The jagged arc of history

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice: Names of lynched victims from different counties etched on iron blocks hung from the ceiling, bearing mute witness to shattered lives. Each block represents a county.

S. C. Gwynne’s “Hymns of the Republic” is an excellent book about the last, vicious, uncertain year of the Civil War, beginning with the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864 and ending with the proper burial of the dead in Andersonville Cemetery in May 1865. The book weaves in and out of battlefield conflicts and political developments in Washington, although the battlefields are its main focus. While character portraits of major players like Lee, Grant, Lincoln and Sherman are sharply drawn, the real value of the book is in shedding light on some underappreciated characters. There was Clara Barton, a stupendously dogged and brave army nurse who lobbied senators and faked army passes to help horrifically wounded soldiers on the front. There was John Singleton Mosby, an expert in guerilla warfare who made life miserable for Philip Sheridan’s army in Virginia; it was in part as a response to Mosby’s raids that Sheridan and Grant decided to implement a scorched earth policy that became a mainstay of the final year of the war. There was Benjamin Butler, a legal genius and mediocre general who used a clever legal ploy to attract thousands of slaves to him and to freedom; his main argument was that because the confederate states had declared themselves to be a separate country, the Fugitive Slave Act which would allow them to claim back any escaped slaves would not apply.

Important battles like Petersburg, the Wilderness (where the entire battlefield caught fire and men’s cartridge belts horrifically exploded and maimed them), Atlanta and Richmond are succinctly captured. Gwynne also talks about how several battlefield innovations, most notably the trench warfare that became prominent at Petersburg, anticipated future American tactical maneuvers as well as European maneuvers in World War 1; until then Civil War breastworks were regarded as defensive, but Grant’s aggressive policy brought them front and center as instruments of offense, and Lee’s army followed. Medicine on the battlefield was primitive and barbarically efficient – expert surgeons could tie and amputate a leg every two minutes – and a lack of knowledge of the germ theory of disease meant that surgeons would desperately operate on and amputate limbs using blood and pus-smattered smocks and instruments. Far more people predictably died through gangrene, diarrhea and infection than were killed in combat; by World War 1 that percentage was still about fifty.

The book also expertly describes the very precarious position that Lincoln was in 1864. He was coming up for reelection and had been deeply unpopular because of his insistence that peace could only come with the end of slavery. The war was not going particularly well for the North, and many people wanted him to end it right away, even if slavery could not be ended. Lincoln’s own thinking on the issue had evolved only gradually, and at the beginning his only goal was to preserve the Union; the Emancipation Proclamation which had been issued in 1863, while a revolutionary document, had also been a strategic ploy to supply the North with manpower by getting blacks drafted; ultimately almost 200,000 blacks swelled the ranks of the Union Army. In the summer of 1864, Lincoln was caught between radical Republicans on one side who thought he wasn’t doing enough to end slavery and Democrats on the other who thought he was staving off peace overtures from the South because of his stubborn obsession with ending slavery. The peace overtures were largely fiction – Jefferson Davis would have never agreed to surrender by accepting the end of slavery – and were mostly engineered by a bizarre group of renegade Confederates operating in Canada.

Lincoln himself was convinced that he was going to lose the election to George McClellan. If this had happened history would have been very different. What turned the tide was a stunning series of victories by Grant, Sheridan and especially William Tecumseh Sherman in the South. Both Sherman and Grant had the remarkable reputation of being failures in their lives and careers well into their late thirties, and their rescue and meteoric rise through the war seemed almost providential. It was in 1864 that Grant decided to implement a scorched earth policy that would give his commanders carte blanche to destroy crops, livestock and barns, free slaves and evacuate civilians from cities before torching them to the ground. This naturally caused bitter feelings of resentment among Southern civilians but also drove a stake in the heart of the South’s ability to support itself and for raiders like Nathan Bedford Forrest and Mosby to live off the land.

Gwynne’s character portrait of the ruthless, renegade Sherman is especially vivid, although he also points out Sherman as being much more subtle and accommodating in his demands than what is usually believed. Sherman was taking Grant’s “invention” of unconditional surrender to its logical end, and as he informed citizens in Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina, he would welcome them into the folds of the Union and offer them his protection if they surrendered. Sherman’s words to the mayor of Atlanta after he ordered the entire city evacuated and burnt – “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it” – have since become famous, but in reality Sherman left a lot of buildings standing and Confederate general John Bell Hood had already burnt down many of them. In their flight from Richmond the Confederates also burnt down a lot of the city before a regiment of black soldiers entered the city, even as fellow blacks that had been slaves the night before wept for joy. The scorched earth policy and direct action against civilians again foreshadowed the far more consequential and brutal actions that both the Allies and the Axis took against civilians in the Second World War.

