Revisionism Revisited

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 Report story 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.

IT TURNS OUT IT COULDN'T, INSOFAR AS THE North triumphed and slavery was scrapped, and yet it could. This is where the battle lines really got blurry: Jim Crow and sharecropping and countless official and unofficial restrictive covenants replaced slavery, and no subsequent war was fought over those, because both sides for various reasons were eager to drop the black cause. Not that blacks were ever idealistic enough to believe that even their white countrymen who opposed slavery did so on some human-rights principle. (There were the abolitionists, but they were the fringe radicals of their day. It's nice to remember that there was at least one moment in American history in which Christian rabble-rousers were actually the most progressive souls around.) It was always fairly clear that slavery was more an image problem to an adolescent nation than a truly moral one of slavery being wrong in the eyes of the Constitution, or of any other higher authority -- it's common knowledge that nobody less than Lincoln admitted that. But Lincoln ordered the war anyway, and he ordered it because slavery was too big a stumbling block for a proposed union of states to have in its way; slavery was, in a word, unworkable. Raise all the Southern-culture arguments you want, the ineluctable fact is that whole armies assembled and slaughtered each other because slavery and the entire economy that rested upon it -- not moonlight and magnolias -- were being imperiled.

I am the tiniest bit hopeful about this overheralded change of heart. If scholars and national-monument types are arguing for truth and balance and the idea that soft focus does not necessarily cast the subject in the best light, the masses can't be far behind. The Gettysburg Center plans to beef up its exhibits with uncensored war diaries, letters and artifacts of slavery; the museum at Monticello is restoring its slave quarters and work areas for the first time. Perhaps this actually got a push with the popularity in recent years of the best-selling confessional books written by whites who have just discovered, or maybe have just admitted, that there were slaves in the family tree -- one abyss among many that blacks have occupied forever and whites are only now willing to approach. The most controversial of these confessions by far have come in biographical re-examinations of founding philanderer Thomas Jefferson, whose ideological brilliance we are now acknowledging may have been equaled only by his hypocrisy. To be entirely fair, Jefferson in his day might have had nowhere to go with his guilty conscience, but people now are much more fortunate: They can appear on Oprah or Ricki Lake, detail their history of denial and get in-studio affirmation, even from unsparing Dr. Phil. Before an audience of millions they can cleanse their long-sullied souls like palates and script a new plan of intellectual sustenance and action; they can put the Civil War in its proper framework and feel good about it.

Even if this sort of emotional-detox confab catches on, like mud spas and Princess House parties, an invitation to join wouldn't quite do the trick for me. Not yet. The memory of taking a plantation tour a few years back in my sweet ancestral home Louisiana, during which the Civil War was mentioned plenty but slavery not at all, is too fresh and too seeded with questions to cover anew. During that trip I found my resentment pulling in all directions; in the end, I was appalled that the tour was both too much and too little like the Disneyland of my youth. Perhaps once we finally distinguish national monuments from amusement parks and edification from entertainment, I'll change my mind -- although I do know that the one thing American history has scrupulously taught all of us is that, eager as we always are to move on, nothing changes overnight.


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