The other night I watched actor-director Maximillian Schell’s fascinating 1984 docudrama about Marlene Dietrich, the glamorous (on-screen), reclusive (off it), German-born femme fatale who mesmerized cinema and cabaret audiences but lived her final years cloistered in a Paris apartment.
A pragmatic woman utterly devoid of romantic reverie despite her public persona, Dietrich told Schell, over and over again, that she was and had always been interested only in the moment. History — including her own tempestuous life to that point — was of little concern to her. Never once, she told Schell, had she pulled out one of her silent or talking pictures and watched it again. So little did she know or care where in Berlin she had spent her early years that she never even inquired when she returned to the ravaged German capital after World War II.
And though she had left Germany, decried Nazism, and even enlisted in the U.S. Army during that war, it held no fascination for her, she said.
As I listened to her — listened because she would let Schell do the interview portion as audio only and would not go on camera — I was struck by the stark contrast between her “fie on the past” outlook and Americans’ quite opposite near-obsession with each and every available detail of another war, its antecedents, and its aftermath.
Dietrich would have scoffed — “rubbish” was her favorite word in the Schell interview — at the rush of new books, trenchant op-ed columns, television documentaries, and blog reflections about the U.S. Civil War.
It was triggered, 150 years ago this coming April 12, by the bombardment of a federal fort in Charleston harbor by South Carolina militiamen. But what lit the fuse? What caused six states to declare that they were leaving the Union even before the shelling of Fort Sumter? What force could be so powerful as to lead brothers into war with brothers, with the ultimate loss of 620,000 soldiers in bloody combat?
“Who cares?” I can hear Dietrich’s ghost exclaiming, huskily. But Americans care deeply to this day in this Civil War sesquicentennial year. And many chalk it up to a single, overriding propellant: human slavery, the cruel institution that fueled the southern economy and, for the gentry, its way of life.
Not northern tariffs. Not states’-rights fervor. Not northern meddling in southerners’ affairs so pervasive that one ordinary Confederate soldier, quoted by Richard T. Hines, a Sons of Confederate Veterans camp commander, remarked to a Yankee as the Reb was being led off to prison: “Why am I fighting? Because you’re here” (emphasis mine).
Slavery is so often cited as the direct and overriding raison d’etre of the Civil War — or at a minimum the common denominator when multiple antecedents are mentioned — that its sores keep flaring.
So raw are sensitivities that the display of the Confederacy’s stars-and-bars battle flag gets some people’s blood boiling. The rebellious nation fought to the death to keep their human chattel, they say. Ergo, its symbols represent evil.
But there is other blood boiling as well. It belongs to those who are just as outraged at efforts to suppress what they firmly believe are reminders of the honorable service of their 260,000 ancestors — many of them poor and barefoot and about as close to being slaveholders as a pig is to a princess — who fought and died on the Confederate side.
The “southern cross” still appears on Mississippi’s state flag and is suggested on Florida’s and Alabama’s. It was not until 2000 that the Confederate flag came down from its perch atop South Carolina’s capitol building in Columbia. Civil-rights groups’ calls for boycotts of South Carolina events and attractions were only slightly muted when state officials lowered the rebel flag but then planted it on the capitol lawn.
Last year in Richmond, the final capital of the rebellious Confederate States, Robert McDonnell, the new governor of Virginia revived a storied tradition by declaring April “Confederate History Month.” He said Confederate History Month would promote tourism in a state in which battlefields and Civil War re-enactments are huge historical draws. And the governor’s supporters endorsed McDonnell’s assertion that the special month would help Virginians “understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers, and citizens during the period of the Civil War.”
But as I told you at the time, when McDonnell never once mentioned that the gruesome war that tore the nation asunder was fought, in part or in whole depending on one’s viewpoint, to preserve or exterminate human bondage in the Confederate states, all hell broke loose.
Former governor Douglas Wilder, an African American, called Governor McDonnell’s omission of the word “slavery” “mind-boggling.”
Governor McDonnell promptly apologized “to any fellow Virginian who has been offended or disappointed.” Slavery was, he said, “an evil and inhumane practice that deprived people of their God-given, inalienable rights, and all Virginians are thankful for its permanent eradication from our borders.”
