GLIMPSES: Remembering the Civil War — lessons and legacies

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Author’s note: The following three premises are essential to this column.
1) None of us sees the past or present with absolute clarity; 2) Each of us has the capacity for glimpses of informed insight that draw from and reflect our personal values; and 3) Cordial, forthright exchange of those insights enhances our mutual well being.

At the end of 2014, editor Terri Likens and I discussed restarting my  “occasional” column in the Roane County News.

Given the controversial nature of my previous musings, I hinted that perhaps the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War offered an excellent, perhaps less contentious, opportunity to combine my perspectives as historian and aspiring journalist.

Sporadic angry sparring in the Knoxville News Sentinel over the appearance of a Confederate flag in a recent Veterans Day parade revealed my naïveté, but Terri agreed.

Thus, over the next several months I will compose a series of reflections on that seminal event in our history.

This particular article will offer insight into influences that shape my approach to history and hence my understanding of the Civil War.

I  must begin with several disclaimers.  First, readers whose primary interest is battles, bayonets and bugles should know that those familiar topics will not be prominent in my reflections. More detailed and enthusiastic treatment of those subjects are readily available elsewhere.

Instead, I will reflect on what I believe are concerns that have particular relevance for us today: The war’s causes, how wartime upheavals transformed local and national institutions, and the war’s immediate and lasting effects as Tennessee and the rest of the South grappled with the tragic realties of Reconstruction.

Secondly I must confess that this  emphasis on a “usable past” leaves me more than a little conflicted. My formal training as a historian taught me that preoccupation with the present invariably distorts understandings of the past. On the other hand, I appreciate the genial but blunt adolescents who for the past 30 years have reminded me daily that conveying a message irrelevant to their lives is both foolish and futile.

Some opportunistic observers, to be sure, find the past useful. But  many letters to the editor of this or any other newspaper and a few random minutes of listening to the radio reveal an important reality.

What occasionally passes for history is often a selective, self-serving gathering of “facts” intended to “score points” in debates of dubious importance.

Even more dismaying for the historian are distortions of the past in fiction and various forms of the media. But it is understandable that casual observers find Hollywood’s entertaining, often inaccurate, depictions of the past preferable to more informed, but inaccessible, scholarly accounts by the likes of yours truly.

I am not suggesting that I, in either the classroom or this column, should (or even can) compete with either talk radio or Hollywood.

But I do believe there is a place (and need) for one to convey history’s complexities to conscientious non-scholars.

Finally the tug-of-war in my mind is evident in my skepticism about the common assumption that “those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.”  

One need not be a trained historian to see that many tragic events are rooted in misguided attempts to learn from the past.

This insight explains my preference for Mark Twain’s cryptic observation that “history does not repeat itself — but it rhymes.”

Many respectable commentators have suggested that the Civil War era’s most important “rhyme” is  today’s frightening level of polarization.

I agree. Even as we acknowledge notable differences in the two eras, cautious reflections on our nation’s earlier era of discord may help us grapple with our own.

Returning to the topic at hand, I will close with several numbers that might stir interest in future columns.  

First, 600,000 — the total of Union and Confederate deaths between 1861-65.  

Should a comparable number of Americans die in conflict today, the total would exceed 6 million. If one adds the estimated 400,000 men from both sides who were wounded, the 1 million total represented one of every 16 American males counted in the 1860 census.

Next, consider 4 million — the number of African Americans who officially gained citizenship when the 14th Amendment was ratified.

But expectations proved elusive.

Indeed, serious progress toward equality for blacks only began 70 years later when another war forged similarly unforeseen consequences.

Despite much progress since, honest consideration of why equality for African Americans remains elusive might be one antidote for our current polarization.

Whatever one considers to be the cause(s) of our Civil War, the costs represented by these numbers were exorbitant and tragic.  

In the light of persistent regional hostilities and delayed dreams, it is not disrespectful to wonder if the war’s results were equal to that cost.

Finally, in pondering that question, consider 150: the number of years that have passed since Generals Lee and Grant met at Appomattox.

While a century and a half may seem like eternity to some, in the long human story it is a mere blip.

This very proximity is one reason we Americans are so intrigued with the legacies of the Civil War.

Paradoxically that very closeness blurs our vision as we attempt to discern the “rhymes” that echo from those legacies.

Mark Banker is a Kingston resident, author, teacher and historian.