This coming November 19th marks the anniversary of the Gettysburg address and last July was the anniversary of the battle at Gettysburg. Here in the southern U.S. it’s kind of a big deal. There were battle re-enactments in the summer and there will be a whole “Dedication Day” at the Gettysburg National Military Park on Tuesday. Actually, 2013 is the 150th anniversary of several significant Civil War events. I mentioned this to a couple of friends of mine in Boston. Both had basically the same reaction, “And you still want to live in the south?” These friends are northeast liberals for whom the Civil War is a symbol of other people’s misguided ideas, other people’s shame and other people’s loss. (Sometimes it feels to me like every person I know who lives in Cambridge, Mass claims to have a house that was a stop on the Underground Railroad.) They seem to feel as though the facts of the Civil War don’t have anything to do with them. Here in the south I’ve seen people gaze on Confederate graves with sincere reverence for those who lost their lives. I think some of my friends up north would say there is no honor to recognize or commemorate. It’s interesting to me that both points of view can exist at the same time without a synthesis.
I freely (irony intended) admit that I’m as liberal as they come but I see the Civil War not as either/or but rather a both/and situation. And I think the difference in perspectives about the Civil War epitomizes the sad, oversimplified divisions played out in our national politics now. Instead of the gray and the blue it’s the red and blue. Why can’t we face both the repugnance and the importance of the War together? Maybe what we should do as a nation on this 150th anniversary is reflect on the both/and of the war:
-the US split apart and then was knitted back together through the leadership of one of the most effective presidents elected by its people.
-it was the most deadly conflict in US history and resulted in the constitutional end to the institution of slavery.
In an interview for CNN, “Mike Litterst of the National Park Service said interpretations at federal Civil War battlefields have evolved in the past 25 years. Besides telling the story of the battles and the homefront, exhibits increasingly stress the importance of the conflict to civil rights and the role of African-Americans, thousands of whom served in the Union Army.” (Thousands at Gettysburg for 150th… )
Personally, the Civil war represents the missing and mysterious parts of my family history. I come from an African American family that chose to forget the fact of slavery, the Civil War and the legacy of both. It was too painful for them to think about because it didn’t allow them to believe that they could live equally in the U.S. They swept any knowledge of ancestors and relatives with connections to the south and slavery under the rug and began our family story with their lives in the north. Maybe by living here in the South and being present at events that commemorate the Civil War I can exorcise the ghosts of my family’s shame. I can reframe, as the National Park Service seeks to do, the way in which we look at our history into a both/and. We were enslaved in the south under a horrible institution and endured. We fully participated in the struggle of divergent interests and with slavery behind us we decided our fate by looking forward to a different place and time. Yes, I feel much more comfortable with the totality of both/and.
Dedication Day at the Gettysburg National Military Park is November 19th. The ceremony “will observe the 150th Anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The event takes place in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery,”. There will also be a graveside salute to the U.S. Colored Troops. For more information visit the website, Gettysburg Dedication Day