Warehouse of Treason

My family and I visited Fort Sumter last week. We've lived in South Carolina longer than we've lived anywhere, and that's a pretty important spot for a house full of history buffs. So we needed to see it.

Usually when I go to a Civil War site my reaction is a mix of melancholy and introspection. The enormity of Antietam, Bull Run, Gettysburg overwhelms me. But Fort Sumter? Nothing but anger.

Fort Sumter isn't overrun with ghosts the way battlefields usually are. It's a warehouse of treason. In the museum you go through beforeheading out on the boat to the fort, there are some choice nuggets the encapsulate the rhetoric being thrown about the South prior to the siege of the Fort. Robert Barnwell Rhett wrote:

"There exists a great mistake in supposing that the people of the United States are, or even have been, one people. On the contrary, never did the sunshine on two more thoroughly distinct as the poeple of the Noth and South..."

and then—wait for it—

"Like all great nations of antiquity we are slaveholders and understand free governments. The North does not."

There's a lot of romantic equivocating that goes on today that casts the Confederacy as a struggle for freedom and a war to preserve a way of life that was being threatened by outsiders. That stance is disingenuous, and when modern politicians throw around that kind of rhetoric, they are no better that the plantation owners pretending to be civilized to couch their barbarism.

Say it plainly. The rebels did struggle for freedom: the freedom to enslave black Africans. They did fight to preserve a threatened way of life: an entire economy built on the backs of laborers who were considered property. Read what people wrote at the time. Study the laws and constitutional amendments that were proposed and debated at the time, both at the state and federal levels. Every single bit of it can be traced back to a petulant "you can never take away our right to own slaves." An equivocator will say the causes of the Civil War were varied and complex and weren't really about slavery, but about self-determination. I will agree that it was complex, but only because any large economic system is complex. Slavery was a complex system, the only problem was that it was morally indefensible. And the self-determination spoken of was the determination to own slaves. Period.

What do you do when your entire existence is revealed to be broken at its core? One solution would be to take stock and say "we have to change this, we can't do it like this anymore, and we commit ourselves to fixing it from this day forth." That would be difficult, maybe impossible. Or your could dig in your heels and commit treason, and cast yourself as martyr to outside aggression. Politician W.L. Yancey summed up this delusion pretty well:

"Ours is the property invaded; ours are the institutions at stake; ours is the peace that is to be destroyed; ours is the honor at stake... bear with us then if we... yield no position here until we are convinced we are wrong."

And we get to the core of why I get so angry at this. I hear the smug echo of "until we are convinced we are wrong." On the grounds of the South Carolina state house, where the so-called tea partiers like to gather in lawn chairs and rant about how President Obama is destroying the United States, there flies a confederate battle flag that says "you still haven't convinced us."