By Richard Babb
Lost in the brambles of another political season is that Haley Barbour has gone off and admitted slavery was the cause of the civil war. It was a stealth operation, messaged through the D.C. website Politico, rather than a state newspaper. Presumably, Haley was considering a presidential run and wanted to establish his bona fides with the rest of the country which, of yet, doesn’t grasp that some of us Southerners are awfully peculiar about that war.
Speaking of bona fides, down here having chance bloodlines to alumni of Confederate States University has always seemed a prerequisite before one speaks authoritatively or inarticulately, as the case may be, about that war.
Fact is, the civil war has long lived in my imagination. My grandparents resided on Old Shiloh Road in Corinth, the remnants of trenchworks and redoubts from the Battle of Corinth ridging their land. Before he shipped off to his war, my father proposed to my mother right at Pittsburg Landing. On our sporadic visits to Corinth – because weekends he was preaching the Good News to his calcified flocks – he would usually take us to Shiloh.
I have visited most of the major civil war battlefields including Antietam and Gettysburg, and the latter is one of the most eerily reverent places I have ever visited. Blindfolded, one could sense that something important there happened – such is the funereal and brooding atmosphere. And something did happen there, where barefoot and lean-strapped Southern boys marched into a murderous lead storm.
But as one of those Sons of the South, I have been preoccupied by that war, trying to understand what happened, how it happened and most importantly why it happened. How it could be that my great great grandfather, James T. Whitehurst and his brother, Eli, went against their pro Union father’s wishes and joined the Confederacy? James survived the war. Eli died in a prison camp in Alton, Ill. How could the political processes have been so broken that we had families, and a nation, so split?
Now, comes Professor David Goldfield of the University of North Carolina – Charlotte and offers up this answer in his book, “America Aflame”: It was hot browed religion that propelled us to war. Religion, in the Northern and Southern forms of evangelical Protestantism, fevered the country beyond the normal political contours on to a course of no return.
As Goldfield notes, both saw the Divine in their causes. Southerners heard sermons such as “Slavery a Divine Trust,” based upon the scriptures which referred to slavery. And while the Northern Protestants were about gutting slavery they were also notoriously anti-Catholic, even torching a convent. Goldfield reminds us: America was the only country which required a civil war to abolish slavery.
It’s pretty much a given that before a country goes to war, they must at least believe God is on their side. Both sides believed it. And while the passion of evangelical Protestantism drove the country into the thicket of fury, toward the end of it, the carnage and suffering had laid waste not only hundreds of thousands, but the theological certainty upon which the war was wrought. Loud voices grew muted as casualty lists, photographs of the disemboweled, and reports of the civic mutilation rolled in. Could God have required all of this to either abolish or maintain slavery?
A few weeks back, I moved my daughter to Charleston, S.C, as she started her new job. On my last night before concluding that time-honored ritual of launching your youngest on her life’s journey, we stood at the battery in that most enchanting of Southern cities and looked at the peaceful green knob known as Fort Sumter.
It was a poignant moment. And while I was stirred by my own reverie of the passage of time, it occurred to me how one salvo unleashed the fury which resulted in the deaths of 620,000 Americans.
Goldfield says the Civil War was America’s greatest failure. And those who lived it were desperate to find some Transcendent hand in the carnage. It was Lincoln, never much of a churchman, who made the attempt in his Second Inaugural. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other…The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.
Like all historians, Goldfield uses the past to enlighten the present. Here he is warning: watch it, just watch it. Because when you turn political questions into religious ones, you leave no room for compromise. After all, if you believe God ordains something, then it might mean you will stop at nothing, even shoving a bayonet into the heart of your countryman.
Richard Babb, an attorney, is a community columnist from Tupelo. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.