The Editorial Board’s Opinion
What Atlanta was versus what we became. And how that came to be?
Fully analyzing that journey requires consideration of the Civil War’s lingering impact today — 150 years after Union forces seized control of this city.
We suggest here that it’s important still to undertake the risky, painful journey of unpacking and reassessing history’s baggage in a contemporary light. Doing so can help make better sense of where we stand today. Most importantly, it can tease out who we really are — a people sharing a common heritage, whether we want to, or not. That commonality holds even when we’ve stood, or stand, along differing sides of that always-flowing river we call history.
By reconsidering the Civil War, we may learn more about ourselves — as individuals and as a larger community we call metro Atlanta.
Shakespeare had a point. What’s past really is prologue. That’s worth pondering in this age of division, when people of equal goodwill, but with differing viewpoints, find it difficult to hold candid, productive conversations or reach mutually beneficial agreements. This is especially true around conversations of race today, but that’s far from the only subject where good people tend to talk past each other. There’s a long list of important matters where society in general and Atlanta specifically seems to do little but unproductively spin our wheels. Politics. Education. What it means to be a region. Insert your favorite here.
Humbly reviewing just how Atlanta emerged from the ruins of 1864 may help guide us today through study of what worked then — or what tactics, seen in light of today’s standards and sensibilities, now strike us an ineffectual or even abhorrent.
History should mean something in the place that the old LOOK magazine in 1961 called “the only major U.S. city ever burned to the ground by a hostile army.”
We all know, broadly, what happened next. Atlanta Constitution Managing Editor Henry Grady’s vision of a “New South” proved prescient.
History’s not that simple, though. Perceptions, passions and viewpoints tend to clash, depending on one’s location along a given era’s fault lines.
Southerner and Northerner. White and black. The planter class. The sharecropper. Person A. Person B. We all bring widely differing perceptions of reality to society’s square. In that behavior, we really are all alike.
In the age-old, American-style clangor of disparate views, societal priorities can careen from one trajectory to another. Seen over time, we call that history.
Henry Grady was right. The Civil War’s aftermath necessitated a New South.
Yet, few today would regret that history proved wrong Grady’s misguided belief that maintaining white supremacy would undergird the South’s postwar rebirth. Atlanta and the South had starring roles in the decades-long struggle to create a more-equitable society for all Americans, regardless of skin color.
How all that came to pass is worth another look. It will yield value, though, only if we can know and understand history in pure form, with minimal adornment, adulteration, wish-it-were-so thoughts or other flights of fancy.
Diligent study of what historians call primary sources is a good place to start in search of plain truth. That calls for stepping back in time. Read soldiers’ own accounts of the Civil War. Study speeches from that era. Intellectual rigor and honesty plead for reviewing both sides of the story, we believe. Be aware that, then as now, popular sound bites of the day might be lacking in objective fact, but brimming with partisan distortions.
So how can we earnestly reconcile past events with the natural human tendency to interpret, color or even skew their meaning? Beliefs today can differ so radically among individuals and groups that attaining any common perception seems difficult, if not bordering on impossible.
It can help to know that such has always been the case. People have always been vulnerable to popular passions fired by human emotions. Confusion, fear, the drive for survival and the like have each eternally wrestled with, and traveled alongside, history’s upheavals.
History’s accuracy can thus suffer as it’s carried across time atop a tide of human emotions. Hard fact can be diluted over time as doses of wishful thinking at best, or fiction at worst, are injected.
It’s easiest to believe what we most want to believe. Convenient narratives that provide affirming comfort are the most-readily absorbed into individual minds and differing camps of popular culture.
Dispassionate study can help lead us back toward the truth, which is where history can best guide us forward to a better future.
As we do on most anything in these great United States, we still disagree over even the causes and meaning of the Civil War.
Yet, we seemingly all agree on the war’s terrible toll exacted in blood, lives, disruption and treasure. The suffering that resulted made no discrimination along lines of state, race, class or anything else.
Recognizing that is as good a place as any to begin rededicating ourselves to better understanding that momentous human struggle of long ago — and what it can tell us today.
Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.
