By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Illustration by Shino Arihara
ACCORDING TO A LONG, SOBER PIECE THAT RAN RECENTLY IN U.S. NEWS & World Report, the parks and monuments charged with officially remembering the Civil War are now willing to acknowledge that the war was fought over -- deep breath now -- the institution of slavery. That's right: 140 years after the fact, five generations after Reconstruction closed up shop in the middle of the most unfinished business in our brief but torrid national history, people are only now ready to admit that things might have been quite a bit messier, morally and practically, than they previously thought, that the good guys and the bad guys and the neutral guys were really none of the above.
Slavery, of course, never sat well with the American public. Following a story concocted by Jefferson Davis, the U.S. long ago adopted and perpetuated as part of its creation myth a belief that the Rebels and the Yankees were equally noble soldiers in a great and inevitable battle. The cause was oddly indefinable, but that didn't matter, because as time went on the battle assumed a towering cause all its own, recast as a heroic, distinctly American event. Appomattox, Antietam and Gettysburg didn't want or need slavery to be eloquently remembered, a sentiment that until very recently was reflected in the battlefield parks and Civil War monuments. While most people understood the role of slavery intellectually, learned at least the rudiments in high school, its significance never settled in our bones, because the public-relations arm of American history didn't allow it to. The closest we could come to truth was asserting that the Civil War was an identity-making, soul-forging, staring-into-the-abyss kind of war -- we just didn't quite say what the abyss was.
As ridiculous as this seems now, I distinctly remember having no distinct emotional impressions of the Civil War myself when I was growing up -- especially odd given that my family comes from Louisiana. For us, the war was merely part of the great gray backdrop of racism that cloaked the whole South and eventually forced us -- and many other black families -- out of its ancient but uncomfortable embrace to seek better circumstances in California. The glossing over of the Civil War worked in reverse from our perspective: The abyss that began with slavery, and the wider denial of it, had been a paradoxical constant for so long that it was tough to sustain indignation about the issue with the passage of time; besides, so many other social problems developed in slavery's wake that the war became a distant touchstone by default, as American in our minds as everything else.
What this meant for me as a kid in the late '60s and early '70s was that at Disneyland, wandering Main Street USA and New Orleans Square (it was a hell of a lot more inviting place than relatives had described the real city), I'd watch my brothers clamor in the souvenir shops for felt Civil War caps in blue or gray; color seemed not to matter, and neither did issues. They would don the gear and take opposing sides in war games much in the way they did with Batman and the Joker, Superman and Lex Luthor. Technically there was always a villain, but only for the sake of setup and for the execution of an elaborate battle in which the villain was generally as able and as admired as the hero, if not more so.
This is pretty much how the U.S. News & World Reportstory characterized our historical characterization of slavery -- we mention it generally by obligation, then hurry on to the real glory of the fight, or to the imagined glory of the South's hagiographic Lost Cause that fondly recalls moonlight, magnolias, and mutually beneficial relationships between slaves and their masters. But the Civil War remains the most intense battle Americans have ever fought; it bled the country of over half a million lives (more casualties than both World Wars and Vietnam combined), and the hurrying on has cost us untold years of progress. Southern preservationists and their sympathizers -- I call them the way-of-lifers -- are still fond of arguing that the issue was entirely political, that the clash was primarily one of culture and economy, not slavery. But what exactly, and who, was that cultural and economic difference built around? Even admitting that slavery was the catalyst for the crossroads is not enough, simply because there was no other issue of that scale capable of fueling a war so awful or shaping a moment so epic. Certainly, the economy and states' rights were factors, but they were mere face powder over the very troubled countenance of the country itself, with its newly minted covenants of freedom and self-determination, which after 80 years or so were already cracking terribly under the strain of proof. Slavery undergirded the entire South but made the bigger enterprise of America -- to say nothing of the United States -- risible, and the joke became whether the citizenry of a single country could live with the blatant contradictions that it presented.