If ever the maxim, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” were true, it resounds as a dire warning as we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, still the bloodiest, most deadly war in United States history.
At an event in Nashville to officially open Tennessee’s state-wide five-year commemoration of the Sesquicentennial, a specially-produced video ticks off the key battles and changing boundaries of the four-year ordeal, compressing years into nine minutes, as you watch the numbers on a counter of the Union and Confederate dead tick upward until 620,000. More Union soldiers than Confederates died, apparently led by generals who considered the soldiers more expendable in face of overwhelming population advantage.
In the South, where there were only 9 million people (compared to 21 million in the North), of which 4 million were slaves, entire communities died out because there were no more men to marry.
That 620,000 dead, given the nation’s smaller population in 1860 of 30 million, is the equivalent of 6 million killed today; 20 percent of the population died in the war.
Like watching “Romeo & Juliet,” you embark on this trail and hope for a different ending; you see a different course that could have headed off the war – that there should have been solutions to even the most serious and intractable issues of slavery and state’s rights if there were the will to find them.
You find yourself wondering whether, if the people on both sides had known that the war would not be over in a few glorious weeks but only after four brutal years, whether there would have been more incentive to find solutions.
And you can’t help thinking how the political landscape of America today is more like the 1860s than it is different. That era, like this one, was a time of fantastic technological change – new inventions were impacting industrialization, communications and media (the Telegraph was the equivalent of the Internet; cheap newspapers and printing made news a mass commodity), weaponry (the Spencer repeating rifle that the Union soldiers possessed was like an AK-47 to the Confederates’ Revolutionary War-era muskets).
As we walk around the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, the first national battlefield and the model for Gettysburg, where 1,400 separate memorials were placed, it seems we were closer to reconciliation 25 years after the end of the Civil War than 100 years after and than we are today, 150 years later.
At Point Park, the location for the famous “Battle Above the Clouds” on Lookout Mountain, the tallest, most majestic memorial is from New York State, and a small museum there was built by Adolph S. Ochs, who was from Knoxville, published the Chattanooga newspaper anjd who went on to be the publisher of the New York Times. Like so many of the time, his father was a Union officer but his mother had Confederate sympathies and relatives in the CSA.
It seems, as we begin a period of commemoration of the Civil War and what should be a period of recommitment to our nationhood, the scars are deep and long and the wounds seem to have been reopened and festering.
These thoughts occur as we ply newly created Tennessee’s Civil War Heritage Trail.
Tennessee is an ideal place to become immersed in Civil War history: within a comparatively compact area, you have laid out in front of you the full context of the time, landscapes, social issues that give you a more nuanced perspective of that time.
At the opening of the Civil War, the state of Tennessee was a microcosm of the nation in terms of the debate, divided in thirds geographically and politically.
Geographically, it is divided into the East, with its beautiful Smoky Mountains and the lower hills of the Appalachians, the Middle with its fertile ground and horse country, the West flat with the black soil of lowlands – and the people are just as diverse as the three geological divisions.
Tennessee was divided then (and now) politically along the same fault lines: one-third, the eastern part, favored the Union; one third, the western part, was in favor of secession and supporting the Confederacy and one third, the middle part, was divided.
“Tennessee is a very unique state,” Barbara B. Parsons (Mrs. E.H.), President of the Tennessee Division United Daughters of the Confederacy, tells me. “We have the three stars on our state flag for a reason. If you ask a Tennessean what part of the state they are from they will usually say, ‘East Tennessee’ or ‘West Tennessee’ or ‘Middle Tennessee,’ not realizing you meant a TOWN.”
The first vote to secede failed, but after the firing on Fort Sumter (that’s the way they say it, not that the Confederates attacked the federal fort) a second vote went in favor of secession. Tennessee was the last to secede, the first to return to the union.
Tennessee was a place where literally, brother was pitted against brother, neighbor against neighbor. Church congregations were split. Throughout our journey on Tennessee’s Civil War heritage trail, we learned of personal stories of war fought in farmers’ fields and on the doorstep of their homes. We see wood floors of mansions turned into hospitals, still with the stain of blood on the floor, and hold cannon balls that came through a roof or were dug up from the lawn.
