I was born and raised in Texas, albeit in a large and diverse city. I have the Texas drawl to prove my roots, but my southern bonafides are mostly the accident of my birth rather than my family history. While I spent a large swath of my life believing that the tune most indicative of my past was “Dixieland” rather than the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” I ultimately learned that I was the descendant of a Civil War hero who wore blue, not gray. That dramatically changed my thinking about the war that is too often idealized.
Upon learning that my great grandfather, John William Seth Smith, fought with the Union Army I studied the issue of secession a bit more closely and listened to the words of songs and speeches and poems emanating from the north and south during that contentious war. After spending time researching the eras before, during, and after the fighting my feelings about politics and history dramatically changed. I realized just how much propaganda and sloganeering there was in those songs and speeches. I began to wonder how horrific it must have been for my great grandfather and all of the others who fought. I saw the horror, not the glory of that war and secretly felt relieved that my great grandfather had chosen what I believe to be the right side of the disagreement. Still, I felt compassion for the majority of southerners who were no doubt mostly embroiled in the skirmish by directives from the wealthier slave holding citizens of their states. No doubt their thinking had been tainted by prejudices and fears that were used to convince them to play along with the ridiculousness of the cause.
I’ve visited Civil War battlefields with my husband. Neither of us relish the stories of bloodshed and death that forever stained those hallowed grounds. There is a profound sadness that hovers over such places. I always find myself wondering how things had become so bad that such a schism occurred and why it seems to continue to pollute our ability to unite for a common good. While we are not physically fighting in the streets for the most part, we continue to bicker with one another in a decidedly uncompromising manner. It feels as though our original sin of allowing slavery to exist and flourish still haunts us even after we have attempted to lay it to rest.
I was taught to admit to my mistakes, confess my sins and ask for forgiveness. The process is called reconciliation. When the confession and contrition is real the slate is wiped clean. We are supposed to be free to begin again and to do our best to be better. Somehow after the American Civil War it seems as though we simply announced that we were a united country again, that slaves were free, and that it was time to move on. We made little effort to reconcile with those who had lived in chains or even with our neighbors from other states who had chosen a different side. There was a kind of silence that stifled our ability to broach the topics that had resulted in the war in the first place. There was no real admission of mistakes, no true reconciliation. The war was over but the problems festered in the dark.
We attempted again and again to codify the rights of all Americans and to make life more fair for everyone, but as a teacher I am fully aware that just because people obey laws, does not mean that they like them or feel that they are adequate in addressing problems. We are a country that has experienced trauma. We have a large swath of citizens whose history is traumatic, but we have mostly been fearful of honestly discussing such things. Of late we have even ridiculously made laws to prevent such problems from even being discussed in schools, a terrible idea if ever there was one. We are living in a state of guilt and denial that continues to tear our citizenry apart.
As a nation we have trouble voicing our concerns and even more difficulty listening to the needs of others. We have a very bad habit of answering pleas with, “Yes, but…” We choose sides just like our ancestors did and often end up fighting only because we refuse to accept differing points of view. To this very day some among us either defend or give a pass to slave holders while others insist on getting apologies or even reparations as a sign that we are serious about obliterating the wrongs that were done. We can and should remember history, but in some instances honoring it with statues and flags for those who violently broke with the Union and insisted on defending the ownership of slaves would be as absurd as erecting a memorial to Adolf Hitler in Germany or as abhorrent as raising a Nazi flag. We might forgive those who treasonously declared war on the United States, but it makes little sense to lionize those individuals in any form.
But for the decision to forgive these persons and invite them back into the fold, the leaders of the secession might have found themselves spending years in prison or even being condemned to death. It was right not to enact grievous punishments if we were to become one nation again, but the long drawn out adoration of the Confederacy by so many has only kept alive the deep seated anger that prompted the war in the first place. We simply have never faced the reality of what actually happened in a manner that would finally set our differences to rest.
There is a sadness that is alive in our precious country today. There is an elephant in the room that we have never properly addressed, and maybe never will. Our citizenry needs therapy that has not been forthcoming. Trying to pretend that we are alright is not healthy, but perhaps we will one day realize that we have had enough and finally sit around a table and tell our stories with total honestly and join hands in peace. For the sake of our country it needs to happen soon.