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Both Sides Oversimplify Causes Of Civil War
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Both Sides Oversimplify Causes Of Civil War

Opinion

Both Sides Oversimplify Causes Of Civil War

Both Sides Oversimplify Causes Of Civil War
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Gov. Bob McDonnell declared April Confederate History Month in Va., at the urging of Brag Bowling of the Virginia Division of The Sons of Confederate Veterans. After criticism mounted over the lack of any reference to slavery, McDonnell backpedaled on the proclamation. But the controversy — and debate — over slavery and the celebration of the confederacy continues.

Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page contacted Bowling, to talk about the truth of American history, which they agreed is "always more complicated." He wrote about their brief chat in his column, "It's Not Hate, It's Hateful History."

Page joins host Neal Conan to share bits of his conversation with Bowling, and what he learned.

NEAL CONAN, host:

And now the Opinion Page. Last week, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell proclaimed April Confederate History Month in the Old Dominion. His official proclamation recognized the sacrifices of Confederate soldiers, who, it said, fought for their homes and communities, but it made no mention of the human property. They also fought for slaves.

Last week, the governor issued an apology and issued a new paragraph that acknowledged the institution of slavery as an evil and inhumane practice that led to war.

The original proclamation drew criticism from African-Americans. The amendment annoyed the Virginia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Clarence Page, the syndicated columnist for The Chicago Tribune, wrote that Governor McDonnell inadvertently stumbled into the second civil war: the continuing clashed between the dueling memories of African-Americans and Southern heritage whites.

Well, if you take up arms for either side, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You could also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. You'll also find a link to Clarence Page's column, and also to the governor's proclamation. And Clarence Page joined us here on Studio 3A. We thank him for making his way through Checkpoint Charlie, the security around the event that's being held here in Washington, D.C. Nice to have you back with us, Clarence.

Mr. CLARENCE PAGE (Syndicated Columnist, The Chicago Tribune): I have my doubts there, Neal, but I was determined to make it, thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thank you very much. And is this, in essence, another skirmish in a war that includes the battles over the Confederate flag?

Mr. PAGE: Yeah, you know, well, you're absolutely right. I mean, I remember when I moved from the Land of Lincoln to Maryland, to Washington, D.C. back in the early '90s, a Virginian told me the war didn't end in 1865. That was just intermission. And I've certainly seen that to be true over the years. But it's also gotten me to read more and study more Civil War history. It was a defining tragedy in America, and we're still fighting it today in different ways.

CONAN: And a defining condition, the governor's proclamation is right, in the state of Virginia where much of that conflict occurred.

Mr. PAGE: Well, absolutely. And Virginia has good reason to be proud of their history and their heritage. As I mentioned in my column, my wife and I had just have been to Monticello about a month ago. And, you know, it is something every American ought to do. Everybody in the world. It's endlessly fascinating. Spend the day, talk to every docent you can. But you also can't visit Monticello without bumping into slavery, because we're much a part of it. And that beautiful mansion and all was built by skilled slave labor. And it's a very complicated story, but it's a very important story in our history, and we're all a part of it.

CONAN: And the Civil War, obviously, also an incredibly important story, and not as a simple as either side in the second civil war would have us believe.

Mr. PAGE: Well, that's right. And, again, Virginia has - what? More Civil War memorials, more Confederate memorials than any other state. They probably have more battlefields. I don't know.

CONAN: They sure do.

Mr. PAGE: But they certainly are justifiably proud of it, and it's worth visiting. But at the same time, you know, there is this battle going on - and it really dates back, as I mentioned, to just after the Civil War, of what's called the "The Cult of the Lost Cause." That was a title of a book at the time. And it was this intellectual-political-social movement.

The South was devastated in every kind of way - physically, economically and psychologically. And any people that go through a great traumatic tragedy and survive and pull through, their descendants don't like to have that experience demeaned or cheapened. And that's one thing that African-Americans and Southern heritage whites have in common, and that the positive spin I tried to put in on this essay.

