‘Trial by fire’

Rappahannock News - - COMMENT - BEN JONES Wash­ing­ton

“The lack of a sense of his­tory is the damna­tion of the mod­ern world.” Robert Penn Warren

There was some very fine writ­ing in the Sept. 7th is­sue of the Rap­pa­han­nock News, but the let­ter that struck me as be­ing touched with wis­dom was that of Rachel Bynum of Sper­ryville, who asked why those res­i­dents of Rap­pa­han­nock who fought for the Union dur­ing the Amer­i­can Civil War are not hon­ored with a me­mo­rial here. That is a ques­tion that could be eas­ily an­swered by cre­at­ing such a me­mo­rial, an ef­fort to which I would be hon­ored to con­trib­ute. There was enor­mous sac­ri­fice by North and South, and deep cul­tural wounds which have been need­lessly re-opened by the un­hinged wave of cul­tural cleans­ing of Con­fed­er­ate memo­ri­als. I would ar­gue that such a me­mo­rial to our Rap­pa­han­nock Union sol­diers would be a proper ac­tion to cre­ate a heal­ing per­spec­tive about our Amer­i­can an­ces­tors.

“The win­ners write the his­tory books.” Ge­orge Or­well

In the Aug. 31st edi­tion of the News, I wrote a col­umn in re­sponse to a col­umn by Frank Reynolds of Castle­ton. In his Sept. 7th Rapp News re­sponse, Mr. Reynolds did not at­tempt to re­but any of the his­tor­i­cal ar­gu­ments I made or any of the fac­tual state­ments I pre­sented. In­stead, he said of him­self, “This writer will not make any profit from the dis­play of a Con­fed­er­ate Bat­tle Flag on the roof of an or­ange car with doors welded shut.” If that was sup­posed to be “snark” it was re­ally lame. If it was sup­posed to be a po­si­tion of moral su­pe­ri­or­ity . . . well, con­grat­u­la­tions. Then he went on to say this: “This writer thinks we should see the four years of bat­tle be­tween the cit­i­zens of this coun­try as a mis­take in judge­ment . . . ” Uh, bril­liant.

That cat­a­strophic event did not take place in a sud­den vac­uum. It wasn’t just a “mis­take,” it was the seem­ingly in­evitable re­sult of a very heated eco­nomic ri­valry be­tween two very dif­fer­ent re­gions of the Union, both of which had worked for 70 years to try to pre­vent such a schism. Ev­ery­thing that pre­ceded that calamity had led up to it, and ev­ery­thing we have done as a na­tion since has been af­fected by it. The ris­ing ten­sions had been pre­ceded by the Ken­tucky and Vir­ginia Res­o­lu­tions, the Mis­souri Com­pro­mise, Man­i­fest Destiny, the Nul­li­fi­ca­tion Cri­sis, The Wil­mot Pro­viso, the Com­pro­mise of 1850, Bleed­ing Kansas, John Brown’s mur­der­ous raid, the Mor­rill Tar­iff, the fail­ure of the Crit­ten­den Com­pro­mise and count­less other di­vides. You might want to read about those things, Mr. Reynolds, and you might want to read books like “The Half Has Never Been Told, Slav­ery and the Mak­ing of Amer­i­can Cap­i­tal­ism,” by Ed­ward Bap­tist, and “Com­plic­ity, How the North Pro­mul­gated, Pro­longed, and Prof­ited from Slav­ery,” by the Hart­ford Courant. Th­ese are ex­am­ples of re­cent schol­ar­ship that have re­vealed more than a few skele­tons in our na­tional closet.

“The Civil War de­fined us as what we are and it opened us to be­ing what we be­came, good and bad things . . . It was the cross­roads of our be­ing, and it was a hell of a cross­roads.” Shelby Foote

Ien­joyed the gen­uinely el­e­gant prose of Wal­ter Nick­lin’s piece on the sub­ject of mon­u­ment re­moval and Pick­ett’s Charge. But what was all that about Trump and the KKK and Steve Ban­non? And those wi­d­ows and or­phans who raised the money for those mon­u­ments to their de­ceased loved ones were cer­tainly not do­ing that as “a racist reaction to Re­con­struc­tion.”

With the cyn­i­cal Repub­li­can deal of 1876 which elected Pres­i­dent Ruther­ford Hayes, Re­con­struc­tion was done in by its cre­ators. But the South, black and white, was left largely in ruin and poverty un­til World War Two and the Civil Rights Move­ment of the 1960s. One could ar­guably point out that the South is now win­ning in that re­gional eco­nomic ri­valry.

Dr. King’s great vi­sion was one of for­give­ness and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and he would never have gone af­ter the deep af­fec­tions and the proud her­itage of Con­fed­er­ate de­scen­dants. My friend Andy Young said that when the Civil Rights Move­ment was based in At­lanta, that there was never even a dis­cus­sion about Con­fed­er­ate flags and mon­u­ments. “It was sim­ply not an is­sue,” he said.

I don’t claim to be a his­to­rian, but I have pas­sion­ately and se­ri­ously read Amer­i­can His­tory since child­hood. The War Be­tween the States was far and away our great­est na­tional tragedy and we are now see­ing that it is a use­ful tool that can still cre­ate gen­uine anger and cul­tural di­vi­sion.

We can­not change one mo­ment of our past. But hope­fully we can learn from it. And if I have learned any­thing from my study of our great na­tional “trial by fire” it is that ab­so­lutely noth­ing can now be gained by this ma­jor, or­ches­trated ef­fort to de­mo­nize and vil­ify the Con­fed­er­acy 150 years later.

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