Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Civil War at 100

Here is how the literary critic Alfred Kazin opened his essay "And the War Came" in the May 11, 1961, issue of The Reporter as the Civil War Centennial was just beginning:

Kazin's 1961 story in The Reporter, an activist
 news magazine in New York City from 1949 to 1968.
"This year we began to play Civil War. On February 12, in Montgomery, Alabama, the bells 'opened a week of pageantry commemorating the beginning of the Confederate nation and the Civil War that followed.' In the State House of Representative Chamber, where the Confederate convention met, legislators re-enacted the secession debates that took Alabama out of the Union. 'To make the celebration as realistic as possible,' it was announced that 'men would walk the streets wearing Confederate beards, top hats, and string ties. Their womanfolk have forsaken formfitting dresses for the ankle-length hoop skirts of Civil War days.' In Atlanta Gone with the Wind has been 'screened again to kick off Georgia's centennial observation of the War Between the States.'

"A more somber note was struck in Charleston, South Carolina, where it was firmly announced that a Negro member of the New Jersey Civil War Centennial Commission, which had planned to attend the ceremonies marking the firing on Fort Sumter, would not be allowed to stay at the hotel with other members of her state group. Major General Ulysses S. Grant III, Chairman of the National Centennial Commission, seemed puzzled by the disturbance over one Negro lady.When Allan Nevins, in his official capacity as adviser to the national commission, also protested, the general said to a reporter, 'Who's Allan Nevins?'

The prolific Bruce Catton, popular Civil War historian. 
"In Virginia, opening his state's commemoration of the great event, Gov. J. Lindsey Almond, Jr., drew a parallel between the present conflict over what he called states' rights and the 'unhappy difficulties' of the nation on the eve of the Civil War. He lamented, 'It has unfortunately been the course of our history that men have raised false issues which could influence the minds and stir the emotions instead of exercising constructive leadership in the effort to mold common opinion in support of that which is best for the nation and the world.' And in a special series of articles for the New York Herald Tribune, Bruce Catton (the last survivor on either side) pointed out that the war need not have happened at all. and would not have happened if responsible leaders North and South had been less emotional. By 1861, says Mr. Catton, it could be seen 'that the very cause of the dispute was itself dying and would , if men approached it reasonably, presently reduce itself to manageable size. . . . The American Civil War . . . settled nothing that reasonable men of good will could not have settled if they had been willing to make the effort.' "

The Columbia University historian Allan Nevins is less widely known now than he was in 1961. At the time Kazin wrote, Nevins was still working on his eight-volume Ordeal of the Union. Catton, of course, was the leading popular historian of the war. Kazin's reference to him as "the last survivor on either side" is ironic. He means Catton was the last survivor on both sides.

In American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era, the Yale historian David Blight took an in-depth look at how the Centennial was celebrated. He found that slavery as a cause and emancipation as an outcome of the war were largely brushed aside in 1961-65. The role of African-Americans in fighting for their freedom was also minimized.

One section of Blight's book is a biography of Catton and an examination of his books. Blight cites Henry Patrick, who reviewed Catton for the Wall Street Journal, as having "captured something important in what appears to be a compliment." Seeking the secret of Catton's sympathetic and authoritative voice, Patrick found the manner "of a family elder discussing a quarrel between two favorite grandsons, each of whom seems to have much on his side."

Like a lot of people of my generation, I read Catton's books almost as breathlessly as he wrote them. They can teach you a lot about the strategy and  the fighting, including what happened both at headquarters and in the field. Catton's use of letters brings the soldiers of both sides alive. But Blight's work, and Kazin's before him, show that Catton was a product of his times: a historian reluctant to make waves by questioning the South's Lost Cause mythology.

Kazin was not at his most dazzling as a writer in the opening of "And the War Came." That was by choice. Sometimes the best approach is to get out of the way and present a straightforward tour of the facts, and that his what Kazin did.What I admire about his essay is that he saw in real time, without the advantage of historical perspective, that the Centennial celebration was being framed to appease the Jim Crow South.

Nevertheless, you can sense as Kazin moves from Montgomery to Atlanta to Charleston to Richmond the embers burning just beneath his own words and the ones he quotes: "the beginning of the Confederate nation," "a more somber note," 'unhappy difficulties," "false issues . . . which stir the emotions." Kazin makes you see the harrumph of General Ulysses S. Grant III, and you know without his saying so that he feels for the nameless African-American woman from New Jersey.  

Kazin understood when the Centennial was just beginning that it was a rigged game. It was a return, in a form so subtle it went unspoken, to the gag rule of the 1830s. That was the measure that banned discussion of slavery, the biggest issue in the country, in the halls of Congress.

Seen from half a century down the road, the events Kazin cataloged in his opening seem as anachronistic as the minstrel shows I remember from my southern boyhood. We've made progress, no doubt, but I wonder if enough attention is being paid during the Civil War sesquicentennial to why the war was fought and what it means today.

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