a nation goes to war with itself.
!50 year ago today, at 4:30 in the morning, Confederate forces under General Beauregard commenced firing with artillery on Fort Sumter, thus marking the beginning of the Civil War, at least as we commemorate it. The first shots had actually been in January, when an attempt to resupply the Union forces under Major Robert Anderson holding the Fort was driving back by shots fired by cadets from The Citadel, the military college of SC. Lincoln was attempting another resupply of the Fort, knowing the Union forces had only days of supplies, when the Confederates began their barrage.
Our official Civil War would last almost exactly 4 years. Papers were signed at the home of Wilmer McLean in Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was formally disbanded on April 12. By then at least 618,000 had died on both sides, perhaps as many as 700,000.
Today we begin a period of commemoration. It should not be one of celebration. And we certainly do not need to be going to war with ourselves yet again, even metaphorically.
And yet - we hear the martial language from some. One response to the 9th Circuit's continuation of the District Court injunction against enforcement of SB 1070 in Arizona was a call for a military coup.
We have had secession balls in December, as if the decision of South Carolina to attempt to remove itself from the national governance is somehow worthy of celebration.
The Constitution, with the phrase "in order to form a more perfect union" in its Preamble, acknowledged that it was a continuation of government under the Articles of Confederation, itself a document which had declared that the several states had entered upon "a firm league of friendship" intended "to secure and perpetuate mutual friendship and intercourse among the people of the different States in this Union" - to secure and perpetuate. The Articles contained no provision for the dissolution of the Union, nor did the Constitution.
And why did states beginning with South Carolina wish to secede? Let us be honest and take them at their word - to preserve the right of some men to own as property other men. To perpetuate chattel slavery against the fear that Lincoln would move to abolish it. It is almost inconceivable that people today would want to celebrate such an action, no matter how much the events that followed helped to define our national history.
We still have not solved our American Dilemma, as Gunnar Myrdahl described our difficulties with race. So often it has been South Carolina - albeit now with a governor of color in Nikki Haley - that has been at the focal point of matters of race. After all, while we know the desegregation case as Brown v Board of Education of Topeka Kansas, the arguments for segregated schools, made by John Davis, actually came from Briggs v Elliot, the latter being the chair of the Board of Trustees of Summerton High School, in Clarendon County SC.
One wonders how much of the fervor to "celebrate" secession there would be had we a White rather than a Black man in the nation's highest office, one whose legitimacy continues to be challenged by the likes of Donald Trump, perhaps seeking the Republican nomination to oppose him in 2012.
Yet I cannot help but think of Civil War in another way. Because metaphorically we seemed engaged in a repetition, one quite capable of destroying the nation even more thoroughly than four years of armed conflict did.
We have those willing to use violence - of action as well as of rhetoric - to achieve supremacy of their ideology. It may be an ideology of race, to be sure, because that American Dilemma is still a part of the fabric of our culture. It is also an ideology of class. It is an ideology of religion - perhaps ironic given that among its leaders in Congress is the highest ranking Congressional Jew of all times. It is an ideology that opposes science, that caters to fear, that is willing to see millions suffer economically and medically so that those its favors need not have their resources diminished by taxes. It claims it wants government out of its lives and wants local control, but as a condition of allowing the national government to function not only wants to slash the social safety net but to impose its social morals upon the local government of the national capital city.
How much the political parties have changed. In the election of 1860, when Lincoln's victory as President in a 4 way race was as a Republican!. The other three parties were the Nofthern Democrats with Douglas, who only won Missouri; the Constitutional Unionists with John Bell, who won Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee; and the Southern Democrats with former Vice President Breckinridge, who won the rest of the states South of the Mason Dixon Line and East of the Mississippi, as well as Texas and Arkansas. Breckenridge had won Delaware and Maryland, meaning the national capital city was in jeopardy of being cut off should Maryland secede.
I lived through the racism of Southern Democrats, their filibusters against the Civil Rights Act, including that of 1964 - broken when the dying Clair Engle of California was brought in on a stretch and voted to end the filibuster by pointing at his eye - he could no longer speak. I saw those Southern Democrats become the heart of the modern Republican party - over the issue of race.
