I have lived with the Civil War all my life, it seems. It began with my mother’s stories about her grandfather (See an earlier post about Civil War Veterans, Part Four) Mose Estes. He always said that he served in the Civil War, but there is no record of his service (not surprising given the state of records keeping on the Confederate side especially). His claims go unfounded. She and her Estes cousins in Madison County, Kentucky, remembered him telling them stories about his service in the war, seemingly somewhere in Tennessee and Georgia. Mose had several cousins who served on the Union side in the War, so I suspect he may have joined, if he did join, the Confederate side just to be different.
Then came Gone With the Wind. It was released in a newly done format for the 100th anniversary of the Civil War and I remember going to see it several times during that period. My mother gave me the book to read, saying that I should see what happened in it that they were forced to leave out of the movie, as it was much better than the movie. She was correct.
Through the years, I’ve learned a lot about the War and it’s reason for being. I have come to realize that John Brown would be considered a terrorist today, and his war a holy one. He wanted to overthrow the government and had plans drawn up for the kind of religious theocracy he would institute, while abolishing slavery. I have learned that no matter what reason you can give for the war, it all comes back to slavery, but I also understand that the Abolitionists had a religious motive, and you all know how I feel about religious motives. And I’ve learned that the War itself is a very complex issue, with divided loyalties, and acts of bravery and cowardice on both sides that merit scrutiny.
But here’s the main thing I’ve learned. Wars aren’t about dates and generals, and battle strategy. Wars are about people, both the soldiers and those caught in the path of its devastation. For this war, those latter people were mostly Southern, and they were some of the early victims of what we have come to call total war. As we said in the sixties, war is harmful to children and other living things. And that’s the theme of my Civil War class. I don’t teach it from the point of view of the generals, and my students don’t have to memorize battles and dates. I am interested in those only as they affect the people we read about and discuss.
War is fought by men with families, and those families suffered greatly during the Civil War on either side. There was no safety net on either side. If you were wounded, and lost a limb, or suffered some other horrific injury, you were pretty much bound by that all your life. There were some prosthetics, but wooden legs were common after the war, and amputated limbs made it sometimes impossible for a man to work. If your family member was killed in battle, there was a widows pension, but there was no medical care beyond the immediate, and no kind of pension until the 1870’s, which took a lawyer, and reams of verification to obtain. In the south, the pensions were supplied by the state, and were a long time in coming, due to the South’s slow recovery from the War.
Do I think every soldier who fought in the Civil War had a right to fight. Yes, I do. That’s my personal opinion, and I believe it to be true. I also know that it is incorrect of us to put our own 20th-21st century values onto people who lived over 100 years ago, and who did not know what we know about race, genetics, and simply living life, if you will.
I am deeply saddened by what happened in Charleston, S.C. in June of this year. I am quite certain that removing the Confederate Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia (that’s its correct name) from the grounds of the state capitol was the correct thing to do. I don’t think that removing all vestiges of Civil War commemoration from every courthouse square or place of importance in the South is the thing to do. If someone wanted to put up something such as that nowadays, of course they shouldn’t be allowed to do it. But we need to step back, take a deep breath, and allow our selves to keep the baby and throw out the bath water. What can be learned from these commemorations? What can they teach students today? How can we explain the Civil War by using these statues, etc. to teach the lessons of the past and why we must not allow such events as slavery to happen again in this country?
As William Faulkner said, the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past. And we put ourselves in great peril if we simply knee-jerk to every challenge, and don’t learn from the past that isn’t even past.