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Our Endless Civil War

I have just finished watching Ken Burns’ magnificent series, “The Civil War.” I saw it when it first aired on PBS some years ago but I wanted to return to it.

The racial unrest in our country today is hauntingly and shockingly similar to the racial divide in the country a hundred and fifty years ago. Think of that. We are still fighting that long, bloody, wasteful and savage war. 

President Lincoln wanted to keep the Union together, strengthen it against any foreign power, and make America a country free for all of its citizens. But slavery in the South prompted leaders there to secede from the Union and form their own government under a new president, Jefferson Davis. They saw where Lincoln was taking them and they refused to go there.

There have been calls for secession again in the past few years. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry was one who flaunted that threat. As usual, it was a political ploy for him and nothing more. But he stirred up people ready to separate themselves from the rest of the country over immigration reform, gun control, abortion, gay rights and so on. And mixed in with that was an undercurrent of racial hatred, mostly against President Obama.

Cynical Republican politicians have used President Obama’s race as a way to divide the country. Their prejudice of course has for the most part been subtle and masked behind political obstruction, noxious partisanship, and an endless refusal to cooperate with any of his attempts at substantive legislation or policy. But behind the politics is an offensive and poisonous sectarianism.

Some on the other hand have not made any attempt to hide their bigotry. And both Republicans and Democrats alike have rarely spoken out against this kind of crude and dismissive disrespect for the president.

The South, under Davis, wanted to go their own way, be left alone to have slaves, to form a government solely on the basis of States’ rights. They wanted no one in power up North to tell them what to do. But as Ken Burns' series clearly shows, President Jefferson Davis ran the whole show from day one. States’ rights were a joke. Davis realized he could not control a crowd of arrogant, selfish politicians in states where they wanted power over their people and enough control to make themselves rich and untouchable by any higher authority than their own.  So Davis basically dismissed their rants and ran his new country his own way. He ran the war that way, too. Unfortunately, the whole thing fell apart on him. He and his new country failed miserably.

Lincoln—wise, patient, thoroughly intelligent—driven by a cause greater than himself, a vision of states united, a vision of a country where all people mattered, entered the war reluctantly. But once in, in spite of missteps and wrong choices, like depending too long on Major General McClellan, a man who nearly lost the war for the North with his incessant waiting to fight, Lincoln nevertheless managed to push the South into unendurable circumstances. He did this with men like General Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. Brilliant commanders, relentless and determined, they brought a valiant genius like General Robert E. Lee to his knees.

To see what we did as a people to one another in the Civil War is to be stunned by the barbarity of it all; the endless slaughter of men, the complete destruction of towns, of historic buildings and stately old homes and the dignity of a proud people; the callous fiendish killing and maiming and ruining of lives. It is, all of it, hard to take in.

Civil War scholar and historian Bruce Catton said that at the close of the War “something that went beyond words had happened in the land.” 

At the end, there was no cheering, no celebrating, only the sad mournful reality that we as a people had betrayed our humanity, had turned into haters and beasts and murderers, that when the final toll was taken 620,000 soldiers, men and boys, died in the Civil War; died by lead balls and canon blasts and bayonets and disease. 

There are no numbers for the women and children, the slaves, the innocent in the way, who lost their lives, as they always do, in the terrifying chaos of war.

Six days after Lee surrendered at Appomattox, John Wilkes Booth, a man tormented and bitter, seething with revenge for the Confederacy, assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. 

The hate of the war had not died.

And, with Ferguson, Missouri and its entire city government swimming in injustice toward Blacks, and the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma enthusiastically singing a crude and vicious song of bigotry, and countless other scenes of outrageous racism across our nation, it appears that horrendous hate that fueled the Civil War, however diminished by years, still lives today.

© 2015 Timothy Moody


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