Civil War Memory

This is a great note that I received a few days ago in reaction to our ongoing discussion of Civil War and tragedy. So as not to mangle anything, I'll just let the gentleman speak:


I was born in 1949 and grew up as a white person in the rural Western Kentucky, where the memory of the Civil War was still alive and played a vital part in a maintaining racial identity. As I remember, sentiments about the Civil War in among my school acquaintances were all pro-Confederate. (The one exception that I remember was a seventh-grade teacher who acquired remarkably enlightened books in her capacity as school librarian.) This was probably not so true while the war was actually being fought. 

Nonparticipation in the Civil War was an option in Kentucky and all of my ancestors of fighting age took that option. Their relatives fought on both sides. One of the first books I read was a history of the Civil War, Field, Fort and Fleet, by Henry Whittemore, which my father had found lying around in his mother's house after she died. I remember one battle description that described the field of battle as being "thirsty for blood", great stuff for a nine-year-old.  I recall it as being from a Southern perspective, but, on looking it up to write this post, I found that it was published in Detroit in 1885. 

My family did not express feelings about anything, race included. As a child I took my cues from my segregated school. My parents were actually more liberal than I remember myself being. My mother was furious at the minister of our Episcopal Church for preaching on Robert E. Lee on the Sunday next to his birthday and for using "red birds and blue birds" as code: both are fine in their own way, but they have the good sense not to mix. 

My father's best relationship with a neighbor was with a black farmer who must have had some consciousness in his background, because his first name was Maceo. (Such relationships between white and black farmers were not, I believe, unusual in the South.)  I remember his not wanting to go to a particular barbeque establishment and finally yielding to my continued entreaties to pick some up. The place still had a colored entrance and my father embarrassed me by deliberately going in that way. 

Although I had long assumed that my family were too poor to own slaves, I recently found out from a lawyer cousin that he done a probate search for a black family who came into his office only to find that we all shared the same great great grandfather, who had deeded the land to a daughter who had been his slave. My cousin said that it was a nice family, but, unlike me, he did not share the same last name as the original landholder and did not care to make the kinship known. It occurred to me that they might have been our neighbor's family, but they were not. 
After reading David Blight, I have become aware of how books like Whittemore's, with its presentation of the Civil War as a senseless tragedy, something like a train wreck but exponentially more bloody, contributed to the revival of the South as a white supremacist society. 

It would certainly be tragic - in the sense of "pointlessly catastrophic" - to fight such a conflict over differences on constitutional theory or tariff policy. It does not seem pointlessly catastrophic to fight a war to end two and a half centuries of violence against millions of innocent people. Although I have not gone back to check, I think that my memory of Whittemore's book as pro-Southern comes from its consistency with the childhood preference for the Southern side that I imbibed from the society I grew up in. 

The story about Aunt Aggy was a marvelous vignette; I do not recall anyone pointing out the irony of its having been recounted to and by a white woman, who must have approved. I appreciated the connection you made between Aunt Aggy's sentiments and those of the Second Inaugural. Frederick Douglass probably shared them, since I understand that he told Lincoln that the speech was "a sacred effort". 

 Sometime, unless you have already done so, it would be interesting to speak about (absurdly disproportional) white fear of black violence as an underground theme and factor in American culture and politics. I lived in Chicago when Harold Washington was elected the first time and remember how Bernie Epton was transformed from Hyde Park's inoffensive token Republican to a formidable opponent by the slogan, "Vote Epton Before it's Too Late". 

David Axelrod's gift as a political consultant was his ability to recognize this theme and help black politicians neutralize it. The current white liberal, frustration with Barack Obama, such as it is, comes from his perceived lack of assertiveness. Perhaps this comes from Obama's having thoroughly integrated into his personality the insight that he must not "make any fast moves" that would provoke such fear. That is probably why he became President a generation before anyone had a right to expect.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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