Cathy and I visited the Civil War battlefield at Vicksburg on our recent trip.  We both have an interest in history and although we had driven through Vicksburg on several occasions we had never stopped – so this time we did.

In the visitors center, we stood in front of a map that lights up to show troop movements and fighting engagements (is there a name for that kind of display?).  An audio recording told the story of the Battle of Vicksburg.

Vicksburg was the last obstacle to the Union controlling the entire Mississippi River.  Unable to take the city directly, in May and June of 1863 General Ulysses Grant laid siege to it.  After 47 days of hunger and other suffering, the Confederates surrendered on July 4.

As I listened to the end of the narrative, I was struck with a feeling of sadness.  Beyond the tremendous costs of war, beyond the horrible reason behind the war, there was sadness in the recognition of defeat.  We lost.  We lost.

This feeling was quite unexpected and I’ve been trying to understand it.

On one hand, much of my life has been surrounded by the relics of the Civil War.  I grew up in Tennessee near the sites of some of the key battles:  Chattanooga, Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain.  I’ve hiked, biked and run all over Chickamauga – the site of the second bloodiest battle after Gettysburg.  When I lived in Atlanta I worked in Stone Mountain and I hiked, biked and ran through Stone Mountain Park.  I studied Civil War history in school and I’ve done a bit of reading on it, though none recently.

On the other hand, I’ve never been obsessed with the Civil War and I’ve certainly never had any favorable feelings toward the Confederacy.  Growing up I never heard anyone describe slavery as anything short of abhorrent or the Civil War as anything short of necessary to end it.  While certain Confederate generals were spoken of admirably, the idea of the Lost Cause was never mentioned, and in any case never carried any weight with me.  I’ve never identified with the Confederacy before and there’s no reason why I should now.

Am I feeling the pull of my ancestors?  While statistically it’s likely at least one of my eight great-great-grandfathers fought in the Civil War, I don’t know if they did or not.  I was never shown a picture of Great Uncle Somebody in a Confederate (or for that matter, a Union) uniform.  The few ancestors I know about from that era were poor farmers who would have had little desire to fight for plantation owners… though a lack of personal interest has never kept ordinary people from getting caught up in the march to war.

Am I feeling the pull of the land, to defend it against an invader?  My experience with the spirits of the land is that they don’t much care which band of humans occupies their ground.  And while I have a strong affinity for the land where I grew up, that’s back in Tennessee, not 400 miles to the West in Mississippi.

Am I feeling the pull of the tribe?  Perhaps.  Perhaps my roots in the South are are deeper than I think.  Perhaps my instinct to favor us over them is strong enough to break through my revulsion at what we were fighting for.  I’ve always thought of myself as an American first and foremost, but perhaps an identity as a Southerner and as a Tennessean was forged in ways I never noticed.  Some tribes we get to choose – others we’re born into whether we fit well there or not.

Perhaps.  I honestly don’t know.

I do know this – I’m glad the South lost.  I’m glad the Confederacy was defeated and I get blood-boiling angry when people invoke States Rights.  Even though I’m happy we’re making progress towards marriage equality state by state, the idea that Americans have fewer rights in some states than others is offensive to my sense of justice.  I don’t know what life in a 21st century Confederacy would be like but I doubt it would be very pleasant for me, to say nothing of what it would be like for my friends of African heritage.  I’m very glad the South lost.

But on a rainy day in Vicksburg, I was also a little sad.

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  • Nathan Boutwell

    I share your feelings, John. It can be a most confusing thing sometimes. Three of my direct ancestors wore gray, although I can’t say why. Perhaps, like so many, they were conned into thinking they fought for their families, homes, and states. One even became a Republican after the war to support the Freemen, a trait he passed down three generations to my father (it took a depression and FDR to break that pattern). Dad learned from his father, who learned from his father, who learned it from Private Calvin Boutwell, CSA, “Judge a man by the way he treats his wife, his children, and his animals, not the color of his skin.” Why such a man would fight for the Confederacy is dumbfounding!

