Between sleep and waking: yesterday I woke with four syllables in my mind: Appomattox. (That’s the place where General Grant finally cornered General Lee). It was a dream about writing.
Even though 1865 is more than 100 years after ‘my period’, I rewatched the Ken Burns’ Civil War episode featuring General Lee’s surrender, in part to see why my dreams would use this specific place name. So, I listened again to Mary Chestnut’s heartbreak at the fall of Richmond; to how a cavalry of black soldiers escorted Lincoln not long after; to how the KKK was born almost exactly as the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified into law. It’s a moving episode highlighting the extraordinary cost of that war.
I am rambling here, but I want to end with recent scholarly recommendations about vocabulary, indicating how we are ‘in between’ myth and a greater truth about our history:
Edward Baptist (Cornell) has provided new terms with which to speak about slavery. In his 2014 book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books), he rejects “plantations” (a term pregnant with false memory and romantic myths) in favor of “labor camps”; instead of “slave-owners” (which seems to legitimate and rationalize the ownership of human beings), he uses “enslavers.” Small changes with big implications.
[L]et us drop the word “Union” when describing the United States side of the conflagration, as in “Union troops” versus “Confederate troops.” Instead of “Union,” we should say “United States.” By employing “Union” instead of “United States,” we are indirectly supporting the Confederate view of secession wherein the nation of the United States collapsed, having been built on a “sandy foundation” (according to rebel Vice President Alexander Stephens). In reality, however, the United States never ceased to exist. The Constitution continued to operate normally; elections were held; Congress, the presidency, and the courts functioned; diplomacy was conducted; taxes were collected; crimes were punished; etc. Yes, there was a massive, murderous rebellion in at least a dozen states, but that did not mean that the United States disappeared. The dichotomy of “Union v. Confederacy” is no longer acceptable language; its usage lends credibility to the Confederate experiment and undermines the legitimacy of the United States as a political entity. The United States of America fought a brutal war against a highly organized and fiercely determined rebellion – it did not stop functioning or morph into something different. We can continue to debate the nature and existence of Confederate “nationalism,” but that discussion should not affect how we label the United States during the war.
Michael Todd Landis, an Assistant Professor of History at Tarleton State University specializing in the intersection of slavery and politics in the 19th century United States, is the author of Northern Men with Southern Loyalties: The Democratic Party and the Sectional Crisis (Cornell, 2014).
Meanwhile, we find ourselves on the verge of spring, when there hasn’t really been a winter. In my yard, the crocus have been blooming since mid-February. Still, the birds gladdened the air this morning. I walked out for the paper at around 5:15 (thank you, Finn, the furry alarm clock) and reveled in their songs and the smell of rain.
And, apropos of dirt (which I just read might have healing properties merely by squishing a clump in your hand — Atlantic Magazine, The Nature Cure), I made a recent decision, one that makes me feel good. I will focus all my gardening energies this year on the side and front yards, areas where Finn has no access. I hope this will offset some of the discouragement about the dirt-mess the backyard has become.