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I’ve been thinking about the American Civil War lately. I’m not sure when I began, but I suspect sometime after the white nationalist demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, and their marches against the city’s effort to take down the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Or was it something else? I’m not exactly sure.

Un-Civil Wars

One day a few weeks ago, an anonymous reader dropped off a book by historian H. W. Brands, The Man Who Saved the Union–Ulysses Grant in War and Peace, while I was at lunch. Maybe he thought the hat Grant was wearing on the cover looked like mine. It doesn’t. And I have never thought much about that Civil War hero except that I once visited his tomb to answer the old rube about who was buried there.

Back in the summer of 1960, my mother for some unknown reason decided to take all four of her children on a train trip around the country. We started from Union Station in downtown Los Angeles then headed south to New Orleans, then to Washington, D.C., to New York then back by way of Chicago and over the Rocky Mountains.

While sojourning through the South, I recall a stately woman with gray hair and Southern accent call it “the war between the states not, the Civil War.” I remember asking my mother about it.

It was more of an expedition than a vacation, at least for this young boy, who was thrilled to experience anything related to the Civil War. I had books with maps and pictures, toy soldiers and even hats related to America’s bloodiest war. The statues of Confederate or Union generals were always larger than life. While sojourning through the South, I recall a stately woman with gray hair and Southern accent call it “the war between the states not, the Civil War.” I remember asking my mother about it.

This was the very same year Richard Nixon ran against John F. Kennedy and lost both the electoral vote (219 to 303) and the popular vote (49.55 to 49.72). Kennedy’s campaigning skills decisively outmatched Nixon’s, and Nixon’s emphasis on his experience carried little weight for most voters. Kennedy used his large, well-funded campaign organization to win the nomination, secure endorsements, and, with the aid of the big-city bosses, get out the vote in the big cities. Kennedy relied on Johnson to hold the South, and it was the first use of a TV debate, which Kennedy won decisively.

These were the days before the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of JFK, the march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala, and the explosion of the Vietnam War, the riots and more assassinations that followed. Before America lost its innocence and gained a conscious.

It would be eight more years before I went back to Washington, D.C. on that fateful day of April 4, 1968. I was just 17 years old and my father thought it would be good for me to travel with a group from the American Friends Service Committee to “see just how government worked.”

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First, we flew to New York City to visit the United Nations. There hung the famous Picasso painting of Guernica depicting the violence of the Spanish Civil War. From there we traveled to the capital arriving on that very day and the parents had arranged for a “integrated” dance party with some of the local teenagers. As most of us were from the white suburbs and the inner city youth in D.C. were black, it made for an engaging event.

I remember that night as a kind of blurry dream starting off with the down beat of the music and figuring out the dance moves of rhythms that were only then becoming popular across cultural divides. Then all of a sudden the news broke: Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot and killed in Memphis. The parents, shocked, tried to put the best face on things and continue the party but it was the saddest face I recall. It ended early.

Later that night, the rage of black America rose up like a storm and enveloped the ghetto that then surrounded the capital. Flames and sirens filled the night and the teenagers from the suburbs were on lockdown in the hotel. The next morning, before breakfast, I snuck out onto the National Mall with my Kodak camera only to find the National Guard protecting all the grand buildings of government. Barbed wire encircled the Supreme Court and Congress with machine guns on the steps. The smell of burnt offerings filled the air and I thought to myself, “If my dad wanted me to see how our government actually works, then I think he got more than he paid for.” The new Civil War was here and I was a witness.

These many years later, after the end of the Vietnam War, after passage of the Voting Rights Act and after Nixon had been run out of office and what most of my generation took as progress in the work of building a new America that fulfilled the vision of the martyrs from the 1960s, I find myself wondering how it is that we have so many people filled with hate now? How it is that racism turns back on us again as a grand dragon of our unsettled history devours us with the guilt of our ancestors and the blindness of our neighbors? How has this current Uncivil War of words and media, of speech used against freedom, risen from the roots of a long-dead conflict in which the Union was preserved and emancipation prevailed at the cost of 620,000 lives? Have we learned nothing from our own history or just developed amnesia?

Today, I believe, some would vie for a rematch, defending old Confederate statues out of some vainglory for the “lost cause” or fear of others. Some have not forgotten Vietnam, Korea, the first or second Iraq wars and all the other conflicts of maintaining the empire and the lies that go with them. But now I wonder if we are not cursed like Sisyphus, perpetually rolling our burden to the top of the mountain, perhaps to see the promised land, but inevitably for it to roll back down so we start over again in an existential absurdity.

In Albert Camus’ essay the Myth of Sisyphus he concludes, “The struggle itself […] is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Perhaps it is the struggle for freedom in each generation that then defines for us what exactly it means. Although I wouldn’t define it necessarily as “happiness,” but more like self-determination. And this may be all that can be asked of freedom.

james preston allen

James Preston Allen
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