Monday, May 28, 2012

The War Between The States Of Mind: Romantics Vs. Realists

The Confederate battle flag flies near
my Columbia, S.C., home. Do Civil
War romanticists live here?
Why does the Civil War ignite emotional explosives 150 years later?  I've come up with an answer. In times of trouble, Americans historically divide into two ideological camps. On one side of the feud: the romantics. When it comes to the Civil War, they’re intoxicated by principles, crusading and heroism, or at least their version of it. You’ll find these romantics dressed in period clothing at battle re-enactments, some impersonating heroes whose glory has shrunk to paragraphs in textbooks.

I know this type well. My late father, a Revolutionary War re-enactor, was one. I loved his view of life.

On the other side: the realists, beguiled by pragmatism, compromise and anti-heroism, or at least their version of it.  I know this type, too.  I’m the quintessential realist.  My father and I carried on lively discussions about religion, history and politics around the dinner table. Dad humored me, despite his objections written plainly on his face. We ate dessert with more understanding and higher regard for each other’s views.
Romancing the war: Re-enactors
face off in the Civil War "battle" I
attended at Tunnel Hill, Ga.

Just as our forefathers clashed when they hammered out the Constitution, today’s ideological armies continue our War Between The States of Mind that the Constitution, the epitome of compromise, made possible.  I’m grateful my Dad compromised and granted his "hard-headed" daughter free agency on life's important matters. 

From my book-in-progress, Dear Father I Am Sorry To Tell You, about the Civil War and its legacy:

My father, Ed, 2nd from left, and
    his "Revolutionary" comrades, 1972.
Photo, The Dunn (N.C.) Dispatch
In time, our backyard warehouse became too crowded for Dad's broken, boyhood bicycle.  Dad parked it outside, where it kept company with a woodpile, a two-toned Desoto with foot-high tail fins and a 1961 baby-blue Chrysler. In this winged chariot, Dad traveled the Southeast as a salesman for a ladies coat and suit firm out of Kansas City. That job ended in heartache and another heart attack. Old oil stoves, an iron grain scale, thirty years worth of magazines and barrels of sorghum salvaged from his life as a wholesale grocer huddled under the warehouse eaves until after my father died. 
The pumpkin-colored bicycle became Exhibit A in Dad’s series of life lessons:  Damn fools are everywhere. You’re not safe even on the sidewalk. Never go barefoot. Park under a streetlight. Exercise. Eat every kind of food, in moderation. Vote for the least-dangerous son-of-a-bitch.  Lock the doors and check ‘em twice.  Pick the ends off  bananas. Don’t fall for no kook.
I asked Dad how I’d know a kook if I met one.
Experiencing "war."
“You’ll know,” he said. I would laugh.
“Tell me what you mean by a kook or I might fall for one.”
“You’ll know.”                                         
I suspected Dad’s definition of kook included Yankees, along with the usual suspects:  Communists, “pointy-headed intellectuals,” drunks, bureaucrats, “Hollywood nuts,” atheists, “money monkeys,” liberals and journalists.  I failed to pry specifics from him.  I went about life a free agent, subject to signing on with a kook.
Years after my father died at age fifty-nine, I married a Jersey boy.  He was real smart, but as far as I could tell, he wasn’t a pointy-headed intellectual, and being a journalist, he for sure wasn’t a money monkey, or Hollywood nut. 

The standoff between romantics, who by nature assume their own infallibility, and realists, whose views must evolve to keep their sanity, goes way back in my family, as I suspect it does in most tribes.  When North Carolina joined the Confederacy in 1861, my ancestral cousin, Lyndon Magee Welborn, a young romantic, quickly signed up to fight, despite his father Joseph’s realistic objections to secession and war.  And, more proof of his romantic nature, Lyndon apparently volunteered after big brother Elijah broke up his courtship. (See March 2011 blog in Archives.)

Why did Elijah break up Lyndon’s courtship?  Did Lyndon fall for a kook? 

As proof that the still Civil War rends our nation into either the romantic or realists camps, check out these contemporary labels for the war:
Spectators at Tunnel Hill

The Unpleasantness: How romantic can a Charleston tour guide get?
War of Northern Aggression: How romantic can neo-Confederates get?
War of Southern Rebellion: Pro-Union writers’ realism on steroids
War For Southern Independence/War of Secession: Romantic conformation theorizing that states’ rights rule. Forever.
War For The Union: Uber abolitionists’ romantic excuse to fight 
America’s Second Revolution: Eternal fave of historians in the realism camp

And consider the two most common names:

The reality of the American Civil War.
Photo, Library of Congress.
War Between The States: Fashionable in the post-war South,  the name romantically justifies the war’s causes and consequences to fit a historical comfort zone.  Although the curmudgeon writer in me thinks it should be The War Among The States, since 36 states battled, I get it. A line in the sand split Americans into two economic, cultural and to some extent religious sides. The states sank into unresolved hostilities rooted in Colonial America. This dangerous “you’re-either-for-us-or-against-us” mentality dogs America to this day. 

Scene at a Civil War hospital.
Photo, Library of Congress.
The Civil War: The oldest, most common name used by Abe Lincoln, Generals Grant and Lee, Jefferson Davis, academics, mass media, reference books and the National Park Service. Since the dictionary defines civil war as “a war between opposing groups of citizens of the same country" this moniker seems the most realistic and least caustic.

I’m convinced any label but “Civil War” reflects a revisionist view of history that often manifests as crusading intolerance and refusal to politically compromise. But there is no purity of mind.  My father could rattle off Civil War facts, but what he loved was the heroism of the warrior who beat the odds and stood up for principle. His mindset reflected the romance of the underdog American patriot and later the Confederate. It's an American thing. I get it.

War's harsh reality marched into
Charleston, S.C., cradle of the rebellion,
150 years ago. Photo, Library of Congress.
When my father died, his fellow Revolutionary soldiers gave him a military funeral complete with drums, bugle and presentation of the colors to my mother. On that clear October day, I remember thinking, “Dad would have loved this.” A romantic end for a true romantic.

Maybe when all is said and done, it’s not what happened in the Civil War but how you feel about what happened.  But if we're to learn from history, we must replace conflict and contrariness with consideration and compromise. 

So says the realist, in a most romantic way. 

SOURCES:  Isaacson, Walter, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. Simon & Schuster, 2003. "Naming The American Civil War," Wikipedia. Barry, John M., "God, Government and Roger Williams' Big Idea." Smithsonian magazine. January 2012.

* Unless otherwise noted, all photos were taken by B.J. Welborn and are copyrighted.