Tuesday, April 15, 2008

General Orders Number Thirteen

I recently joined an on-line society that has been all abuzz with the opening of the new visitors center at Gettysburg. From all the emails bombarding my inbox, the visitors center is really something. An issue was raised, though, about the display citing slavery as the cause of the war. Some in the society were afraid that this could upset the Lost Causers, but the overwhelming sentiment was "too bad," because... well, you know those Lost Causers.

Congress passed a law that makes it mandatory for all national parks to emphasize slavery as the sole cause of the war. The new visitors center at Gettysburg has complied. A new generation of children will grow up believing that the South started the war to protect their "peculiar institution" from the meddling Yankees. Judging by the society's emails, the majority doesn't have a problem with that explanation. And if someone does protest... well, what do you expect from a Lost Causer.

Now, I keep throwing that term around "Lost Causer." Those employing it in their emails do so as an insult. We Lost Causers are living in denial about why our great-great-great-great (I hope that is enough greats) grandfathers picked up their guns and started the war. I don't see it as an insult, but as a compliment. Why? Glad you asked.

As a Lost Causer, my argument is that slavery was not the sole reason for the war. This argument is sound. Thumbing through Earth's history, just how many wars had only one singular cause? Just one that historians can confidentally point to and say, "this right here is why the war was fought." I don't know of any. (But I don't claim to know all causes of all the wars fought) Life and politics are much more complicated than that. There were many issues tearing the country apart during the first half of the 19th century and not just slavery.

Now, to be honest, I have heard some of my friends say that slavery had nothing to do with the war. That is as false a statement as slavery was the only cause. You don't have to read too far into the historical record to see that slavery and all that slavery represented to the Southern economy was a powerful reason for the split in the nation. So, I want to go on record and say that yes slavery played a significant part but it was not the sole reason for the war.

Here's my problem with Congress' demand that the war be reduced to slavery, and the Gettysburg visitor centers' compliance with that edict. First of all, it's not true. It represents one side as all good (the Union) and the other side as all bad (the South). It reduces all arguments to the contrary as the ravings of the lunatic Lost Causer. And it paints all those who fought and died as fighting and dying for one goal. The Confederates to keep their slaves, and the Union to set all men free. And sorry, it's just not that simple.

What do you do with the Union soldier, who, upon hearing of the Emancipation Proclamation, was furious and wrote home that he felt like he had been betrayed. He didn't take up arms to free the slave but to preserve the Union. Or the Confederate soldier who didn't own any slaves but took up arms to defend his home. These real motives have been swept aside as unimportant. No, Congress, in its infinite wisdom, has decided to give all the participants one motive - slavery!

The purpose of the visitors center is to teach the history of the battle. By reducing the cause of the war to a such a simplistic reason, the visitors center doesn't seem to care what history it teaches or the damage it causes: to the soldiers or those who come to the center to learn about the battle. And that probably makes me the angriest of all.