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.

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7 replies on “CLIFF’S EDGE: Putting history in a contemplative place”

  1. Thanks for your thoughtful post Cliff. Phew! That was some massive reading you were doing! I enjoy history, but the Civil War has always scared me. Mostly because it was so recently and people tend not to acknowledge that. We are such a young country. (To say nothing of how young the state of Washington is!) We are only a few generations away from that terrible time in this country’s history. It’s challenging to imagine what this country would be like today, if all those young men had not lost their lives.
    I’m okay with acknowledging that times change and it is hard to judge people by today’s rules of society. Still one needs to think twice about who we honor. There are great men who are flawed and thus lose their place as honored forefathers. They have a place in history, for their military command and perhaps brilliance, but not so much their deeds.
    I’m okay with them being remembered as a part of our country’s history, just not an honored part of it. Perhaps they are best remembered in museums and history books.
    Walt Whitman is a favorite of mine. I have looked at the Civil War through his eyes and found it very immediate and terribly sad. Perhaps if it were taught with all of it’s tragedy we would not be doomed to repeat it. We need our brave men. But, we also need to not lose our brave men. They are generally the ‘best and the brightest’ and we need them to lead us in good times. Lead in the development of this still young country.
    Will be looking for next Friday’s post Cliff!

    1. Very well said, sir (I’m assuming that “sir.”) I appreciate the thought you have given to this subject that is so important as we assess what we have done in this young nation and how well or how poorly we have done it. Thank you for your input.

      1. Thank you for your kind words Cliff. I am a bit female, but who’s to know with a moniker like ‘Clean It Up!’
        I too am interested in Eric’s post below about the “Ben Butler” play. Sounds like lively production. Glad to know about it!
        On a side note, I was just reading that Sand Point was first surveyed for homesteading in 1855. Actual homesteaders were not onsite for another 13 years. How in their wildest dreams could they have imagined the rapid change of Washington Territory!?! One can only wonder what another 100 years will bring? And still to be a rather young country!

  2. From September 29 through October 22, 2017, BAT is producing “Ben Butler.” It is recent play (a Northwest premiere) about the practical end of slavery. The show is about the events of May 23, 1861, at Fort Monroe. This is a piece of history that I did not know about, even though I have read quite a bit about the Civil War.
    Almost unbelievable to me, this play about the Civil War and slavery that quotes freely from actual transcripts is a comedy. Two quick-witted men, one black and one white, and their innate stubbornness radically change the course of U.S. history and the purpose of the North’s cause. This look at a key decision in the Civil War is part comedy, part historical drama and part biography, often all at once, and sometimes none of those. A simultaneously thought-provoking and sidesplitting story of equality and the politics of race in America.
    Check out details at http://www.burienactorstheatre.org.

    1. Thanks for this information, Eric. I hadn’t heard of it, and the concept is intriguing, as I suspect the story will be as well. I’m going to try to get to it.

  3. Part of the problem is those who claim those particular statues as “history” or “heritage” Cliff. You fell for it.
    To understand what those statues are really about, you need to do some reading about what happened after 1865. In partcular, reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Lost Cause. None of those statue were erected until around the turn of the 19th century, long after the civil war.
    There is no attempt to “erase” the history of the civil war. That belongs in museums, and is still taught as part of American History, last I checked.

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