When America began the observance of the Civil War centennial, we were a very different country from what we are today. In 1961, we had not lost in Vietnam. We had not seen a wave of our leaders assassinated. We were only beginning to experience the transforming power of communication technology. And we were still a racially segregated society that was barely different from what it had been in the late 19th century.
We were an innocent and optimistic people in 1961. For most Americans, the centennial was the celebration of America reunited. In the great morality play that was our Civil War centennial, there were no villains, unless you counted John Wilkes Booth, but he was not really a soldier and he wasn’t really in the war. Americans 50 years ago knew the Civil War as a series of romanticized vignettes to Johnny Reb and Billy Yank, the brave and honorable cavaliers who fought a tragic war over … well, there wasn’t much discussion of what the war was about. That wasn’t important in 1961.
What was important was that it was over, that we were all Americans, that the United States had emerged from that inferno to become a global superpower, that we had won two world wars and made the world safe for democracy, that we were the shining city on the hill, the torch of freedom, the last, best hope for humanity — pick your cliché. And it all happened because we had passed some great test of fire one hundred years before. It didn’t quite make sense to my 11-year-old mind in 1961, but like most of my South Carolina upbringing, I didn’t question it.
America has grown up a lot in 50 years. We’ve had our hearts broken and our faith tested. We’ve endured some dark nights of the soul. We find ourselves a more complex nation, living in a more complex world than ever before. Maybe now it is safe to see our Civil War for what it truly was. Yes, it was a war between North and South, but it was more. It was a war between white and black, between slave and slave owner.
These were facts that a younger America was not ready to face 50 years ago, especially in the South, as the civil rights movement began to gather momentum. And because white Southerners refused to talk about it, white Northerners politely acquiesced. And so the great issue behind the great war was never seriously discussed in any way that I remember during the Civil War centennial. The little war within the big war was not acknowledged.
There was no recounting of the slave Robert Smalls, who hijacked a Confederate steamer in Charleston Harbor and turned it over to the Union Navy waiting beyond Fort Sumter. There was no mention of the valiant attack of the black troops of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment against Battery Wagner on Morris Island. There was no talk of the thousands of freed slaves in the Port Royal area who enlisted in the Union Army. Indeed, there was no discussion at all of the 200,000 black troops in the Union Army. And the Emancipation Proclamation was a curious footnote in this great epic of blood and glory, of brother against brother.
In this sense, the centennial observance of the Civil War was much like the half-century observance. That, too, was a celebration of America reunited, and for that occasion D.W. Griffith unveiled his cinematic masterpiece, Birth of a Nation. This early silent film is remembered today for its highly racist perspective and glorification of the Ku Klux Klan. But in 1915, Birth of a Nation was seen as a tribute to the new nation born, as its title suggests, out of the Civil War and Reconstruction. The homily of the movie is the reunification of the nation, as symbolized in the closing scene by the weddings of the Northern Stoneman siblings to the Southern Camerons. But before the joyous nuptials could occur, the families had to stand fast against the scourge of black Reconstruction. Or, as one subtitle puts it: “The former enemies of North and South are united again in defense of their Aryan birthright.”
Yes, Birth of a Nation was produced as an idealized tribute to a new America, not completely unlike the new America that we celebrated in 1961. Today, the question is whether we have grown up enough to see our history more accurately and fairly. Will we continue to hide from our past? Are we ready to face that other civil war, the one that still divides us, the one that we read about in our newspapers every day? Will that war ever be over?
We will know it’s over when we stop denying that it ever happened.