I’ve been semi-obsessed with the CIvil War for the last couple of years. It’s been more in the public consciousness of late, since today is the 150th anniversary of South Carolina firing on Fort Sumter and starting the military stage of a war which had been a long time in coming. When I read this morning that the city of Charleston, SC is celebrating the anniversary with mock barrages and multiple surrenders timed to coincide with tour boats, I wasn’t surprised, really. I grew up in an area that celebrated the Lost Cause, that referred to the Civil War as The War of Northern Aggression much of the time–the more liberal called it The War Between the States.
And for much of my life, I didn’t really challenge the narrative I’d been fed. My parents were anything but racist–they were members of one of the earliest integrated churches in the south and actively pushed back against members of their congregations who were still drowning in the waters of the Old South–but they weren’t interested in history, so they didn’t have the necessary tools to fight the Lost Cause myths that surrounded us. They were more interested in the now and the near future, since they believed that the End Times were upon us and that racism wouldn’t be an issue in a post-Armageddon world. That’s another story though.
When I saw that piece on Charleston’s celebration, I thought about the Hugh MacDiarmid poem “Another Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries.” Here it is for you to take a look at:
Another Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries
It is a God-damned lie to say that these
Saved, or knew, anything worth a man’s pride.
They were professional murderers and they took
Their blood money and impious risks and died.
In spite of all their kind some elements of worth
With difficulty persist here and there on earth.
Now, MacDiarmid was writing about the British Expeditionary Force, and his own politics were apparently kind of icky, but I think this poem fits the way I’ve come to look at the South’s role in the Civil War in some ways.
There’s one obvious difference–the South’s armies were not made up of “professional murderers” in any sense of the term. They were volunteers or conscripts, not professional army, and so their pay was hardly “blood money” in the way MacDiarmid uses the term. But the rest of the poem seems sort of fitting to me.
It’s important to be clear about what the South was fighting for. It wasn’t tax policy and it wasn’t the federal government meddling with their inner workings as states. The South had written the last tariff and was perfectly happy to let the federal government meddle with state laws as long as they involved sending fugitive slaves back to their owners. No, the only state right the South was willing to shed blood over was the right to own other human beings. The statements of secession all mention it, and it’s one of the core differences between the US Constitution and the one adopted by the Confederates.
And even once they’d lost the war, Southerners did their best (and the North did not try to stop them post-Reconstruction) to return the freed slaves to as close a status to slavery as could be found. They pushed a narrative of white supremacy that we’re still dealing with today and which strongly informs the Birther contingent of the Republican party. Yes, I’d say that “it is a God-damned lie that these / Saved, or knew, anything worth a man’s pride.” There’s nothing noble or grand about what the South was fighting for. And the end of the poem works to describe them as well. There are some “elements of worth” that persist, but not because of those who fought on the side of the South and who are determined to whitewash that history, but rather in spite of them.
Kelli Agodon is organizing this again, and since I have a book of my own this year, I figure I might as well get in on it. I’ll be giving away one copy of my book and one copy of Derek Walcott’s White Egrets. If you’re interested in them, just leave a comment with a valid email address linked to your name. Don’t put your email address in the comment–poetry is awesome, but it’s not worth exposing yourself to spammers. On May 1 or thereabouts, I’ll randomly select a winner and get a mailing address from them, and mail the books. Mine will be signed as well.
Happy National Poetry Month 2011!