Just Who Won the Civil War, Anyhow?

Last summer, waiting to visit the submarine Growler at the Intrepid museum on the Hudson River, I watched a video on the development of the submarine. Included was discussion of Confederate submarines during the Civil War with a reference to one of the developers as a “patriot.” I thought that odd: where else would someone in open rebellion against a country be later called a “patriot” by that country? I mean, would George Washington ever be considered a “patriot” by Great Britain?

The meaning of “patriot” has always been of concern to me. I didn’t like it when, as a youth, I was called “unpatriotic” for opposing the Vietnam War for I thought my action the most patriotic thing I could do. As a southerner born often living in the north while growing up, I was constantly reminded of the question of allegiance. This was during the 1950s, and the questions were quite real, especially to those of us with southern roots–and I certainly did feel a divide.

My great-grandfather Marion Stephen Barlow served under General Phil Sheridan (his company is now the inspiration for a group of re-enactors) in the chase of Jubal Early’s Confederate army, the battle of Opequon, and the razing of the Shenandoah Valley. The army he served in is still hated by many Virginians for the destruction it caused, destruction as horrible as anything found in Sherman’s ‘march to the sea.’

After the war, great-grandfather Marion reminisced with an uncle of his (whose name I don’t know, but who was likely a little further removed, probably a cousin, a child of Marion’s uncle Aaron, who had moved across the Ohio River to Virginia–what is now West Virginia–many years before the Civil War) who had fought in the Confederate Army. They determined that they had both been involved in a skirmish at a place called Gauley Bridge, and could even have been shooting at each other.

The other side of my family was determinedly Confederate. Three of my great-great-grandfathers fought, one of them captured during the breakout at Petersburg in 1865, spending the final months of the war in a prisoner-of-war camp in Maryland. All three were men from western North Carolina.

The Civil War, of course, was a horrible experience. Its aftermath in Reconstruction and then in Jim Crow was sometimes almost as bad. Sometimes as bad. Yet, by the end of the 1960s, we seemed ready to put that behind us and to move forward as a unified nation devoted to ideals of equality and possibility. Belief in that made me proud and, yes, patriotic.

When my family moved back south in 1961, it was both the time of the Civil War centennial and the Civil Rights Movement. Watching both, I was confirmed in my faith in the union, faith that had developed over my earlier young life. There may have been a certain romanticism attached to the lost cause of the south, but the reality of it was that the United States was better off without dominant states rights and with a federal government committed to the protection of the rights of all. I had become a real patriot, proud of my country, fundamentally and permanently… and I thought all other southerners were moving that way, as well.

Now, fifty years later, I am beginning to think I was wrong. Rick Perry thinking Texas could secede from the union; Grover Norquist wanting to drown the Federal government in a bathtub. Even the hatred of Obama as “not one of us” (as non-white) is making me think that, after all this time, the victory of the north is receding, with the revenge of the south at hand. Making me think that the “patriotism” of much of America isn’t patriotism for the United States at all, but for a Confederacy hiding in US clothing (much as, in the mountains after the Civil War, a U and S compressed together–or so the story goes–was a sign of lingering Confederate sympathies, as in the sign from my great-great-grandfather Joel Dimmette’s post office in the picture here). Our Supreme Court seems to be handing the states the rights the southern ones once thought should be theirs but that they lost through war. Attitudes of hatred toward Washington are often hiding attitudes of hatred toward the once-victorious north.

So, who really won the Civil War?

Right now, I’m beginning to believe that no one did, though the old south may be growing in dominance. The south, as the old saying had it, has certainly risen again. Today’s patriots aren’t proud of a union of fifty states dedicated to liberty and justice for all, but are advocates of an ersatz “America” that is a stand-in for what had once seemed a defeated racist, classist, and economically oppressive system, a system now on the verge of being re-instituted over the country as a whole, not even just over the region where it began. That’s bad for all of us, especially the real patriots, north and south.

One thought on “Just Who Won the Civil War, Anyhow?

  1. Pingback: One Flew East

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