Tuesday, April 12, 2011

War Comes To Fort Sumter

If you go there now, you can feel the isolation. It takes a moment to edit from your mind the bridges and boats and signs of modernity that dot the island and the landscape across the harbor in Charleston, South Carolina. When you do, though, you feel it -- a tiny little outpost, exposed on three sides by land, and no help to be had in the vicinity. You can play the soundtrack in your head, the bark of cannons across the water, the whistle of shells careening through the air, the explosions and hollow thumps of artillery landing all around, shattering casements, setting buildings on fire. The smell of gunpowder and sweat and smoke wreathes your nostrils. You can feel it -- you are alone, your supplies are limited, and you are cut off from rescue or resupply. You stand behind the battlements on this tiny island, upon which Fort Sumter is built, and you stand in awe as the American flag whips in the breeze, torn and discolored from battle, but ever proud.

That flag can be seen on display at the fort, sealed behind glass, a remnant of that day, the day The Civil War physically began, when the dissolution of the United States into Union and Confederacy was enforced by cannonade and gunfire. That flag would be a rallying point for the Union, and would represent ultimate victory, when raised above the fort at the end of the war. It represents something more, though -- a loss of innocence for a nation conceived in liberty, that it could not simply work out it differences without resorting to violence.

Today’s anniversary of the bombardment of Ft. Sumter brings up some painful memories of a nation torn apart, lives bled away on distant battlefields, and the end of slavery as an institution in the United States. What it doesn’t bring, nor has it since the end of that war, is frank assessment of the truth of the whole fight. Both sides had a hand in creating conflict, and both sides did their utmost to not simply defeat the other, but crush them utterly, as if no less were possible. The utter destruction wrought in the name of freedom still leaves a bad taste in the mouth of Southerners.

The Civil War truly began during the formation of the United States and the forging of the Constitution -- specifically the part the Republicans left out when they read it in the House this year, upon taking power -- whereby slaves were not considered full people, but only partial people, and then only for the purposes of being counted. This was not just an enforcement of slavery as it stood then in the Colonies, but also as an injustice against all human beings. It was the great snake, lying at the feet of the Founding Fathers, which would attempt to consume the nation in April 1861.

The other part of the founding that came into play was the idea of “State’s rights,” more succinctly put as the notion that though the States were united into a nation, they still had their own sovereignty, and any central government was ancillary to the State legislatures. This, too, was a bone of contention in the original founding. The fight between those states, mainly southern, who felt State trumped the Federal, and other States, mostly northern, who felt that strong centralized government would create equity throughout the nation, fed the snake, and primed the pump for The Civil War.

These two causes would become intertwined long before 1861 brought about the dissolution of the original United States at the hands of Secessionists. Slavery, and whether States entering the Union would be “slave” or “free,” such as Kansas, began the process of tearing the nation apart. It was only with Lincoln’s election, that the South felt that they had no recourse, that their grievances were not going to be addressed, and this lead to the long and steady procession of seceding States.

It can be said the South’s need to have their own way, regardless of the tenets of the framers of the Constitution finally clashed with the North’s belief in an undivided nation. The United States might have been parted at that point, the North to become slavery-free, the South to become a slave-owning nation, and not a shot fired in anger. But the North was too invested in the idea of total Union, and the South too eager to punish the North, for shots to be avoided. Agitation and hyperbole soon stoked the fervor on both sides, leading to the harrowing bombardment of Ft. Sumter, an almost bloodless beginning to the bloodiest war America would ever see.

So, you see, The Civil War was not some black-and-white conflagration, but an admixture of patriotic fervor, self-delusion, religious tonality, and boiling blood. A peaceful dissolution, which at the time might have been the best of all possible outcomes — save for slaves in the South — was never in the cards. Too much pride and folly had come before to ever let a disagreement between States and a Union of States over slavery be settled in anything other than blood and death and destruction. Both sides were too sure of the righteousness of their cause to simply let it go and coexist. There could be nothing for it. So let us mark this day not simply as the day such a war started, but the day when the great mass of Americans lost their true innocence forever, North and South, black and white, young and old. The short-comings of the Founding Fathers could only be cleansed in blood, and their nation made whole by tearing it in two.

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