American civil war revisited By Amanda Foreman - Wednesday 13th April 2011

IN 1961 an official US commission oversaw thousands of events to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the American civil war. All 50 states joined in, but not surprisingly the biggest events took place in the 11 southern states that made up the defeated Confederacy.
Citizens in Alabama celebrated with a full-scale re-enactment of the swearing in of the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, in front of 50,000 spectators, followed by an inauguration ball attended by 5,000 guests. In South Carolina, where the first shots of the four-year war were fired, Confederate flags were flown from every building. There was a Miss Confederate beauty pageant, parades, and even a re-enactment of South Carolina`s declaration of secession.
By contrast the 150th anniversary of the civil war, which started on April 12, has been marked by boycotts, protests, and an embarrassed silence from the politicians in Washington DC.
All nations struggle in the aftermath of civil war. More than 100 years after the English civil war, for instance, any prelate who was `enthusiastic` about religion attracted censure and suspicion. The American war of 1861-65 is recent enough to be embedded still in cultural memory. But that isn`t why it weighs so heavily on the American conscience.
The ghastly statistics are one reason: out of four million combatants more than 620,000 died and a further million were maimed or injured. The same proportion of the US population now would be six million deaths. The south was devastated — one in five white males died and 90 per cent of the region`s railroads and factories were destroyed.
The other reason is the explosive debate on the war`s causes and the role played by slavery. Although all schoolchildren learn Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, what they learn about what happened after that depends on whether they live in the north or the south. To this day there is an argument raging between the two areas over whether the south seceded to maintain slavery or to protect states` rights, and the idea of free trade. Many in the south don`t even accept the term `civil war` but refer to it as `the war of northern aggression` or `the war between the states`.
The nature of the debate means the White House has yet to answer a request from history groups to create a presidential commission on the 150th anniversary. So far only 19 states have bothered to set up their own civil war committees. Virginia, where most of the fighting took place, is pumping $2m into the project in the hope of seeing a return in the form of tourism. But most have been less willing to invest.
Congress has also failed to agree on a bill that would allocate $6m to a national civil war commission. The main sponsor, Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr of Illinois, set off a firestorm last month with the remark: “It`s important for the country to have an open, honest discussion about the war, including the reason it occurred.” n
One angry letter writer to a Louisiana newspaper complained, “What these Democratic congressmen want is a federally sponsored committee that will broadcast nationwide that the only `reason` for the war between the states was slavery. Their `open, honest` discussion will probably end up being a four-year-long national harangue about slavery being the sole cause and how we need to repudiate our `racist` attitudes.” — The Guardian, London
The writer is a historian.

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