Thursday, April 9, 2015

150 years and counting; what have we learned from Civil War tales?

It may wind up being the most over-quoted statement in coming days, but the view of a Confederate commander upon his surrender at Appomattox in Virginia is a thought that continues to have relevance.

Attributed at times to Henry Wise (and at others to an unknown Confederate soldier), it was the thought that there exists a serious split in the view of North and South – one that will never truly wither away.

“YOU MAY FORGIVE us, but we won’t be forgiven. There is a rancor in our hearts which you little dream of. We hate you, Sir,” was supposedly said to U.S. general Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain when he oversaw ceremonies in which those Rebel soldiers laid down their arms before going home.

Do we fully appreciate the “rancor in our hearts” that was expressed at the ceremonies held in the days following the actual surrender document signed by General Robert E. Lee some 150 years ago Thursday?

It comes across from political operatives in an almost joking sense every time we see the maps that show blue and red states, with the “red” that signifies Republican victories seeming to be based heavily amongst those states that actually talked secession and tried to break away from the United States.

I remember one political operative literally saying that the opposition to Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential victory was evidence that “they’re still fighting the Civil War” in the south.

I ALWAYS FIND it a little absurd to use Civil War analogies in such cases because one has to admit the significance of that military conflict from 1861-65 was that the split was so severe that people felt compelled to take up arms.

Heck, the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln as president was the act considered to be the final straw to the “state’s rights” camp that caused them to try to break away and form their own country. The political observer in me never fails to be amazed that Lincoln could win that election even though he wasn’t even on the ballot in most of the southern states – opposition to his alleged abolitionist ways was so strong!

We may have some serious splits in our national psyche, but I don’t see anyone outside of those militia types seriously talking about taking up arms. And the bulk of us realize those people are nuts.

We’re not taking such talk seriously. Perhaps that is the lesson we learned from the Civil War – that of the need to compromise.

PART OF WHAT motivates me to write this commentary is that I recently stumbled onto a re-run of the Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” documentary on the local PBS affiliate.

The Wise quote (if he really said it) caught my ear, as did the belief of historian Shelby Foote that the Civil War was caused by the ultimate failure of the two sides to reach a compromise – something he believes is the very premise of our society’s successes.

Does that make the Civil War merely an aberration? Something that we learned our lesson from and don’t need to focus so much attention on any longer?

I’d hate to think that, because then the quote from Winston Churchill about “fail(ing) to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” comes up. As in could our social split on so many issues someday become so extreme that somebody feels compelled to dig out their firearm and start shooting at those people who disagree?

TRYING TO MAKE sure that doesn’t happen could be the real significance of the talk that will occur Thursday from all the repeat references to people that the Civil War ended (for all practical purposes, if not literally) on this date in 1865.

That I’m sure many of you will dismiss with little thought – before moving on to the latest White Sox or Cubs score. Or perhaps you’re more intrigued by the sex-change conversion of one-time Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner?

Which is why a poem such as “Unreconstructed Rebel” (performed as a song by Hoyt Axton, although some say it was written as a parody) continues to have some relevance, rather than withering away into a relic of the past.


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