The Planted Row: Remember the lessons of the past
Last Monday people across the nation celebrated Memorial Day by remembering and honoring the men and women who have given their lives in the service of our country. With all of the World War II and Vietnam movies on TV throughout the weekend, one could be forgiven for thinking that most of those lives were given on foreign soil, far away from home.
The truth is that more Americans died in the Civil War, on our own soil, than all of our other wars combined. In fact, Memorial Day started as a means to honor the Civil War dead.
It’s hard for me to wrap my head around that war. Perhaps my trouble lies in the fact that I am from the South.
Like many of the things I know, I first learned of the Civil War while riding in the cab of a John Deere tractor. From the time I was 3 years old, I preferred to be in the field with my dad. So, I spent my days riding the tractors with my father, and he is not a typical guy. He’s not a big sports fan, so we didn’t talk baseball, football or even basketball. My dad is a history buff, and we spent our days talking about history, politics and religion.
My father loves to learn about the Confederate generals: their tactics, their personal lives, their professional exploits. So I heard about them and the bravery of the Confederate soldiers, which the Union generals often remarked upon. Yet, if the South had such great generals and soldiers, why did they lose? When I was about 5, I asked my dad that question. He said, “Son, we lost because we were fighting for the wrong cause. God wasn’t for us. He was against us.”
Our brave Southern sons fought valiantly for an evil cause. How does a little boy (or anyone, really) reconcile those two facts? My confusion became greater when I learned my family history. Though he had never owned slaves, my great-great-great-grandfather unhooked his horse from his plow when he learned that war had been declared, and the plow stayed right there in the field until he returned 4 years later. He believed so strongly in the war that he left behind a farm and a pregnant wife to fight against his own countrymen for an unjust cause. Yet, he survived the war and became, by all accounts, a loving father and husband.
It’s an odd thing to feel both pride and shame for one’s ancestors.
In one of the earliest celebrations of a type of Memorial Day, a group of women in Columbus, Mississippi, decided to sidestep the issue. On April 25, 1866, they visited a cemetery to decorate the graves of Confederates killed at the Battle of Shiloh. While there, they noticed the poorly tended graves of some Union soldiers, and they decorated those graves as well. They simply honored the dead. All the dead.
In a simple gesture, those women pointed out that we are stronger together than apart. An estimated 750,000 American soldiers (Union and Confederate) and an unknown number of civilians had to die for our nation to realize that fact.
To me, it seems more important than ever to remember the Civil War and all those who perished in it. Right now, the country feels more divided than it has at any point in my life. The rhetoric flying between liberals and conservatives seems more heated than ever. Conventional and organic farmers vilify each other. The debate over gun ownership has been taken to new heights in the wake of high profile mass killings. Ranchers and their friends are pointing guns at federal agents over grazing rights.
People on both sides of the divide feel like their way of life is under attack. I imagine many Southerners felt the same way when they took up arms against their countrymen.
I hope cooler heads prevail this time around.