What does Robert Penn Warren mean when he said, "The Civil War draws us as an oracle, darkly unriddled and portentous of our personal and our national fate"? That's pretty grandiose language, but what did Warren mean? What did Gertrude Stein mean when she said, "There never will be anything more interesting than that American Civil War"?
Of all people, Gertrude Stein was hopelessly interested in this event. "There never will be anything more interesting than that American Civil War," she said. Why are so many people into this? Why do people want to read about it, re-enact it, go play it, go visit it? Is it just heritage tourism? Is it just the attraction of military history? What is it that compels us to remember the most divisive, the most bloody, the most tragic event in our national history? And how do we remember it? Have we sometimes cleaned it up with such pleasing mythology that we've just made it fun?
Those questions were at the heart of our conversation this morning about groups celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Confederacy's secession from the United States. We talked with Jeff Antley, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Confederate Heritage Trust. He’s helping organize a secession ball in Charleston, S.C., as well as a 10 day re-enactment of the Confederate encampment at Fort Sumter.
Here’s what Jeff Antley told us this morning:
This is a theatrical play recreating the secession convention that took place in Charleston on December 19 and 20th, then followed by a reception afterwards for the guests as well as the actors. We’re calling it a ball because it has both components to it, and it's been a little bit misunderstood. I don’t think it’s any different than a re-enactment of a Battle of Gettysburg other than the fact that it’s not military, it’s more political.
Celeste asked Jeff how secession could be celebrated without focusing on slavery. Here's what he said:
Of course you can have a discussion of secession ... Slavery is a component. Slavery is an abomination. Slavery is wrong. All of those things apply. To say that South Carolina as a state seceded from the Union solely based on the component of black servitude or African servitude is just not educated in history, it’s just not a study of the facts. Yes, it’s a component of all the states that left the Union, and it was also a component of all the northern states had slavery too, with the exception of three at the time. So slavery is not a Southern problem. Slavery is an American problem. But the other components of what these men did in taking South Carolina out of the Union deserves to be looked at. The whole event deserves to be looked at and not just shoved away because it happened to be involving slavery.
Kenneth Davis also joined us this morning. He's the author of "Don't Know Much About History," and "Don't Know Much About the Civil War". Here's his take:
History is about facts, not feelings, and not romanticizing this period. There was one issue that drove this war ... and it was the issue of slavery. Not as a moral issue, but as a political and economic issue. This was the thing that drove the states rights movement. There was only one right that really mattered: the right to continue bringing slaves not just into the South but into the states that were being opened up in the Western territories. This was a political issue, of course, because slaves were being counted as three-fifths of a man under the Constitution, and this was keeping the South in some degree of political power.
Davis said the anniversary offers an opportunity for re-teaching some history:
This idea that slavery was not at the heart of the conflict is a mistaken notion, a misconception that lives on in our so-called history of the Civil War period ... There was one key difference between the U.S. Constitution and the Confederate Constitution…and that was the Confederate Constitution ruled that the states could make no laws regarding slavery. Everything else pretty much stayed the same. That was the heart of the constitution that the Confederacy wrote. I think that pretty much says it all.
If you want to read the original documents yourself, here’s an excerpt from the “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union” from the Confederate States of America:
“A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. On the 4th day of March next, this party will take possession of the Government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.
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Today’s show playlist:
- The Sea and Cake – Earth Star
- The Slip – Munf
- Manual – Lunate
- Nine Inch Nails – All Good Things
- Air – Spacemaker
- Ben Kweller – Rock of Ages
- The Who – Who Are You
- Waterboi – Hurting Myself
- Mark Knopfler – Wag the Dog
- Minus the Bear – Hey Wanna Throw up