The Civil War’s Lessons For Today
By Anthony Knight
“If we ought to forget a war which has filled our land with widows and orphans; which has made stumps of men of the very flower of our youth; which has sent them on the journey of life armless, legless, maimed and mutilated; which has piled up a debt heavier than a mountain of gold, swept uncounted thousands of men into bloody graves and planted agony at a million hearthstones — I say, if this war is to be forgotten, I ask, in the name of all things sacred, what shall men remember?”
This excerpt from the 1871 Decoration Day (now Memorial Day) speech delivered by Frederick Douglass served as an advance organizer of sorts around which was built the Aug. 21 Cyclorama symposium “What Shall We Remember?: The Civil War Today.” Each of the five panelists (William Link, Michael Shaffer, Hari Jones, Christy Coleman, and Kahlil Chism), gave impassioned, perspective-specific presentations that addressed how the Civil War is relevant to us today — and those lesso ns from the war we always should remember.
After a spirited and, at times, tense Q&A, I reminded the audience that people then, as today, are complex, confused and conflicted. Often, we align ourselves with ways of thinking that are based on our education, profession, family and/or cultural beliefs, as well as politics and a host of other self-defining markers. Those of us in academia and related fields (research, museums, archives, etc.), also use primary documents and artifacts to bolster our beliefs and to prove, once and for all, that we are right — or at least closer to right than a layperson or a colleague with an opposing view.
To close that evening’s program, I asked those in the audience to mentally transport themselves to the year 2164. I then asked if they would be able to know — even with an arsenal of primary documents and artifacts before them — the intimate thoughts and beliefs that guided the actions of the 317-plus million people in the United States in 2014. Hardly. My message to the audience, and my point that evening, was simple — we know a lot about the Civil War and the people of that time, but we do not — indeed, we cannot — know everything.
Researching on my own, and listening, as I have, over the past four years to 55-plus presenters (scholars, educators, historians, actors, artists and performers), I have learned one thing about the Civil War and its legacy — we never will know most of the stories of the almost 31.5 million souls who lived in the United States in 1860. To my way of thinking, the Civil War is a mandate. We must, as best we can, and as often as we can, share our lives with those whom we feel are most different from us. Only from personal knowledge of “the other” will we ever understand it. From that understanding might come compassion, from that compassion might come respect, and from that respect might come genuine reverence for life — in all its complex, confused and conflicted manifestations.
Anthony Knight is the museum consultant for the Atlanta Cyclorama and Civil War Museum.
ON THE RECORD
Michael Thurmond, from the introduction of his 2003 book “Freedom”: “In many ways Georgia’s past became America’s prologue. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was not an isolated historical event, but the continuation of a protracted struggle that spanned more than twelve generations.”
Professor William A. Link, from “Atlanta: Cradle of the New South — race and remembering in the Civil War’s aftermath”: “In particular, blacks and whites drew different meanings from the Civil War, and both populations used these meanings to assert their own understanding of the South.”
Comments from “What Shall We Remember?,” a panel discussion at the Atlanta Cyclorama and Civil War Museum:
Historian Michael Shaffer, Kennesaw State University: “Time quells passions and affords some semblance of healing.” “A ravaged South stood in need of Northern goods and business leaders certainly understood this.” “Economics served to ease remnants of animosity between these former combatants.” African-Americans tossed aside by North-South rapprochement were left “in a veritable no-man’s land … with little hope for the future.”
Christy Coleman, co-CEO of The American Civil War Center in Richmond, Va.: “We have to remember that, in 1859, the majority of the world … operated on a system that was class-based.” “Culturally, slavery was clearly built on the notion of white supremacy and that was not solely a Southern phenomenon.”
“The rest of the world didn’t think we’d last” through the war. The rest of the world thought “that little experiment over there was going to fail.”
Coleman noted that current scholars now estimate the war’s death toll at nearly 750,000. “Think about the magnitude of that loss to both the North and South.”
“What should we remember? We should remember all of it.” “We need to remember the women who had to take up the care of their homes in the absence of their men.” “We need to remember that, as a result of this war, we really began to think about public education in a different way — that it was not just for the wealthy. These are the lessons that really allowed us to build the American character.”