BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – When the Civil War was over, when the dead were buried and the union was reunited, it came time to tell tales and write history. In reunion gatherings and living rooms alike, differing versions of the causes of the conflict became as hardened as sunbaked Georgia clay.
More than a century and a half later, those dueling narratives are with us still.
Did 620,000 die, as Northerners would have it, in a noble quest to save the union and end slavery – the nation’s horrific original sin? Or was the “War Between the States” a gallant crusade to limit federal power, with slavery playing a lesser part, as Southerners insisted?
After all this time, it could be argued that it doesn’t matter, but the blood that was shed over a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, is powerful evidence that it does. The national dispute over the fate of stone and bronze monuments begs this larger question: How does one country with two histories move forward?
The answer, some say, is by seizing a rare chance to build a shared history through small steps.
“This is a moment to acknowledge the incredible change that we have seen among American people when they look at their past,” said Peter Carmichael, a history professor at Gettysburg College.
Academics and others told the Associated Press the road to avoiding a more divisive future may be lined with discussions rather than shouting matches; more complete history lessons; local, rather than state or national action; and a renewed focus on individuals who fought and were impacted by the war, including the deprivations they endured.
The drafting of men for the war, desertions in the Confederate and Union armies, political disagreements and dissent are among things not well represented in the memories of the conflict, especially not through monuments, said Stephen Rockenbach, history professor at Virginia State University. Americans can draw on primary sources, including writings of people who lived during that time period and their diaries to understand different viewpoints.
“The danger occurs when you only look at one aspect, one person, one battle, even one time frame,” he said.
Historians often don’t reach consensus on interpretations of the past and the general public can’t be expected to, either, Rockenbach said.
“How then do we convey this huge experience that all kinds of Americans went through in meaningful way?” he said. “Statues do not do a very good job of doing that on their own.”
Carmichael, the Gettysburg College professor, said some of the problems of today could be addressed by doing a better job of explaining the war and how it affected a group that generally was ignored by both sides after Appomattox Courthouse: black Americans.
Rather than simply tearing down statues, interpretive markers should be used at Confederate monuments to show the systematic oppression of black people through lynching, the denial of voting rights, and segregation, he said. That way, Americans can understand that the system of slavery destroyed by the Civil War didn’t create equality but instead ushered in Jim Crow laws.
Reconciliation won’t happen in the immediate aftermath of Charlottesville, he said. The best change might be through local efforts where people who know each other can hash things out.
“The more it’s done from far away, the more I think it’s likely to provoke resentment and anger, and not lead to anything wonderfully productive,” he said.
Civil War veterans reunited on battlefields for years after the fight. But today, organizations composed of descendants of the armies that battled from 1861 to 1865 have few dealings with each other or conversations on a broad level.
The head of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, Mark Day, said opening a shared dialogue about the nation’s history might be a good start.
“We’re Americans. We have an ability to hold different opinions and share different opinions,” said Day, the national commander. “I think it’s a national thing that we maybe have to talk to each other.”
Thomas V. Strain Jr. is Day’s Southern equivalent, commander-in-chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which is more than three times the size of the Union group with some 33,000 members. Strain doesn’t mind talking to Union descendants – he recently attended a gathering of the Northern group – but he doesn’t know that discussions will help.
“Until society as a whole changes and we start seeing things for what they are, I don’t think at any time we’re going to be able to sit down and reconcile,” said Strain, of Athens, Alabama.
The Southern descendants’ group supports the preservation of Confederate monuments and members often espouse the traditional, Southern view of the war that minimizes the role of slavery in the conflict. But it didn’t officially participate in the Aug. 12 demonstration in Charlottesville that ended in multiple injuries and the death of a woman who was killed when a car allegedly driven by a man aligned with white supremacists plowed into a crowd.
The group continues to memorialize its forbears; members were on hand for the dedication of a monument to unknown Confederate dead on private property in rural south Alabama on Aug. 24. The NAACP spoke out against the project, calling it a step backward.
Bernard Simelton, president of the civil rights group’s Alabama chapter, said he’s not interested in coming together to reach a consensus on Civil War history while Confederate monuments are still going up.
“The monuments have to come down before you can begin an honest conversation because as long as they are up and that flag is flying it leaves African Americans to say, ‘You don’t value our feelings, you don’t understand our pain,“’ Simelton said.
Strain said many on the pro-Confederate side just aren’t willing to budge after seeing monuments and Confederate monuments removed.
“I think we have to stand firm at this point,” he said.
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