“Half a truth is often a great lie.”
— Ben Franklin
When I was a little girl my step-father bought himself a big, huge volume of Matthew Brady photography from the Civil War. I don’t recall if it was one of those Life Magazine type books, or just a release by an independent compiler, but it was chock full of Civil War photographs.
Shocking Civil War photographs.
My step-father wasn’t much of a reader, and though he told tall tales from time-to-time about his, nod-nod, wink-wink, “adventures in the Civil War up on Sugarloaf Mountain in Maryland,” the Civil War and the old South weren’t really a part of our lives. And racism definitely wasn’t.
My step-dad took us to battlefields, memorials, and other sites, many not referencing the Civil War, as many Virginia families do, but he otherwise wasn’t overly taken with the intricacies of history.
Nor was I.
I wasn’t a particularly devoted student either — even if I did have a curious mind.
I was a dancer, an artist, flighty, lost in cloud shapes and clover chains and girlish things and beauty and make believe and…Barbies.
Which is not to say I wasn’t drawn to the past. But my avenue in to the past was less likely found in a heady tome and more likely to come about by those site visits, hearing one of those tall tales, listening to my grandparents’ conversations, or maybe from old music and movies, imagining myself in the beautiful clothing of the past.
Or it was found in shocking old photographs.
I’m convinced that more than anyone in my family, it was I who poured over that old Civil War book the most, down in the basement where it lived on our shelves. I’m not even sure if anyone else paid it any attention.
It was big, probably 13″ x 15″ or something, and thick, heavy. It had a red-bordered cover with a big black and white picture covering most of it, and the title, whatever it was, some reference to “the most complete collection of Matthew Brady’s Civil War photography.”
Worth a Thousand Words
In it there were the portraits of Lincoln, Grant, Jefferson Davis, Sherman, McLellan, Stonewall, Lee, Nathan Bedford Forest, Frederick Douglass, John Wilkes Booth, and scores of lower level officers, privates, legislators, and taggers-on.
Pictures of battlefields, tents arrayed, marches, houses, barns, farm animals, rubberneckers, trains, camp life, gambling, whores, nurses, and Mary Todd Lincoln, makeshift hospitals, and horrifying prisons like Andersonville.
In grainy black and white there were pictures of the marching, the firing, the wounded, the dead, the weeping, the grieving, armaments, ruins, children, slaves, broadside posters, submarines, camp food, weapons, jaunty gentlemen, fine ladies, and boredom.
There were photos of lawmen and assemblies, sewing and cooking, battle plans, gallant riders, black soldiers, brotherly losses, surrender, Ford’s Theater, and the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination.
In the center of the book was a pullout panorama, I think of the laying down of weapons at Appomattox, but I can’t be sure. It’s been such a long time.
I loved that book. I never grew tired of perusing it, reading its commentary probably a couple of times a year from age ten until age 18. Maybe more.
As hard as it was to look at this one photo in particular, of desperately emaciated soldiers, so emaciated it was hard to believe they could possibly still be living, still able to stand even, and yet there they were, enduring their lot, their time, their story. I couldn’t look away. I probably looked at it, and another of soldiers twisted and dead in the field, the most.
When I was little I began this thing of mine with old photos. Also downstairs, long before that Matthew Brady book appeared, we had a light box, and a bunch of old slides from my real father’s trip to Rome, leftover stuff from divorce. Photos of ruins. Photos of a civilization gone by.
When I would mount a photo on the light box, and use the eye piece to examine it up close, I’d swear I was transported to within the heart of the slide, walking through the ruins, finding myself at home in modern but ancient Rome.
Lost for hours, exploring territory that I couldn’t possibly know, my body seemingly planted next to our pool table in the basement of a split level house in the suburbs of Springfield, Virginia, but my heart, my mind, my soul, miles and aeons and worlds away.
And when that Matthew Brady book came along, the same thing happened. I walked those fields. Smelled those soldiers. Heard those bullets whizzing by. Cried those tears.
Somehow, I found myself at home there. Then I left it behind, like a gravesite you forget to tend.
I essentially left home at 18, went off to school and grown up life and I never did get that book from my parents, though I mentioned it a few times. They’re gone, and I don’t know who has it now.
They All Sang Lorena
Any understanding of this nation has to be based, and I mean really based, on an understanding of the Civil War…And it is very necessary if you’re going to understand the American character, in the 20th century, to learn about this enormous catastrophe of the mid 19th century. It was the crossroads of our being. And it was a helluva crossroads.
–Shelby Foote, American Historian
I didn’t much think about the Civil War again until about 2006 or so, when I was around 40, and my daughters were 11 and 9. It was then that I checked out the Ken Burns 9-part Civil War documentary series from the Crozet Library in Albemarle County, outside Charlottesville.
I saw it sitting there on the shelf, a Matthew Brady photo peeking out on its cover. Instantly I felt all that pathos of all those old pictures rushing in, rising up, opening mystical doors to groaning fields littered with daisies and bodies and buttons, drawing me in to a familiar place, like a ghost friend sending a telegram against odds and across time, whispering faintly, “Hey, I need a witness again.”
