Civil War history twisted to fit myths

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My interest in the Civil War began in elementary school when I found out I was born 95 years to the day after President Abraham Lincoln was shot.

As a boy, there was something unbearably cool about being connected to the Great Emancipator through a chain of assassination, sorrow and remembrance that began on my birthday in the middle of the previous century.

Sure, I felt pity for the 1,517 souls who drowned when the Titanic struck an iceberg -- also on my birthday exactly 48 years earlier -- but that particular cataclysm didn't stir the same emotions that a shared date with Lincoln's murder did in my young mind.

Though my interest in Civil War history was originally rooted in youthful solipsism, it was reinforced by the brutality of the times.

A century after the Civil War's last battle, many divisions remained in American life. The civil rights movement had opened a new and unexpected front in the battle for racial equality. Even then, the country wasn't in a hurry to come to grips with that earlier war's tragic legacy of racism and slavery.

Martin Luther King's assassination was quickly followed by the killing of Bobby Kennedy and the shooting of segregationist George Wallace a few years later.

Combined with the murders earlier in the 1960s of John F. Kennedy, Medgar Evers and Malcolm X, it seemed inevitable that political cynicism would settle over the country like a murderous fog.

Even before the bloody details of nearly forgotten Civil War battles were filled in by indifferent middle school teachers, there was a pervasive sense of unfinished business in the land.

The 1960s were a time of urban riots and mass demonstrations. Police brutality and political corruption were rampant. The subsequent battle for school desegregation in places like Boston and New York City felt like extensions of Antietam and Manassas carried over into the 20th century.

Fast forward a few decades to the Civil War's sesquicentennial. With 150 years between our era and the first shots fired in anger at Fort Sumter, it seems unbelievable that we're still arguing over the meaning and causes of a war that resulted in the deaths of 600,000 Americans.

According to a recent CNN poll, 42 percent of Americans have bought into the discredited Confederate conspiracy theory that the Civil War had little or nothing to do with slavery and everything to do with states' rights.

In that weird narrative, the South was invaded by the North after "lawfully" seceding from the Union. The fact that the Confederacy was a slave republic committed to preserving that peculiar institution into perpetuity is barely acknowledged as worth fighting for or against.

The nostalgia currently on display in sesquicentennial celebrations throughout the old Confederacy isn't new. Embracing its defeat while extolling its culture has been the default mode for 150 years of the states that took up arms against America.

In defiance of logic and history, the losers in that bloody conflict have been very effective in spreading falsehoods about that conflict. It is a campaign that began the moment Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox.

Forgetfulness is having some interesting social fallout in places like Mississippi.

According to Public Policy Polling, 46 percent of Mississippi Republicans want interracial marriage banned. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has rhapsodized about how the old [White] Citizens Councils used to keep order in his community without resorting to the low-brow violence of the Ku Klux Klan. It is pure fantasy.

Like questions about whether President Barack Obama is a foreign-born Muslim double agent, the debate about the causes of the Civil War are rooted in toxic political ideologies that have their origin in unresolved and unacknowledged racial anxieties.

The tenor of this debate is only possible in a profoundly cynical age when racial conflict is swept under the rug and the details of the most destructive war in our history can be distorted at will. Most Americans don't know or care enough about our shared history to be disgusted by it.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.


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