Thursday, April 9, 2015


One hundred and fifty years ago today, on April 9, 1865, the bloodiest war fought on North American soil came to an end. But while the fighting ended, the hostilities were only just beginning.

We are taught in school that Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant of the Union in the Virginia village of Appomattox Court House, effectively ending the Civil War.  (Joseph Johnston of the Confederacy surrendered to William T. Sherman of the Union soon after in North Carolina.)  The terms were fair; the defeated soldiers were given rations and allowed to keep their horses for their farms, while the officers were allowed to return home as well.  There would be no trials for treason, and Lee himself went on to become president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) in Virginia (though he undoubtedly would have succeeded Jefferson Davis as President of the Confederacy had the South won).
But, in the 150 years since, it seems like the only Southerners who actually surrendered to the North were Lee and Johnston.  The South remained a very different place from the rest of the country, holding onto its rustic culture, its racist attitude toward blacks, its fundamentalist take on Christianity, its indifference toward workers' rights, and its general intolerance of any form of social welfare or public amenity.  Southerners had to be dragged kicking and screaming into recognizing civil rights in the 1960s; ironically, the breakdown of legal segregation led the South to grow and prosper in the 1970s and beyond, as many businesses began investing there. Some of our finest leaders - Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton - have been Southerners, and the South's contributions to American culture have been many over the years.  (Rock and roll, anyone?  Elvis?)  But in many ways, the South remains the most conservative area of the country, and when you see voter restrictions in Pennsylvania, a failure to expand Medicaid in Maine, and a right-to-work law in Wisconsin (which also has restricted voting and refused to expand Medicaid), you have to wonder who really won the Civil War . . . or if it ever really ended.
Let me say again that there are many decent Southerners who are enlightened, thoughtful individuals who are products of the New South and not of the New Right.  But even they ought to understand just how the Old South still hangs on.  Consider the 1972 movie Deliverance - about four Atlanta businessmen who go whitewater rafting on a river which will soon be dammed to form a lake in the name of progress, flooding the the valley and eliminating the rapids.  They come across a pair of mountain men . . . and that's where I'm going to leave it for those who haven't seen it.  I'll only say this: What happens next and thereafter demonstrates how the South, like the rest of America, can't escape its past.  All we can do about our past is acknowledge it and learn from it.

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