Historians have deliberated about the National Park Service's efforts to restore some battlefields to their wartime appearance. Battles about accuracy have been refought with the discovery of additional bits and pieces of newly discovered information. Heritage defenders have marched in defense of the integrity of century-old museum charters. Reenactors have debated which flags should be carried at which battle. Collectors have held vigils praying for a restoration of relic prices to Centennial-era evaluations.
Kidding on that last aside, one of the most common topics of contention is what might have happened had the South been victorious. Speculation about that began the day after Lee surrendered and continues to this day.
In 1960, Pulitzer Prize-winning author MacKinlay Kantor wrote "If the South Had Won the Civil War,” which was printed in Look magazine and published in book form the following year. Kantor's keen insight brought the political and social issues together in a compelling tale of "What if?" Having served in World War II as a news correspondent who witnessed the horrors of war and concentration camps, Kantor was able to see beyond the simplicities of surface facts. His prize-winning fictional account of Andersonville, inspired by his wartime observations, brought him international acclaim. He brought those same powers of observation and perception into play in his tale of Southern victory in the War Between the States.
When I was a youngster during the Centennial, much of Kantor's vision eluded me, but given the sense of nationalism that pervaded in the Centennial era, I recall being somewhat conflicted about his conclusion about a peaceful postwar disunion. I just couldn't imagine the North and the South being two separate nations. As one nation, we had saved the world---twice. We were united by a new highway system that made nationwide travel accessible and appealing. Television was making us all laugh and cry and applaud the same things from Maine to southern California. We were about to conquer space. America ruled the universe and everyone knew it.
Fifty years later I find myself utterly amazed that the cohesiveness and national pride of that era is gone. A half century of assaults, both within and without, by those seeking a bigger slice of the pie for themselves or someone they believed deserved it has brought us to our knees.
Unlike the schism of 1860, today's isn't a geographic separation but wholly ideological ones. America today seems as divided as it was in 1860---or worse. At least in 1860, Americans were united by a common sense of national pride, an adherence to traditional values, and a common moral compass. We were separated primarily by politics and the economies of different geographic areas. Today, it seems we have less in common than we did 150 years ago. Sure, we're still separated by politics and economics, but were are also splintered into scores of factions of self-descriptions and self-interest: poor, rich, young, old, gay, straight, pretty, ugly, smart, stupid, fat, anorexic, believers in God, athiests, and those who simply hate everyone.
One would think that commemorating the 150th anniversary of the war might finally cement the once divided America. It might give us cause to pause and dwell on all that unites us. With a black president, a man whose dedication to unity for the world garnered him the world's highest award for being a force for peace among men, we should by now have made inroads in that direction. Instead, it seems we have allowed ourselves to be led in the opposite direction. We have disunity, suspicion of government, fear, and, yes, racism.
In this atmosphere, I find myself earnestly wondering: Would we have been better off if Kantor's whimsical vision were true?
But that is fiction. Given that the current state of affairs is reality, we must ask ourselves: What can we do about it? We don't have the options of 1861 available to settle our differences. We must seek another solution. We must examine anew what unites us as a people and as a nation. The only hope we have for drawing back from the abyss of a gloomy future is to take responsibility for improving our own plight and those of our families, our neighbors, our communities, our state, and our nation.
I know that may seem like just so much rhetoric, but the solid fact is that no president, no governmental agency, no social program, and no new law is going to lift us up. Only we can accomplish that.
For inspiration and solutions, we need look no further than the men and women of honor in our past. There are many to choose from. Our history is rich with individuals whose character, sacrifices, and accomplishments were beyond reproach. Our past offers blueprints for success, unlike the unproven rhetoric of a contemporary pundit with a gift of gab.
We must embrace the mantle of responsibility in the same fashion as our forebears once did. We must exchange ideas. We must talk and write and talk some more.
And we must complain. Our founders changed the world before the days of mass communication. They did it by talking and writing, one at a time, day after day, without letup. Can we not do the same? Can we afford not to?
We should use this 150th Sesquicentennial as a springboard to infuse one another with hope, the hope that dwells within each of us. The hope that makes us get up and go to work each morning, the hope that makes us have children, the hope that inspires us to think positively about possibilities, the hope that makes us believe in a bright future.
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