Visual Arts

The Civil War and the Uneasy Fabric of American Identity

America's obsession with the Civil War reveals not-so-invisible wounds that linger to this day in the landscape and the nation's psyche.

The Civil War has cocooned the American experience, whether we Americans like it or not, leaving behind a narrative that we continuously adjust or adhere to, as if history was not a series of single moments and outcomes but an ongoing ripple. As the 150-year anniversary of the barrage that shook Fort Sumter resonates, vividly described in the April issue of Smithsonian (“Opening Salvo”), we can meditate darkly on the end days of the conflict as well in Robert Redford’s timely The Conspirator. Even if we do not concern ourselves with the past, or ignore it willfully, pretending it never existed, it still shapes the map of our national separateness, documenting fissures in the fabric of our identities, heritage, and sense of place.

To look back is needed, if for any reason, in order to grasp and honor the great toll: over 7,000 slaughtered in a single upended field in the acrid haze of musket fire and blitzkrieg cannon ball bursts; countless others starving gaunt and ghastly in gulag-like prisons on the edge of towns with lace-strewn rooms and tea parties; still more around the corner dead and dying under sagging tents or staring up at skies slate-gray and indifferent, disease chewing at their flesh. If we could fathom this happening in our backyard, in our barns, in our Rent-A-Center parking lots and drive-thru eateries, maybe then we could truly understand the vexing crises in places like Libya.

“When did the Civil War happen?” I asked my composition class recently. “1916,” one quipped triumphantly. “Nah, 1944,” retorted another. “The 1800s,” one girl assured us from the right corner. I pressed on, content we at least found the right century. The students churned though more guesses, arriving at the 1860s after five more attempts. “But I said 1862,” said one mild-mannered student in back, whose voice finally escaped the din. I was elated. She was an immigrant from El Salvador who grew up in a dirt-floored home in a hardscrabble village. She was a Lincoln-to-be, quietly assertive next to her computer in a school named after … Robert E. Lee.

Last term, in that same classroom, a good-natured military veteran strode into my class with the image of that same Confederate general tattooed on his arm, reminding me that he was a student of the South. Not that I forget my outsider status. Just last week I joined another teacher on an outing to a nearby cemetery positioned between a brackish wetland park and the modern edifice of the local high school, whose front door was like an eye on the dead, gazing at the silent stones, Hispanic grave offerings like bandanas and toy trucks, and the goose that stole silk flowers and built a nest in the hollow of a tree. Black students walked around the front lawn, prepping for class, under the sign Robert E. Lee High School.

Every time I encounter these names of the dead, these names of the rebels, these images of the South, I also remember the Ensminger that died outside of Shiloh, in one of those bedraggled tents, when the gangrene took over. The Ensminger buried at the National Cemetery in Mound City, Illinois (which housed shipyards and a hospital complex), not far from the hometown of Superman and the poet Ted Joans, the black poet born in the '20s near riverboats in Cairo. That city is one oft-missed reminder in Illinois that the Civil War was at its doorstep. I recall the Ensminger that died in a Confederate prison from dysentery, a foul way to end service to the Union. And I recall my own great-great-grandfather, of an Ohio regiment, who finished the war alive and started a dried goods store in the heart of the Upper Sandusky.

As the images of the proud South flash in front of me, I think of my own slightly Balkanized past, the way my own lineage has been the product of divided land. The Ensmingers have been entangled in America since 1736, when we departed Rotterdam for the expanse and bustle of Pennsylvania after leaving Alsace Lorraine, a disputed region that France and Germany have scuffled over. I was born in southern Missouri, itself a powder keg during the years before, during, and after the Civil War.

That state was a national microcosm rife with feuds, factions, and terror that spawned over 1,000 battles and skirmishes. The saga highlighted great folk devils/heroes from John Brown to Jesse James. Even Anthony Bourdain, while fishing, hunting, and arm-wrestling, had to grasp these long-lasting wounds (see No Reservations, Episode: "Ozarks". My family raised me, though, in northern Illinois, in a notch of the Rust Belt, but we were so close to the border that a small Wisconsin college in Beloit could be seen on a hill above the factory where my father spent decades focusing on the production of grinding wheels.

My father and mother have always been dedicated life-long learners of history. When I wanted to scour Civil War sites in Tennessee and Kentucky for a summer vacation as a boy, they hit the road without question, quietly enduring me as I donned a Union cap, grabbed a wooden toy rifle, and reenacted battles in our musty budget hotel rooms.

