Thursday, April 9, 2015

After 150 Years Are We Still At War?

Weeping sad and lonely
Hopes and fears, how vain.
When this cruel war is over,
Pray that we meet again.

             Charles Carroll Sawyer

150 years ago today 2 men met in a Virginia living room
 One wore grey and the other blue.

Photo by National Museum of American History  //CC by

The one was a lifelong failure who achieved success only in war time.  The other one of the great men of his time, its greatest general, but this was his moment of defeat.

The man in grey had dressed himself carefully, in his best uniform, as he believed he would soon be a prisoner.  The other had travelled far ahead of his baggage and borrowed a shirt for the occasion.

The man in blue had no intention of taking prisoners.  He wanted the war over and done, and said the rebels could all go home, once they agreed to not make war on their country again. A poor man himself, who had struggled to farm in peacetime, he said the soldiers could keep their horse, because it was April and planting season.  He ordered rations to be issued to the starving troops, enemies no longer.  And he forbade any celebrations by his own troops, saying that we were all to be one country again.The man in grey got on his horse and went back to his men, told them to go home and be as good civilians as they had been soldiers.

And it was over.  There was still some mopping up to be done with other rebel groups, but when Robert E Lee accepted Ulysses S Grant's surrender terms that Palm Sunday morning at Appomattox Courthouse, the Civil War was effectively over.

The shooting stopped, but did the War really end?
150 years later, are we still fighting the Civil War? What have we done with that "New Birth of Freedom" that Lincoln spoke of so eloquently.

Today our country often seems as much at war with itself as it was then.  The areas of division, marked red and blue on the map, may not be as solidly regional as they once were, but in many ways we seem to be even more divided than we were in 1865. The rhetoric even seems the same, as religion is used to justify positions on both sides, and individual states claim exemption from obligation to follow federal authority: the precise matter we went to war over in 1865.

In one way, at least, I think we are far behind the Americans who fought 150 years ago.  They respected each other, even as they fought each other.  They understood each other's point of view, even when they opposed it.  Today we are more likely to treat our opponents with contempt, to refuse to even consider the perspective of the other side, or even to imply that those with whom we disagree are somehow not real Americans.

This afternoon bells will ring across the country to mark the meeting of two men at Appomattox.  It is a good time to ask ourselves if we have truly learned the lessons of our Civil War.

The cannons have fallen silent-- but has the war ever ended?

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