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The War That Won't Go Away.

The bloody, four-year conflict that split the nation in two ended in 1865. So why, in 2001, are Americans still battling over it?

FOCUS: The Civil War, Which Ended 136 Years Ago, Still Creates Controversy Today


To help students understand why, as controversies over flags and Cabinet nominees prove, the long-ago Civil War still stirs passions among Americans.

Discussion Questions:

* Why do you think symbols of the Civil War have such importance in the minds of Americans today?

* Do you agree with Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton that states have to stand up against the federal government's gaining too much power?

* Historian David W. Blight says that for a long time, the South's view of the Civil War prevailed. Why does it matter how such history is recalled?


Photo Study/Critical Thinking: Refer to photos of the battle flag protests. Discuss the power of symbols. What is it about a flag that can inflame emotions?

Debate/Discussion: Next, weigh the conflicting claims that the Confederate battle flag represents (a) a racist regime that was defending slavery, or (b) a region's brave struggle for independence. Can the flag represent both? Note Attorney General John Ashcroft's worry that people might be taught that brave Confederates gave their lives "to some perverted agenda." If the South was fighting to preserve slavery, was that a "perverted agenda"? Critics of honoring the Confederacy also point out that its army was in rebellion against the U.S. Government. Was that treason? How might Ashcroft react tO such a rebellion today? On the other hand, should a part of a country have the right to break away from that country if it wishes to?

Writing: Historian James M. McPherson has written that after the Civil War, Southern leaders worked to purge their "lost cause ... of any association with the now dead and discredited institution of human bondage." Ask students to compare the two statements by Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens and write a paragraph arguing that they either do or do not furnish evidence for McPherson's point.

Research: Students can search the Internet and news reports around April 17 to learn the results of Mississippi's flag referendum. Use the results to discuss whether attitudes toward the flag are changing.

You'd think the guns were still smoking. Last year, when a group of Mississippians considered removing an image of the Confederate battle flag from the state flag, they faced death threats. Battles over the rebel flag have also made news in South Carolina and Georgia. And this year, two of the President's Cabinet nominees were denounced for having praised the Confederate cause.

What gives? The Civil War ended 136 years ago this month. No one living remembers it. So why does it still stir such passions?

The answer is that the war (1861-1865) pitted Americans against each other, touching the raw emotions of pride and sorrow, rage and guilt--and those feelings die hard, even over generations. How we look back on the conflict has long been intimately connected with how we see ourselves.

In the documentary The Civil War, historian Shelby Foote says the war defined us as what we are and it opened us to being what we became, good and bad things. And it is very necessary, if you're going to understand the American character ... to learn about this enormous catastrophe of the 19th century. It was the crossroads of our being.

For one thing, the Civil War ended slavery, on which the South's plantation economy had been based. And slavery is a key to disputes about the war today. Many blacks and Northerners say the 11 Southern states that left the Union to form the Confederate States of America did so to keep African Americans in chains, and that honoring their battle flag therefore insults blacks. Others, including many white Southerners, say the flag's use today just commemorates a region's brave struggle for independence.

Until last year, the battle flag also flew over South Carolina's capitol. Six hundred protesters, black and white, staged a five-day, 120-mile march to demand the flag's removal--enduring shouted obscenities along the way.

"The flag to me is like the swastika is to the Jews," said one marcher. Looking on, a flag supporter said the flag "reminds me of oak trees and moss, family and brave men."

Finally, South Carolinians compromised, moving the flag to a location in front of the capitol. But the rebel flag image still appeared on the flags of two other states. This January, Georgia legislators approved a new state flag on which only a tiny image of the rebel banner appears. In Mississippi, Democratic Governor Ronnie Musgrove appointed a 17-member biracial commission to decide whether to change the flag. Following death threats against several members and disputes between blacks and whites, the commission recommended putting the flag change to a statewide vote, which will be held April 17.

Was slavery as central to the Confederate cause as the critics of the battle flag claim? History offers them strong ammunition. When the antislavery Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860, Southerners saw a threat to their way of life. The Charleston Mercury wrote that staying in the Union would mean "the loss of liberty, property, home, country--everything that makes life worth living," and everyone knew that "property" included black human beings. When the 11 rebel states formed the Confederacy in 1861, its Vice President, Alexander H. Stephens, declared:

Our new government is founded on the opposite idea of the equality of the races.... Its cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.

Writing a few years after the war, however, Stephens said it was a mistake to conclude that slavery had been at the root of the conflict. The war, he wrote, had been a clash between Southerners who thought the U.S. was a federation of states that could secede at will and Northerners who considered it an indivisible nation:

The contest was between those who held [the government] to be strictly Federal in its character, and those who maintained that it was thoroughly National.

Today, some say the South had a point. After visiting a Confederate cemetery a few years ago, Gale Norton, now Secretary of the Interior, said that slavery was indeed wrong, but that with the South's defeat the nation had "lost too much. We lost the idea that the states were to stand against the federal government gaining too much power over our lives." Her words drew fire during her confirmation hearings.

Since 1865, views on the Civil War have been tied up with views on race. For a long time, many Americans minimized the role of slavery in causing the war because they took white superiority for granted. In 1877, U.S. troops left the South and agreed to let it control its own politics. Southern blacks lost their newly won vote and were segregated.

Historian David W. Blight says that having lost the war, the South won the peace by selling its version of the war to the whole nation. For generations, monuments, novels, and films like The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone With the Wind (1939) were nostalgic about the "lost cause" of the Confederacy. They celebrated its plantation lifestyle, and redefined black men--who had actually swamped the Union lines by the thousands and joined the Army to fight for freedom--as either contented, childlike "darkies" loyal to their white masters or sinister villains who threatened white women.

Since the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, however, historians have reemphasized slavery as a cause of the Civil War, and popular culture has rediscovered the role of blacks in their own liberation. The 1989 film Glory, for instance, showed the heroism of the African-American 54th Massachusetts regiment as it made a suicidal assault in the cause of freedom.

But Southerners argue that Confederate soldiers were heroes too--and most of them owned no slaves. They faced superior numbers and fought with courage and skill. Traditionalists say today's "politically correct" and racially sensitive view of the Civil War goes too far if it means the Confederacy can no longer be commemorated. That's why Attorney General John Ashcroft, in another statement that stirred controversy, told Southern Partisan magazine to keep praising Confederate heroes "or else we'll be taught that all these people were giving their lives, subscribing their sacred fortunes and their honor to some perverted agenda."

Can we honor brave soldiers in gray without condoning the system that supported them? History isn't written in stone, but is an evolving process in which everyone can form his or her own idea of what flags, memorials, and judgments fit best. And when it comes to our most traumatic national experience, the guns may be silent, but the argument is far from over.
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Title Annotation:effects of Civil War on modern society
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 16, 2001
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