An enduring legacy: Civil War part of who we are now

Special to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, 12/5/2012


LITTLE ROCK — As we move through the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, Americans need to pause and reflect on its meaning and memory.

Amid the exacting detail of hundreds of battle re-enactments, the continued celebration of Confederate Memorial Day, and debates over the use and misuse of Confederate memorabilia, we need to turn our attention to our regional history and memory with a degree of sensitivity and tolerance.

This open-mindedness was not always embraced by many Southerners as we celebrated the centennial of the Civil War during the heat of the 1960s civil-rights movement and, unfortunately, we aren’t always broadminded about these issues even today, almost a century and a half after Appomattox.

Contemporary debates occasionally seem as caustic as those in the distant past. For many black Southerners, memory and perception of the Confederacy and the Civil War create visions of racism, slavery and betrayal. For many white Southerners, their perception is a positive reflection of Confederate memories—the bravery and honor of their ancestors who fought for their beliefs and what they saw as the proper interpretation of the Constitution.

This latter outlook was summed up well in a letter to the New York Times Book Review by Lewis Regenstein. Responding to a review of John Coski’s The Confederate Battle Flag, Regenstein wrote: “My more than two dozen maternal ancestors who fought for the South made it clear, in their letters, memoirs and books, what that Lost Cause was: they were fighting for their homeland—not for slavery, but for their families, homes and country. . . .The Confederate soldiers, often exhausted and hungry, sick and shoeless, wet and cold, outnumbered and outsupplied but rarely outfought, showed amazing courage, honor and valor. . . .That is why so many decent Southerners are proud of their ancestors, and their symbols.”

From the other point of view, we hear James Foreman Jr., the son of a major player in the civil-rights movement, and a law professor at Georgetown University: “[When I see the Confederate flag] my eyes close tightly, my fists clench, and I slowly force from my mind images of the flag, of the Ku Klux Klan, of Bull Connor and George Wallace—of black people in chains, hanging from trees, kept illiterate, denied the opportunity to vote.”

Considerable energy, time and money is spent remembering the Civil War. In Helena-West Helena, Fort Curtis, a reconstructed Civil War Union fort, was dedicated last spring to an enthusiastic audience, and the city is developing an automobile tour highlighting Civil War sites. Recently at Reed’s Bridge battlefield near Jacksonville, several historical markers were dedicated. The leader of that effort, Tom Dupree, spoke at the dedication about the potential impact on the area by the tourism that would be drawn to Reed’s Bridge and the value of the site as a tool to teach all ages about the battle that occurred virtually in their backyards. If you have driven around Arkansas in the past year, doubtless you have spotted the many signs posted denoting the Civil War Trail.

The time is past due for a genuine and honest dialogue about the Civil War based on tolerance and openness for all Southerners’ perspectives on the legacy of the war. Perhaps at long last, that discussion is coming about.

Southerners who may think about their memories and conclusions about the Civil War and its aftermath in very different ways can debate, discuss and perhaps better understand each other. Understanding more fully the Confederate heritage in the South today can give disparate groups a better perspective on what divides—and unifies—them. We are all Southerners—and Americans.

There can be hope for an honest celebration of the sesquicentennial. Here at home, Arkansas created in 2007 a statewide Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission to “assist in ensuring that any observance of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War is inclusive and appropriately recognizes the experiences and points of view of all people affect by the Civil War.” In short, all of us, for, as Robert Penn Warren pointed out, “the Civil War is, for the American imagination, the great single event of our history.”

Confederate reunions are over, Confederate Memorial Day has lost much of its allure, but debates over Confederate monuments and flags still get ample publicity. It is highly unlikely that discussion and debate over Confederate symbols will disappear any time soon.

Shelby Foote said it well in the Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War, when he remarked, “And it is very necessary, if you’re going to understand the American character in the 20th Century, to learn about this enormous catastrophe of the 19th Century. It was the crossroads of our being, and it was hell of a crossroads.”