And that’s not all. McDonnell then ordered two star-and-bar flags removed from the roof of the Confederate Veterans’ Chapel in Richmond, which their descendants had left in trust to the Commonwealth of Virginia.
This ignited the firestorm anew. “Today one group — the one that insists the war was fought over slavery alone — tolerates no disagreement,” Camp Commander Hines wrote in the Washington Post. “Confederate chapels, history months and monuments, they say, should be banished, and the history books rewritten to exclude other points of view.” Anyone who disagrees, Hines continued, “gets called a racist.”
The two flags removed from the Confederate Memorial Chapel “did not trouble the Union soldiers who donated the organ to the chapel,” he asserted.
Others are astonished that some southerners advance every conceivable rationale other than slavery — including a principled fight for states’ rights — for the outbreak of Civil War. The chief “right” that they left the Union hoping to preserve, the critics say, was the right to own slaves. As Civil War historian Edward Ayers pointed out to Washington Post writer Frederick Kunkle, although only 2 percent of northern whites were abolitionists and the conflict “did not begin as a war to end slavery, that is what it became.”
Ayers also harks back to the Civil War’s initial, cataclysmic clash in the Virginia countryside just outside Washington, D.C. So confident were the capital’s dandies and their ladies that the engagement — now called the First Battle of Bull Run by most northerners and First Manassas by many southerners — would be a Union rout that they packed picnic lunches and rode out to the countryside to watch.
Instead, the Confederates delivered a thrashing so severe that panicked onlookers chucked their wine and tea sandwiches and ran for their lives. So shocked at the carnage were citizens throughout the North that there were widespread calls for a peace settlement, and good riddance to the South as it went its own way.
Had the war ended there, Ed Ayers points out, there would have been no emancipation of southern slaves, because ending slavery was not yet even a goal of President Abraham Lincoln and his generals. If we think the aftermath of the Civil War — oppressive laws that kept free blacks down, followed by the torment of a long civil-rights struggle — were problematical, one can only imagine what the long-term future might have held for a Confederate States of America among the community of nations.
Instead, we still fight our Civil War, rhetorically, six generations after the bloodshed ended.
Ayers, the son of Tennessee textile workers and the author or editor of 10 books on the South and the Civil War, is a force behind efforts to spur a radical rethinking of the war — or, perhaps better said, a harmonious blending of passionate points of view. Now president of the prestigious, private University of Richmond in a city that is fast becoming a hotbed of Civil War tourism, Ayers believes that it’s possible to both treasure the emancipation of 4 million people kept in servitude and salute the bravery of those on both sides who died fighting the war.
As one of the leaders of “The Future of Richmond’s Past” sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War, Ayers says it’s long past time to cease the endless bickering over what might have brought 31 million Americans to each other’s throats in 1861. The shortest way to understand what nearly drove the nation asunder, he told the Post’s Kunkel, “is that it’s a perfect storm” of events, stirred in a cauldron of white-hot emotion.
One last observation on the tenacity with which people cling to such polar certainties about southern slavery, which, it should be noted, did not just sprout in the years leading up to civil war but had been a fixture, North and South, since the early 1600s:
Many people still equate the South, emotionally, with slavery and attribute any and all devotion to Confederate symbols to racism, thinly veiled if not unadorned.
Likewise, as you learned from the gentleman from the Sons of Confederate Veterans, there is a sizable contingent that casts slavery as an unfortunate but distant historical event having nothing to do with them or their devotion to those who fought and died for their states and rebellious nation.
I do think that Ed Ayers has the right idea: that bringing together people of all ages, races, and outlooks — no matter how hidebound — about the Civil War can lead to universal appreciation of both the bravery of its combatants and the blessed stroke for justice that the emancipation of southern slaves represented.
“The Civil War is at the heart of what this nation is about,” Edward Ayers told the Post. “Freedom, and respect, and possibility for all Americans.”
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Fie. Pronounced “Fy,” this is an exclamation of disgust or disapproval, usually paired with the word “on,” as in “Fie on you!”
Hidebound. Stubbornly narrow-minded. Stuck in one’s ways or attitudes.
Reverie. A pleasant, smile-producing state of dreaminess.
Sesquicentennial. 150th, as in a sesquicentennial celebration or world's fair.