Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Sacred Purposelessness

Better bloggers than I have covered the myriad issues with the Lost Cause, the traditional Southern narrative/rationalization of the civil war.  Mostly these revolve around the Lost Cause;s denial that the civil war was about slavery and it's other efforts to white-wash the peculiar institution out of Southern history.

But in addition to the Lost Cause, there is another narrative that is roughly contemporaneous, the 'Brother Against Brother' narrative.

This narrative around the turn of the century as a way of creating a story of the civil war that all Americans could agree on.  Since Americans had been killing each other 40 years before to determine the future of the Union and Slavery, any discussion of -why- solidiers actually fought was divisive, and thus all people could agree upon was that the soliders of both sides fought bravely and well.

Now there are many problems with this story, many shared with the lost cause - most importantly, Black people are again mostly absent from this story, except when serving as extras who will sing spirituals or calm flighty southern belles when the narrative requires it.

But since others have addressed this problem, I'm going to focus on another one: according to the brother against brother narrative, the civil war was not about anything meaningful.  If what matters is not what people fought for, but that they were brave, then 600,000+* Americans, 2% of the population, died in some grand, grisly update of a medieval tournament -- a test of courage for it's own sake.

If 600,000 actually lined up and died to prove their manhood we would regard it, rightly, as insanity.  That they bravely fought for nothing wouldn't change the fact that their deaths were a waste.  Courage is not it's own end.  For deaths of the dead to matter, they must have died -for something-.  Thus honoring the courage of those who fought cannot be seperated from the question of why they went to war and towards what result they died.

As Andy Hall aptly observed we cannot know the 'why' of each individual -- even what they write in their diary is not their inmost thoughts, letters home are If written to an audience, etc.  But we can view the Confederate and Union causes in their totality to see a 'why' and look at the result of the war - the end of slavery - to see the result of so much death.

I believe that remembering and meditating on these causes and interpreting what they mean to use as a nation is the way to honor the dead.  I've sketched out some thoughts on this previously, but to my mind the two best thoughts on the sacrifice of those who fought come from two men who guided the war, Grant and Lincoln.

Here is Grant on the surrender of Lee, and by extension the entire Army of Northern Virginia:

I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.
 Here is Lincoln's second inaugural:
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.

*Recent studies of census records show that the death toll has probably been undercounted, and may be nearer to 750,000

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