Sunday, April 12, 2015

The nature and destiny of the "unpleasantness between the states"

I've been looking at posts from, frankly, "Yankees," about the anniversary of Appomattox and what was given up by the "North" to appease the "South."  I say "Yankees" because the slant is obviously in favor of Northern sentiments over Southern ones. Which is not to say they should be more amendable to the execrable history of racism in America; but quit trying to imply, at the same time, that racism would have faded sooner had the U.S. been less conciliatory to the states of the former Confederacy.  I'd always understood Lincoln's point in going to war was to preserve the Union, not to punish the secessionists.

In other words, let's not make the mistake of Creon and try to leave the dead on the battlefield for the birds and the dogs, again.

I'm not going to name names because I don't want to start some kind of fight, here.  I don't rise to defend "the noble Cause" or the "heritage of the South."  That heritage was brutality and racism and greed and almost everything ugly about human society.  Yeah, I've seen "Django Unchained," and yeah, it struck me as being as good a representation of the pre-War South as any fictional presentation could be.  I accept Tarentino's vision as valid, at least for the sake of argument here.

Granted, I learned a different version of history growing up in Texas.  I didn't know this, for example; but I'm hardly surprised, either.  My sympathies are actually with those who don't want some of the slave states back in the Union, especially because Texas left with the Confederacy a short time after petitioning to be a state.  Texas took great pride in requiring all public school students to learn Texas history when I was a child; but I never learned that the battle at the Alamo was not for freedom, so much as it was for the ability to own slaves.  Seems Mexico had outlawed slavery, and the Texicans wanted to emulate Louisiana and points immediately east, so they resented being cut off from that kind of opportunity.  To this day, Texas has the highest percentage of persons living on minimum wage (which is not higher in Texas than the Federal floor), and our State leaders still brag about how many people in Texas are employed.

Not how many people in Texas are able to make a decent living.  Low wages are attractive to big employers, donchaknow....

But Reconstruction was not a period where the North did all it could to leave the South alone.  The town of Brenham, not far from where I sit, has an historical site in its downtown now (this is new.  Lots of Texas towns are doing it, and most are really good.  Even the history at the Alamo has greatly improved, now that they've removed the huge painting showing Davey John Wayne Crockett boldly making a last stand in a scene from the movie, a scene which has nothing to do with history.  The painting was a gift from Wayne after he shot his film there; it would have been bad manners not to leave it up for a decade or so.).  It details the history of the small town, including occupation by Union soldiers during Reconstruction.  Granted, racism still abounded in Texas (it was strong until my early adulthood; it has abated, somewhat, but seems determined to recur across the country).  But the display notes the harshness of the Union officers; men who had little regard for the Texans and not that much concern for the races in general.  The central event was a fire downtown which the Union troops did nothing to quell, and they may even have enjoyed watching the destruction.

It wasn't, in other words, the imposition of just order under the mythical Abraham Lincoln or the ideal envisioned by Dr. King, only to be trashed by Southerners who refused to bend.  It didn't make the town happy about the "occupation."

I'll grant Southerners were not willing to put aside the culture they had known from before the war; but neither did Europe give up its various cultures after a century of war (the 19th), or another half-century of war (the 20th).  It really wasn't until the fall of the USSR that Europe finally began to recover from its nationalism, but looking at Greece and Eastern Europe, one has to wonder how much has finally changed.  The Greeks still think the Germans who them reparations, for example.  And some countries can't decide (not just Ukraine) whether they want to be European or Russian.  That's a discussion that's been going on in Europe for centuries; and the beat goes on....

None of which is to justify the acts of Southerners in the late 19th century, or through the 20th century.  I'm just asking for a bit of perspective.  The United States was not full of angels in paradise trying to reform the demons in the hell of the American South.  Too much would have been asked to require the South to become like New England in the space of 14 years.  150 years later and we're still struggling with racial issues in America, from New York City to Ferguson, Missouri.  And I'm not really willing to let anybody forget what happened when Boston schools had to integrate in the late '70's, nor that the death of Brown v. Board came at the hands of a Supreme Court never dominated by Southern judges.

There is plenty of ugliness in American history.  I have no sympathies for the parties who, sometime in the '50's put a plaque up in the Texas Capitol arguing that the War between the States was not about slavery (at least it's on the back of a column in a poorly visited public area.  You have to look for it to find it.  I'd rather the State had the guts to take it down.).  But the best response to the attempted (again!) revision of American history is not to say, or just imply, that things would have been better but for the South.

Things would have been better had we never started the transatlantic slave trade, but while Britons never, never, never shall be slaves, they had no problem making slaves of others.  That was a profitable business for almost everyone, and the first thing America really learned was:  it's money that matters.

And it's violence that protects it; still two very American truths we should spend far more time being ashamed of; or at least being critical of.*

*I have to say this sounds more recent than historical, and a further proof that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  This history also indicates the problems of trying to reconcile two disparate visions of governance, even of "America" (which also sounds distinctly contemporary, especially in our foreign policy debates; except we can't blame religion for the struggles in America).  The Southern take on Reconstruction is still formed as much by the occupation by soldiers as it is by the desire to continue the oppression of former slaves by groups like the KKK.


  1. In a way, Reconstruction presaged Versailles. Victors clumsy enough to shoot themselves in the foot.

  2. New England in the same period was hardly a beacon of light, wage slavery and an increasingly entrenched yankee (English-Scots WASPs) establishment who hated and discriminated against people of other ethnicities and discriminated against them. I remember reading an essay that made the point that many of the New Englanders who had been enthusiastic about the abolition of slavery were entirely hostile or indifferent to the rights of workers in the mills of New England.

    Somewhere today, maybe in the Boston Globe, I read that in the Turkish denial of the Armenian Genocide that the present government talks about it in terms of "our responsibility" as if anyone involved is still alive and that was a century instead of a century and a half ago. I think your mentioning the Alamo movie is especially relevant because movies, TV shows, really awful books, and even some rather better books have fanned the resentments and arrogance that should have died in our great grandparents generation, well, great-great(great) grandparents for those who are younger. I think the renewal of vows, as it were, was a bad thing and did nothing to make things better.

    There was discrimination and oppression and murder all around the United States. As he was fighting the Civil War, Lincoln signed off on the mass hanging of Native Americans in Minnesota and after the war Sheridan waged a genocidal war on Native Americans, notably through trying to drive the bison into extinction. As I recall, the Texas legislature tried to make it illegal to poach bison on Indian land, only to have the hero of the Union Army argue against that because it wouldn't be in line with his plans of destroying Indians.

    There's plenty to be ashamed about in history on all sides.