So I finally finished the ninth and final episode of Ken Burns’ “Civil War”. I have to admit, watching the entire series affected me far more than I thought it would. I don’t think that I have ever thought too deeply about the Civil War. Southerners, I think, are inherently born with a deep since of either humiliation or narcissistic pride about the Civil War. I was one born with humiliation and thus, have always avoided thinking to much about what the Civil War means to me. Even in my high school AP US history class, or maybe my senior year IB History of the Americas class, which was probably the last time I seriously thought about the Civil War, I think that I learned what I needed to learn in order to do well on my exam and have some surface level conversation about the causes of the conflict. But the true cost of American blood, the true loss that people suffered, I never sought to understand.
Now, in thinking about it, beyond the soldiers who fought valiantly in the Civil War, the war really affected two groups of people in this country more profoundly than the rest. I liked the explanation that Shelby Foote gave in the documentary, that the North fought the war with one arm tied behind its back. Life in the North went on as normal, for the most part, aside from the soldiers who fought and the families they left behind. In contrast, the war turned the South upside down. Southerners not only had both arms in the fight but both legs and their head too. Thus, when the last fires in Richmond flickered out and the last skirmish was completed in Texas, people realized just how much the war wrecked the Southern economy and landscape. One in four army aged men in the South died in the war. In the years after the war, Mississippi spent one fifth of its whole state budget just on artificial limbs for Civil War veterans. Family farms were destroyed; livelihoods could not be rebuilt. The war did free the slaves in name, but in name only. In that way, the Civil War profoundly changed the lives of newly freed slaves, but it didn’t yet achieve the full hope of freedom in America. After all, the epic, unjust Plessy vs. Ferguson was still to come.
And what does this mean to me? I am a product of that charred Southern landscape. In the ashes of the plantations were born the strip malls, high school football stadiums, and manufactured homes of the present. Our educational system in the Southern states is still mocked, our accents ridiculed as ignorant by non-Southerners. And yet, I think I understand so much better now why the South will always be my home, no matter how long I live outside of it. I understand more completely why place and home were thought so worthy of protecting by men who had no personal stake in whether or not slavery continued or ceased. The South absolutely needed to learn a new way of thinking, not the least of which was to do away with the absolute mindset of the inferiority of a group of people based solely on the color of their skin. But as with all people, there can still be some good found. The loyalty, valor, and grace of a Robert E. Lee is worthy of some admiration in our world today where there is so little respect for others, and so much in the way of vulgarity and harshness.
The most moving part of the whole series is that at the end of all of this bloodshed and the assassination of the President, people still found a way to forgive one another and move on with their lives, working with a unity of purpose. I can’t imagine how that was possible. To see the footage of the old Civil War veterans, Blue and Gray, shaking hands and hugging one another, it made me realize that long after war is done, brotherhood and forgiveness are possible.
It is what we need today. I have never viewed myself as a great patriot. In the current geo-political context, I have often stated that I wish I was Swedish, or some other more peaceable nationality that respects international law and organizations. However, after watching this documentary, I realize just how much has been sacrificed to make America what it is, and how much of a responsibility each citizen today has to take the what remains from the battlefields of Manassas, Gettysburg, and a thousand other battlefields, and make the 600,000 lives that were lost in it worthy of meaning. They fought for their own idea of freedom. I shouldn’t sit back today and watch our leaders squandering away what men so desperately gave their lives for. Furthermore, I shouldn’t be so content to not think too deeply about the past and how it affects the present.
It is sad that probably in America today, most people wouldn’t know any difference between General Meade and General Bedford-Forrest. A place like Vicksburg should mean something more to us than nickel slots at riverboat casinos. In my numerous road trips across the Southeast, I had no idea of the events that occurred in places I only viewed as interstate off-ramps. I didn’t think about a ten month seige at Petersburg, or the burning of Atlanta, or even the battle of Mobile Bay. But that is my home. Shouldn’t I know those places?
I think the Decemberists said it the best in their song “Yankee Bayonet”:
“But when the sun breaks to no more bullets at Battlecreek
Then will you make a grave? For I will be home then
I will be home then.”