Complications and the Confederacy

The Confederate battle flag and guns for prom photos? Texas thinking the US is going to invade? For the American South, as William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

At a family gathering some years after the Civil War, my great-grandfather Marion compared notes with an uncle of his who had fought for the other side. The family straddled the Ohio River; though the new state of West Virginia had become part of the Union, many who lived there stayed with their old state and fought for the South—including the Barlows on that side of the river. Marion had served in the 91st Ohio Volunteer Infantry, and had been involved in campaigns in West Virginia and down into the Shenandoah Valley. One of the skirmishes he was involved in early on was near Gauley Bridge at the head of West Virginia’s Kanawha River. His uncle, they discovered, had been among the force on the other side.

What did they do? What Americans today don’t seem able to do. They got over it.

Three of my great-great-grandfathers in my mother’s family fought for the South. One of them owned slaves (Ben Affleck, not all of us try to deny our family pasts). On the other hand, Marion’s son (my grandfather) married a woman whose father (another great-grandfather) had tried and failed to stop a lynching.

Ancestry is complicated.

It made us, but it is not us.

Or, it shouldn’t be us. We’ve got to get over it.

A couple of years ago, in 2012 and on this same subject, I could write:

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.

They weren’t, of course. And 2012 is beginning to seem history more ancient than the Civil War itself.

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