After Grant and Sheridan had tracked down Lee’s army in Appomattox, Grant toned down his rhetoric of unconditional surrender and offered Lee and his men generous terms by which they could surrender their arms but otherwise return to their homes in peace. Apart from pressing for the end of slavery, perhaps Lincoln’s greatest achievement was in not seeking revenge and allowing the South to come back into the Union, although under strictly defined terms. The Thirteenth Amendment passed in January 1865, ending slavery. In the last public speech he gave after Lee’s surrender, Lincoln mused out loud that black and white people should now have equal citizenship and voting rights. One man who was in the audience became furious upon hearing this, and John Wilkes Booth resolved then and there to kill Lincoln, which he duly did on April 14th, only five days after Lee surrendered to Grant. A nation in mourning resolved to protect the rights of African-Americans which Lincoln and other Republicans had worked so hard to protect. Unfortunately it turned out that the gap between passing the Thirteenth Amendment and actually ensuring equal rights and citizenships for black people was almost as large as the gap between slavery and its end, and the drama accompanying the painful closing of this gap would take a hundred years to unfold.

The beginning of that long road to justice is the topic of Eric Foner’s “The Second Founding”. Foner is the foremost scholar of reconstruction, the period after the war which saw massive gains in black representation in government and in black economic and social opportunities. His book makes the case that the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments which were passed after the war ended were at least as important an event as the founding of the country, not just because they liberated black people but because they brought the entire country a little closer to forming a more perfect union that would fulfill the true meaning of the words in the Declaration of Independence. The amendments eventually opened the way to women’s suffrage, to immigration and others rights for minorities and to gay rights.

Unfortunately most of the gains promised by the amendments were undone by a weak government in Washington led by the racist Andrew Johnson and racist state governments in the South which were supported by organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. But the seeds of the transformation had already been planted, and while they would lie dormant for a century, they would bide their time. While the Thirteenth Amendment made slavery illegal, the fourteenth guaranteed equal rights and citizenship for all Americans and the Fifteenth gave all men the right to vote. The tragedy of the implications of loopholes in these amendments for African-Americans was probably matched only by the fact that they completely omitted women, just like the Constitution originally did. The Thirteenth Amendment allowed imposing servitude as punishment for crimes, while the Fifteenth banned voting only on the basis of race, leaving the way open for Southern legislatures to use all other kinds of stipulations to ban voting, including property and literacy requirements, many of which blacks who were predominantly poor found very hard to meet. The loopholes thus set up a crushing cycle of poverty and oppression for them – because they were banned from advancing on the basis of myriad pretexts ostensibly unrelated to race, they could have little say in reforming the constitutional promises that would finally make them equal citizens.

A particularly galling tragedy as Foner describes it was the active participation of the Supreme Court in enabling this injustice. The three branches of the United States government are ideally supposed to check each other’s excesses, but the post-Reconstruction era was one of those unfortunate times when they worked hand in hand to undo the dream of equality. In the twenty-five years that followed the end of the war, in case after case, the Supreme Court struck down laws that would have allowed African-Americans to realize the provisions in the three amendments. Particularly interesting is the fact that while the court could not downright endorse overt racism, they implicitly sanctioned it when it came in the guise of private property rights; for instance, racist whites in the South along with private corporations could often get away with segregating or even harming blacks by claiming it was in favor of protection against the usurping of private property; the subjugation of black rights and elevation of private corporations as “persons” thus went hand in hand. The Supreme Court’s record of the last twenty-five years of the 19th century is hardly one it can be proud of and one it should probably formally apologize for. Most consequential was the 1896 decision of Plessy vs Ferguson that officially allowed segregation in public places. One of the most important lessons to remember from history is that when violence and oppression and evil arrive – whether it was America in 1896 or Germany in 1933 – they are often legally sanctioned and anointed by the warped hands of self-righteous lawmakers and bureaucrats.

Concomitant with the legal oppression was the physical violence. The first Ku Klux Klan was started in the 1860s and lasted for about a decade. One of its founders was Nathan Bedford Forrest, the brilliant, self-taught Confederate commander who infamously orchestrated the massacre of unarmed black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow in 1864. The Klan regularly used intimidation and violence to punish blacks for even small misdemeanors. The violence saw its culmination in the horrific legacy of lynching which not just the South but the entire country bore well into the 20th century. Between the end of the Civil War and the end of World War 2, about 4000 lynchings were recorded, most of them in the South but some of them in Northern states like New York and Delaware. The unrecorded number could easily be the same. Blacks were murdered for the most trivial offenses, like being rude to a white woman or simply standing up for a fellow black man who was being unfairly targeted.

