It’s been 150 years since the start of the nation’s bloodiest conflict. The wounds it left paralyse the country today
Every spring, two antique armies square off in a north Florida swamp. They’ve come with their replica rifles and blunted bayonets, their carefully-scuffed boots and new-grown beards, to re-enact the Battle of Natural Bridge, a late skirmish in the American Civil War. One side sports deep-blue tunics, approximations of those worn by United States troops in the 1860s. The other side’s coats are pigeon-grey, the colour of the Confederacy, the eleven Southern states so determined to preserve slavery that they divorced themselves from the Union in 1861.
Some of the uniforms are polyester, hired from fancy-dress shops. Others, especially among the Confederate “soldiers,” are hand-sewn, fashioned from wool, dyed with walnut shells, just as they would have been 150 years ago. Re-enacting the nation’s bloodiest conflict has become a popular hobby. At least 60,000 men take part regularly, and thousands more are casual participants. They choose a side (“Yankee” or “Rebel”), put together the requisite kit, and travel to Civil War sites where they play out the battles every American child learns about in school: Manassas, Chickamauga, Shiloh, Vicksburg. Some re-enactors are so dedicated that they embark on extreme diets to achieve the skeletal appearance of Confederates in the later stages of the war, when that army was starving. In his splendid book Confederates in the Attic, Tony Horwitz investigates the impact of the Civil War on the American mind and how re-enacting has become central to its remembrance. Horwitz hangs out with “hardcores,” men who wear 1860s underpants and 1860s spectacles. Some even soak their uniform buttons overnight in urine: it oxidises brass, giving that authentic 19th-century look.
The sesquicentennial has brought even more passion to re-enactments, and more debate about the war itself. The commemorations, which will go on for four years, show how resonant the conflict remains in the South—and beyond. The unresolved questions of the war’s aftermath still drive the fiercest battles of national politics. One is the struggle between the federal government in Washington and the state capitals over whose laws should prevail. Of course, that tussle goes back to the roots of the republic; the constitution intentionally divides power between the states and the feds. But the Civil War left many constitutional questions open to interpretation. The US is sharply divided into Republican and Democratic tribes, conservatives and progressives, those who feel that the federal government best promotes liberty by being small, and those who favour a stronger central government. As Barack Obama is finding, this rift bedevils any president’s ability to govern. In many important ways, America is still fighting the Civil War.
I’ve seen the Battle of Natural Bridge half a dozen times. My great-great-grandfather Luther Tucker fought in the 1865 original. His grandson Edgar Lafayette Roberts—my grandfather—and I used to watch the re-enactments. Union forces, which controlled most of the Gulf of Mexico, thought they could come inland and capture Tallahassee, the capital of Florida. The Confederates were stretched so thin that only a few old men with muskets from the 1812 war and the teenaged cadets from the local college were left to defend it. Although two of Luther Tucker’s older brothers had died fighting for the Confederacy, he volunteered for the “Baby Corps.” He was 16. The old men and the Baby Corps engaged federal troops, including the 2nd and 99th United States Coloured Infantry under General John Newton, 12 miles south of Tallahassee at a place where the St Marks River disappears underground for a few yards, then resurfaces, making a “natural bridge.” The fighting lasted two days, 5th to 6th March 1865.
The re-enactment also lasts for two days, with breaks for blacksmithing demonstrations and tea provided by the Ladies Soldiers’ Friends Sewing Society (female re-enactors in crinolines and bonnets). When the smoke from the reproduction artillery finally clears, the Confederates have won. Again. The Yankees retreat back toward the Gulf of Mexico, or at least to the car park. In the middle of Natural Bridge battlefield there’s a stone monument listing the names of the Confederate dead, with the inscription, in huge letters, “LEST WE FORGET.”
