MAXWELL:  More to Civil War history than most understand

7/23/1995– Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


On June 29, the U.S. Postal Service began selling 20 new Civil War stamps. Many black people are outraged that a federal agency would so commemorate the fratricidal war between the states.

In Richmond, Va., following a divisive debate that reopened deep racial wounds, the City Council voted on July 18 to place a bronze statue of black tennis great Arthur Ashe on Monument Avenue _ the place honoring Confederate “heroes” who fought to save the South’s “Peculiar Institution.”

At Harvard University, an alumni committee is feuding about whether to recognize graduates who died fighting for the South during the Civil War. The dispute was sparked by the renovation of Harvard’s Memorial Hall, built five years after the Civil War to honor alumni who died for the Union.

Although one-third of Harvard graduates who served in the Civil War fought for the South, the deed for the shrine forbids the names of these soldiers from being inscribed there. The names of all other Harvard men who died in subsequent wars, however, are displayed _ including one who fought for the Nazis.

These contemporary disputes show that, even though it ended more than 130 years ago, the Civil War still is central to answering the question _ “What is America?” _ that black historian Benjamin Quarles poses in his landmark bookThe Negro in the Civil War.

At some point, all earnest Americans struggle to answer Quarles’ question, and we always return to Dixie’s “Lost Cause.”

“Any understanding of this nation has to be based . . . on an understanding of the Civil War,” says Civil War historian and author Shelby Foote in a telephone interview. “It defined us as what we are and it opened us to what we became, good and bad things. 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 . . . the suffering, the enormous tragedy of the whole thing.”

If Foote is correct, why do so many of us cringe at the mere mention of the Civil War? Because we, perhaps more so than other people in the West, have a naive view of the past. We dislike and avoid the parts of our history that expose our hypocrisies.

The inhumanity of the Civil War and its aftermath shame us, forcing us to confront honestly the ideals expressed in the great documents _ the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence _ that we cherish.

And, always a nation of optimists, we are fast becoming tribes of revisionists. We like our history “lite”, suited to our sensibilities, tidied up to corroborate the nice images and myths we have created of ourselves and of those we admire:

We demand a history filtered through today’s ethnic and gender politics, a history that has relevance to the now. Washington-based journalist Richard Prince, who condemns the Civil War stamps, said that, although the Postal Service’s action did not provoke much controversy: “Its symbolism rankles, and not only because it comes amid an affirmative-action backlash, continuing skirmishes over the flying of the Confederate flag, and best-selling books declaring blacks intellectually inferior. It is disturbing because it continues the falsehood that the Union and the Confederacy both represented respectable ideologies.”

We demand a history that bears our personal imprimatur or that of our group. It must make us feel good. It must validate us. Listen, for instance, to Shirley Jackson speaking to the Richmond City Council in support of placing the Arthur Ashe statue on Memorial Avenue: “A hero is a hero whether he is a defeated Confederate soldier or a great humanitarian. Mr. Ashe deserves to be on Monument Avenue because he is our hero.”

We demand the right to disassociate ourselves from a history that we view as immoral. Robert Shapiro, a Boston attorney leading the Harvard alumni panel, is an example. He said that he does not want anyone to mistake his and the panel’s review of the proposal to memorialize the university’s Southern dead as “an endorsement of either the Confederacy itself or of the policies for which the Confederacy fought.”

As a lifetime student of the Civil War who visits battlefields and museums as often as possible, I fear that the historical integrity of this significant event has been lost forever to emotion, cynicism, cultural politics and ignorance.

We are unable to give the war the distance required for us to treat it objectively. We fail to see it as a tragic phenomenon that occurred in time. Most blacks and white liberals will never accept the fact that, although the South’s cause was evil, tens of thousands of yeoman farmers nevertheless fought bravely _ not to defend slavery, but to protect their families, their homes and, of course, the land they loved. Were these men wrong to fight? New research indicates that many blacks fought as loyal infantrymen for the South.

Trained historians and other mature thinkers genuinely interested in the nation’s past treat the Confederacy with respect, letting it and its troops assume their rightful place in time.

To erect the likeness of Arthur Ashe alongside the likenesses of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gen. Robert E. Lee trivializes Memorial Avenue’s raison d’etre and, unwittingly, misrepresent Ashe’s accomplishments.

But to memorialize the names of Harvard’s Johnny Rebs and to issue Civil War stamps are reasonable ways to acknowledge the Confederacy’s real place in history.

Those who would deny these modest recognitions should heed the words of Miguel de Cervantes:

“The poet can tell or sing of things not as they were but as they ought to have been, whereas the historian must describe them, not as they ought to have been, but as they were, without exaggerating or hiding the truth in any way.”

Bill Maxwell is a columnist and editorial writer for the Times.