Is the Civil War Long Gone and Far Away?
by James R. Stoner
" 150 years actually is not all that long in political time, as you already have noticed in my mention of the Pilgrims and the Founders. It’s the interval as well between Luther and Cromwell, more or less, or between the French Revolution and the rise of the Soviet Union, or between the Founders themselves and the New Deal. "
Sitting at my desk in Louisiana the other week, where it was already as hot as it gets in Boston on the summer’s hottest day, my title, “Is the Civil War Long Gone and Far Away?,” seemed the way to pose the question I wanted to address on what I anticipated, correctly, would be a cool evening in the shadow of the Olympics, by the shore of the Puget Sound—though I had told the conference organizers that, had I been invited instead to speak in Richmond in August, I’d have prepared the same talk under the title, “Won’t the Civil War Ever Go Away?” My aim is to raise some questions, at the close of four-and-a-half years commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, about what the experience of that war has to tell us today: Whether the war still haunts us and our politics as it did for at least a century, whether it forms our national identity—or more precisely, because it was a civil war, our identities—and most especially whether there are any lessons to be remembered from it, derived perhaps in spite of those hauntings and identities, that ought to guide our political thinking and acting in the world we face.
I want to say at the outset that I think America is less haunted by the Civil War now than it was when the centennial was celebrated back when I was a young boy in the 1960s. I grew up in Maryland, near Washington, D.C., in a sense right in the middle of where the conflict had taken place, and though none of my ancestors had fought on either side, the war seemed all around me. We played in the woods on dirt mounds left from the forts ringing the capital; I had a sixth grade teacher who told us that when she was our age, near the beginning of the century, the old men at the hardware store in her hometown of Fredericksburg, Virginia, were still telling stories about the battle that took place there in their youth; my piano teacher used to say her father had been born in a farmhouse at Gettysburg during the battle. But of course what really cast a shadow then was that the work of the war, so to speak, was just then being completed, as the Civil Rights Movement persuaded the country finally to honor the letter and the spirit of the constitutional amendments passed in the war’s aftermath, to complete in aSecond Reconstruction the work that wasn’t accomplished in the first. Today perhaps we live more in the shadow of the 1960s, which ended up involving much more than Civil Rights, than we do in the shadow of the Civil War itself.
In a sense, then, the Civil War is indeed long gone and far away. Certainly it is only textbook history in a place like the state of Washington, barely settled at the time and to my knowledge not the scene of any skirmish. Indeed, the settlement of the country this far west and the emergence of the West Coast as the catalyst of technological innovation and economic development, not to mention trade across the Pacific, have played a role in burying the old conflicts back East deep in the past. Moreover, dramatic changes in the population of America since the Civil War and then again since its 100th anniversary make the war recede in American memory. Many, if not most, Americans can trace a substantial proportion of their ancestors to peoples who immigrated only after that war, and for them the Civil War is hardly part of their own family history. If those Americans who lived through the Civil War can be said, as historian James McPherson puts it, to have been stamped with one of three identities—white Southerner, white Northerner, or African-American—and if these identities remained pretty stable for the century afterwards, in the half-century since the 1960s things have changed pretty decisively. African-Americans, emerging only fifty years ago from the segregated existence that was imposed after Reconstruction failed, now exercise a distinctive influence in American culture, participate extensively (if still imperfectly) in mainstream economic and political life, and increasingly belong to families where African and European blood are mixed. White Northerners and Southerners have experienced increased mobility since the Second World War, mingling in the West and now moving back and forth from North to South back East, or at least often having family in both regions. Northern Virginia, Atlanta, Florida, Texas, probably even lots of places in North Carolina and Tennessee have as many New Yorkers and Midwesterners as natives, so to speak, and if the television feels a need to put subtitles on shows that depict and mock the rural South, the mood is comedy, not menace. To be sure, old wounds still show from time to time, for example when untoward behavior at a Southern fraternity goes viral on You-Tube, and serious issues concerning the place of religion in public life often carry an overtone of old North-South divisions. Still, I think it is hard to deny that in many respects the country has “moved on” from the old Civil War, now as far away in time from us as the landing of the Pilgrims was to the Founding Fathers.
Read more: www.theimaginativeconservative.org