Revisiting the Civil War

It’s the 150th anniversary of the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in 1860 and we’re coming up on the similar anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War. The New York Times got the idea of “live-blogging” history and it makes for fascinating reading: DISUNION – Opinionator Blog – NYTimes.com.

I’m not much of a Civil War buff, although I watched the Ken Burns documentary, and one summer read Shelby Foote’s history when I should have been working on my dissertation. Having lived in the South for fifteen years, the first five in Sewanee, the home of The University of the South, one of the “Lost Cause” colleges. The history of Sewanee is recorded in stained glass in All Saints’ Chapel, including when the Yankees blew up the college cornerstone. Charles Wilson Reagan’s Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause tells the story of how Christianity in the South was shaped by the Civil War. That was certainly the case at Sewanee, with the prominently-displayed portrait of “The Battling Bishop” Leonidas Polk in a Confederate gray uniform, with sword in one hand and prayer book in the  other.

I was bemused to learn that my former colleague’s lectures on the Civil War at the Greenville County Public Library in South Carolina have been picketed. Among the signs being held: “Lincoln was a mass murderer.”

It’s hard for Northerners to understand the complexity of the relationship Southerners have with slavery and with the Civil War. The comments in the Times blog offers evidence of that. Even liberal Democrats who live in the South may express their discomfort at certain historical arguments, or what one called “South bashing.” The response is more complex when it comes from the thoughtful, and progressive descendant of a slave owner. The war lives on in the South in ways it doesn’t up north and the commemorations in the coming years will no doubt raise emotional arguments over a history that still affects contemporary life.

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