Ronald Reagan began his Presidential Campaign in Philadelphia Mississippi, site of one of worst crimes of the civil rights era, the lynching of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman and their being buried in an earthen dam. There was no doubt the message he was trying to send.
His successor, who had been his Vice President, had his campaign run by Lee Atwater of South Carolina, who found other ways of coded messages to appeal to racists.
But it is not just about race nowadays. It is also no longer really about secession, despite some fringe elements that advocate such a course, be they in the South or among groups like some militia types in Idaho. Rather, it is now a civil war for the definition of this nation and society, of the soul of America.
Lincoln saw the battles coming. It was important to him that the other side fire the first shots, an event which we formally commemorate on this day, 150 years later.
In our time it is hard to find when the conflict began. It is has been more gradual, intensifying over the decades through which we have most recently past.
There is no doubt a concerted effort to role back the social and economic progress that has benefited many in the past almost 8 decades since FDR ascended to the White House. Certainly the progress under LBJ and his Great Society is clearly in the crosshairs now, with both Medicaid and Medicare being targeted.
They are symbols. For some on our side, they represent a recognition that a society has responsibilities. Once there was a contentious Democratic Convention in Philadelphia, ironically the city in which Lincoln was nominated. The young mayor of Minneapolis insisted upon and obtained a civil rights platform, and the Governor of South Carolina (that state yet again) Strom Thurmond, who became the Presidential nominee of the Dixiecrats and later in 1957 filibustered against a Civil Rights Act for more than 24 hours - even though by then he had fathered a daughter by the black maid in his family's household. African Americans were human enough to have sex with, but apparently not human enough for equal rights.
That young mayor, Hubert Humphrey, had a distinguished career as Senator and as Vice President, narrowly failing to win the presidency in 1968. He offered a vision of this nation very different than what we now hear from the Republican party, one I often repeat here:
t was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.
Strom Thurmond's '48 campaign served as a reminder of what the Southern Republicans were really like, when on December 5, 2002, at his 100th birthday, the Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott peeled back the mask from the ugly truth with the words that would force him from public life:
When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over the years, either.
Civil War. We are not literally taking up arms brother against brother. Metaphorically we have been embattled for some time.
Too often we think of the glories of war, or should I say the supposed glories. Slaughter and suffering should not be labeled as glorious. Much of the death and destruction is the result of stupid decisions by men in charge, be it the slaughter of the Union troops at Marye's Heights at the Battle of Fredericksburg, where Lee supposedly responded by saying that it was good war was so horrible lest men become too fond of it, or the stupidity of Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg, where when it was beaten back the Union troops taunted the Confederates by repeating "Fredericksburg, Fredericksburg . . . "
A nation that goes to war with itself damages itself. Some benefit. Careers are made by military leaders - think of Grant. Think of others who became President who served in that war, such as Benjamin Harrison and James A. Garfield. Others profit financially, as happens in every war. Oscar Schindler did not discover something knew about profiting from war - we had profiteers during the horrors of our civil war, just as we have had Halliburton and other companies profiting from Iraq and Afghanistan.
In our rhetorical and political civil war we see Wall Street firms and banks benefiting financially. We see, thanks to Citizens United, that they also benefit politically, a necessary achievement to maintain and increase their financial benefit, and keep them from being accountable, from paying for what they have gotten.
We have our disputes here. At times they have been heated. We saw that during primary battles in the 2004 and 2008 cycles. We are seeing some of that over actions and inactions by this administration, by leadership in Congress on our side of the aisle.
Let us not devolve to civil war among ourselves. Like it or not we are now engaged in a great conflict politically, upon which the future of this nation depends as much as it did upon the actual conflict that we label our Civil War, the four years of military strife that began 150 years ago today.
Civil War. Today is an anniversary. Today I chose to remember the costs of war, not to celebrate nor to point at glory, rather to remind myself that sometimes conflict is unavoidable, sometimes we must take up our side of the conflict, particularly when the other side has fired the first shots.
As happened at 4:30 in the morning, in Charleston SC, 150 years ago today.
And so I offer this diary.
Do with it what you will.