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Americans' views on war have evolved over the years

Monday, April 11, 2011 - 10:29 am

A century and a half after Abraham Lincoln's crusade to reunify the United States, North and South still split deeply on many issues – not least the conflict they still call by different names.

All across the bloodstained arc where the Civil War raged, and beyond, Americans are deciding how to remember.

For the next four years, we'll mark the sesquicentennial at scores of crossroads whose names have become historical shorthand: Fort Sumter, which launched the war April 12, 1861, and later Antietam, Shiloh, Gettysburg and others, all the way to Appomattox.

We'll reflect on more than 600,000 combatants who died, debate the causes, talk about slavery's legacy.

Through the years, each Civil War anniversary has mirrored our nation at that point in time. At first, remembering was forgetting, bringing former foes together to shake hands. Nostalgia for the so-called Lost Cause of the antebellum South defined many observances — even at the Civil War centennial in the early 1960s, ironically coinciding with the civil rights movement.

And what does today's anniversary tell us?

Conversations with scholars, regular folks, Southerners, Northerners, blacks, whites — suggest we've matured about the war. It's a commemoration, not a celebration, this time.

What we're recollecting now is the Civil War and emancipation, many people say. Yes, there have been secession balls right out of “Gone with the Wind,” but the viewpoint of the 4 million enslaved Americans is part of every serious observance.

And one more conclusion: This fight isn't really past. Even after 150 years, it holds us still.

The past still resonates

Clotted interstates carry you to Manassas, but it's a surprisingly quick run from the heart of Washington, D.C.

In July 1861 — just weeks after the Confederates took Fort Sumter, and Lincoln responded with a call for 75,000 volunteers — Manassas would be the first real test of the opposing armies.

Some spectators ventured out from the capital for a look and a picnic on what began as a fine day, expecting the rebels to be quickly dispatched. Instead, they witnessed what became a Confederate rout. “Turn back!” cried Union soldiers in full flight. “We are whipped!”

This war, it suddenly became clear, would be deadly earnest.

And at Manassas today, it becomes clear that people still care. Tens of thousands are expected in July for commemorative events.

On a recent chilly day, a family pulled jackets tighter as they crossed the battlefield. All the way from Denmark, Per Moller came with his wife and young son for a vacation, with stops from Louisiana to here, to see where Americans from North and South struggled.

Conjuring the fratricide, Moller shook his head, saying, “They spoke the same language, maybe went to the same schools.”

Living history

Not everyone feels caught up in the war, even where it was fought.

On the haunting battlefield at Cold Harbor, just outside Richmond, Wayne Herring was completing his usual three-mile jog at a recent twilight. Trails he circled were the scene of brutal trench fighting and sniper exchanges in 1864 that left as many as 18,000 casualties.

But Herring doesn't come here because he's a Civil War buff.

“It's just peace and quiet,” he said.

Nor does Shirley Ragland spend much time thinking about the war. She lives about an hour's drive from Cold Harbor in Farmville. It had its war history, but her story picks up a century later.

“I was in the eighth grade,” she explained, “and the schools closed.”

After public schools were ordered desegregated in the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, localities across the South tried to thwart implementation. Prince Edward County, where Farmville is the seat, closed all its public schools rather than integrate. Starting in 1959, they were shut for five years, even as the centennial of emancipation was celebrated. (White students attended racially exclusive private academies.)

Hundreds of black children were placed with families and schools far from home. Ragland went to Washington, D.C., then in the second year to Philadelphia, later to New York. For other students, though, schooling “just stopped.”

Today she remains alert for lingering prejudice, but also hopeful. The county board, she noted, passed a resolution of reconciliation a few years ago.

Farmville is near Appomattox, and many tourists stop in search of history. With a half-smile, Ragland said, “And here I am standing right in front of them — living history.”

Slavery's legacy

In North Carolina, many battle sites attest to the war's harsh legacy.

Another kind of memorial is found off Exit 177 from Interstate 85: Stagville, a restored plantation, where 900 slaves once worked. Some of its land today holds high-tech corporate parks.

“When we met, our very first meeting, we met at Stagville,” said Freddie Parker, a member of the state's Civil War sesquicentennial commission and a history professor at North Carolina Central University, a historically black school nearby in Durham.

Parker, whose ancestors were slaves, told of how the commission determined to offer “a balanced commemoration,” recognizing all viewpoints. When staff members created a website, groups of Confederate descendants objected that their side was underrepresented.

“I remember ... an older individual, every time something came up about the South, the North, he put it out there: ‘The War of Aggression.' And everybody knew his position.”

But as the meetings continued, and members listened to each other, the man began to push for an official state memorial to black struggles, too.

“He made a complete flip,” Parker said, noting that “people are continuing to evolve. People are not static, stagnant beings.”

Ruin and renewal

From near Chattanooga, the Union army took aim at the rail and commercial hub of Atlanta, which Sherman would set alight in 1864.

Firsthand signs of actual destruction are rare now — but outside Atlanta, you come to Sweetwater Creek and what remains of a five-story textile mill, which supplied cloth for Confederate forces. In July 1864, Sherman's troops burned the mill. Today, wind whispers through the forlorn brick ruins.

On a recent day, Betty Fugate, a native Georgian, brought out her grandsons, Caleb and Barrett Clark, on spring break from New Hampshire, for the learning experience, along with some exercise.

After Sherman's “march to the sea,” after Reconstruction, after Jim Crow and the tragedies and triumphs of the civil rights movement, the burned city of Atlanta grew into an economic powerhouse.

When the Olympics came in 1996, Atlantans could laugh at a T-shirt caricaturing Sherman with the caption “The original torchbearer.”

An end and a beginning

The Civil War, for all practical purposes, ended at Appomattox.

The surrender documents were signed in a handsome porticoed house, which was disassembled after the war. Rebuilding was delayed, and much of the original material rotted away. The foundation and some bricks were reused, but the painstakingly restored structure is something new, perhaps a bit like the nation that was restored here.

“Appomattox to me is not the end of something,” said historian James I. Robertson. “It's the beginning of modern America.”

Now 80, Robertson was executive director of the national Civil War centennial commission 50 years ago, and he's a member of Virginia's sesquicentennial commission now.

The centennial came at a time of peace and economic prosperity, he said, unlike the “negative age we're living in,” with its wars, economic crises and partisan bickering. “As a historian, I don't think this nation has been as fractured since the 1850s.”

We ought to learn from the war born of that earlier fracture, he said.

“Almost three-quarters of a million men died to give us the nation we have today. The sesquicentennial offers us a moment to remember that American democracy rests on one thing and one thing only — a spirit of compromise.”