The war came to all 95 of Tennessee’s counties – more than 1,462 battles with at least one fought in each of county – which is why it is the only state that has been designated by Congress a National Civil War Heritage Site. The state has embraced this distinctive role, introducing a most remarkable Tennessee Civil War Heritage Trail (www.tnvacation.com/civil-war/trails/), part of a larger tourism program of special-interest and themed trails. The Civil War Heritage Trail involves more than 200 different commemorative signs; online planning tools including a mobile app. There are scores of exhibits, events, reenactments, lectures, newly preserved sites.
Significantly, the trails use the major cities (Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville) as hubs, but then take you out to smaller towns and villages, on these marvelous journeys of discovery.
And such horrendous tragedies, as we discover when we learn more of the people swept up in the battles at Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Spring Hill, Thompson Station, Stone River, Franklin – names we had never heard of before, and historians are only just beginning to appreciate as significant.
Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, Vicksburg better known, but the battles waged across the length and breadth of Tennessee were among the most horrific, lethal and pivotal of the war, we learn. this was the Western theater of the Civil War, where Ulysses S. Grant had his victories that catapulted him to the head of the Union Army, and from where General William Tecumseh Sherman began his march to the sea.
Tennessee has really embraced its role to remind us of our history. Other states have marked important anniversaries – like South Carolina’s Legislature voting to secede on December 20, 1860, just after Abraham Lincoln won election as President (celebrated with galas and balls that are more a slap in the face than a respectful commemoration) – and important places, like Vicksburg, Mississippi. The experience here is much more encompassing.
A partnership of the National Park Service and the Center for Historic Preservation at Middle Tennessee State University (www.mtsuhistpres.org), the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area tells the whole story of America’s greatest challenge, 1860-1875: the powerful stories of vicious warfare, the demands of the home front and occupation, the freedom of emancipation, and the enduring legacies of Reconstruction. In turn, the Heritage Area partnered with the Tennessee Departments of Tourist Development and Transportation to implement the statewide Tennessee Civil War Trails (www.tncivilwar.org).
With incredible exhibits and displays at visitors centers at battlefields, commemorative signs along demarcated trails, and in museums and mansions, we see the impact of the war, the consequence of failed politics. For many who we meet, the people who have devoted their lives to the preservation of these sacred places, it is about honoring the memory of the fallen who made the ultimate sacrifice, gave the last full measure of their lives, for their country (see www.tnvacation.com/civil-war/trails/).
But it is so much more: Tennessee has done a superb job of presenting the stories of people affected by the war. Soldiers, to be sure, but families and civilians, as well.
Though you are likely to find the most balanced presentation of Civil War history in Tennessee, since most of the fighting took place in the South, it seems that the scars have never really healed, the wounds seem to be freshly opened today. In a small museum in Sparta, we find a reference to the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression. There seems to be very little acknowledgement of the fact that the Confederates started the war, firing the first shots on the federal soldiers at Fort Sumter, near Charleston, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861. They seem to dismiss the reality that the brutality of war was both a weapon to force an ending and the result of the emotional changes that happen to soldiers who have seen too many of their comrades cut down.
“They stole everything they could get their hands on, from food to personal property, and then, in many cases, burned the houses down,” Ms. Parsons tells me. “In some cases they just burned the house down with everything in it so that they could leave the women and children destitute.
“Our men came home to find that their homes had been burned down, their families scattered or killed, no stock, no plows, no farm implements of any kind left, no food, and no spendable money.
“No banks, no schools, no government buildings, churches ruined by use as stables…Oh, yes, destruction of property was a huge thing in war strategy. If soldiers knew their wives and families were left destitute how demoralized would they be.”
Traveling Tennessee’s Civil War Heritage Trail offers a painful reminder, a chance to pay homage, and also lessons, even a warning, that are as relevant today as the headlines.
In some ways, it seems we are back in those awful days of division that led up to the Civil War – unresolved issues from the Founders, made Civil War inevitable – slavery, states’ rights.
The slavery question was not really resolved by defeat in war and the Emancipation Proclamation; it took another 100 years, erupting again in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, before the essence of equality to become part of the fabric of society. But states’ rights (and not the fight with the British) can be seen in the rhetoric of today’s Tea Party.
“The country was going down the path to a civil war since its founding,” historian Eric Jacobson, an expert on the Battle of Franklin, tells us during our journey. “The Founders left the big issues – slavery, States rights – unresolved.” These are the core issues being tested in the Civil War.
But the problem I have is that whoever won the war won the argument by force, but not by changing minds. Had Northerners lost their resolve along with the loss of life which exceeded the loss in the South, and agreed to let the South form its own country and keep slavery intact, what then?