Forget, hell: there’s no chance that Southerners will do that. The war still haunts the South. A total of more than 650,000 died in combat on both sides. That’s more than at Waterloo, the American revolution, the war of 1812, and the Mexican-American war combined. It is still the deadliest war in American history, and the United States nearly didn’t survive: William Howard Russell, a reporter for The Times, wrote, “So short-lived has been the American Union that men who saw its rise may live to see its fall.” The South’s economy was destroyed, and many white Southern landowners lost everything. Even now, the white South labours under linked feelings of guilt, resentment and crazy love. White Southerners hang onto our regional identity much harder than other Americans. We live with a mental as well as geographical Mason-Dixon line to go along with our “American by Birth: Southern by the Grace of God” bumper stickers. I am ashamed that some of my ancestors owned slaves, but I am proud to belong the place that gave the world the blues, jazz, soul food, rock’n’roll, and William Faulkner. The irony of the history of the white South is that it spent 350 years trying frantically to separate white from black, making laws barring “Negroes” from sitting in the front of a bus or entering a white family’s house by the front door, and yet its food, its speech, its music, every inch of its culture, is the result of a rich collision of the African and the European, ongoing since the first Englishmen brought the first Africans to Jamestown in 1619.
The tensions which would tear the country apart in the 1860s go back to the first decades of its existence. Andrew Jackson’s vice-president, John C Calhoun of South Carolina, reacted against what he saw as creeping federal centralisation, and began to champion the idea that states can veto or “nullify” acts of Congress. Southern planters resented what they saw as an assault on their freedom to make money; that triggered the Nullification Crisis of 1832 when South Carolina obstructed collection of tariffs on exports. In essence, the state refused to pay its federal taxes. South Carolina and other cotton-growing states called for radical devolution, proposing a loose “confederacy of Southern states” liberated from federal control. For the next 28 years, the slave-holding states regularly threatened to quit the Union, always pulling back after extracting concessions from Congress and greater powers for local government.
But the election of the backwoods lawyer Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860 changed everything. A group of Florida plantation owners disparaged him as a man “without experience in public affairs or any general reputation.” Alabama accused him of promoting citizenship for escaped slaves, a status “for which they are entirely unsuitable,” while Georgia’s state government vowed that he and his party “shall not rule over them.”
Lincoln was a Republican; the South was then solidly Democratic. It remained so until the 1960s, when African-Americans, finally able to vote because of civil rights legislation, began joining the Democratic party. Many white Southerners joined the other side, a phenomenon Republican Richard Nixon would famously exploit in his “Southern Strategy.” Back in the 1860s, however, the Republican President Lincoln represented a threat to the plantation South which presidents before him, many of whom had been slave-owners, had not. He was anti-slavery and pro-Union. He would not tolerate the expansion of slavery to the new western territories, nor would he allow state capitals to take more control away from Washington.
In response, Southern states turned the nullification argument against the federal government, accusing it of refusing to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which allowed slave-owners to use any means to recover their “property”—runaway slaves—from northern states. As South Carolina secessionists put it: “We maintain that in every compact between two or more parties, the obligation is mutual.” The South maintained that it, therefore, had every right to leave the Union. South Carolina seceded on 20th December 1860. Ten other states soon followed.
The shooting war began on 12th April 1861, when troops of the newly-formed Confederacy bombarded a federal garrison at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. It ended in Virginia on 9th April 1865, when General Robert E Lee, commander of the Confederate Army, surrendered to Union General Ulysses S Grant at Appomattox Courthouse. Hostilities ceased, but the wounds have never entirely healed, nor has the preoccupation gone.
Friendly fire: re-enacting Gettysburg, the biggest battle of the American civil war, which ended in a decisive victory for the Union forces
America is generally seen as a nation that looks to the future, not the past, yet many of its citizens cannot get enough of the Civil War. This year, on 12th April, Confederate shots will once again ring out over Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Virginia will see thousands of re-enactors “fighting” the Battle of First Manassas with vintage weapons. On 18th February, the 150th anniversary of the creation of the “Confederate States of America,” a glittering parade of guards, horses and bands playing “Dixie” marched through Montgomery, Alabama, celebrating the inauguration of Jefferson Davis, the CSA’s first (and last) president.
