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A Mississippi Native Son’s Notes on Civil War History

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Ms. Mitchell was my eighth-grade history teacher. She stood about four-foot-nine, a dynamo with a disarming smile. She used to sing, but she damaged her vocal chords. I don’t remember how. Such forgetting comes with time. I do remember Ms. Mitchell needed a microphone to teach. With her somewhat raspy voice and the crackling static from the amplifier, she made history leap from the page.

The Civil War was my favorite topic. The battles and heroic generals stoked my imagination: General Robert E. Lee, General Ulysses S. Grant, the Merrimack fighting the Monitor, the Battles of Bull Run, the Vicksburg Campaign were epic. The stories rivaled my favorite fantasy novels. Stonewall Jackson was my civil war hero. I identified with his boldness and brilliance. Stonewall called up my own hope to be less fragile, to step outside of the shadow of my father who put a kind of fear in me that cut to the marrow of the bone.

The irony is painful. Here I was, a descendant of slaves, growing up in a small town on the coast of Mississippi named after the moss that dangled from old magnolia trees, identifying with a Confederate general. I don’t remember our discussion of slavery; I don’t even recall feeling a hint of moral disgust at the South’s rationale for war. Ms. Mitchell represented the South’s rebellion as a valiant defense of states’ rights. She evidenced no prejudice against black people. She nourished my curiosity and affirmed my intelligence. Ms. Mitchell simply loved the South. And, for a brief moment in my pre-adolescent sublime, so did I.

In that middle school history class, the Civil War and “reunion” banished the horrors of the peculiar institution of slavery from southern memory. This was perhaps unconscious. Collective memories often involve a kind of collective forgetting. However, this act, at least for some, set the frame for how slavery would be remembered. As the historian David Blight puts it: “reunion trumped race, but the war itself had bludgeoned the problem of slavery out of history.” Many people in the south carried with them the historical wounds of the region’s past. The wounds themselves were understood as individual experiences, examples of isolated acts, the artifacts of a lost age — or remnants of a world fleshed out in the imagination of the likes of William Faulkner. This form of remembering or forgetting gives the South its ghostly quality: that the burdens of its past deeds and present failures haunt its moral core and shadow every facet of its life with an anxiety masked as charm and ease.

This sense is heightened by the fact that the South bears the burden of what is a national sin. The South was not and is not alone. America’s racism travels from sea to shining sea. Southern anxiety then is a common terror: it is the state of a region, and by extension a nation, haunted by its own bloody hands and its inability, or refusal, to come to terms with that ugly fact.

Into this national morass, exacerbated by Donald Trump and the economic and cultural anxieties of the white working class, steps General John F. Kelly and his opinions about Robert E. Lee and the Civil War. To be clear: Robert E. Lee was a slaveholder who defended the evil of slavery and betrayed his country. And no amount of compromise, outside of ending slavery once and for all, could have kept the nation from that gruesome war.

General Kelly would have us believe otherwise. For him, we can’t wash history clean of wrongdoing (as if that is the objective). We can’t hold the past to moral standards that are our own (as if there were not white and black abolitonists in the 19th century who also condemned slavery). So he reaches over a generation of historical scholarship to reclaim a debunked version of the Civil War that allows us to remember without judgment. The Civil War simply becomes our heritage, where “[m]en and women of good faith on both sides made their stand…” The evil of slavery – the true cause of the war – bludgeoned from view and we are washed clean of its stains.

Others have taken issue with General Kelly’s understanding of the history of the Civil War. I don’t need to rehearse their arguments. But, in that interview with Laura Ingraham on Fox News, General Kelly put dry kindling on the fire of white resentment in this country. He justified the feelings of those who believe that the heritage of white people is under assault by political correctness and that this country is going to hell in a black and brown hand basket. He did so by appealing to a version of history that enables us to forget. That history would allow a young, Mississippi black boy to identify with a general who died in defense of slavery.

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