Recently, I went on a lovely jaunt south to Virginia, where I met up with Shirley and Veronica. These ladies kindly played Tour Guide to me and I was able to add to my Civil War Battlefield Portfolio. Poor Virginia! Its woods are still scarred by soldiers' trenches, and the battles there evoked what is for me one of President Lincoln's most poignant quotes, "My god! What will the country say?"
My time at these sites made me thoughtful: of history, of politics, of my childhood, and of perspective. It sent me back into that impressive book Battle Cry of Freedom by James M. McPherson, which I will quote at length in this post.
When I was a kid growing up in NEO, my dad worked at the steel mill in our town, and my mom stayed home. I had three siblings, and for family vacations, we did it on the cheap. Lots of times we packed up and drove to Gettysburg, PA to impose on my Aunt Shirley and Uncle Dick and their three kids for a week or so. They lived across the street from a huge battlefield marker and up the hill was another one. Back then, townies also got into all the museums and everything for free, so for at least a few days, we'd steal the neighbor kids' identities, walk uptown, and do all the attractions. I loved the Jennie Wade house, the Electric Map, and one uncle even worked part time at the Lincoln Train Museum. At first, the Gettysburg experience seemed to be all about battle strategies, weapons, casualties, generals, and maneuvers. Sometime in the seventies (I think), that seemed to change. It was suddenly all about Lincoln and the Union. Maybe it was just me. Maybe I grew up, or maybe my perspective changed. But I remember that shift very palpably. It didn't dampen my ardor for Gettysburg in the least: I eagerly went on any car tour narrated by my aunt, hoping to glean more information to add to my expanding mythoi of the battlefield and its monuments.
In Virginia I was curious as to how a Southern State--the seat of the Confederacy--would present its history of the Civil War. The Battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville were both Confederate victories, despite their ultimate defeat. In Virginia's Civil War History, Abraham Lincoln is the architect of destruction for some citizens' family trees. Richmond, the capital, was a symbolic prize for the Union army, and its citizens knew it; they burned their own city to the ground as they fled before the bluecoats got there. For much of the South near the end of the war, life had become an endurance test. Federal troops were single-mindedly marching, taking provisions, doing anything to end the war, even if it meant brutal conditions for civilians. If I were a Southerner, I would want some respect paid to that story. It's a fine line to walk, I would imagine.
As is always my experience with our nation's National Park Service, there is a great reverence and honor for the battlefield sites and stories I visited in Virginia. The focus there is very human and personal as the displays remind visitors of native Virginians who fought in the battles there, and whether they survived or gave their lives for their Cause. Especially humbling and poignant is the Fredericksburg National Cemetery on Marye's Heights, the terraced ground in which rests over 15,000 Union dead, most of whom are unknown.
It is all so very, very sobering. Abraham Lincoln was elected president on November 6, 1860. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union. In relatively rapid succession followed states Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee; these went on, of course, to make up the Confederate States of America (CSA).
(Ironically, unless Virginia leans Democratic, it seems that these states will vote against a man from Illinois again.)
It's conventional wisdom that our country, highlighted by election year politics, is polarized. We were divided into Red and Blue by election maps, 1% and 99% by a movement, and a host of other designations that, sometimes, we chose ourselves. During the Civil War, we truly were a country divided. Consider this, from author McPherson (859):
Before 1861 the two words "United States" were generally rendered as a plural noun: "the United States are a republic." The war marked a transition of the United States to a singular noun. The "Union" also became the nation, and Americans now rarely speak of their Union except in an historical sense. Lincon's wartime speeches betokened this transition. In his first inaugural address he used the word "Union" twenty times and the word "nation" not once. In his first message to Congress, on July 4, 1861, he used "Union" thirty-two times and "nation" three times. In his letter to Horace Greeley of August 22, 1862, on the relationship of slavery to the war, Lincoln spoke of the Union eight times and of the nation not at all. Little more than a year later, in his address at Gettysburg, the president did not refer to the "Union" at all but used the word "nation" five times to invoke a new birth of freedom and nationalism for the United States.
A house divided against itself cannot stand.--A. Lincoln
The old federal republic in which the national government had rarely touched the average citizen except through the post office gave way to a more centralized polity that taxed the people directly and created an internal revenue bureau to collect these taxes, drafted men into the army, expanded the jurisdiction of federal courts, created a national currency and a national banking system, and established the first national agency for social welfare--the Freedmen's Bureau.
The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot so well do, for themselves, in their separate and individual capacities. In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere. The desirable things which the individuals of a people cannot do, or cannot well do, for themselves, fall into two classes: those which have relation to wrongs, and those which have not.--A. Lincoln
This change in the federal balance paralleled a radical shift of political power from South to North. During the first seventy-two years of the republic down to 1861 a slaveholding resident of one of the states that joined the Confederacy had been President of the United States for forty-nine of those years--more than two-thirds of the time. In Congress, twenty-three of the thirty-six speakers of the House and twenty-four of the presidents pro tem of the Senate had been southerners. The Supreme Court always had a southern majority....After the war a century passed before a resident of an ex-Confederate state was elected president. For half a century none of the speakers of the House or presidents pro tem of the Senate came from the South, and only five...justices...were southerners.
These figures symbolize a sharp and permanent change in the direction of American development....Thus when secessionists protested that they were acting to preserve traditional rights and values, they were correct....The South's concept of republicanism had not changed in three-quarters of a century; the North's had. With complete sincerity the South fought to preserve its vision of the republic of the founding fathers--a government of limited powers that protected the rights of property and whose constituency comprised an independent gentry and yeomanry of the white race undisturbed by large cities,heartless factories, restless free workers, and class conflict. The accession to power of the Republican party, with its ideology of competitive, egalitarian, free-labor capitalism, was a signal to the South that the northern majority had turned irrevocably toward this frightening, revolutionary future. Indeed, the Black Republican party appeared to the eyes of many southerners as "essentially a revolutionary party."...[I]nsisted Jefferson Davis during the Civil War, "We are resisting revolution....We are conservative." (860-1)
Be not deceived. Revolutions do not go backward.--A. Lincoln