CONAN: And indeed, some of the African-Americans, they said, wait a minute. This was all about slavery. Well, it was, in large part, about slavery, but not all about slavery.

Mr. PAGE: It goes both ways. It wasn't all about slavery, but it wasn't that slavery had nothing to do with it, either. And that's what torques my jaws when I hear some people say - they said - that was why I call them Brag Bowling, the commander of the Virginia Sons of Confederate Veterans who had lobbied this governor and previous ones for this proclamation, and we had a nice chat.

I mean, we certainly agree on the importance of people studying history. We just have a little different take on the priority of slavery as being an important issue in that war.

CONAN: And reading between the lines, you'd have to think that he would have preferred the allocution, the phrase the War of Northern Aggression.

Mr. PAGE: Oh, yes. Well, that's - again, this is part of Southern culture and history. And, I mean, this is not isolated. I've gotten lots of emails after this column and people across the South, they can tell you stories about how the spirit still lives.

And in schools, many are taught that, yes, the War of Northern Aggression, that the South was right constitutionally. And they're all legitimate legal arguments. That was why the war was fought, after all. And this is why wars are fought. But at the same time, to say, you know, that, well, the real question was economic. Well, what was the Southern economy based on? Agriculture. And what was the foundation of that? Slavery. So you can't get away from it.

CONAN: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Our guest, the syndicated columnist Clarence Page, whose works are featured in The Chicago Tribune and many other newspapers.

Chris(ph) is on the line with us, calling from Creedmoor in North Carolina.

CHRIS (Caller): Hey. Good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

CHRIS: I was listening to the previous segment where there were a number of honorable gentlemen who had served in the U.S. Armed Forces.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

CHRIS: Think about the - no one said this directly because the topic was more about what soldiers are faced with emotionally when they're in the heat of battle. But the overall thing, I'm sure, that those guests would have agreed on is that the wars that we're currently engaged in, in Iraq and Afghanistan, are justified because we, as a nation, had a right to uphold, you know, human rights abuses that Saddam Hussein and his bad guys were putting on the people there. So, by our current modern logic, it's okay to go to another place and use armed force to right the wrongs of human rights violations.

Now, what the current folks that are pushing the rights of the Confederacy seem to want to overlook is - and typically, if you look at a cross-section of the population, the folks in the South that are pro-Confederate and like doing these Civil War reenactments also are very pro-military for current-day conflicts. They seem to want to have it both ways, where they'll say, oh, back then in 1860s, it was not right for the North to come in and try to right a civil rights - or a human rights violation there.

Mr. PAGE: It was not a war of liberation, in other words.

CHRIS: Yeah. Yeah. Whereas, when we go into Kuwait - oh, yeah, we're liberating those people, saving all those women that were wearing burqas and, you know, being beat on by their...

CONAN: And to be fair, demographically, the majority of that army -well, from that part of the country. It's a long tradition in the country.

I think what the previous segment was about, to put it in Civil War terms, was General Sherman's famous phrase, that war is all hell.

Mr. PAGE: You're right.

CONAN: But the point that Chris makes is revisionist history. People go back and rewrite things to make them, well, look better in their eyes.

Mr. PAGE: Well, there's an old saying that history is told by the winners, and that speaks directly to wars and other major conflicts. The Civil War, certainly, was one that people can make different kind of arguments as to why we got into it. The Sons of Confederacy in Virginia...

CONAN: Iraq, too. I've heard some arguments about that, yeah.

Mr. PAGE: And Iraq, as well. Well, thats whats interesting. Now, you know, like the Bush administration folks or their defenders say, well, weapons of mass destruction wasnt the main reason we went to Iraq. You know, well, that was certainly the impression a lot of us had, that was the main reason. So it's not that thats surprising when the people start arguing about why we fought the Civil War.

CONAN: Interesting call, Chris. Thanks very much for your time.

CHRIS: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Some of the things that people objected to in the proclamation issued by Governor McDonnell he first says, April is the month in which the people of Virginia joined the Confederate States of America in a four-year war between the states for independence that concluded at Appomattox Court House.

