported the invasion of Iraq and continues to support the war there, you will not talk about vials of anthrax but rather about the liberation of an oppressed people. Is it good that oppressed people have been liberated? Of course, it is. But is that why the troops invaded Iraq to begin with? No.

I'm not saying McDonnell shouldn't have adjusted his proclamation to refer to slavery. He should have. Nor am I saying that slavery was not "an evil and inhumane practice." Clearly, it was.

I'm just saying it was not necessarily seen in the same light in the 19th century as it is today. Even Abraham Lincoln, who is rightfully remembered in history as the Great Emancipator, was far more concerned, upon entering the presidency, with preserving the Union than he was with ending slavery. In fact, I wrote about this on the occasion of his 200th birthday last year.

I don't have a problem with setting aside a month to remember the history of the South. I think McDonnell's mistake was in the name. "Confederate History Month" brings to mind images of slaves, the Stars and Bars, rebellion. The war is part of its history — there is no escaping that — but I don't really feel it is necessary to draw more attention to that than to the other part of its history. "Southern History Month" makes more sense — and would let everyone participate.

Sort of like the difference between having a "German History Month" and a "Nazi History Month."

I've spent nearly all of my life in the South, and I know there are things that are unique to this region, people who have made valuable contributions to the betterment of mankind. I know that there are fascinating stories from Southern history that people outside the region seldom know.

And, as for the Confederate part, I know that most of the men who fought for the Confederacy did not own slaves. You can try to hang the "racist" label on them all you want, but, if you could ask them, I doubt that many would say they were fighting to preserve slavery. They would say they were defending their homes, their families, their friends.

The Civil War was a tragedy for this nation, but the men who fought in it often displayed true heroism and self–sacrifice. Their sacrifices should be remembered and honored.

But the month need not be limited to the Confederacy. That ignores the contributions of too many generations of Southerners.

1 comment:

askcherlock said...

I do agree that all those who fought in the Civil War did so with honor and dignity under the most duress one can imagine. I have some qualms, however, about denoting a Confederacy month, as much as I would about going to war for WMD's. Not something to celebrate. Isn't that what Veteran's Day is for?