You needn’t have had a great-granddaddy at Gettysburg or Shiloh to find the Civil War compelling. It’s not just the grown men dressed as 19th-century soldiers, camping in wet fields, eschewing fast food, wi-fi, and indoor plumbing to revisit a war that ended long before their grandfathers were born. It’s the ongoing argument over what that war meant, or even what to call it. Some white Southerners call it the “War Between the States,” implying equality between the combatants, or the in-your-face “War of Northern Aggression.” The Georgia chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group dedicated to the Old South, is sponsoring an advert encouraging everyone “to celebrate this noble time in our history.” According to its version of history, the South seceded peacefully from the Union, and the Yankees “invaded” it, forcing Johnny Reb into a “War for Southern Independence.” The History Channel has refused to air the advert on the grounds that it is too partisan.
The Southern poet Robert Penn Warren said that ancestral involvement matters less than experiencing “the imaginative appeal of the Civil War.” Being drawn into the story of region against region, brother against brother, may be “the very ritual of being American.” The war is certainly the essence of being Southern. Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone With the Wind, and the 1939 film version, represent the pre-war South as paradise, a land of belles in ruffles, courtly gents, white-columned mansions and slaves singing happily in the cotton fields. Some parts of that myth have never been shaken off. The Kappa Alpha Order, a college fraternity ubiquitous on Southern campuses, holds an annual ball in which the boys dress as Confederate officers (complete with plumed hats) and the girls wear hoopskirts like Scarlett O’Hara. The “Southern lady” is a subject of study (there are books called The Southern Belle Primer and Southern Ladies and Gentlemen) as well as a behavioural aspiration: no one speaks of the “Northern lady” or “Midwestern lady.” Southern girls (mostly white girls, but not always) still learn to wear hoops for parades, parties or historical pageants—and you do have to practise. Walking in them is easy: you look, as Faulkner said, as if you are “floating, not walking,” Sitting down is another matter. I once drove 30 miles in a Honda Civic while wearing a hoopskirt. The damned thing kept rearing up in my face; I finally stopped by the side of road and pulled it off.
In the Southern legend of the golden age, the war destroyed all that was orderly, gracious and good. It represents the loss of innocence, an expulsion from Eden. Mark Twain satirises this revisionism in Life on the Mississippi. When someone in Louisiana remarks on the evening’s fine moon, an old lady tells them that’s nothing, they ought to have seen the moon “befo’ de Waw!” Almost the moment General Lee surrendered, the propagandists went to work, casting white Southerners as doomed but glamorous patriots: Saxons resisting Norman hegemony, Jacobites risking all for Bonnie Prince Charlie, or some other pseudo-history nicked from the novels of Walter Scott. As the historian Shelby Foote says, “Southerners have a sense of defeat which none of the rest of the country has.” Foote means white Southerners, of course; black Southerners understand the war in different terms, since it freed their forebears from slavery.
The Civil War remains America’s quintessential psychic catastrophe, the crucible of its national identity, and the country is still wrestling with it. Last year, Virginia governor Bob McDonnell named April “Confederate History Month” and, in his proclamation, failed to mention slavery. Both white and black people protested. The governor eventually apologised, but not before Haley Barbour, a fellow Republican and governor of Mississippi said on CNN that people were making too much of the omission: “It’s trying to make a big deal out of something that doesn’t matter for diddly.” When Barbour was asked if he thought leaving slavery out of the proclamation was a mistake, he said: “I don’t think so.”
Barbour has ambitions to run for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. But his chances were dealt a blow when he refused to denounce a recent campaign in his state for a car licence plate commemorating Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest was a slave-trader before the war and is notorious for massacring hundreds of federal soldiers, half of them black, while they were trying to surrender. After the war, he became one of the early leaders of the Ku Klux Klan. Barbour has now indicated that he would veto the legislation.
It isn’t just the South: across America, history has become a battleground. Tell me what you think caused the Civil War, and I will tell you your politics. Liberals and a few Republicans say the root cause was slavery. Conservatives, with the exception of a few fringe white supremacist groups, don’t defend slavery, but many argue the war was a second American Revolution, fought over states’ rights to self-determination; they gloss over the passion of the Southern states for the “right” to own people.