It’s as a reminder of how ugly man’s prejudice can get that the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama stands as a unique and must-see historical creation. Last month I visited the memorial and the associated museum with a few friends. The city is famous as the birthplace of the civil rights movement – the Dexter Avenue Church where Martin Luther King Jr. started his career and the bus stop where Rosa Parks took a stand are both worthwhile destinations to see – and the museum is the latest addition to its legacy. One cannot help but feel with a heavy heart the burden of history as one enters the museum and sees a brick wall right in front which was part of an auction block in the same location where slaves were bought and sold, often after being stripped naked and subjected to humiliating movements for inspection. Further along, in a dark corridor, there is a simulation of slaves inside bars who are recounting tragic stories of husbands being separated from wives and mothers who were separated from daughters; black marriages were not officially recognized, so ministers administering black unions often used the words, “until death or distance do us apart”.

The corridor opens into a large hall which displays a veritable maelstrom of horrors and injustice visited by humans upon each other. Segregation ordinances from a dozen different states fill a wall: a Maryland ordinance says that any white woman who carried the child of a black man would get a minimum of a year and a half in prison; a Florida ordinance from 1939 made it illegal for white and black people to ride together in an electric car (I suppose Florida was quite progressive at least when it came to alternative energy); a Mississippi law made it illegal to even publish literature advocating for black-white equality. A wooden centerpiece in the hall has hundreds of mason jars stacked on shelves, each one filled with soil from a particular lynching site identified by county. News pieces spread across six decades dot an extensive wall, along with photos that gradually make the spectacle seem surreal. One news article talks about an impending lynching that evening and admits that the local police and lawmakers are simply helpless to prevent it; more likely, they thought the victim deserved it. One photo has a close up of a lynching crowd standing beneath a hung man, with a boy who must be not older than ten smiling. Perhaps the most poignant photo has bodies of a mother and son hanging together from a bridge, spectators gingerly standing, talking, smiling, pointing. Lynching not just as seemingly righteous justice but as spectator sport, destroying entire families at the drop of a rope. One strains to look away but cannot. The museum store had copies of “Without Sanctuary” by James Allen and others, which is perhaps the most comprehensive photographic chronicle of this gruesome legacy, containing hundreds of high-quality photographs from throughout the country; the photo with the little boy smiling graces its cover. Since I bought it I haven’t been able to bring myself to crack it open. I have visited Dachau where an equally big if not bigger crime was committed, and I have read hundreds of books about the Holocaust and about war and civil rights, but perhaps it’s the long history and the geographic familiarity of lynching in my own country that etches a deeper line in my brain.

About a mile from the museum is the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a monument to a dark legacy that’s unlike anything in the country; between it and the slavery museum, about a million people have visited in just one year. The memorial occupies a gently sloping hill, and the inclination makes it possible to take in complete views that a flat landscape might not allow one to. The essence of the memorial is the presence of thousands of large, rusty, iron blocks hung from the ceiling. You can enter this superstructure and feel like you are in a maze, the maze of dark history and remembrance. Each block has a singular list of names etched on it – names of victims of lynching from every county in the United States. Some have five names, some have fifty. The county which I called home in Georgia when I was in graduate school there has a few. Many of the counties in the South are named after some of the country’s foremost proponents of freedom – Jefferson, Madison, Monroe. The supreme irony of lynching someone in a county named after a founding father who wrote about individual rights in the constitution probably did not even occur to the people who did the deed. Foot after foot, seemingly endless, the blocks keep on going. At first they are at body height, after a while they extend up to the ceiling so that you are below them, perhaps signifying the ascension of those unfortunate souls to their righteous places, perhaps signifying the great weight of history crushing you, many-fold heavier than those rusty iron blocks. It is impossible not to be moved by this remarkable display, just as it is impossible not to be deeply moved by the dark granite block outside that has the imploring, outstretched hands of faceless slaves emerging from its innards. Just next to the exit on a wall are Martin Luther King’s immortal words about the long moral arc of the universe (originally attributed to 19th century abolitionist minister Theodore Parker), but as you leave this indelible spot you can’t help but ask yourself the question, “Why is the arc so heartbreakingly long?”

