Tony Horwitz: The 150-Year War





[Tony Horwitz is the author of “Confederates in the Attic” and the forthcoming “Midnight Rising: John Brown’s Raid and the Start of the Civil War.”]

MY attic office is walled with books on Lincoln and Lee, slavery and secession. John Brown glares from a daguerreotype on my desk. The Civil War is my sanctum — except when my 7-year-old races in to get at the costume box. Invariably, he tosses aside the kepi and wooden sword to reach for a wizard cloak or Star Wars light saber.

I was born in a different era, the late 1950s, when the last Union drummer boy had only just died and plastic blue-and-gray soldiers were popular toys. In the 1960s, the Civil War centennial recalled great battles as protesters marched for civil rights and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. declared from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, “One hundred years later, the Negro still is not free.”

Today the Civil War echoes at a different register, usually in fights over remembrance. Though Southern leaders in the 1860s called slavery the cornerstone of their cause, some of their successors are intent on scrubbing that legacy from memory. Earlier this year in Virginia, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell proclaimed April to be Confederate History Month without mentioning slavery, while the state’s Department of Education issued a textbook peddling the fiction that thousands of blacks had fought for the South. Skirmishes erupt at regular intervals over flags and other emblems, like “Colonel Reb,” whom Ole Miss recently surrendered as its mascot. The 1860s also have a particular resonance at election time, as the country splits along political and cultural lines that still separate white Southern voters from balloters in blue Union states....

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