I watched it. Showed it to my girls. Told them it was important. I didn’t care if they didn’t understand it yet. I didn’t think there was any special need to protect them. And I figured a good bit would go over their heads. I know that in 2006 this was edgy parenting. “Protect the children.” Would that there was such an option in 1863.
Since that first time watching the Burns series I’ve likely watched it once if not twice a year, just as I poured myself into that old Brady book long ago, transported, transfixed, transmuted, only so much more so for being old enough, and, I flatter myself, perhaps mature enough to understand things a bit more deeply, a bit more subtly.
I love that documentary.
Never have I known such a tenderness as the tragic tenderness I feel all bound up with this chapter in American life in those years from 1861-1865. And Burns tells it so well, as well as a Brady compendium.
Yet like a hologram, quivering, aching, buzzing, yearning to find form even as form slips away, as film and story and song and letters and accounts and newspaper clippings and journal entries and families and ledgers, it bears a distant echo pushing through, the foreshadowing of the Civil War in the Revolutionary one. It bears all the flaws that weren’t fixed at our founding, voices call back from there.
And it lurches into the present, the Civil War of the ever now, our still imperfect union with its misdirection and its blame and its ever present battle lines, its team sports politics, its degradation of ideas and ideals, all of us still pitched and taut, still hungering and haunting and hoping.
Today, too often, liberals want the Civil War of the 1860s to remain, ever more, frozen in black and white and nothing else. A statue of their own. Slavemonger or noble abolitionist, and nothing else.
As is said, history is written by the winners: “South=Bad. North=Good. Unga bunga, Unga bunga.”
With such an approach, answers are clear, as clear as George W. Bush saying about radical Islamic terrorism, “You’re either with us or you’re against us,” and with that, hateful opportunists tarring all Muslims in response, even now, making their lives a living hell in our “free” country. The historic refrain.
It’s brother against brother.
You’re Team Isaac or Team Ishmael.
Right against Left.
North v South.
Grant v Lee.
White v Black.
Right v Wrong.
And don’t you dare search for anything in between.
But that’s not what I’ve found.
It’s not what I found as a child while visiting and revisiting the back pages of Brady’s tenacious and meticulous plates; not what I found leaning in to Burns’ Civil War series again, and again, and again; not what I found at the foot of a Lee statue, in a Jackson house, visiting The Wilderness, Gettysburg, Bull Run, Appomattox Courthouse, Antietam, Harper’s Ferry, Fredericksburg, The Confederate Capital, Davis’s home, the Confederate Museum, slave sites, old plantations, Alexandria, and even the Blue and Gray Brewery, such as it was!
It’s not what I found.
It’s not what I found in history books, either.
Black and white and simple good and bad are not what I found.
Around 2011, two years into my second marriage, my husband Erik and I watched the Burns documentary. It spawned seemingly endless conversations, more research, digging deeper, more questions, trips to the library, loads of books.
We took up seeing those places mentioned above, dozens of quests to Civil War sites to learn more, hear more, see more. Some were empty battlefields, hot Virginia breezes over otherwise indistinct meadows. But with volumes of Brady’s photos in the library of my mind I conjured overlays — there they were, Union and Confederate, brother against brother, living and dying to live.
Because it’s so near to our home in Staunton, and because I love Charlottesville after having lived there for ten years, we also often visited CVille and, after a meal or a movie on the Downtown Mall, invariably Erik would want to take a walk to see the Lee statue. An impressive statue. We read biographies voraciously and had gotten to know Lee through many different avenues. And invariably these statue visits would spawn yet more conversations about Lee, the Civil War, what’s missing and what remains.
These weren’t pilgrimages for me. For us. This wasn’t worship. I wasn’t seeking to justify a “Lost Cause” then, nor am I now. But I am seeking to understand.
Folks who were between the ages of 20 and 90 when statues of Confederates started going up were the ordinary sons and daughters and nephews and mothers of Confederates. They themselves had been Confederates. But that doesn’t mean that their sole or even predominant vivifying emotion or aim was a rancid racial hatred.
It wasn’t. History bears this out.
There may have been a more benign racism, if today’s audience can allow for that terminology. That is to say, that folks then behaved in ways based on their current knowledge, predominant beliefs, and even “scientific verification” of their beliefs, though we know them to be wrong-headed today. We have to be able to carve out the differences. We can’t expect people of 150 years ago to have behaved in ways that reflect our 150 years of knowledge, struggle, and advancement. We have to look through their eyes.
Southerners were also millions of ordinary folks. I am in no way minimizing the scourge of racism then or now. But I also must defend against inflating it. If not, we dwell in more half lies, and thus lose our way.
Southern memories, notions, hopes, aims, losses of myriad kinds were all bound up and mixed in with this fight on slavery that had been simmering since our vaunted Founding Fathers first struck that dread compromise that they, the founders, decided was worth it to get a nation.
But the Civil War was about more than slavery. And less. Slavery was the great moral question of the war, and it had to be reckoned. I wonder when it will be?
An injudicious speaker today might even argue that the Founding Fathers also, “fought to defend slavery,” both in the Revolution and in their wretched compromise. “All men are created equal,” except uh, poor whites, free and enslaved blacks, and uh, women!