It seems incongruent to reconcile Alabama’s role in some of the great sins visited on this country with the warm people we met there and the grand architecture. Most emblematic of the latter dissonance was our trip to the magnificent state capitol. Grand columns in the Greek revival style imposingly look upon the city from a hill. But one notices the cracks right away, not so much in the architecture as in the two statues in front – one of Jefferson Davis and the other of J. Marion Sims. Davis was of course the president of the Confederate States of America; Sims was one of the foremost doctors of his times, pioneering important techniques for resolving complications during childbirth, but also controversial for his work on enslaved black women as test subjects. More glaringly, the Alabama capitol was also the site where not only did Jefferson David take his oath as Confederate President, but where George Wallace gave his infamous “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” speech at his 1963 inauguration. And right next to the capitol is a Confederate Monument with statues of Confederate soldiers, at whose feet are engraved sentimental poems written to commemorate them. There is no mention of the cause for which the soldiers were fighting.

This is a place steeped in beautiful, terrible, complicated, often amusing history. Upon crossing the street east of the capitol building, you come across a dainty little house which was the first White House of the Confederacy. It housed Jefferson Davis and his family for a few months before the Confederate capital moved to Richmond. The house is filled with rooms preserved with odd trinkets and heirlooms, including Davis’s sword, the Confederate Flag which was laid on top of his coffin and, more dubiously, a bloodied sock. The museum is well organized and nicely decorated and worth a visit, but most visitors who go there come with their own agenda. On the front lawn we met the curator of the museum, Robert Wieland, an energetic and garrulous man in his fifties or early sixties who was hands down the funniest history tour guide I have ever met; a trip to the confederate white house is worthwhile just to talk to him.

Bob who is as passionate about his subject as anyone I have met regaled us with tales of some of the 20,000 or so visitors the building sees every year. He lamented that the study of history as an academic discipline which one studies the way one would study astronomy and entomology seems to be in decline, and it seems increasingly hard for people to study the field without wearing some kind of ideological glasses. On one hand, some of the visitors who visit the place seem to be still ideologically fighting the Civil War (“Dial down the Reb”, is Bob’s take on these), while on the other hand are people from the other side of the fence, including one academic from a prominent Northeastern university who visited with his students and asked them to avoid even going inside, pointing out the building as some kind of Eye of Sauron whose only fate should be complete destruction. Both these attitudes are rather silly, a result of being unable to see history as a field to be objectively studied and analyzed. American historiography has traditionally been a symbol of academic excellence, and both Bob and I worry about the way history is seen only through a political sense, both in American universities and in the public sphere.

So how should one think about the Civil War and especially the South? Perhaps as someone who did not have ancestors who fought in the war, I may have the luxury of adopting a more neutral viewpoint. As much as many people would like it to be, this remains a complicated question with many answers. Slavery was at the center of the South’s motivations for going to war, as is evidenced in the secession documents and the words of the protagonists themselves; even if states rights might have been the purported cause, the principal states’ right that Southern leaders were talking about had at its center, the perpetuation of slavery. At the same time, as the eminent historian Shelby Foote says, saying that the war had everything to do with slavery is almost as wrong as saying that the war had nothing to do with slavery.

Almost any utterance about the war threatens to be simplistic and, well, too black and white in a sense. Broad generalizations which are often true still hide microscopic contradictions and complexities. For instance, even a seemingly non-controversial statement such as “Union soldiers fought to end slavery” pushes under the rug the complex motivations of these soldiers, which ranged from simply saving the Union and not caring one bit about slavery to full-fledged abolition. The former attitude was the same one Lincoln had for many years and the latter was quite rare. For many years abolitionists in the North were loathed as extremists. True belief in black-white equality was a belief that only a handful of people in the North shared. Similarly, while the South was consistently rallied around the desire to preserve slavery, Southerners also displayed a set of beliefs that were more complicated than simplistic stereotypes. Some people thought more highly about states’ rights than others, others simply worried about what would happen to their families if war were to come. Many poor white Southerners of course did not own slaves, and their reasons for preserving slavery were often economic since they believed that freed black people would flood the labor market and lower wages, which was also a belief that many in the North shared.

Sentiments among the Confederate leadership also varied, with some leaders being more plainly racist and wedded to slavery than others. Robert E. Lee resented slavery more than some of his compatriots, but it did not reflect in his release of his father-in-laws’ slaves way later than what had been stipulated in his will. Ultimately, historian David Potter who wrote the definitive, Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the antebellum era put it best when he said that the relevant question is not whether slavery ignited the Civil War, whether the North was against it and the South was for it, but where exactly slavery lay in the many competing set of issues that each side nurtured and fought for. And one may well weep for individual lives lost, for families shattered and sons and husbands torn away, without condoning the cause they were fighting for. In my mind, the commemoration of sentimental memorials to honor the memory of those who died does not contradict the stain of slavery which the South fought to preserve. The truth may lie on two sides of the fence, but it is multifaceted itself.

