‘Trial by fire’
“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.