The people of Virginia? Really?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PAGE: Which people?

CONAN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PAGE: And, yeah, you know - well, you got some interesting arguments here, too. You know, I mean, the Constitution, certainly, at the time, said that, you know, all others quote, unquote "will be counted as three-fifths of a person," those were the slaves. But some people will argue that there were some blacks who fought for the South. It was rare, and their positions, you know, why they were fighting...

CONAN: As indeed, some blacks held slaves.

Mr. PAGE: Well, yeah. And blacks held slaves quite often, most often to free their own relatives or friends. So it's like, you know, there's a deeper story.

You know, that's why I say, don't censor this, let's talk about it. Let's talk about history. I think a lot of school principals don't like history because it causes the parents to get mad on one side or another. So they don't teach our kids enough of it, I think.

CONAN: Let's go next to Janice(ph), Janice with us from Newport News.

JANICE (Caller): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

JANICE: I think this should be a teachable moment or month for African-American children. I think that parents should bring their children to visit plantations and the slave quarters. I think they should take them to the Museum of Confederacy in Richmond so they can see the whips and chains for children and everything that went along with slavery, not just the beautiful Monticello and so forth.

I think that we should never forget. And I think that even though there may have been something positive, and I don't know what that was, except that I'm now here in America, I do think that we should absolutely use this as a moment for our children.

CONAN: Should they also go to the battlefields to see the places where so many hundreds of thousands died in this conflagration?

JANICE: Yes. Absolutely. You know, if you have - and Im sure you have seen "Glory" more than once...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

JANICE: ...when you see the contributions of African-Americans - and, yes, there were a few - they were also fighting for their freedom, who fought for the Confederacy. We have a proud tradition down here of contrabands of war, which took place at Fort Monroe, where people got in boats and took their lives in their hands, going across to - I'm sorry, this stills me up...

CONAN: Yes. We - I...

JANICE: ...to get freedom from General Butler. So I think that all of these aspects should be reviewed and should be celebrated in terms of the bravery of the slaves and the bravery of the people who supported the slaves in getting their freedom.

CONAN: Fort Monroe, I should point out though, in Virginia, was always, throughout the war, held by Union forces. And what she's talking about is, of course, is slaves rowing across the water to Fort Monroe to appeal to General Butler...

JANICE: That's right.

CONAN: ...better known in the South as Beast Butler for his behaviors when he was in charge of the occupation of New Orleans. But nevertheless, he and many other Union generals provided those people freedom.

JANICE: Yes, they did. They were called contrabands of war.

CONAN: Thank you very much for the call.

Mr. PAGE: Very touching - the caller was emotionally moved talking about this. You know, when my wife and I went to Monticello - it was my wife's idea. She said, I'm glad we went, but I couldn't stop being mad the whole time I was there. Because even though, yes, it is lovely, but when you talk to people and know anything about the history, talk about Sally Hemings and the other slave individuals there, you can't help but feel -well, I got to say it, for an African-American, it's like visiting Auschwitz. It's like visiting the scene of a massive atrocity, when on generation after generation, people's lives were destroyed, families were broken up, et cetera, et cetera.

This is something that's very significant to African-Americans. And that was where Governor McDonnell stumbled by saying, well, we want - we only want to talk about the parts that were significant to Virginians.

CONAN: We're talking with Clarence Page on the Opinion Page. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let me ask you about this subsequent comment by another government, Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi.

Mr. PAGE: Right.

CONAN: And he went on CNN, and asked about this controversy, he said, it don't amount to diddly. He said, there have been similar proclamations that he has issued, indeed, in his state that also don't mention slavery.

Mr. PAGE: Yeah. I think that was an unfortunate remark on the part of Haley. I know Haley Barbour and he's a decent man, but I mean, here hes appealing to the base, maybe he was revved up because of the RNC weekend or, excuse me, Republican governor's meeting...

CONAN: Southern.