They delivered me to the facsimile cabin of Lincoln’s birthplace, where I strode in the summer shade, wondering how an icon and legend could be so humble in origin. They made sure that I saw his solemn grave as well, in the middle of Illinois, the state which President Obama eventually represented as a senator. Just a few years ago, they took me to Galena, Illinois, where a Federal style brick house still contains the belongings of President and General Ulysses Grant, whose first battle of the Civil War commenced in … Cairo.

For her 40th birthday, when my wife and I toured Manhattan and visited my alma mater City College, I showed her the quiet blocks above the college, including the grange of President Hamilton, and we ventured along the Hudson River and nearby park, where we stepped inside the Grant Tomb, where the President's remains lay. Children have decorated the outside of the building with colorful tiles, and photos show the funeral process through the city, when a million people stretched six miles along the route. Mark Twain, himself a son of Missouri, helped edit and publish Grant’s biography (Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant), the first of a President, which eventually netted the Grant family almost half a million dollars.

Towards the end of the book, in his lean style, Grant posits, “I feel that we are on the eve of a new era, when there is to be great harmony between the Federal (Northerner) and Confederate. I cannot stay to be a living witness to the correctness of this prophecy.” I often wonder what this humble man who married the daughter of a slave owner, who realized the necessity for Total War, the man who sided with Radical Republicans but who knew also that the ravages of war must give way to common ground, the man whose own cabinet became associated with the economic woes, political blunders, and overall deceit of the day, would think of General Lee becoming part of the South’s vernacular traditions, such as the blurry tattoo, and the official names and insignia of a school whose sports teams are named the Rebels. Is that the harmony he strove for?

Late last summer, during a trip to the Finger Lakes region in New York, my wife, brother, and I stumbled upon the tiny town of Waterloo, birthplace of Memorial Day, nestled against the Cayuga-Seneca Canal. A small, modern, visionary, and well-kept Civil War memorial was established along the waterway as recently as 2008. Built using the involvement of local towns people, visitors, and Civil War reenactors, the rather stunning set of pieces include a portal, marble star stone inscribed with 100 gold stars (each representing 1,000 lives lost during the conflict), multiple stone cenotaphs commemorating local men sent to the front, and a stirring stele at the far end, overlooking the water, topped with shimmering gold leaf. Conceived by sculptor Pietro del Fabro, the aesthetic starkly contrasts grim Civil War soldier statues dotting New York towns.

Just last month, a day before Mardis Gras, my wife and I ventured to Baton Rouge, where we dodged the noonday parade and drove past chemical alley to reach over four miles of earthwork and trenches at Port Hudson, where the longest siege of the Civil War took place. The site also commemorates one of the first battles of an African American regiment in the war, who were mowed down by Confederate fire as they tried to attack along a riverbank. Those soldiers were heralded in Northern papers for their valor. Meanwhile, 10,000 Union casualties were incurred trying to take the impregnable site; the Confederates took to living in holes and eating vermin to survive. The place was a bitter zone of death.

Many of the Union soldiers were buried nearby, in a stately and somber National Cemetery next to an acrid paper mill and small winding roads. Hundreds of Confederate defenders were buried in a mass grave. The staggering toll, and the lopsided scale, is difficult to swallow, even 150 years later. Thousands of Northern families were permanently etched with personal pain echoing from a battle deep in the southern flank of the Confederacy, in Cajun country and Spanish West Florida. Moreover, the lore of the South rises like a phoenix from such dire places – we were outnumbered, we were invaded, we made sure they paid a price, we won even as we were defeated because our cultural heroes are fade-proof and indelible.

Thick clouds roiled and slanted sheets of rain fell as my wife, with a sore ankle, limped through displays as I stared out at the green field, trying to imagine the horror of an industrial-sized battle with modern trench warfare long before the killing fields of World War I. My wife finished up and opened the door slightly to grab her umbrella. Suddenly, as if in an act of Greek theater, a tornado no more the size of a semi-truck standing upright swung though the parking lot in a swirling and shimmering frenzy, making its way to the battle field, where it petered out in a last gasp, leaves skirmishing like fragmented memories.

The war may be long over, and some people may never absorb the monumental impact, but those who look at it straight and earnest can see that the ripples happen right in front of American eyes, in the battles for states’ rights, justice for African Americans, textbook narratives about American heritage, and even calls for secession (independent country of Texas, anyone?). Grant’s prophesy mostly held true: we are united, but that harmony has not been easy, or without strain.

daguerreotype (partial) by Mathew Brady

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