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Civil War’s divide lingers on
by Joshua H. Silavent
Apr 12, 2011 | 3041 views | 0 0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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Tribune/Dan Bishop - Jim and Barbara Stewart of Sparks attend their first Sons of Confederate Veterans dinner on Saturday at Terrible’s Sands Regency Casino Hotel in Reno. The Stewarts got involved in the group because they helped scouts do historical re-enactments and research.
SPARKS — One-hundred and fifty years ago today, on a sliver of granite jutting out of the harbor waters off Charleston, S.C., the first shots of the American Civil War were fired.

Fort Sumter has since come to symbolize the beginning of an epic conflict that pitted brother against brother for the very soul and existence of a still nascent country.

The war’s historic battlefields and memorials will be honored by way of reenactments, speeches, parades and conventions during the next four years as the sesquicentennial anniversary convenes.

From Sumter to Shiloh and Antietam to Appomattox, the division lines that once carved a nation in two will be remembered and reawakened.

But when it comes to the war’s legacy, some battles are still being fought.

On one side are those who believe the conflict was simply a matter of states exercising their right to autonomy and self-governance.

“There’s so much political correctness out there that tends to make people associate the war with slavery,” said Lee Cross, founder of the Reno-Sparks chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “It was not slavery that started the war.”

On the other side of the debate are those who maintain that slavery was indeed the central sticking point between the Northern and Southern states.

“The truth has to be told,” said Lonnie Feemster, branch president of the Reno Sparks NAACP.

Feemster called those trying to “whitewash” the influence of slavery as the root cause of the war “historical revisionists.”

“And the Revolutionary War was really about tea,” he said with tongue in cheek.

Most historians would defend Feemster’s view, but as suggested by the phrase “fog of war,” the truth is laced with some nuance.

“In 2011, the majority of historians are in agreement about the cause of the war,” said Joan Waugh, a professor in the history department at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of four books on Civil War history. “Slavery was the cause but … it’s not something you can capture in a sound bite.”

In order to properly contextualize why Southern states seceded, economic issues and states’ rights philosophy must be considered as larger aspects of the dispute, Waugh said.

Still, the institution of slavery cannot be removed from these considerations, for it is intricately a part of them, she concluded.

Even the words of Confederate leaders attest to this fact.

Mississippi’s declaration of secession reads in part: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth.”

Moreover, Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, called slavery the cornerstone of the Southern states and declared that it “ … was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.”

But as testament — or perhaps acquiescence — to just how formidable the debate about slavery’s role in the Civil War continues to be, the U.S. citizenship test accepts three answers to the question of cause. Slavery, economics and states’ rights all get passing grades.

Waugh said this incongruity stems from the “lost cause” mythology that grew out of the Confederacy’s defeat. Prompted to reconcile a life where emancipation was the law of the land, Southerners put a more noble, palatable spin on their reasons for secession long after the deed was done.

“The ‘lost cause’ became mainstream with (the movies) ‘The Birth of a Nation’ and ‘Gone with the Wind,’ ” Waugh said, both of which have been criticized for downplaying the brutality of slavery and sanitizing the Ku Klux Klan’s role during the Reconstruction era.

The pervasiveness of these depictions are evident when Cross describes relations between slaves and slaveholders as predominantly cordial and wonders aloud whether black Americans are not better off now than they would be in Africa today were their ancestors not brought to the United States aboard slave ships.

But in a measure of defense, Cross said he simply wants to honor his direct ancestors, seven of whom fought in Confederate grey. He will be one of many Americans who will pay homage to their predecessors during the anniversary commemorations.

“I’m not saying slavery was good,” he said. “Of course not.”

While the debate about slavery seems to rage hardest in the Southern states where the stars and bars of the Confederacy still fly on the state flag of Mississippi, its effects are felt throughout the country.

“I think we need to do a better job of teaching history in America,” Feemster said.
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