I spent much of last spring and early summer reading Shelby Foote’s three-volume history on the Civil War, and now I’m glad that I did.
I have visited the history of many places and times, but the Civil War has been of constant interest, beginning early in my adult life.
As I look back on it, that early reading was surface stuff, names of people, places and dates. Maps showing troop movements, territory gained and lost, and prominent landmarks helped illustrate four years of our nation’s struggle.
Numbers of those killed, wounded and captured on both sides added dimensions to the images I brought away from my reading.
Foote’s Civil War, presented in greater detail across some 3,000 pages, contrasted somewhat with that earlier reading.
Yes, it was the same war, with the same generals testing their military strategies with the same victories and defeats over the identical pieces of territory I’d encountered earlier.
But Foote stirred in so much more of the human side of those involved, from those guiding the sruggle at the top to those battling toe-to-toe in farms, fields and forests across their young nation.
Through his writing, motivations and aspirations become more visible. The economic and political foundations taking shape in two very different parts of what had been abruptly formed as one entity become more sharply defined.
They were drastically different, and it would have taken exceptional leadership to build and sustain a country of such disparate parts.
Slavery is there in all its oppressive ugliness. But so is respect for the human condition and a desire to nurture it in ways that would best serve this new nation.
We know what we’ve become since that war ended as we’ve realized many of our proclaimed goals and fallen short of others.
Foote sets the stage for all this and out of it, in part, comes our justification for erecting statues of imperfect human beings on the one hand and denouncing their best efforts to bring our nation into existence on the other.
Personally, I find in all this a context in which to assess the hateful language of so much of our present political speech.
I wish it weren’t part of what our nation is at this point, but it is. At the same time I disagree with those who seek to erase it from our consciousness.
We need to remind ourselves – again – that we can learn from an honest examination of our past, good and bad, and be better for that.
What might be learned from a sharply-divided nation of the 19th Century that could benefit a similarly divided nation in the 21st Century?
I have seen suggestions that rather than destroying the statues of those with whom we disagree, we should bring them to a neutral space shared with the statues of those who would denounce them.
In their midst perhaps we could find the opportunity for an honest assessment of our past, good and bad.
Cliff Rowe is a retired journalist and journalism professor. (He practiced both in a time before journalists and what they produced were considered “enemies of the people.”) He and his family have lived in the Shorewood area of White Center (then Burien) since 1969 when they returned to the Northwest after seven years in the Chicago area. There, following graduate school, he wrote and edited with the Chicago Sun-Times and with Paddock Publications in the Chicago suburbs. On moving here, he was with The Seattle Times for 11 years before turning to teaching journalism at Pacific Lutheran University for 35 years, retiring in 2015.