By Lloyd Gray
When I was a kid, I memorized the presidents in order without being forced. I knew the years that all of America’s wars were fought and something about each.
I actually liked history and even majored in it years later in college.
As I look back, I’m convinced this odd disposition – most kids I knew were bored by history – was owed more than anything else to the Civil War centennial observance in my early elementary school years. It connected me to a piece of history that was both close to home and compelling for a boy of a certain age.
I had my toy musket, a few real mini-balls bought at battlefields, a store-bought Confederate uniform and lots of books that brought Lee, Grant, Jackson, Sherman and all the others vividly to life.
While I was able to understand the tension between the loyalties I felt even at that age to the place of my birth and the unjust system my ancestors had fought to preserve, I wasn’t fully able to grasp the horrors of that war nor how it still reverberated in the times in which I lived.
To say that the war was still on people’s minds in 1961-65 is an understatement. In Mississippi, we were refighting it during that period. A century after Appomattox, the central issues that propelled the country to war – slavery and the relationship of the federal government to the states – were still alive.
It was slavery’s legacy, not slavery itself, that still existed. That legacy was an impoverished black population still held to legal second-class citizenship in the South and de facto status not much better in the North. The South’s political establishment still believed it could defy the federal government, that the issue of federal supremacy had not, in fact, been settled a hundred years earlier.
So we had more showdowns. Not on as wide and bloody a scale as in 1861-65, of course, but violent nonetheless.
It was in this environment that the centennial was observed in the South, and some grabbed on to it as a sort of revival time for the Lost Cause of long ago. Mississippi was a leader in this; our observance of the events of a century earlier was hard to separate from the news of the day. At one point, in the midst of the Ole Miss integration crisis, a resolution of secession was even introduced in the Mississippi Legislature.
But after years of turmoil – the worst being those years of the Civil War centennial – Mississippi and the South lost again. Good years were wasted on reckless resistance, and ultimately a more just order emerged.
Half a century later, we’ve begun to mark the sesquicentennial of the defining event in American history. The Confederates fired on Fort Sumter 150 years ago last week.
While the politics of our day are emotionally charged, they in no way compare with the state of mind of people in this part of the country in the early 1960s. Today we can look at the events of 1861-65 with a bit more detachment.
That doesn’t mean people agree on everything about those events. Southerners, white and black, have different opinions and interpretations, and the differences aren’t just between the races.
Some are unapologetic for any aspect of the South’s cause. Some roundly condemn any attempt to dignify or attribute any valor to those who fought for the Confederacy. Others believe you don’t have to agree that the South’s cause was right to honor the memory of all who were caught up in that monumental tragedy, and to understand the moral complexities involved.
This sesquicentennial is not a celebration of war. To “celebrate” the death of 620,000 people, the attendant devastation and the deep and lasting scars would be inappropriate. Yet ultimately a new and stronger nation emerged from the chaos, and the durability of the American ideals of freedom and justice have been strengthened steadily in the years since.
Next Sunday, the Daily Journal will publish a special section commemorating Northeast Mississippi’s role in the Civil War. Our region was an important strategic battleground as the war played out.
Our purpose is to educate readers about that role and give people a sense of the drama of the history that surrounds us. Some readers will no doubt pore over each word, looking for an affirmation of their perspective, or a deviation from it. That we expect.
Others, however, will simply enjoy the historical overview and perhaps gain a new understanding and appreciation of that history. And maybe over this sesquicentennial, a few kids will discover that when you delve into it, history really isn’t boring at all.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.