The continuing fight over the Civil War and its cause

Miami HeraldJanuary 30, 2011 

MIAMI -- Keeping in mind that 82-year-old Georgia Ayers has six children, 10 grandchildren, and 12 great grandchildren, and has taught and mentored several thousand more, the most uncomfortable question she’s ever been asked by a youngster has nothing to do with sex or reproduction.

“Whew!” Ayers, an elder stateswoman and unofficial historian in Miami’s African American community said recently. “Gotta catch my breath on that one. I have to tell you the toughest one has always been why did we fight the Civil War? Why would states that belonged to the same club, so to speak, turn on each other? Small children, especially, just don’t get it.”

But as the 150th anniversary of the start of America’s deadliest conflict approaches, it appears it’s not only kids who “just don’t get it,” “it” being the cause of the war.

More than 630,000 Americans on both sides were killed in the Civil War between April 1861 and April 1865, and 412,000 were wounded.

As Florida joins dozens of other states preparing to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, also known as the War Between the States, some are asking if the lack of agreement on the cause of the war is behind the feeling that it’s still being fought.

There’s little dispute that the Union North’s motivation was not as magnanimous as has been portrayed in some historical texts, which suggest that the North initiated war simply to keep the union together, and which portray Abraham Lincoln as a prophet-like leader who crushed slavery, though the Emancipation Proclamation only freed some.

Still, the greatest public disputes over the Civil War have always been about the motivations and objectives of the Southern Confederacy, whose history-minded supporters insist that slavery was a side dish to the main course of free trade.

Hundreds of white war celebrants gathered in Charleston, South Carolina, in November to take part in a ball dubbed the “Secession Gala,” where attendees wore period clothing, cheered the pre-Civil War South, sang Dixie and other Confederate songs, and generally partied in a manner that might have made the producers of Gone with the Wind jealous.

Randy Burbage, vice president of the Confederate Heritage Trust, told The New York Times the ball was intended to honor men who were willing to die to protect states’ rights.

In Alabama there are plans for a swearing-in ceremony, featuring an actor playing Jefferson Davis, first president of the Confederate States of America following secession.

And what about Confederate flags? In 1861, they represented a defiant new nation. Today, serious Civil War history buffs insist the flag still represents the same. But they’re also common fodder for racial extremists, irreverent bumper stickers and car antenna banners. Are those vehicles driven by history buffs, free spirits who consider themselves “rebels in spirit,” those who pine for the days when that flag was in use, or none of the above?

“That’s the thing about disputed history,” said South Florida historian Marvin Dunn, an author and former professor at Florida International University. “When you start asking why, the answers become increasingly complex and increasingly ugly. People on both sides get offended by labels and symbols. People defending some aspect of the war get defensive.

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