I recently walked (or hobbled) the battlefield at Bull Run and stood on the line where Stonewall Jackson got his name. I grew up near Shiloh and joined the Tennessee relatives there for reunions, played in the Bloody Pond and in the Hornet’s Nest. I have a shelf full of Civil War histories and biographies.
So why do I dread the Civil War Sesquicentennial?
Next year marks the 150-year anniversary of the outbreak of the war. I think it will be an opportunity and a great thing for Knoxville. The Knoxville Civil War Roundtable has done a wonderful job of documenting the high ground forts in South Knoxville that ringed and protected Knoxville from invasion. Forts Higley, Stanley, and Dickerson may finally get their due as the Legacy Parks Foundation is busy raising funds to buy the last remaining pieces to create parks, green space, and a greenway. Knoxville should be a “must stop” for the battlefield tours expected as Civil War buffs travel around the South.
So don’t assume I don’t think we ought to celebrate history or that I don’t support Knoxville’s effort to rediscover its Civil War heritage. But celebrations of the Civil War also have a dark side.
I was around in 1961, the centennial of the war. In Alabama and other states of the Deep South, it was an orgy of bearded men waving Confederate battle flags with local and state celebrations. You will recall this occurred after the Montgomery bus boycott protesting segregation and just before the election of Gov. George Wallace. Wallace, noting that he stood on the state capitol portico where Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederacy, vowed to fight “communistic amalgamation” with “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
The civil rights movement provoked a resurgence in the Ku Klux Klan. Churches were burned or bombed. Civil Rights workers were killed. It was hard to distinguish between groups waving Confederate flags for historical purposes and groups waving them in celebration of oppressing black people.
In 1911 the South held 50th anniversary celebrations featuring Civil War veterans; parks were dedicated, cemeteries restored, and monuments built. But it also marked the re-establishment of the modern Klan, followed on and fueled by D.W. Griffith’s racist movie Birth of a Nation. The nation of the title is often ignored by film historians, but it was the birth of the Klan nation he celebrated.
April is Confederate History month, an occasion for Southern governors to issue an innocuous proclamation promoting tourism to battlefields and such. The governor of Virginia has been excoriated for getting a little too carried away with celebrating Southern heritage and forgetting why the war occurred. Given the controversy this has engendered, imagine it multiplied 1,000 times next year.
Layer on top of this the current political climate in the South. There is a legitimate discussion that needs to occur about the future of federalism, the rights of states to govern themselves and their obligations to the central government. It is an argument as old as the nation itself. But any legitimate discussion is inevitably overshadowed by cries for secession, defying the federal government, and grandstanding. Our Legislature is debating a bill to exempt Tennessee from the recently-passed national health-care plan. Gubernatorial candidate Zach Wamp has vowed to meet the feds at the state line when they come to take our guns.
Let me say this again, so you don’t misunderstand. A celebration of our heritage and an appreciation for our history is a good thing. What we have to avoid is any attempt to gloss over or neglect to mention the disgusting enslavement of a whole people as the cause of the war. We also have to avoid allowing yahoos to use this event as cheap political theater.
East Tennessee did not secede from the Union. Knoxville was a Union stronghold, sitting on the railroad and the river separating Lee’s Army of Virginia and Confederate forces in Chattanooga and points South. It played a vital role in preserving the Union.
That’s something to celebrate.
And it doesn’t require plantation houses, women in crinoline, or rebel flags.