It was 149 years ago today that deeply misguided Confederate hotheads rejoiced as they began the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. The Confederate cabinet in Montgomery had determined on the attack, overriding the prescient advice of Secretary of State Robert Toombs that to fire the first shot “will lose us every friend at the North. You will wantonly strike a hornet’s nest…. Legions now quiet will swarm out and sting us to death. It is unnecessary. It puts us in the wrong. It is fatal.”
Firing the first shot is almost always a mistake. If President Bush had thought about this more carefully and handled his crisis with Iraq as wisely as Abraham Lincoln handled the Fort Sumter issue, the war in Iraq might have been much less costly and divisive both at home and abroad.
In any case, the catastrophe unleashed by the attack on Fort Sumter still reverberates through American life today; its consequences, good and bad, are still shaping our politics and perceptions.
The latest sign that the guns still echo came last week as the governor of Virginia failed to include any reference to slavery while proclaiming April “Confederate History Month” in the state. A minor league brouhaha ensued; Governor Bob McDonald industriously backpedaled. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour couldn’t let bad enough alone, confiding to the nation that the whole flap was “a nit, it’s not significant“.
Governor Barbour is, of course, wrong. The failure to handle the memory of the most tragic and transformative event in American history with due diligence and care is a significant failure. Whatever the political consequences, serious politicians still need to approach anything having to do with the Civil War with a sensitivity and intelligence that shows they understand and respect this ordeal in its many dimensions.
The past isn’t dead, Faulkner once wrote. It isn’t even past.
Fortunately, this part of our past is a little less lively than it used to be. When I was a kid, there were still a few people around who remembered the war. Confederate widows were still drawing pensions and I can just remember news stories of the last war veterans dying. In our church in Pinopolis, South Carolina, the Confederate flag was still carried in church processions. That practice was pretty common across the South and at football games people still stood up for Dixie. (I am sure there are places where they still do.) I’ve got at least one relative who can sing all the verses of “I’m A Good Ol’ Rebel.”
Three hundred thousand Yankees lie dead in Southern dust
We got three hundred thousand before they conquered us.
They died of Southern fever, of Southern steel and shot.
I wish they was three million, instead of what we got.
There were, of course, other consequences of the war and its aftermath when I was a kid. The South was still shockingly poor, with many rural whites and blacks living in third world conditions. My mother can remember when her family first got electricity and running water. I met people who had no real furniture in their houses, kids who had no shoes, and plenty of people with little or no formal education. The Jim Crow laws–originally adopted to control the movements of ex-slaves as white southerners seized control of Reconstruction governments in the 1870s, and steadily strengthened to the point where both Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa looked to the American South for legal tips–were still in force.
The wounds of slavery and segregation have yet to heal; it was much, much worse fifty years ago. And the wounds of the white south are also very real, and very much with us.
The sesquicentennial of the Civil War starts a year from today. Despite our political controversies and divisions, the United States is a much healthier and more united country than we were during the centennial observance that began in 1961. Angry white mobs back then were still fighting to enforce the racial settlement of 1876; the Confederate flag was still being waved by people violently resisting the laws and the officers of the United States. My own immediate family was pro-Civil Rights back then; my father once marched with Martin Luther King and his father served on the committee that organized the peaceful desegregation of Florence, South Carolina. We had relatives, though, on the other side and the family divisions cut deep.
The country is healing. Our blue state, red state, liberal and conservative divisions today don’t compare to the violence and confrontation of 50 years ago. The dead hand of slavery has lost more of its power; the racial hatreds continue to fade slowly away. By the bicentennial of the war, it seems more likely than not that African Americans will not only have full legal equality but will enjoy living and educational standards on a par with the rest of the country, and that African American families will be no richer or poorer than anybody else — on average. And the economic progress that has transformed the living conditions of all races in the South should, with another fifty years, bring the region at long last up to the level where it should be.
Meanwhile, at The American Interest and here at the blog, we are thinking about what we can do to honor the memory of those events and educate people about what remains, by far, the bloodiest war Americans have ever fought. The sesquicentennial is more than just another milepost as the war recedes deeper into the past. It’s an opportunity to take another look at the whole story of the war. Our plans are still at a very early stage, but the Civil War plays such a vital role in American identity and politics that an enterprise like ours, which seeks to explain the world to America and America to the world, cannot let the sesquicentennial pass without a long look back.
To honor the moral and political complexity of that war, to engage honestly and seriously with the conflicts and the fault lines that it exposed in American society is, as the governors of Virginia and Mississippi have recently reminded us, a difficult thing to do. We will try.