Michele Bachmann (above, right), a controversial Republican congresswoman from Minnesota, provoked derision earlier this year when she told an Iowa anti-tax group that in colonial America, skin colour “didn’t matter,” and that the “Founding Fathers worked tirelessly until slavery was no more.” Half the Founding Fathers-—including George Washington, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton—were slaveholders. Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner and father of several children with his slave Sally Hemings, wrote in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
Today, you could make the case that some conservatives—not just from the South—are the new secessionists, and that the Tea Party is battling for states’ rights. Some of them interpret the 10th Amendment to the constitution, which delegates to the states all powers not specifically accorded to the federal government, as giving states the right to leave—just as they argued 150 years ago—or at least to opt out of federal laws they dislike. Moderate Republicans and Democrats say, in contrast, that the “supremacy clause” in Article VI of the constitution is clear: federal law beats state law.
The US Supreme Court has, so far, interpreted the constitution in favour of the federal government’s ultimate power. Nevertheless, 26 Republican-controlled state governments are suing the Obama administration, claiming the new requirement that most citizens buy health insurance is unconstitutional. Florida and Texas have brought lawsuits against the federal Environmental Protection Agency for enforcing the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act (both passed by Republican presidents and on the books for over 30 years). There’s also a proposed constitutional amendment, the “Repeal Act,” which would allow states, by a two-thirds majority, to overturn or ignore federal law. Constitutional law experts don’t give it much chance of passing, but the fact that a dozen state legislatures have approved a direct challenge to federal authority raises questions about the viability of the American union.
It’s beginning to sound like 1860. Richard Glorioso, a prominent Republican lawmaker in Florida, incensed that Washington wants to impose limits on fertilisers in his state’s waters, has resolved to sue, asking, “What else do we do other than secede?” One of his colleagues in the Florida legislature referred to the federal government as a “foreign entity.” In 2009, Texas governor Rick Perry said that if the Obama administration carried on with its “socialist agenda,” his state might have to secede—again. Perry later backed away from (but did not retract) his remark; right-wingers who have never forgotten that America’s largest state was, from 1836 to 1845, an independent country, still agitate for the return of the Republic of Texas.
The “Civil War amendments” to the constitution, passed between 1865 and 1869, were supposed to settle all remaining questions about freedom, who is and is not a citizen, and who is allowed to vote. The 13th amendment at least was clear: it outlawed slavery. But the 14th amendment, guaranteeing equal protection under the law and enshrining the principle that everyone born in the US is entitled to citizenship, is now in question. Under the pressures of immigration, some members of Congress are challenging the universal principles laid down after the Civil War. Tea Party Republicans profess to revere the constitution as infallible—yet some, like newly-elected Kentucky senator Rand Paul, would like to amend the 14th amendment and make it harder for immigrants’ children, born in the US, to acquire full citizenship. Under such a change, it is possible that Barack Obama couldn’t have become president, and couldn’t even vote.
The euphoria of black Americans and many white Democrats when Obama was elected shows how painful the scars of slavery, the Civil War, and racism still are. It is hard not to see a racial factor behind at least some of the persistent campaign to deny that he is a legitimate president. Polls show that between 25 and 30 per cent of self-identified Tea Party members think that Obama is a Muslim and Kenyan-born, and so not qualified to be president. During the 2008 campaign, he was often described as “not one of us,” while Senator John McCain’s running mate Sarah Palin said he “sees America differently.”
On 19th November 1863, Lincoln gave the Gettysburg address in Pennsylvania on a spot where, the previous July, 8,000 soldiers had died. He promised their loss would not be in vain and that a reunited US would see “a new birth of freedom.” The nation has been fighting over the meaning of “freedom” ever since. William Faulkner wrote that in the South “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” But it’s not just the South. Across America, the Civil War is not forgotten; it’s not even over.