Whatever the motivations, the war left 620,000 dead at the end and hundreds of thousands more crippled, destitute and struggling to find meaning. For some time it seemed that meaning would emerge from the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, but as Foner and others describe, the promise seemed to slip away just as it was close from materializing. A hundred years later, the full realization of that mythical promise must surely have been on John Lewis’s mind as he put an apple, an orange, toothbrush, toothpaste and two books in his backpack and prepared to march across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama; the backpack would hold enough sustenance for at least one night in jail.

Selma had been picked by voting rights activists as a testing ground for non-violent resistance, in part because of the known brutality of its sheriff Jim Clark, a vicious bull of man with a grim face who would give no quarter when confronted. On March 7, 1965, John Lewis along with Ralph Abernathy, Diane Nash and Hosea Williams set off from the Brown Chapel for the 20 minute or so march across the bridge. As they approached the center of the bridge, they saw Clark and Alabama State Troopers standing on the other side, wielding billy clubs and tear gas. What happened next was captured by hundreds of cameras and broadcast to a shocked nation through the new medium of television; the state troopers and local police charged Lewis’s group, running them into the ground with their horses, cracking their skulls and blinding them, effecting a hasty, confused, bleeding retreat. Two weeks later Martin Luther King Jr. led another march with Lewis and others from Selma under the watchful eye of National Guard troops sent by President Lyndon Johnson and culminated it at the same state capitol where Jefferson Davis had been sworn in and where George Wallace had given his infamous speech.

As we started to retrace Lewis and others’ steps from the Brown Chapel to the other side of the bridge I felt an acute feeling of shame and embarrassment; it was impossible to even vicariously live the experience that this hallowed ground saw on that momentous March day, and to even pretend to feel what those activists must have felt seemed like an insult to them. The feeling of embarrassment was followed by one of shock as we walked the few blocks to the bridge. Selma is mortifyingly depressed, with rusted corrugated roofs and crumbling brick buildings everywhere. A small memorial commemorates the place where Boston minister James Reeb was brutally murdered by white supremacists after the second march. Racial tension may have abated in Selma, but poverty is rampant. The town seems to be frozen in the 1960s, and the fine folks at the National Park Service building who now service the bridge told us that most people like us simply come to Selma in March every year to check out the bridge, especially after Obama put it back on the map by recreating the march on its 50th anniversary in 2015. The tourists come, take a few pictures and then go back. And then nothing. The ghost town continues its faded existence as usual.

It took us only about ten minutes to walk over the bridge, ten minutes which in 1965 made history. A truck with two little Confederate Flags sped past us. The bridge is surprisingly tall and the Alabama River surprisingly wide. The drop from the center down to the river is about a hundred feet; as Lewis and his fellow activists saw the state troopers on the other side that day, they wondered what would be the best way to jump into the water. At that height they would have been severely injured at the very minimum, if not worse. On the other side of the bridge there is a voting rights museum which struggles so hard to keep the lights on that it cannot stay open all day long; there was a young man who was selling trinkets across from it who told us that he could call the museum curator and have him open it for us if we were interested. We did not think it right to call at such late notice. The young man told us he’s trying to raise money for the museum and other places around the bridge so that more people would come and stay there. His grandfather lost an eye while marching with John Lewis on that bridge on that Bloody Sunday of 1965.

The historic route from Selma to Montgomery is beautiful; rolling fields and hills, cows quietly grazing, a gentle breeze flowing. But every once in a while you get an eerie feeling, and it’s easy to miss because you are driving by so quickly. Every once in a while, hidden in the fertile black soil of Alabama, appear wisps of cotton, looking fresh and dainty, ready to be picked and harvested. A hundred years ago all of those fields would have been cotton, ready to be picked and harvested, sustained by the backbreaking work of slaves with hunger in their bellies and welts on their backs. A tiny glimpse of the past, thankfully gone and yet leaving echoes of its existence in this beautiful, haunting place filled with lovely people and a complicated past. When I got back I was puzzled to find people ask me why on earth I would visit Alabama and the South instead of nicer places like New York and Seattle. And in that question lies perhaps the crux of our problems and our division, the fact that people in Alabama would not visit San Francisco and people in San Francisco would not visit Alabama, not because either are bad people but because, driven in part by convenient sound bytes on social media, they seem to have compressed the complicated reality of both places into simplistic caricatures. In that case, the only reasonable answer when someone asks why anyone would visit Alabama would be: “Why on earth would you not?”