Tuesday, April 12, 2011

What we haven't learned in 150 years

At 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861 -- 150 years ago today -- Confederate Lt. Henry S. Farley fired a single 10-inch mortar round that exploded over Fort Sumter, S.C.

Inside the fort was Major Robert Anderson and his small Federal command. They had been there since December, waiting for reinforcements that never made it.

The Confederate barrage continued. Rabid Virginia secessionist Edmund Ruffin, who had come to Charleston that spring to witness history, fired one of the first shots.

Anderson waited until after dawn to retaliate. At 7 a.m., the first Federal shot came from Captain Abner Doubleday, the man whom would later be given credit for "creating" the game of baseball. The only casualty was a Confederate horse. It was a bloodless beginning to a very bloody affair.

They didn't call it the Shot Heard Round the World -- that, you see, is relegated to important things like home runs -- but Fort Sumter touched off what would become known as the Civil War, a strange moniker indeed, given that this conflict was anything but civil. From then until even after Lee surrendered to Grant in April 1865, Americans went to war with one another. Nearly 620,000 would perish. So would an American president.

William Faulkner said perhaps more than he knew when he noted, years later, that "the past is never dead; it isn't even past."

To this day, Americans argue over what caused the war. To this day, they argue over what to call it, what to make of it, what to learn from it.

Abraham Lincoln is a hero to some, an anathema to others. Take a look at a presidential electoral map -- particularly from 2000 or 2004 -- and tell me that we still don't have a sectional divide. (2008 was an exception; it remains to be seen whether it will be an anomaly or a watershed.)

Civil War books continue to roll off the presses month after month. Civil War roundtables and societies can be found in virtually any American city of any size.

American political discourse in 2011, yes, still includes talk of secession.

Everything -- and nothing -- has changed.

I watched the first part of the Ken Burns documentary last night. Before drifting off to dream, I read a few pages from Bruce Catton's centennial history of the war, written 50 years ago. (He's better than even Shelby Foote, folks.)

I thought about that bloody pond at Shiloh, about the hallowed ground at Gettysburg, about the gentle spirit now belonging to the ages that left us while the man to whom it belonged lay dying in a small bed at the Petersen House in Washington on Good Friday, April 15, 1865.

I thought about those moving Mathew Brady images, about the dingy daguerreotypes of forgotten men and boys who didn't make it home, about the loved ones they left behind.

I thought about "Dixie," that sweet minstrel tune; and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic, the stirring stanza about the terrible swift sword; and the melody to the maudlin "Lorena."

I thought about the myths and the mysteries, the ugly truths and the damnable lies, the good, the bad, heaven and hell, and how the weather was.

And I thought, too, about the waste -- the utter, horrible waste of it all -- and wondered for the hundredth time how we ever came to think of this godawful bloodbath as anything remotely resembling romantic.

Old times there, you see, will never be forgotten, though His truth is marching on.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

This was a war of northern aggression. Sic semper tyrannis!

8:51 PM  
Blogger Jake Mabe said...


8:56 PM  
Anonymous Kurt Pickering said...

Well-said, Jake!
What's in a name? At least when I was in school, a "civil war" was defined as two factions fighting for control of one government, which this was not. "War between the states" is bloody grammar, unless there were really 36 wars. I don't think it's fair to call trying to hold the Union together "agression," even though history proves to those willing to read it that on the question of secession - and I hope your readers will leave my context alone and not imply I address any other question - the South was right.
I like "The War for Southern Independence."

6:25 PM  
Blogger Jake Mabe said...

Thanks, Kurt.

And, I agree. Plus, there's MUCH more at stake here than semantics.

Wars have been started over less, though...

11:18 PM  
Anonymous Kurt Pickering said...

That's a funny oops: in one sentence, I cite grammar (which is such a demon for me I always have to look it up) to make a point and in the next I spell a pretty easy word incorrectly. Oh, well, half the right number of Gs is better than none....

11:48 AM  

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