Myths of History

August 29, 2017

Sometimes it is best to leave history to the past. As time marches forward truth begins to get trampled under-foot. People who were participants and witnesses to history in the making die off. Facts begin to blur into myths. Boring or unattractive truths get cast aside. Romance, exaggeration, and finally fiction arrive upon the field of battle to pick away and haul off souvenirs that are durable and interesting. The ground itself, soaked in blood, sweat and tears, is left alone as too mundane and cumbersome to carry.

So, we move century by century with an increasing ignorance of things as they really were.

We are now many bends of the river past the Civil War. And, the epoch story of America division and bloodshed is being reduced to simple explanations and TV sound bites.

The story has evolved that with the thundering of the inaugural guns at Ft. Sumter, boys in blue from up north came sweeping down into the south, their sabers waving above their heads and with the burning intensity of knocking off the manacles of an enslaved race of people and release them from awful bondage. And the ole southern boys in the tattered gray were meeting them at the stone wall and giving up their young lives to be mingled with the blood of their fellow youth, for the purpose of keeping their human chattels chained to involuntary servitude.

Of course, that is all myth. The Yanks came south to keep the United States united. The southern boys fought bravely for the right to form their own country. It took blood, and lots of it, to decide the legality of secession. Slavery? Unquestionably, a very indefensible and inconvenient issue. But still, an issue not yet deemed worthy of dying for by either side.

It soon became clear that the war was not going to be just a one month walk in the park. The mounting horror and bloody reports of the battlefields began to demoralize the northern populace, it’s political leaders and the soldiers. It is not a natural leaning of young boys from Iowa to dress up in blue and go kill other young boys in gray from Arkansas, who they don’t even know. Nor to inflict suffering on other human beings for bleary reasons. Keeping the country united was a bleary reason. After all, the concept of independence—southern or otherwise—was a very familiar notion to all Americans. It had been only 85 years since the Revolutionary War, when north and south fought together to shake loose from the rule of the British crown.

So, for the north to hang tough with this horrible carnage and boys bearing almost unbearable suffering in the steamy climate a thousand miles away from home, there had to be explanations and a cause which stirred the soul. All platoons marching onto deadly ground, with bayonets gleaming in the sun, have to have their marching bands of beating drums, rousing brass bands and the lofty call of the trumpet. What had not been an issue worth fighting and dying for in the north, slowly seeped into the psychic of the Yankee cause.

Enter the brass bands, lifting poetry, powerful novels, and heartening cadence of marching hymns.

Enter “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and the rising chorus of the moving anthem which asks these young men to “trample out the vintage where the grapes of wrath have worn.”   The words of Julia Ward Howe are so inspirational, it almost makes me—even a century and a half later—want to wage war for God. While such an idea may not have resonated with the totally ambivalent soldiers in blue, suffering and dying in the trenches, it sold well as a more tangible and palpable motivation for many, maybe most, of the people in the north.

The south had no such high level and moralistic anthem. It was stuck with the cancer of slavery, so intertwined in the war, that it began to eat away and finally destroy the honorable cause of independence and state’s rights. President Jefferson Davis’s offer to emancipate the slaves in exchange for official recognition by France and England; the emancipation of slaves who enlisted and fought for the Confederacy, came much too late, and was far too little. That cancer remains to this day, morphing into the destructive ignorance of those intent on destroying history.

Today, most all Americans have just enough knowledge of the history of the Civil War to be dangerous. Out of an upper level class of 28 students at a state university recently, only one student knew when the Civil War was fought. But there is a fair chance, more than one of them will be in the mob to bring down a stone edifice of Robert E. Lee.

Kentucky’s own Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Penn Warren tries in vain to be heard even today, speaking out from under the mounting debris of ignorance, misrepresentation and distortions. In his book “The Legacy of the Civil War” written for the Centennial in 1961, he brings the heavy hand of truth crashing down on the “virtue signaling” moralists of today’s intellectually deficient monument marauders. He writes in part that the northerner feels redeemed, for he, “tends to rewrite history to suit his own deep needs.”

Warren proceeds to smash through common myths which exist today. “It is forgotten”, he laments, that the Republican Party—the party of Lincoln—of 1860 pledged protection of slavery in the states where it existed. “It is forgotten” that in 1861, and after the war started, the Republicans were willing to guarantee slavery in the southern states if they returned to the Union. “It is forgotten” that in 1861 the Union Congress voted almost unanimously to affirm that the Civil War was not to interfere with slavery but to maintain the Union. “It is forgotten” that the House Resolution declared that the war would cease as soon as the seceding states would return to the Union. “It is forgotten” that the revered and now sacred “Emancipation Proclamation” issued on September 23, 1862, was in part a political ploy to induce peace and not just the liberation of slaves. Slavery was to be abolished only in seceding states—not all slave holding states—and was to be recalled if those errant statehoods returned to the Union by the first of the following January. “It is forgotten” that the proclamation was widely disapproved by northerners and led to the political defeat of office holders in subsequent elections.

“It is forgotten” that many northern states rejected the 14th Amendment to our U.S. Constitution and denied the Negro suffrage. “It is forgotten” that racial prejudice ran rampant in the Union Army and General Sherman himself was adamantly against army black troops to firing upon white Rebels. “It is forgotten” that Abraham Lincoln in 1858, in a speech in Charlestown, Illinois declared “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.”   “It is forgotten” that the Great Emancipator told black leaders visiting the White House in 1862, that “even when you cease to be slaves, you are yet far removed from being placed on an equality with the white race…It is better for us both to be separated.” In that meeting he encouraged the black leaders to consider leaving the United States and establish a foreign state of their own. “It is forgotten” that the north was not any more enamored with racial justice than the south.

“It is forgotten” Warren finally concluded, “that history is history.”

None of this diminishes the greatness of Lincoln. There is something great and heroic to be said about holding our country together. And no one can deny his expressed personal opposition to slavery. His statements today would be considered racist. In his day, they were considered broadly liberal and enlightened. Please, please, leave his monuments alone.

Over the years, history slowly ceases to be history. It becomes something else. And that something else is whatever the hooting mobs and lords of self-righteousness announce it to be.

Slavery was a national sin. Drastic and unfulfilling as it may sound to the modern American ear, there is a strong argument that the abolition of slavery was merely a byproduct of the Civil War.

Thank God that slavery was abolished. Let’s bow our collective heads in thanksgiving and forgive ourselves. And move on.

There is grave danger to our history in people tearing down monuments with a superficial and limited knowledge of history. As a Vietnam vet, I’m haunted with the notion that 100 years from now the somber and reverential, black wall of granite in our nation’s Capital honoring those who died for a cause far away from home and mostly unknowing as to why, will be bull dozed under tons of dirt. Napalm. Baby killers. Parrot’s Beak. Cambodia Invasion. Kent State. These will be terms bannered as total history of that war. The names of gallant young men who braved an early death for their country will be desecrated. Desecrated by noise makers who never heard a shot fired in anger.

A brand-new monument commemorating Woodstock will replace it.

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