    I’ve visited many a Civil War battlefield and read many a book, and always came away with the same sense of pain. These were good and noble men, most of them, and they fought for what they believed in. And they lost. More than that, they were wrong. That is what hurts the most — they were noble and fought so hard for something that was downright evil.

    You wonder what a 21st Century Confederacy would look like? We may be about to find out! The Neoconfederates in the South are really pushing to put a King James Bible in someone’s right hand and a rifle in his left, put women back in the kitchen (keeping them pregnant), and put the black man back on the plantation. It’s disgusting! I’m an expatriate Southerner (Floridian with a Georgian mother and Alabama father). I’d love nothing more than to live in the South again, but I refuse to go back as long as they act like they’re acting now. This is 2014, not 1855. I have a northern Civil War ancestor — he ran the Underground Railroad through a part of New York. His neck of the woods looks awfully good right about now.

    • Nathan, I think there’s a lesson in there for us. If you’re honorable and noble about the wrong things you’re still wrong.

      And I fear you’re right about the direction of our country. We seem to be moving toward some high-tech feudalism. I don’t think moving North is the answer, unless you want to cross the border… and help defeat Stephen Harper.

  • Mikal

    My daughter recently did a history report for her class on one of our ancestors that fought and died for the union. No matter the side, it was a tragic, but necessary cause that was for many issues, slavery among them.

    • The Civil War was necessary but I have to think it wasn’t unavoidable. There could have been a political solution that freed the slaves and maintained the union, but no one was willing to give enough to make it happen. And so 600,000 people died.

  • Xiaorong

    I grew up in the South (not too far from Richmond, actually), and I have very little but contempt for those who thought the Confederacy was a noble cause. It’s surprising that you never were exposed to people who think that slavery wasn’t all that bad (what with Gone with the Wind, and people claiming that black people were better off as slaves back then because at least they didn’t have divorce or abortion or some such nonsense). It’s fairly common (and even popular) for people in my hometown to claim that the North was interfering in states’ rights (TO OWN PEOPLE, I always want to scream), or to wave Confederate flags about and fantasize about the ante-bellum South and the Southern belles and upstanding Southern gentlemen who were impeccably polite and chivalrous to other white people …

    But even so, I can understand how it’s hard to see a battlefield like that. When I went to Manassas, I could feel it too. It’s the pain of a tremendous, bloody war, and the pain that that was what it took to end a horrendous practice, and the pain that there were people on both sides who died to defend what they thought was right (even if I vehemently disagree with one of those sides), and the pain of one group of people who believe they’ve lost a way of life (that was built on the suffering of other groups of people), and the pain that the legacy of that war still echoes today … And that this pain is etched on the landscape and is a part of our common heritage.

    • Xiaorong, I’ve heard more revisionist history and outright lies about slavery and the Confederacy in the past 10-15 years than I ever heard growing up in the 60s and 70s.

  • Y. A. Warren

    Bloodshed is and always has been a stupid way to settle arguments. The cycle of revenge is long. As the song “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” from the seventies says…”When will we ever learn?”

  • Alioth

    Two potential explanations leapt to my mind:

    1. Was there any sense of Confederate identification, or any hint of pro-Confederate bias, in the museum exhibits? Even if not, were there personal narratives from Confederate fighters that might have aroused sympathy for a common soldier fighting for a cause he wasn’t personally invested in?

    2. “Is killing. Is wrongness. Even if needed, even if *only* thing to be doing, is a badness.” (content note for domestic violence and death in the mini-arc leading up to that quote, which begins at )

    • Alioth, the park is run by the National Park Service, and the presentation seemed mostly factual and historically neutral.

  • David Pollard

    When a city is laid siege to, it’s not just the soldiers that suffer. Perhaps you were feeling something for the civilians who also had to endure thru seven weeks of privation at a time when trade blockades made life difficult at best.

    • David, I felt that, but this was more. This was personal.

  • Natalie Reed

    Past life perhaps? I’m surprised to be the first to mention this, actually. But then, I have experienced that myself once, spontaneously, and was quite effected by it.

    • Natalie, I’ve had past life memories, but never from the Civil War. It’s possible, but I think it’s a tribal connection more than an individual one. Or so it seems.