Story by James H. Burnett III for The Miami Herald, January 29, 2011:
Keeping in mind that 82-year-old Georgia Ayers has six children, 10 grandchildren, and 12 great grandchildren, and has taught and mentored several thousand more, the most uncomfortable question she’s ever been asked by a youngster has nothing to do with sex or reproduction.
“Whew!” Ayers, an elder stateswoman and unofficial historian in Miami’s African American community said recently. “Gotta catch my breath on that one. I have to tell you the toughest one has always been why did we fight the Civil War? Why would states that belonged to the same club, so to speak, turn on each other? Small children especially, just don’t get it.”
But as the 150th anniversary of the start of America’s deadliest conflict approaches, it appears it’s not only kids who “just don’t get it,” “it” being the cause of the war.
More than 630,000 Americans on both sides were killed in the Civil War between April 1861 and April 1865, and 412,000 were wounded.
As Florida joins dozens of other states preparing to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, also known as the War Between the States, some are asking if the lack of agreement on the cause of the war is behind the feeling that it’s still being fought.
There’s little dispute that the Union North’s motivation was not as magnanimous as has been portrayed in some historical texts, which suggest that the North initiated war simply to keep the union together, and which portray Abraham Lincoln as a prophet-like leader who crushed slavery, though the Emancipation Proclamation only freed some.
Still, the greatest public disputes over the Civil War have always been about the motivations and objectives of the Southern Confederacy, whose history-minded supporters insist that slavery was a side dish to the main course of free trade.
Hundreds of white war celebrants gathered in Charleston, South Carolina, in November to take part in a ball dubbed the “Secession Gala,” where attendees wore period clothing, cheered the pre-Civil War South, sang Dixie and other Confederate songs, and generally partied in a manner that might have made the producers of Gone with the Wind jealous.
Randy Burbage, vice president of the Confederate Heritage Trust, told The New York Times the ball was intended to honor men who were willing to die to protect states’ rights.
In Alabama there are plans for a swearing-in ceremony, featuring an actor playing Jefferson Davis, first president of the Confederate States of America following secession.
And what about Confederate flags? In 1861, they represented a defiant new nation. Today, serious Civil War history buffs insist the flag still represents the same. But they’re also common fodder for racial extremists, irreverent bumper stickers and car antenna banners. Are those vehicles driven by history buffs, free spirits who consider themselves “rebels in spirit,” those who pine for the days when that flag was in use, or none of the above?
“That’s the thing about disputed history,” said South Florida historian Marvin Dunn, an author and former professor at Florida International University. “When you start asking why, the answers become increasingly complex and increasingly ugly. People on both sides get offended by labels and symbols. People defending some aspect of the war get defensive.
“But we’re a tough nation. So maybe this is finally the time that we can put the Civil War to rest, not in terms of remembering it, but in terms of being honest about what it was about…what it was ALL about.”
For Ayres and the like-minded, the cause of the war was simple: slavery.
Ayres says she remembers stories shared with her by her grandparents and other older blacks in South Florida when she was a little girl.
“They all had a story about a relative who fought or who was told by slave owners that without them, without slaves they wouldn’t make it, their businesses would fall apart. Their farms and plantations would collapse without the free labor,” Ayres, a longtime activist and unofficial keeper of Miami’s black history, said. “I know some people don’t believe that.
“But I’ve always been taught that even though so many reasons were tossed about, from Northern and federal interference with states’ rights, to unfair federal taxes on Southern states, to even the rights of Southern states to practice commerce the way they wanted, in the end it was about slavery. And we’ll never get over this war till we figure out what about it people are celebrating each year in the spring.”
As commemorations go, Florida’s will be decidedly low-key over the next couple of months, compared to what other Southern states like South Carolina and Alabama have done or will do to mark the war’s sesquicentennial.
Like Florida, Virginia, Mississippi, and Tennessee have largely academic observances planned.
The Virginia state legislature has commissioned near-daily lecture series, tours, and informal parties at different Civil War sites, over the next 12 months.
In Mississippi, a massive battle reenactment is scheduled for August on the site of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek.
The Tennessee Historical Society is urging residents to embark on a statewide tour to visit Civil War battle sites, where academics, volunteer guides, and war enthusiasts will explain the state’s complex role in supplying troops for the North and South, while at the same time harboring runaway slaves who were en route to freedom in Northern states.
And in Florida, a series of battle reenactments and lectures are scheduled for sites from Tallahassee to Tampa, largely coordinated in unrelated efforts by Florida State University and the Sons of Confederate Veterans memorial group.
For Bob Hurst, a spokesman for Florida’s Sons of Confederate Veterans chapters, the list of commemorations provides a few thumbs-up and a few cringe-worthy moments.
