Magazine article Queen's Quarterly

Modern America's Founding Myth

Magazine article Queen's Quarterly

Modern America's Founding Myth

Article excerpt

Unlike the ideals at stake in, say, the seventeenth-century European wars of religion, it is easy for modern Americans to reflect on the principles on which the American Civil War was fought and to respect those principles as well as those who held them. With few exceptions, the surviving veterans of both armies spent the rest of their lives feeling proud of what they had done, and their descendants have usually felt the same way.

In William Faulkner's most powerful novel, a Harvard freshman from Mississippi tries to explain the Civil War to his Canadian roommate. His success is limited. "It's something my people haven't got," says the uncomprehending Shreve McCannon near the end of Absalom, Absalom! (1936). "Or if we have got it, it all happened long ago across the water, and so now there aint anything to look at every day to remind us of it." "You cant understand it," answers Quentin Compson. "You would have to be born there."

A century after this imaginary dormitory colloquy, the official Civil War Sesquicentennial looms ahead--indeed has already begun with the commemoration of John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry in October 1859, the prelude to a war that lasted from 1861 to 1865 and took over 600,000 lives. Of all the dramas in American history, the Civil War is the gaudiest, most violent, and--to a great many people who make reverent pilgrimages to its sites and re-enact its battles--uniquely magical in its aura. It also possesses the eerie capacity to seem more recent than it was, at times almost present. The fact that it was the first war to be extensively photographed has something to do with this astonishing vividness: hundreds of contemporaneous pictures survive of battlefields from Bull Run to Appomattox, of bristling forts, of burned cities, of soldiers (famous and obscure) from both armies.

The last reputed veteran, a Confederate from Texas, lived until 1959. The last widow to draw a Civil War pension died in 2004. Even today, especially in the South, there are more 80-year-olds than you might think who have childhood memories of grandparents telling them childhood memories of the destruction of Atlanta, or Richmond, or Columbia, South Carolina. The living memory of traumatic historical events endures, in this extended sense, for much longer than a single lifetime. As Shreve puts it, mixing up the details but getting the larger picture right, "What is it? Something you live and breathe in like air? ... a kind of entailed birthright father and son and father and son of never forgiving General Sherman, so that forevermore as long as your children's children produce children you won't be anything but a descendant of a long line of colonels killed in Pickett's charge at Manassas?"

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So it has proved, and not only for Southerners. In a country whose citizens are notoriously indifferent to history, the Civil War is the great exception. You can insist till you're blue in the face that a brutal conflict in which more Americans died than the combined total from all the country's other wars put together is no fit subject for romantic commemoration, that the ideal of military glory is a grotesque anachronism in the twenty-first century, that grown men should know better than to dress up in imitation uniforms and refight antique battles every year, that the bloodiest war ever fought in the western hemisphere should never have happened--you can repeat these mantras ad infinitum, yet every summer throngs (some three million visitors a year) will still pour into Gettysburg to pay homage at the real location of Pickett's charge. The battlefields of the Revolutionary War, which established the United States as a nation, are deserted by comparison. The Civil War is the founding myth of modern America, the heroic age that created the indissoluble superpower the rest of the world alternately loves and hates.

It's not even true that you have to be born there. Civil War movies from Birth of a Nation (1915) through Gone with the Wind (1939) to Cold Mountain (2003) have been international hits. …

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