Still in the Wake of The Civil War

Here’s an interesting question:  what types of ceremonies, rituals, and celebrations are appropriate for remembering the war officially known as “The War Between The States”?  (So said Congress in 1948, one reenactor pointed out to me last weekend.) Actually, Wikipedia refutes my friend the reenactor, saying Congress never officially legislated a name for the war.  I’ll bet I’ll come across someone soon who will argue the point.  Any takers?

Anyway, given the wide range of feelings Americans have about the war, I’m wondering what you think is appropriate.   There’s a great article about this over at Civil War Memory.  (Tremendous resource, by the way.)

I’m writing a play that began as a rather innocuous attempt to do something timely with Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, but the more I’ve read about the war, the less inclined I am to do something that simple and that straightforward.   The realization that the Civil War, the emancipation of the slaves, and the ongoing struggle of black Americans over the past 150 years, compels me to go deeper, rummaging around in the complexities of culture and skin color relations that still impact many of the simple human exchanges that mark day to day life in America.

Yesterday, I posted a list of things that were on my mind as a result of my reading over the past couple of months.   I’m not sure why this topic has seized me by the throat emotionally.   Frankly, I have been moved deeply by the stories of suffering, abuse, bravery, loss, compassion, and struggle that were a part of this great American upheaval.  I’ve learned about the all too real tension between Federal power and States’ rights.  I’ve been reminded again about the power of, well, power, especially economic and political power.   No wonder God is on the side of the poor, the weak, and the oppressed…who else is going to be on their side?  I’ve been profoundly reminded that evil is out there, and that the actions of a few can turn the tide of history for large groups of people.   I’ve been instructed on the intricate dance everyone dances as they try to get it right when talking about race.  Offense is always lurking, and I’m pretty sure that over the course of the next couple of years, as I explore this, I’m bound to offend more than my fair share.

I’ve also been challenged to look around me, and see where injustice of this happening right now, today, and how I’m being called to respond to it.  I applaud the shift in many Christian cultures (you thought there was just one?) toward social justice and an awareness of serving the whole human being.  At the same time, I stumble over the question of Jesus and Paul glossing over the slave culture and torturous capital punishment cultures of their day.  They did not rail against Roman civil and military authority, instead going after religious leaders and the problem of the hypocritical heart.   The transformed heart, of course, transforms everything.

Anyway, back to the first question:  should we celebrate this war?  And if we at least commemorate it in some way, how would you suggest we go about it?   Will you remember it?  Attend any events?  And if you do, what are you most interested in commemorating?

Another thing I’ve learned?

Most of us just don’t care that much.   I certainly didn’t.

Maybe we should…


11 Replies to “Still in the Wake of The Civil War”

  1. Hey Clay,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. Long time no talk to, huh? What’s funny is that in this case, if you look at how the history has been written, to a huge degree, the losers actually controlled how the history was told. The notion of a noble war bravely fought by both sides, so all can be honored, as well as the notion of the “Lost Cause” of the Southern aristocracy came about in part from the huge pressure from the white southerners who were determined to keep the social order as it was. It’s a long and convoluted story that still being fought over.

  2. Celebrating the stories of courage, sacrifice and bravery seem the only appropriate celebrations for the civil war. These are often untold, the horrors often overlooked and the lingering effects unaddressed. Perhaps the best way to celebrate is to love the stranger and alien living among you, and to love your neighbor as yourself. For a better explanation of this see my Sunday podcast. (Had to throw that in!)

  3. Jeff,

    I left a comment this morning that has been deleted. I’m curious if this was a computer glitch?

    1. Bob,

      Must have been a glitch of some kind. Here’s the text of your comment. It was still in my dashboard. Sorry about whatever happened.


      “This is an endlessly fascinating and instructive (and broad) subject that I have been thinking about all my life and still find very difficult to grasp. My Father was a student of that era and a Lincoln aficionado. Growing up, our bookshelves were filled with volumes on the subject. I came of age during the Centennial years, so it comes as something of a shock to realize we have come to Sesquicentennial already!

      Of all the bullet points on your list, I find “Pacifism and the accomplishments of War” to be the most compelling. The history of humanity includes a history of violent solutions to otherwise insoluble conflicts of competing interests and intractable wills. Pacifism is a laudable ideal which has repeatedly proven to be an untenable philosophy in the face of evils even greater than violence (for some reason Bonhoeffer’s dilemma comes to mind).

      I wonder about our own resolve in the current age to fight against evil, and whether we would have the will and the resources to violently overthrow something as entrenched as slavery, or as powerful as Nazism.”

      1. Bob,

        My own take at this moment is that pacifism has a role to play in the resistance to and overthrow of entrenched systems of injustice and abuse. Whether it can be an “only” solution, I don’t know. People say that war is good for nothing, and in the midst of all this reading about the Civil War, it is so easy to see the awful horror of what it does, but wars do sometimes right wrongs and stop wrongs from ever occurring. But I guess that’s from a “victor’s” point of view. Maybe there’s always a way out, and we’re just too corrupt to find it.

        Thanks for commenting, and again, sorry it got lost somehow.

        Peace, (ironic, I know)


  4. Jeff,
    Last night I watched an installment of Ken Burn’s documentary on The Civil War. I was struck again with its brutality and the price this country paid as it warred against itself. But, should we celebrate it or remember it as you asked? Yes. Of course. As we should the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950-60 and ongoing. Why? So we won’t forget. So, we don’t repeat the evil. So, we won’t slip back into our lesser selves. My second book, ‘Man From Macedonia: My life of service, struggle, faith and hope’ tells the story of Dr. Aaron Johnson, the first African-American appointed Secretary of Corrections for the state of North Carolina. His story reminds us where we’ve come from and the price we paid to get to where we are. We should never forget or all was in vain…

    1. Deb,

      Thanks for the comment. I think my question is not so much “should we remember” as what form should that remembrance take? The fact that we can’t really “celebrate” the event that freed 4 million people says much about what came after.


  5. Jeff-

    I’m really looking forward to see what direction this takes you, and hopefully learn more about the conflict (both then and now). I’ve got relatives that fought on both sides – probably not all that uncommon for those of us with Southern ancestors – I’ve read the Catton trilogy, watched Burns, done some study.. and discovered I don’t know anywhere near as much as I’d like.
    Keep sharing –


  6. Jeff – I can’t wait to hear more about the play. While I don’t have any deep thoughts about the Civil War to offer you, I do live in Little Rock, Arkansas – where we have much racial strife in our history, and where lines are still rarely crossed today. My precious church family is on a journey of trying to live our faith in a new way (at least around here) – black & white together.

    It is more wonderful and more difficult than I could have ever imagined, and reading your thoughts – well, they sound very familiar. I’m so glad that you have taken this on; I know you will bring every part of yourself to it – faith, empathy, doubt, love.

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