It was very strange for me, growing up in the North, to take this journey through the South, and jarring to realize how much is still unresolved, how similar in the absolutism and refusal to compromise, we are. I wondered how southern school children learn about the Civil War. Do they acknowledge that their forefathers were rebels fighting to preserve slavery, and were defeated? This aspect of my visit was eye-opening when we are introduced to a group of fifth graders and their Civil War biography project.
It seems there are still those fighting for what they call “the Noble Cause” (if a Lost Cause); and the conflict still regarded as “The War of Northern Aggression.”
The experience of travel is about sparking epiphany by virtue of being physically immersed in a place, so you can better appreciate the context, the nuance. Being transported to a place has the effect of transporting in time, to a degree, as well. Time travel.
I started off on Tennessee’s Civil War Heritage Trail thinking that Lincoln should have let the South secede – after all, the Declaration of Independence said that people had the right to pull away from their government when it no longer served them.
But I soon come to realize that so much more was at stake.
The North was fighting for the preservation of the Union – more than that, if the still-fledgling nation was split in two, European powers could easily have taken control. England would have been happy to have the South back in its fold.
It was a fight for survival of the Southern way of life, a social and economic way of life that was built on a foundation of slavery, versus the survival of the union.
The big issues – slavery and states’ rights – were more encompassing – like the tremendous arc of branches and leaves of a mighty tree come from root.
What was most surprising is how, invariably, they seemed to downplay the role of slavery.
It is interesting that from today’s vantage point, there is no one that we meet – from any part of Tennessee where much the same divisions and loyalties have remained intact – who defends slavery, even as we wander these fabulous mansion homes and plantations with their sad slave cabins. Instead, it seems that most people – even those most committed Confederates – downplay the importance of slavery as the trigger for the war. Instead, we are told of masters who were kind, and that the institution was dying out (something that does not seem to be supported, especially once Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin).
What they fail to justify, during our animated but respectful conversations – is why, if states rights were the most important thing, why the states did not come up with their own formula for ending slavery as was done in the north (colonial Newport had slaves, so did New York, even Florida, as a Spanish colony, had a more humane way of dealing with slaves which could have been embraced by other states when Florida became part of the United States, in 1856) and every other civilized nation of the time. The slave trade had been outlawed internationally since the 1820s.
The discussion is mimicked in today’s health care debate – the anger and the fury over federally imposed health reform so that health care is a right, not a privilege, but the refusal of individual states to adopt their own program so that 50 million people aren’t effectively cut off.
(How stirring, too, that during this 150th anniversary, the nation is led by its first African-American, and the first Lady is a descendent of slaves).
Yes, we are fighting this same war over again, and there seem to be those who are hoping for a different outcome.
Another question I had as I went along this journey was how the schoolchildren of the South learn about the Civil War. These are patriotic people who have to confront the reality that their ancestors rebelled, in order to preserve the right to have slaves. Do you acknowledge being defeated on the battlefield and forced into submission? There does not seem to be any apology for that. If anything, there is resentment about the “political correctness”.
“Over the generations, Southern children because of that terrible slave issue have been made to feel apologetic, if not guilty or ashamed because of heritage. I hope my children don’t feel that way,” Country music singer Trace Adkins says during the state’s official opening of its Sesquicentennial commemoration.
“Everybody knows the majority of soldiers didn’t own slaves. My grandfather didn’t and had no aspirations. I teach my children that their great great grandfather was a brave and courageous soldier, who served with honor.
“There used to be a Confederate Veterans Day- then it became politically incorrect. Slavery, secession, taxes and tariffs were the major issues, but they are all sub-categories to main issue: states’ rights. That’s why my grandfather went to war.
“I don’t think that issue necessarily was settled – if it was, wouldn’t still be arguing today,” he says, as a man behind me chimes, “Amen.”
“‘Why is your hair so long?’ people ask me. Toward the end of the war, when the outcome was obvious, a group of dedicated soldiers said the issue was not settled and until it was settled, they won’t cut their hair – and neither will I.”
At the Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Battlefield – the first national battlefield and the model for Gettysburg and others – what grips me is not seeing the field where 32,000 were cut down (7000 dead) in a mere 2 ½ days of fighting, but the hundreds upon hundreds of memorial markers that line the sides. These are indications of the strong desire for reconciliation, even 25 years after the war.
