Today is the anniversary of the death of John Wilkes Booth, the man who murdered President Abraham Lincoln. And it is also the anniversary of the surrender of the last large Confederate army in the field at Bennett Place, North Carolina. I assume that for the latter reason (although I have known at least a few people who argued it was for the former), today is also Confederate Memorial Day in Alabama, the state where I was born.
Yes, I was born in Alabama. And I grew up there and went to school and college there. So in the course of my life I have met SO MANY people who were apologists (or outright fans) of the Confederacy.
- Like the coworker about 15 years ago who told me that he was going to celebrate Robert E. Lee’s birthday instead of Martin Luther King Jr.’s and he thought the fact that MLK got a holiday was “bullshit”.
- Or the guy who I met at Chickamauga/Chattanooga National Battlefield in the mid 1990s that, seeing me dressed in a Union army uniform, asked me “what are you supposed to be, a Yankee?” I told him I was portraying a Southern Unionist, and went on to explain what that was. His expression suddenly went dark and he looked at me and said “well, you oughta be SHOT”.
- Or the time I was at a meeting of the Tennessee Valley Civil War Round Table and a small group of us discussed founding a chapter of Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. This one woman there literally had a tantrum, saying she couldn’t believe that we wanted to do this, etc. She was dead set against the idea and insisted that the South was “still occupied by the North”. Right.
- Or the countless times growing up when I was told I “talked like a Yankee” by both my peers and their parents, because I tended to use a lot of Massachusetts and New England terms and pronunciations and was vocal about my NE preferences. Whatever. Coffee milk rules, as do the Red Sox.
- Sometime in the early 90s, I met a Southern Civil War reenactor who went into great detail about how she had founded the John Wilkes Booth Fan Club. Of course, she thought she were being hilarious but I was appalled. Still, I tried to listen and keep the conversation polite even as I threw a fair bit of shade her way.
- Or the times that I was doing a program for the National Park Service at Stones River or some other battlefield, and someone would pull their kids away from the talk once they realized it was being given by a “Yankee”. That happened surprisingly often. More times than I can remember.
- When I was in the 4th grade, we spent a lot of time talking about the Confederate side of the Civil War in my Alabama History class. I had the scrap book I made for many years. No mentions of Southern Unionists in there. Or much about slavery either, for that matter.
- When I volunteered for a local outdoor historical museum, we had to fight with the board of trustees to allow us to interpret slavery. There was a slave cabin on the park property that the board wanted to interpret as the cabin of a free black, even though it had probably NEVER been one, and even though the percentage of free blacks in Alabama in the antebellum period was TINY compared to the population of slaves.
I have stories like this that go on and on and on. And even before I found out I had an ancestor in the Union Army, I was definitely pro-Union, even if I was unable to articulate it at the time. When I was a kid, I used to go through my Civil War books, like the American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War, and look at the drawings of the battles, in which there were tiny figures in blue carrying American flags fighting tiny figures in gray or brown carrying different flags. Even now I can still remember a lot of the specifics from those images. And I remember how upset some of them made me to see the Americans – the “good guys” carrying American flags – get shot down or captured.
For that matter, I had trouble (and still do, to some extent) understanding how the Confederacy seemed to have lost the war and then “won” the peace. I remember discovering that there were four – FOUR – Union Generals from my home town of Huntsville, Alabama and yet not a single plaque or historical marker commemorating them anywhere. And that despite having been responsible (sometimes quite personally) for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Union soldiers, Confederates like Robert E. Lee, Nathan Bedford Forrest and Stonewall Jackson still get put up on a pedestal. Literally. No one had asked (at least, not in my hearing) why they were worthy, or why their deeds were worth remembering. No one had ever really adequately explained it to me. It was like everyone just assumed they were worthy, and assumed that no one would disagree. And it wasn’t really until I was in college and studying the Civil War for the first time as a real scholar, looking at events the way a historian would, that I really began to understand the disconnect. How the reunification of the country took place at the expense of the freed slaves, which led to Jim Crow laws, which just meant that the civil rights movement then became necessary. I have talked about some of these things before, here on the blog. I could talk about them again and again. To me, part of the tragedy of the Civil War is this disconnect in how it is remembered. How white people are still angry about something that happened to their Confederate ancestors 150 years ago, during an event that lasted four years, but don’t see why African-Americans should still be angry over what happened to THEIR ancestors 150 years ago, in the context of an event that lasted for some 250 years. The first time I made that connection, my head almost exploded.
I think when I get home today, I am going to put out one of my Civil War Union flags. It’s too bad that I don’t live anywhere where that would upset someone anymore. I wish I had done it then.