Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Civil War: 150 Years Later And How We Remember

Because today marks the 150th Anniversary of the American Civil War, not only will we resume our viewing of Civil War, we will also examine and scrutinize how the Civil War is being remembered 150 years later. Is there national agreement on what the cause(s) of the war? Just how is the Civil War being remembered; with somber ceremonies or celebration? Is the war glorified at all? Does the 150th anniversary mean different things to people? What might some of those differences be? How do you think the Civil War should be remembered?

Let's look at that first question: is there national agreement on what the cause(s) of the war? It's telling, I think, that in my link research for this post, so often the main reasons given for the Civil War (slavery, economics, culture, state vs. federal rights, and President Lincoln's politics) slavery, the actual buying and selling of human beings is disregarded. Slavery is often discussed only as it pertains to the North vs. South and their respective cultures (city vs. plantation) or framed as abolitionists vs. slave owners. Rarely are the moral and ethical ramifications of human trafficking discussed as a direct cause of the war.

Certainly all those other reasons had their role in the cause of the Civil War, but here we are 150 years later and still ignoring the giant elephant in the room, and it's that half of the Union owned other people. To argue that the war was fought over states' rights, is disingenuous, as the very right being fought for was the states' right to own people; to continue the slavery. To say otherwise is inaccurate. This blog, US Slave, contains many resource links.

Let's note too, that just 50 years ago, the 100 year (or centennial) anniversary of the Civil War coincided with the civil rights movement, when most of the South was still segregated. It was hardly the case that the war resulted in all peoples being free and equal and despite the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves (not all slaves and those only in the states that had seceded), people still suffered the cruelty of segregation for another hundred years. Listen to the Emancipation Proclamation.

Okay, so that was 50 years ago. What about today, does national agreement exist today? If battlefield plaques don't even mention slavery or some state governments continue to fly the Confederate flag or designate one month as Confederate History Month (as Virgina did, April 2010, only to retract that proclamation later), can it be said that the entire nation has reconciled its history of slavery with that of the Civil War? Some states are seeking tourism dollars and a boost in their economies by marketing certain war artifacts, battle grounds and museums. Additionally, in some states the commemoration of the Civil War takes on a celebratory tone, replete with parades and beauty contests and battle re-enactments. In Montgomery, Alabama, (the seat of the civil rights movement) one organizer of the 150th anniversary festivities there said, "while civil rights activist Rosa Parks is revered by many for moving from the back of the bus to the front, the "people of the Confederacy have been forced to the back of the bus." This viewpoint differs hugely with that of other community leaders who see the events another way. "It's almost like celebrating the Holocaust," said Benard Simelton, president of the Alabama conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "Our rights were taken away and we were treated as less than human beings. To relive that in a celebratory way I don't think is right."

Obviously holocaust is a strong word and sensitivity is required when choosing to use it, so let's take a moment to examine whether holocaust, as used above, applies to slavery. First, holocaust can be defined as any mass slaughter or reckless destruction of life. So let's look at the facts.

approximately 10,700,000 Africans were displaced when they were brought on slave ships during the Middle Passage (the journey over the Atlantic) to America.

approximately 1,800,000 Africans died en route, their bodies thrown overboard.

current estimates for the number of Africans forced into the slave trade: 12,500,000, the largest forced migration in modern history. Here is another excellent source on the forced migration.

the 1860 census numbers the amount of U.S. slaves at just under 4 million.

total military casualties of Civil War: 625,000

The Civil War was brutal and resulted in terrible losses and of course it should be commemorated. To do so, however, without acknowledging the holocaust that slavery was, and one that lasted for over 300 years, and one that led to war that nearly destroyed a young country and her democracy, is not honoring the past with honesty and accuracy. To celebrate rather than remember what was lost by so, so many, is abhorrent. What should be historical remembrance, somber and respectful, becomes glorified and hateful and perpetuates the divisiveness and racism of 150 years ago.

By no means is this post exhaustive. To further read about history spanning the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, this is a good place to start.

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