Nostalgia, Or Wishful Thinking

When it comes to being a ‘son of the Confederacy,’ my credentials are hard to beat.  Three of my great-great-grandfathers fought for the South, one of them taken prisoner during the breakout at Petersburg, VA on April 2, 1865.  He spent the remaining months of the war in a POW camp in Maryland.  His brother-in-law also served, as did quite a number of others in my extended family.

This picture is from A Photographic History of the Civil War in Ten Volumes (Volume 3: “The Decisive Battles”) edited by Francis Miller (New York: The Review of Reviews, 1911), a set given to me by a great-aunt sometime around 1960.  It shows a Confederate soldier who had just been killed during the breakout.  Notice his lack of shoes, and the bandage or wrapping on one foot.  It was a terrible time, especially for the Confederate troops (though the Union ones couldn’t have been doing much better).

When I was a kid in Richmond, IN and we would play Civil War, I generally had to represent the South alone.  Though I did not approve of the cause of the South (my family had become Quaker, part of a long abolitionist tradition), my family heritage kept me from disparaging its soldiers.

By the time my family moved back to the South in 1961, I had become fascinated by that war, and had learned a great deal about it.  I learned more, as we settled into Atlanta and I saw the cyclorama of the Battle of Atlanta in Grant Park–and came across, just outside, twin water fountains, one labeled ‘Whites Only’ (maybe it wasn’t there that I saw them–but I do remember them, and remember the shock of seeing them).

The centennial of the Civil War and the height of the Civil Rights movement quickly became intertwined, to me.  The “Forget? Hell!” license plates (showing a tattered old soldier in gray, the Confederate battle flag over his shoulder) were irrevocably yoked in my mind to the death of Medgar Evers and the bombing of that church in Montgomery, AL that left four girls dead and more than twenty people injured.

States rights?  Not slavery?  Today, on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday, was a story about a reenactment of Jefferson Davis’s swearing-in as president of the Confederacy (and there’s also one in The New York Times), an event devoid of mention of slavery.  Pride in the South has led to a re-writing of history.  The reality is that the issue of states rights was married to defense of slavery from the time of the Constitutional Convention; the seeds of the Civil War were sown there in Philadelphia (or even earlier, as the authors of Slave Nation argue)–and not in the establishment of a federal government and diminution of the power of the states, but in the compromises on slavery that satisfied no one.

I respect the memory of my ancestors, but that doesn’t mean I have to pretend that the cause they fought for was something other than it was.  Yes, there were other things besides slavery important to the Civil War (most of my ancestors who fought were mountaineers from Western North Carolina, people far too poor to ever have owned slaves), but the war never would have happened, had the ‘peculiar institution’ not existed.

To me, because the Civil Rights movement and the centennial of the Civil War occurred together, I learned to respect both.  For others, the Civil Rights movement destroyed an imagined America–and they took to a revisionist view of the Civil War as an antidote, as a focus for nostalgia for an America that never existed.

To them, if the Civil War hadn’t been about slavery in the first place, then the Civil Rights movement needn’t have happened–and life could still be like they pretend once it was.