Here in the DC region and neighboring states, we’ve been commemorating the sesquicentennial of the Civil War for the past four years. Within a 150-mile radius lie several notable sites: Harpers Ferry, where John Brown stormed the federal armory 2 years before the war in his fight against slavery; the battlefields of Manassas, Gettysburg, Antietam, and South Mountain, where hundreds of thousands died; and scores of historical buildings, homes, and churches, where fate-sealing decisions were made, armies were betrayed, and wounded and dying soldiers were nursed or given last rites.
The fanfare culminates this week on the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theatre, just five days after General Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox, Virginia, and not long into Lincoln’s second term as president.
As a Yankee who moved south of the Mason-Dixon Line 14 years ago, I’ve been reconnecting with that bleak part of our country’s history, which I hadn’t given much thought to since eighth grade. Until my husband and I moved to Virginia, for me, the American Civil War was another historical artifact to file away under “glad we’re over that hump.” Then a few years ago, I was hired to write about the war from a tourist’s perspective as it related to five Maryland towns along the C&O Canal. Interviewing war re-enactors, historians, park rangers, and townfolk sparked my interest in how the war affected the people of the time. In a word: sucked.
In our adopted state, we’re surrounded by reminders of the Civil War—the old farm house of a Confederate spy is just down the road. People still find belt buckles and bullets when digging over their gardens. On our way to buy stuff we don’t need at REI, we pass one of many sites where a lesser-known skirmish took place, a tiny plot of land preserved as a county park and sandwiched among office buildings, townhouses, and strip malls. We’re steeped in Civil War, inescapable even on a trip to the grocery store.
In the South, it’s called the War of Northern Aggression, and it may be true that some Rebels are still fighting it. Yet, I argue, our entire nation continues to fight a “civil” war, one still centered around states’ rights and equality for all. To wit, the Supreme Court will announce their decision later this year on whether states can deny same-gender marriage rights. In addition, racial tensions are on the boil, and we seem unwilling to do the hard work it’s going to take to mend relations—to say nothing of learning how to get past race (and religion and gender and all those other attributes you see on EEO posters) so we can live peaceably among one another.
Further, this country hasn’t seen such an influx of immigrants since the American Indians had to deal with invading foreigners beginning a few centuries ago. Interestingly, many Americans conveniently forget their own immigrant history while fervently attempting to deny new immigrants the same opportunities for a better life that landed their own ancestors on these shores (the “screw you, I got mine” school of diplomacy). If you’re in the camp that would like to deport “illegals” back to the countries of our southern neighbors, you might read a little about how the North American Free Trade Agreement helped create this SNAFU in the first place.
Though humanity has been at war with itself since we first grew legs and crawled out of the swamp, our on-going War of Aggressive Fear is a vestige we sorely need to let go of, an appendix whose function has long passed its usefulness date. The notion that some people are less equal than others, that certain classes of people don’t have the same rights as other classes, that some lives are dispensable, is an absurd concept for the 21st century. Our earliest ancestors may have benefited from the lizard section of our brain whose job it was to protect us from “other,” but shouldn’t we be more enlightened today? The only reason “other” exists in our minds is because we insist on forgetting our singular connectedness: God. (Non-theists may substitute “Humanity” for “God.”)
If you do adhere to a religious path and you also believe God hates any particular class of people, I invite you to search deep within and ask whether you really want to worship a god that hates anybody. We may sink to the depths of hating some, but don’t transfer your base emotions onto our all-loving God just because you can’t get past some issues.
Lincoln struggled with the concept of slavery in that he didn’t know what to do about it. Although he viewed slavery as unjust, how did one go about dismantling it? How do you take what was once seen as a commodity and integrate what were really human beings into society? Sadly, Americans are still struggling with how to be a nation of all peoples. Lincoln also fought to preserve the Union. He believed secession went against the principles of self-government and that the Constitution imposed a duty to defend the country from rebellious citizens.
Until we trade our Us-vs.-Them mentality for a We-all-of-Us mindset, until we stop shooting “rebellious” people as a means of control, until we accept that all lives matter—that united we succeed—the American Civil War will drag on.
So why not honor Lincoln’s memory by committing to resolve the nation-building struggles he would have faced had he not been killed? What one step can you make, what one act of kindness or understanding can you perform, just today, to salve the wounds of our civil war? Then tomorrow or next week perform another kind act and keep at it, little acts at a time.
If we can live by the wisdom of Lincoln’s closing passage in his second inaugural speech, maybe then we can truly claim the American Civil War to be over. Otherwise, we’ll still be fighting it 150 years from now:
With malice toward none, charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.