Sunday, April 10, 2011

All hell (Sunday Reflections for April 10, 2011)

This coming week will mark the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. As we all remember from our history lessons, the conflict began on April 12, 1861 with the bombardment by Confederate forces of Ft. Sumter, located on an island in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. The conflict would end almost exactly four years later on April 9, 1865 with Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House, a few hundred miles north in Virginia. Symbolically, however, the war’s last shot came a few days later on April 13, with the tragic and pointless assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

I visited Charleston for the first time the week after Christmas. It’s a lovely and fascinating historical tourist Mecca, with buildings dating back to the 1600s. There’s little evidence now of the wreck it became at the end of the war as a result of the fighting prior to its capture by Sherman’s army. I saw Ft. Sumter but did not take the boat ride out to it. I did tour Ft Moultrie, however. Built during the American Revolution, Ft Moultrie had been evacuated by Federal forces for the more defensible but unfinished Ft Sumter. It was used by Confederates in the bombardment and saw service off-and-on until World War II.

Cleaned-up and tourist friendly, most historic sites have a bit of a Disneyland feel to them. The exception in Charleston came when we stumbled upon the old slave market building. It looked like any other building on any other block, as it was probably viewed at the time. It was just another business establishment, like the butcher, stable or dry goods store. It just happened that the business here was the buying and selling of human beings. Walking through the simple building and looking at the displays I couldn’t help thinking this was America’s Auschwitz.

Last week over five nights, PBS rebroadcast the award-winning, blockbuster documentary, The Civil War, by Ken Burns. It’s so easy now to forget the scale of the conflict and the resulting destruction of people and property. Over 600,000 died; more than in all the rest of American wars combined. Millions more were wounded, many with life-long injuries, especially the loss of arms and legs.

With the exception of Gettysburg (in Pennsylvania), all the major fighting was in Southern or Border States and the region was devastated. The Burns documentary was possible because the Civil War was the first major war anywhere to be photographed. Mostly taken after the fighting was over, the pictures are not much different from those of World War I or II: blocks of burned-out buildings, torn up railroad tracks, soldiers’ bodies lying in open fields or trenches, living soldiers exhausted and hollow-eyed, dazed refugees, and emaciated prisoners.

Famously Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman summed up the conflict saying, “War is all hell.” Unlike the early romanticized expectations of most civilians and politicians, many of the commanders on both sides knew what a protracted horror the war would be. Historians now see the American Civil War as anticipating the carnage of the world wars of the next century. The trenches of Verdun were foreshadowed at Petersburg and Grant’s nine-month siege. Concentration camps had their roots in places like Andersonville, whose commander was executed after one of the first war crimes trials. His defense: I was just following orders.

The Civil War was also one of the first “people’s wars,” which therefore required ongoing popular support. There is little doubt, for example, that the North would have ended the conflict had Lincoln not been re-elected in 1864, as looked very likely through most of that year. Sherman’s capture of Atlanta that September seemed to turn the tide, however, convincing enough voters that victory was in sight.

Nonetheless, the official explanations of the conflict by political leaders on both sides shifted as it went on: preserving the Union or defending states’ rights, abolishing slavery or defending slavery. Different people saw different purposes in the war, which showed that the war had really taken on a life of its own.

In both the North and South, many saw the war as a religious crusade: God was on their side. For the North, Julie Ward Howe summed up the sentiment in her stirring Battle Hymn of the Republic. Yet the religious potential for horror was also shown in the pre-war attacks of John Brown, who today would be labeled a terrorist or even jihadist.

Lincoln’s view was different. He had no known religious affiliation and rarely attended worship, yet he frequently quoted scripture in his speeches and framed events in theological terms. As he saw it, the war was God’s judgment on the entire nation. The whole country had practiced or tolerated slavery, and the conflict was the result of a moral breakdown across the board. There would be no winners in this war. Its conclusion, however, would bring the possibility of reconciliation and rebirth.

Lincoln, like many of the war’s generals, saw that war really solved nothing. It was a necessary evil. The real work, and the real chance for a better society and better lives for its people, would come after the fighting was over. After it had gotten it out of its system, the country could get back to its true purpose of being a commonwealth, a place of life and opportunity for all. War, on the other hand, was always and could never be anything other than “all hell.”

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