The assassination of Lincoln, which put into power political leaders who wanted to punish the South and unleashed the disastrous policies of Reconstruction seem to have derailed the movement for reconciliation, and the separations of North and South have hardened.
A new question forms in my mind as I hear National Parks Service Ranger Christopher Young describe the soldiers who fought and died here: what were they fighting for? Only 10% of soldiers would have come from homes that had slaves. In fact, if you had more than 20 slaves, you were exempt from service.
Lincoln tried to deal with the economic issues – the 4 million slaves were worth about $4 billion. He had a plan to recompense the slaveholders over a 30-40 year time period.
On the other hand, as the Ranger describes, an enormous number of Union soldiers were immigrants – some who were fighting for the ideals of their new nation, but no doubt many who were drafted (sparking the Draft Riots in New York City). They would have regarded freed slaves as competition for jobs, driving down wages – indeed, the draft riots were waged in New York City’s black community.
The wealthy and powerful who stood to gain by the war, did not fight this war. In the North, you could “buy” a substitute to go to war in your place for $300.
And it gets you thinking – then as now – how people are motivated to do something against their own self-interest.
On the other hand, slavery was the underpinning of what the Confederates were fighting for when they said they were fighting to preserve The Old South. Slavery provided the underpinnings of the economy, the social order, and even the political structure. Since slaves were counted as 3/5 of a person for the purpose of representation, the South had a disproportionate number in Congress. That’s why it was so important to the Old South that slavery be extended into the Western territories which were becoming states.
There is a parallel today (again, the relevance of studying history) with the dispute over immigration, particularly what should be done about the 12 million illegal immigrants. They are counted for the purpose of the share of $400 billion in federal spending, and also for representation in Congress, but do not vote – others get the benefit of the numbers to vote their own interests which may well go counter to those of the immigrants. That is why there is no real interest in the Dream Act or reforms which will create a path to citizenship and take people out of the shadows and lawlessness.
In Chattanooga, where we start on our Civil War journey, which apparently was most reluctant about secession, to begin with, and which embraced reconciliation, I am thinking that New York should make a special gesture of renewed Reconciliation, like we did shortly after the end of the war. I end up thinking that the South should finally apologize to the North for the tragedies inflicted on Northern families.
Some of my initial ideas about the Civil War were changed as a result of our travels – the key one being that the Southern states should have been allowed to leave the Union.
But I hold my belief that the Civil War, if it were truly fought for States’ Rights, could have been avoided if the states had individually come up with their own process to eliminate slavery (from a visit to Kingston Plantation in Florida, for example, I learn of a 1856 letter from a plantation owner to Congress pleading that the United States adopt the Spanish colonial system of slavery, which was much less brutal and provided mechanisms for slaves to become freedmen). This was the life-death issue of its day.
This is where the lessons of the Civil War are so relevant to today.
These days, the issue of health reform seems to be as divisive as slavery; both issues carry life-and-death consequences are a matter of equity (is access to health care a privilege or a right?). States, predominantly in the South, are rattling the saber of States Rights again to cast aside national health reform, intended to provide access to care for 50 million uninsured. But they always had the ability to address making health care accessible to all citizens and chose not to.
And so I take this journey – and in the course of just six days, came to new understanding, new appreciation of what happened so long ago, and why the lessons are so relevant to today.
That’s the essence of what travel should be.
The conclusion we should come to is: “Never again.” Solutions must be found to the issues that divide us as viciously as then.
Congress has designated the state as the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area. Tennessee’s landscape contains many powerful reminders of the Civil War from battlefields and monuments in places such as Shiloh and Chattanooga, to the sites along the Civil War Trails stretching from Memphis to the Tri-Cities. See the maps of the time, the flags that led the regiments, and the timeline of events that forever changed the physical, social, and economic face of Tennessee. For trip planning, go to www.tnvacation.com/civil-war/. For the Tennessee Civil War Heritage Trails, go to www.tnvacation.com/civil-war/trails/. You can see maps and have planning tools; there is even a mobile app.
A brochure, “A Path Divided,” is downloadable at http://tn.gov/environment/hist/doc/brochure.pdf.
Another source is the Civil War Traveler: Tennessee (www.civilwartraveler.com/WEST/TN/index.html)
See next: Traveling Tennessee’s Civil War Trail in Chattanooga
–Karen Rubin, National Eclectic Travel Examiner
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