The Colonial Theater in Pittsfield, Massachusetts is an interesting place, with or without a performance on its stage. Once an ornate opera house, it’s been remodeled and expanded to include an old auto dealership as lobby. The theater sits maybe 100 yards off the town common in a town that's struggling to hold onto its historic roots while it finds a way to fit into the 21st century. You may have seen the Colonial in a PBS program featuring a recent performance by singer James Taylor.
In New England (and throughout the South, as well) most towns -- large or small – have a square, or common, containing a Civil War memorial that lists the names of those who fought and never came home. Since things don’t change very quickly around here, descendants of those dead often remain in the region. Commons are the focal points of towns, so those monuments get a certain amount of attention.
Back inside the theater, I learned more about Elvis than I ever wanted to know, and enjoyed almost every minute. While we relived the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s through song and dance, both singers/actors stressed Elvis’ strong religious faith and his commitment to his country. He was a true patriot, they said.
At the end of the show, they returned to that thought. A drumbeat rumbled from the rear of the stage, the organ swelled and photos of fireworks flashed on the screen behind the band. Here comes the finale, I thought, assuming we were about to hear “The Star Spangled Banner“or “God Bless America.” Instead, we were all invited to stand up and sing “Dixie.”
After the show, the cast came out to the lobby for photos and handshakes. I went up to the music director, told him how much I enjoyed the evening but mentioned that I thought “Dixie” was a poor song choice, especially in an area that supplied much of the cannon fodder for the Civil War. I suggested he take a look at the monument down the block. He didn’t seem to know what I was talking about.
So, this week we’ve got Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) declaring April as Confederate History Month in Virginia, in hopes that designation will bring much-needed tourist dollars to the state while it helps Virginians "understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War."
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I hope it helps them understand that, when you fight to defend your right to buy, own and sell other human beings, you can expect to be countered with ferocity. Thank goodness! Just think for a moment what our world might be like today if the South had won!
I hope Confederate History Month helps them understand that, while this country paid dearly in human life to keep the union together, Union armies lost far more men than the Confederacy, (364,511 USA/ 260,000 CSA). In some cases, small northern towns lost all or most of their young males.
All tolled, about 700,000 military were killed, along with many civilians. Not all died by the gun. Many perished from disease, starvation, exposure, prison and even sun stroke.
I hope it gives them even an inkling of what it must have been like to have lived as a slave. Most of all, I hope it helps them understand what five years of bloodshed, the assassination of a president and 100+ years of glorification of rebelliousness has accomplished.
Whole counties in the South were turned into graveyards. Farm land, homes, forests and fields were destroyed. In fact, it wasn’t until after World War II (almost 100 years later) that the South was able to rebuild a decent economy, this time without the help of forced labor.
Thanks to forward-thinking, hard-working southerners, many, many US dollars to build infrastructure, and a healthy influx of skilled immigrants, the south rebounded and became an attractive place to live and work, eventually. In the last half of the last century, thousands of young northerners flocked to Atlanta, Miami and Orlando for job opportunities. Older northerners and mid-westerners retired to Florida, Tennessee and South Carolina, bringing their pensions with them. The weather, the relaxed lifestyle, the music and other unique cultural aspects of the region have made the South a popular international tourist destination, as well. Think Savannah, New Orleans (before Katrina) and Key West.
Who needs to celebrate death and destruction to boost tourism? What’s there to understand about slaughter?
I have to tell you that I have ancestors who fought on both sides of the Civil War, although most were Union soldiers. At least one died in Andersonville Prison. I’ve never spent one minute thinking about avenging their deaths.
But, then, my family has been in this country and fought in more wars than most and, at least domestically, has stood on both sides of the line. I know for a fact they fought and some died in the French and Indian War, Revolutionary War, Mexican-American War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Gulf War. I have friends in Iraq. So what?
I bet everyone in this country could trace ancestors back to wars SOMEWHERE. In many places in the world, people still mourn losses their clans suffered 1,000 years ago.
I don’t know about you, but I can only have empathy for and understand those involved in wars that have touched my life personally, where my family or friends fought or died. The impact of the Holocaust extends beyond borders and directly touched the lives of many still alive today. That, I understand. Beyond the Holocaust, my personal reach doesn’t go back 145 years, nor does it skip continents.
If we must all keep kindling the cinders of the Civil War, let us at least be fair about it. Don't forget the Union Army dead, and I'm not talking about Memorial Day, which might as well be renamed National BBQ Day. Maybe Pennsylvania and New York should market their Civil War dead, since they had the most casualties of any states. And, let’s not forget American Indians, blacks and foreign mercenaries who fought. Will they get their months?
And, while we’re at it, why limit our focus to the US Civil War? There are so many other slaughters to “understand.”
Since many Germans emigrated to Ohio in the 18th and 19th centuries, they might want to consider sponsoring November as Nazi History Month to help the world understand “the sacrifices of [its] leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of [World War II).”
Considering how much murder and mayhem this world has suffered, the list could go on and on.
As for the glory of rebels, some of that bloodshed can certainly be traced to those who fought to reclaim land lost generations ago, a cause they were encouraged to fight and kill for. Think Bosnia, think Chechnya, think the Basque, think Rwanda. Can you romanticize a Rwandan raping and murdering in Darfur?
Do you think Russians someday will set aside Chechnya History Month, commemorating those courageous Chechen rebels who sacrificed their lives right after they slaughtered children in the Beslan school on September 1, 2004? Or the time in 2002 when Chechens held hostage a concert hall that led to the deaths of 170 and injuries to 700 so they could let the world know how unhappy they were being part of Russia?
I’m sorry for what those people (on both sides) went through and am grateful I didn’t suffer with them. But, there isn’t time enough in mine or anyone's life to devote to righting all the wrongs of the past, especially when there’s so much work for us to do for the present and the future.
Even without widespread conflict in the US, life is hard enough. We live under constant threat. Our domestic murder rate is obscene. Our sons, daughters, brothers and sisters fight in foreign lands that still play out the bloody consequences of ancient grudges. Isn’t that enough?
There’s so much work to do in and on this country, and so many global problems we need consider. We're an important player on a world stage. We have a very urgent to-do list. How much better it would be if we stopped wallowing in losses we never directly suffered and worked on those that really, really count today.
Instead of celebrating the courage and sacrifices of those who started and lost a war 150 years ago, why not work to heal the remaining wounds, and strive in a deliberate and meaningful way to prevent future blood baths?
Give it up, Virginia, and get on with tomorrow.