Mr. PAGE: ...this weekend - right, Southern governors, excuse me. And, you know, but he that, for him to say it didn't mean diddly, he said earlier that he thought to say that slavery was bad, that it was wrong, that goes without saying. I mean, obviously, he doesn't favor slavery, but for him to, you know, follow it up, saying, well, this whole thing isn't worth diddly, it's worth diddly to a lot of us.

CONAN: Let's get to Mark(ph), Mark with us from New Haven.

MARK (Caller): Hi. I was wondering whether those react negatively to the absence of mentions of slavery in the Confederacy celebration, how they would feel about during black - some black celebration month, black history month, which should there be an obligation to include in that some positive references to the Confederacy?

CONAN: Which ones would those be?

MARK: Well, if they are very pride - they have a great deal of pride in their culture. They did a lot to develop the country. They contributed a lot to, economically to the country. I - granted that a lot of it was based on slavery, but there was a rich cultural heritage there.

CONAN: You could talk about the rich cultural heritage of the South. The idea that the Confederacy as an institution contributed much to the prosperity of the United States, that's a highly debatable notion.

MARK: Well, let's stick with the cultural part then.

CONAN: All right.

MARK: They have a great deal of pride in the culture that they had in the South - and I'm kind of equating the South with the Confederacy during this discussion.

CONAN: Clarence Page?

Mr. PAGE: Well, there is, indeed, a very rich culture in the South. And it is something that became even stronger - I should say, the urge to push, promote, to build a Southern culture was actually invigorated after the Civil War as part of this psychological readjustment process to which I referred to earlier.

Unfortunately, the Ku Klux Klan came out of that. The post-Reconstruction Jim Crow laws and the lynchings, decades of them followed. A lot of bad things come from these populist uprisings out of frustration.

CONAN: (Unintelligible)

Mr. PAGE: And we're still fighting and arguing these states rights issues today. Like I say, it didn't settle everything.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Mark, appreciate it. Let's see if we can go to Paul(ph), Paul with us from Macon, Georgia.

PAUL (Caller): Hey, Mr. Conan, good to speak to you again.

CONAN: Nice to have you with us.

PAUL: Hey, your first caller on this topic exemplifies the point that I wanted to make. He wanted to talk about something else for a while. And you'll see in the South today, it's increasingly getting that way. You know, 20 years ago, the Civil War and memories of it were almost real and personal to a lot of Southerners, but now with the implants that are moving South and with the introduction of technology that connects us with Timbuktu instantly, it's really fading. And here in the next 15 or 20 years, things like this will be in the past. The Civil War will be as real to most people as the revolution currently is. That's all I wanted to say. Thank you.

CONAN: All right, thanks very much.

Mr. PAGE: Well, may I quote Faulkner?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PAGE: You know the quote I'm going to mention...

CONAN: I do.

Mr. PAGE: The past is not dead, it isn't even passed. And it came out of one of Faulkner's works. But discussions like this are not complete unless you quote Faulkner, because, you know, a lot of the country, you still go through parts of South Carolina, other places back in the primaries. Seen a lot of Confederate flags in the yard and bumper stickers saying, it's not hate, it's heritage. Why are those bumper stickers necessary? Because a lot of people are still arguing over this - over that culture and the symbolism, as well as the actual issues of the Civil War.

CONAN: And as a political issue, Governor McDonnell has stumbled here?

Mr. PAGE: You know, as a rising star on the national scene, I have to say, yes. I mean, there's a lot of talk about this. I think the important thing is, you know, McDonnell became governor not by having a strong base but by reaching out to moderates, to swing voters out there. And he became a model for Republican success for the future. At the same time, the party is being torn apart right now by, you know, the anti-RINO crowd, the Tea Party folks, the anti-Republican-in-name-only folks. And so, McDonnell was trying to reach out to his base, but I think he's put some question marks up there for the swing voters.

CONAN: Clarence Page, thank you very much.

Mr. PAGE: Thank you.

CONAN: Clarence Page of The Chicago Tribune and many other newspapers. Again, there's a link to his column and to Governor McDonnell's proclamation on our Web site at npr.org. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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