Of course the Civil War still matters! I tend to think it matters more now than it has in the past. The traditional ties to memory of “The Late Unpleasantness” are being challenged.
I had viewed the history of the war from the perspective of a somewhat passive consumer of the rich and colorful stories and data. The “Why was the Civil War fought?” question I traditionally have not paid much attention to. My feeling has been, “It happened,” and I have not had much interest in understanding the “why?” as opposed to the “who, what, where, when, and how.” The latter is perhaps more concrete compared to the former, more-arguable, philosophical, “why?” The latter is admittedly supplementary simple and entertaining. The “why?” can get uncomfortable, personal, vengeful, and sensitive.
Memory, and the fight for memory, has taken a much more active and passionate bend in the wake of the Charleston shootings in 2015. The radical attempts at the obliteration of monumentation has surprised—and hurt—me. Regardless, these efforts create definition, which is healthy. It awakes many in society to reflect upon who we are and what the country is. Despite how painful these exercises are, they add to the narrative.
Our War Between the States is evergreen. New information rises continuously to the surface. “The Information Age” didn’t start in the 1970s; it started in the 1850s. Literacy was exploding as was data gathering, not to mention technological advances benefitting from the Industrial Revolution. New stuff will be discovered for decades to come about this old subject. The future is bright to learn about our collective complicated past—warts and all.
I have become more sensitive to Civil War memory because of the hyper-passionate focus and judgment by others. It motivates me to dig deeper and attempt to be less subjective and more objective, and hope others will honestly do the same. Neo-vilification of the many dead from the War of the Rebellion compels me to read more from the primary sources. The information can fortify one to challenge the somewhat fashionable, media-fueled dogma (which can also appear cliché). During the advertising campaign for Ken Burns’ Vietnam series in 2017, I remember the tag-line, “In war there is more than one truth.” I believe that expression can be applied beyond the Vietnam War.
History philosopher Sir Herbert Butterfield, who emphasized the limits of a historian’s moral conclusions, wrote, “If history can do anything it is to remind us that all our judgments are merely relative to time and circumstance.” Butterfield discussed the dangers of the English Whig interpretation of history—that the study of the past with reference to the present was a teleological assumption, and a bourgeois prejudice masked as progress and goodness.
Reinforcing Butterfield, former Democratic Senator Jim Webb said that the attacks on Robert E. Lee were “some vicious hits, as dishonest or misinformed advocates among political interest groups and in academia attempt to twist yesterday’s America into a fantasy that might better service the political issues of today.”
An interesting letter in regards to state sovereignty, from the British Parliamentarian, Lord Acton, written to Robert E. Lee in 1866, said:
I saw in State Rights the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will, and secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction but as the redemption of Democracy. The institutions of your Republic have not exercised on the old world the salutary and liberating influence which ought to have belonged to them, by reason of those defects and abuses of principle which the Confederate Constitution was expressly and wisely calculated to remedy. I believed that the example of that [this?] great Reform would have blessed all the races of mankind by establishing true freedom purged of the native dangers and disorders of Republics. Therefore I deemed that you were fighting the battles of our liberty, our progress, and our civilization; and I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo.
Lord Acton’s words to Robert E. Lee are gravitating, and illustrate another profoundly theoretical perspective. Acton is also noted for saying, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Recently there has been too much passion and not enough compassion.