Which of us is without sin?
“Well then,” the a-historic and anti-statue faction might say, “we can’t have statues to that!”
This is the slippery slope we’re on to by trying to erase rather than understand history.
The search by chagrined Southerners for heroes in the wake of a necessary and decisive defeat was understandable from the humane perspective. Erecting statues to the simplest Civil War soldier — everyman — on up to specific figures, was not simply or exclusively driven by the roiling racism alleged by accusers today. Of course there was some. Plenty. But as Franklin says, it’s half a…lie.
The more extreme Left, the one wanting to carve the world in a “safe space” image, perhaps in an earnestness to make go away the Great American Shadow, the Great American Scar of slavery, wants today to see those sons and daughters of the Confederacy as a caricature. Each of those forgotten Southerners, every everyday man and woman and their leaders pictured as salivating with an unstinting racism, every moment a gleefully vicious opportunity to hatefully “keep darkie down.” Endlessly abusive, hostile, cruel.
And it is that caricature that makes Lee and others a target. Makes history a target, too.
To hear the Left’s knee jerk push on statue removal, every one from the South from the past and into today risks kinship with the white nationalist neo-Nazis who descended on Charlottesville with their torches and batons. And for them, Lee must’ve been just like those neo-Nazis, huh? Growling and grimacing and ready to club! Of course, and all because of one sentence, “He fought to preserve slavery.”
Our history is painful. Brutal. From our treatment of the Native Americans to our broad use of enslavement, to the inequality written into to our founding documents of “equality” — all of this is painful. Excruciating. And there’s too much more to list here.
I feel that pain as a woman, all that women didn’t get at the founding, and how we’re supposed to be satisfied now because, “we got the vote,” pay scale be damned. Maternity leave a luxury. Our bodies remaining a battlefield.
Now, I don’t compare my perception as a female to the pain of American blacks, particularly given the seemingly unceasing legacy of racism, cruelty, institutionalized disparity, and a gross continuation of abuses today. #BlackLivesMatter. Absolutely.
However there are some surprising parallels.
History is something more than feelings, bad or good. Pulling back, history encompasses feelings, but it also surpasses them, to the transpersonal. It must or we are lost.
Those abominable neo-Nazis sure make a narrative on violently ill feelings over history more probable, viable even. They energize it, which is what they want.
White nationalists have taken Lee as their totem, declared him their hero not for anything truly real about the man’s life relative to theirs, nor anything real in their own today. Lee, and all the Confederate figures are convenient symbols for false notions morphed over time, historic particulars need not apply.
So both the far Left and their desire to right all racial wrongs through the empty will of a backhoe and the far Right with their hunger to revive the scars of the past to amplify them and invoke the most demonic aspects — both have taken Lee from me. I don’t recognize the man that either of those sides see.
The Reconciliation Daily
For us, for my husband and I and those dozens of conversations under the Lee statue, Lee was a man with a biography of greatness over a lifetime, born into a system of enslavement already almost 200 years strong that he, like most people in his time, would wrestle with. He doesn’t bear that blame alone.
Lee was a man who saw himself as a Virginian first, a vivid sense of identity deeply held by ALL VIRGINIANS at that time, a visceral connection that opened the door to his greatest fault — that of defending slavery, albeit as part of a still bigger question of who we were as STATES and as a UNION and where the twain would meet.
A complicated question that we wish today to make so much simpler. Black and white. And that we still haven’t effectively solved.
Those pedestals under Traveller supporting the statues of Lee in Charlottesville, Richmond, and elsewhere, are made of Lee’s feet of clay.
They’re made of Lincoln’s feet of clay.
And Jefferson’s. And Washington’s.
And mine. And yours.
Visiting that statue made me confront all of that and discover way more still. Such as many more of America’s ugly little secrets, shocking stories of our heroes and grand historic figures and their faults and their foibles and their compromises. All that dirty laundry comes tumbling out of brass.
No Jim Crow-era erector could have presumed to know that the very thing he wished to assert, intimidation of blacks through Lost Cause philosophies (and I frankly dispute that hostile abuse and Lost Cause sentiment was the sole sentiment behind erecting Confederate statues) would be the thing least likely to be found in the monuments by people like me.
Here in the newly renamed Emancipation Park stands not an unassailable hero. Here stands Lee today, a mere man, like all heroes are at last.
If we begin with Lee and Jackson, we’ll end with Jefferson and Washington. No one will come away unscathed.
And so it goes.
Flying Confederate flags on statehouses is another story entirely. The Confederacy is not still a viable governmental entity living into today. State-sponsored displays of the stars and bars are only intended to intimidate.
But I remain a committed advocate for keeping the current statues in situ, and additionally for expanding the presence of historic figures to many more voices, from the grand to the obscure. I seek more not less commemoration of historic episodes from voices and figures of all kinds.
And I want to do so not only in the dusty hallways of too-seldom visited museums, but in the public squares, where we confront them daily, meeting their glory and their greatness and their grievous sins, all in one, gazing up at the whole spectrum from our own feet of clay.
— Lindsay Curren, Average American