Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Civil War revisited (latest in a series)


They were everywhere on April 12, the sesquicentennial anniversary of the start of the American Civil War: news stories datelined from Fort Sumter, S.C., the Union stronghold that the Confederates first began bombarding at 4:30 that morning in 1861, officially beginning the hostilities that eventually consumed 2 percent of the nation’s population as casualties, the nation’s bloodiest war that, vis-à-vis race relations, began the future of African Americans.

Since then? Not so much said in the mainstream media about the war that scarred this country and whose impact we endure today. There’s so much else going on in the here and now, goes the apparent thinking; the media took off its hat and bowed its head to the most ruinous war in our history … and moved on to the more genial combat of “Dancing With the Stars.”

But 150 years after the start of the genuine article, what’s compelling is the way in which the Civil War is being re-waged, at a number of levels, in theaters of battles the original combatants couldn’t have imagined. We’re fighting the Civil War by other means.

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It’s not just the continuing presence of re-enactments of Civil War skirmishes and pivotal battles. At various times throughout any given year, on some date that numerically dovetails with an earlier one, car salesmen and mechanics, middle managers and heavy equipment operators gather to wear the uniforms of Confederate or Union soldiers, load cannon with blank charges, and recreate the theater of conflict.

That’s gone on for years, and often from a Southern perspective; battles won by the Confederate forces have a special place in the regional heart, for obvious reasons. The re-enacters have a special fondness for hitting that rewind button.

Or some Southern states don’t reenact the start of the war, they re-create the date of their secession from the Union. In December 2010, the Confederate Heritage Trust of Charleston held its Secession Ball, a gala that began a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Palmetto State’s secession, the first to break from the United States.

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Certain Southern politicians have shown more of a fondness for outright historical revisionism. In April 2010, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell issued a proclamation celebrating Confederate History Month at the request of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an organization of descendants of rebel soldiers.

McDonnell’s proclamation, which revived a tradition discontinued in two previous (Democratic) administrations, didn’t include a word about slavery, the “peculiar institution” that gave the Confederacy its very reason for being.

A few days later, after the firestorm of criticism you’d expect, McDonnell made with a kind of a mea culpa: “The failure to include any reference to slavery was a mistake, and for that I apologize to any fellow Virginian who has been offended or disappointed.”

“It is important for all Virginians to understand that the institution of slavery led to this war, and was an evil and inhuman practice that deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights.”

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, considered presidential timber by some in his Republican Party, rushed to shore up McDonnell’s defenses, calling the proclamation's omission of slavery something that “doesn’t amount to diddly.” It was revisionist history that celebrated a tradition while overlooking the antecedents that made that tradition possible.

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Without slavery, of course, there’d have been no anti-slavery position for Abraham Lincoln to campaign on and win an election with; without Lincoln’s election, the rationale for secession and the Confederacy itself utterly vanishes.

Connecting the obvious historical dots like this is lost on some — people like a former colleague at a San Francisco newspaper where I worked in the early 1990’s. An otherwise witty, personable and well-read journalist who was raised in the South, he had a demeanor that switched suddenly when the matter of the Civil War came up.

When that happened once in the course of some conversation, he informed me (in what he thought was a tone of authority but was conveyed with an undercurrent of menace) that the Civil War had absolutely nothing to do with slavery and everything to do with a state’s right to pursue commerce without interference from the federal government.

It would have been a waste of time to show him excerpts of the Cornerstone Speech by Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederate States of America, in March 1861. That was when Stephens said the Confederacy and “its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

It’s this vast blind spot that persists in the national field of vision. It’s this blind spot that’s the terrain where the Civil War goes on today.

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It’s being fought, or at least re-litigated, in our popular culture. “The Conspirator,” the new film by Oscar-winning director Robert Redford, re-examines the Lincoln assassination and the trial of Mary Surratt, the only woman implicated in the conspiracy to kill the 16th president. And we can look forward to Steven Spielberg’s biopic on Lincoln, to be portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis. It’s set to begin filming in the fall, with release planned for fall 2012.

And the Civil War has been fought after the fact by black Americans, the descendants of the slaves who were at the heart of the conflict. One of the strategies employed by those descendants on the postwar battlefield was a brilliant rejoinder to the searing power of the Confederate flag, the Stars and Bars whose appearance in the American South and elsewhere has long been a symbol of a tolerance for intolerance.

In 1994, NuSouth, a progressive urban clothing company based in Charleston, S.C., took the emotionally powerful step of reclaiming the Confederate flag, tweaking its traditional red, white and blue colors to the black liberation colors of red, black and green. It was a bold semiotic stroke, one that aroused the ire and the respect of Southerners, an action that sent the notice that black Americans need not be held in check by a flag whose very existence is a signal of disrespect for them and all they represent.

“By using the design to turn a potent symbol of white supremacy and black oppression on its ear, and then reproducing it on clothing worn by everyone from tourists to television actors to members of the hillbilly-rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd, they have reclaimed the flag for themselves—and for all southerners,” wrote Andy Steiner in the July/August 1999 Utne Reader.

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And the NuSouth design was, as much as anything else, an existential expression consistent with what black people in the United States have always had to do: achieve genius in survival. Taking the masters’ leavings and turning it into cuisine. Transforming a trail of sorrows into chain-gang anthems and changing them into the emotional infrastructure, the double helix, of the blues.

It’s maybe the best way to survive a war whose casualties have expanded well beyond the geographic boundaries of that war’s location, the chronological boundaries of that war’s official beginning and end. The Ku Klux Klan was coming. So were the lynchings and the murders and disappearances, in the South and elsewhere in America. So were the exploits of Confederate Gens. J.B. Stoner and George Wallace, Orval Faubus and Lester Maddox, and their enablers and apologists into the moment of right now, those who’ve adopted the basis of Alexander Stephens’ Cornerstone Speech, privately if not publicly.

Inspired by sesquicentennial numerology, the current revisitation of the Civil War is nothing more than the most recent one, the latest reminder of a sadly resilient national fact: the Civil War is the American war that never ends.

Image credits: Bob McDonnell: © 2010 Gage Skidmore, republished under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Alexander Stephens: public domain. Conspirator poster: © 2011 Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions. NuSouth flag: © 1994 NuSouth Apparel.

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