“The thing about groups like ours is we celebrate our ancestors in the war year-round, on significant historical occasions,” Hurst said. “We are a historical organization. And you’ll notice that our name is Sons of Confederate Veterans, not Sons of the Confederacy…, because whatever you think started the war, you can’t fault people for studying and celebrating their ancestors. We know it’s a fine line though, but we also believe the American people are not so thin-skinned that they don’t know the difference between us and them.”
The “them” said Greg Kalof, commander of SCV’s Miami Camp, are politicians who benefit from ongoing tensions between ethnic and cultural groups over the war’s history, and young hotheads who think the Confederate flag is an indication of white’s distaste for blacks or a tool of intimidation.
“Those guys know nothing about our history,” Kalof said. “And we don’t let people like that join our organization, because that’s not what we’re about…You can’t always avoid controversy for the sake of avoiding controversy.
“You have to speak up for history, for accuracy. We know that the subject is hurtful for some people. But we’re not celebrating slavery. We’re not celebrating war itself. We’re simply celebrating our ancestors’ sacrifice. They believed so deeply that the South as a region was being threatened with extinction, they were willing to die to save it. You have to respect that.”
Both Kalof and Harris insisted that politicians play a large role in stoking racial and cultural tensions too.
“I’m convinced,” Kalof said, “that keeping us divided by perpetuating things that aren’t fact is beneficial to some elected officials. Racial problems are some of the biggest dividers in this country. And a lot of those come from notions – incorrect notions – that people have about the war. Imagine how scary that would be for politicians if the public stopped being enraged over this single issue? Us being united through an accurate understanding of history would crush them.”
Further, Harris said, history can’t be served and the ongoing debate won’t end as long as historians insist the Confederate Army was populated by obscenely wealthy slave owners.
A recorded fact of the Confederate “draft,” Harris said, was that men who owned 20 or more slaves, were exempt from fighting.
“This was not an army of hundreds of thousands of plantation owners who thought their wealthy would be taken,” Harris said. “A majority of Confederate soldiers were poor farmers or what we would call middle class today, who didn’t even own slaves. So you have to ask yourself why they’d risk their lives for an institution they had no personal part in. They fought, because they believed their ability to operate their farms and conduct trade was threatened.”
Dunn, the great-grandson of slaves, says the explanation of the war he always received from elders carried strains of Kalof’s and Harris’s version and Ayers’.
“But it was always coated with a dose of reality,” Dunn said. “Reality being that without slaves the Southern commerce machine that we’ve gotten to know throughout history may not have existed — the produce trade, the cotton trade, and let’s just say it, the people trade might not exist. Farming requires intensive labor. Remember many of the people who drove Southern industry were not wealthy before they acquired slaves to expand their operations.”
Still, Dunn said, there is truth to the argument that the issues of the war were bigger than slavery.
“Sure, it would be naive to say otherwise,” Dunn said. “But it’s like construction. Every building contains many bricks and many pieces. But there’s always a cornerstone. And slavery was the cornerstone of this war.”
Melvin Patrick Ely, a professor of pre-Civil War southern history at the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Va., said two years ago would have been more ideal for such a big Civil War observance.
“The atmosphere was perfect for it,” Ely said. “Seriously, whatever your political slant, there was an atmosphere of goodwill and open-mindedness tied directly to Barack Obama’s election to the presidency. You didn’t have to be a supporter of his. But even opponents were willing to de-politicize certain things and talk about elements of American history in an open way unlike any we’ve seen in decades.”
While the goodwill of the 2008 election season may have since faded, Ely believes there’s still a chance this Civil War anniversary could be a game changer in American cultural development.
If all parties can come to consensus on the cause of the war and the root of the war and not treat both as being synonymous, such agreement could spawn a positive ripple effect on American race relations, Ely said.
“Let’s be blunt. This will require whites to acknowledged that whatever the more detailed political battles — over commerce, trade, tariffs, and so on — they were all rooted in slavery,” Ely said. “Without slaves, commerce in the South would’ve ground to a halt, because profit margins did not factor in the costs of paid labor. That’s indisputable fact. It is also true that slavery was an expensive enterprise and may have died on its own eventually. But even though most Southern farmers didn’t have slaves or didn’t have many, the wealthy men with whom they did business did have slaves. You just can’t escape it.”
Ely pointed to South Carolina records that show in the months leading up to the start of the Civil War, state officials proudly cast the war as being about the right to own slaves and the preservation of whites as the dominant racial group in America.
But after the war started and it quickly became clear that the Confederacy was outmanned, South Carolina officials changed their tune and began framing the war as one over business rights, Ely said, in the hopes of winning the support of foreign governments.
“That’s not to say people can’t or shouldn’t celebrate their ancestors,” Ely said. “But I’m sorry, I have to ask if the war itself is something to celebrate. Every other war we ‘celebrate’ is a war we’ve fought against a foreign enemy. A conflict that pitted us against one another? Maybe somber remembrances are more appropriate…finally.”