Opinion

Commentary: Do we celebrate or commemorate the Civil War?

We celebrate the Fourth of July.

We commemorate Pearl Harbor Day.

No one would suggest that on the nation's birthday people drape themselves in black and hum a funereal dirge. Independence Day is a time to wave Old Glory and to consume copious amounts of hot dogs and watermelon as prelude to ear-shattering fireworks.

Likewise, Dec. 7 is a solemn occasion, suited for speeches by community elders and marked by color guards saluting fallen comrades.

No one needs to explain proper decorum for such occasions. Why should it be different for the Civil War sesquicentennial? Because we Americans haven't come together over what the war signifies.

Our countrymen have engaged in wars that lasted longer or cost more lives. Conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have surpassed the Civil War in duration.

Conflicts from Korea forward have not stirred the national soul the same way. We never hear of re-enactors recreating the fight at Chosin Reservoir or staging mock amphibious landings to commemorate D-Day.

Gen. Robert E. Lee said, "It is well that war is so terrible; otherwise, we would grow too fond of it."

Civil War re-enactors pride themselves on authenticity, down to the uniforms they wear. People wearing polyester or Nikes need not apply. When famous battles are restaged, participants seek to model the actual event as closely as possible. Many will fall down, pretending they took a minie ball in the chest.

Missing from such events are aspects of war that led William T. Sherman to proclaim: "It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell."

More men died from dysentery during the Civil War than were slaughtered on the battlefield, but you don't see re-enactors running to portable toilets. Nor do re-enactments feature fake arms and legs, stacked beside tent hospitals where surgeons on both sides fashioned a generation of amputees.

Such scenes characterize the Ken Burns documentary "The Civil War." That series derived impact from the juxtaposition of images of young men in unsullied uniforms, posing with a rifle or sidearm, against macabre photographs of muddy corpses, stiff with rigor mortis.

It would be pointless to deny our fascination with the Civil War. I recall reading that more books have been written about the conflict than days have passed since Appomattox. That curiosity's not necessarily a bad thing for a culture fixated on the present, so long as the perspective is wide enough.

An article about recent events in Charleston remarked that black re-enactors drilled next to a unit of white Confederates. That men of both races share a common interest in reliving history is commendable, but that history is incomplete if it fails to recount that Southern troops massacred former slaves they captured wearing Union uniforms, or that many Northerners detested blacks.

Despite tired, fundamentally incorrect protestations by some that the Civil War wasn't about slavery, it would be a tragedy if that epic struggle were to slip from the national consciousness. Without understanding the intersectional, often inter-family rivalries that led to the assault on Fort Sumter, we cannot understand the economic, social and racial issues that followed, and which continue to define America.

Discord didn't end with Lee's surrender; it was followed by Reconstruction, KKK, lynching, sharecropping, Jim Crow, the emigration of black Southerners, the civil rights movement, the continued disparity of educational and financial attainment between the races....

Glenn McConnell, president pro tem of the state Senate and a Civil War re-enactor, delivered an address during ceremonies at Fort Sumter last week. He asked, "What does the Confederate battle flag stand for? Is it a symbol of bigotry or a memorial to the valor of fallen soldiers? Many of these emotional issues still rage today.... But the time has come to move beyond the petty disputes of the past.... We all have a common history and a shared culture."

True, we share a common history and culture, but dismissing those disputes as "petty" demeans both.

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