Friday, I am taking the kids on a field trip to the National Military Park in Vicksburg, MS.
I grew up in Vicksburg, and much of my family is still there. It is home. And the Military Park is a big part of my history, part of me. I know which hills are best for rolling down, when to hold your breath going under a bridge (ew, bat poo!), and where the secret waterfall is.
So, in preparation for this field trip, I am trying to think about what I want to say to the kids about the Civil War. We haven’t officially studied it in school. (We’ve just reached the end of the Roman Empire… looooong way to go.) So, I need to give a quick, simple rundown.
Unfortunately, what is quick and simple about the Civil War?
I have always been conflicted about the whole thing. Slavery- bad. No doubt. If the South wasn’t going to abandon this institution, then what choice did the North have? I am anti-slavery, end of story. But, it’s more complex than that, we know. The issue of state’s rights and an expanding federal government, etc. etc. Most Southerners were too poor to even own slaves. But, what does it matter? Whatever the complex reasons for the war, slavery trumps them all. It couldn’t be allowed, and can’t be defended. You can’t get away from that fact, no matter how much or how little that was the actual reason for the war. Arguing it is a lost cause, in my opinion.
So, I understand why people fought against the South. But, I also get why people fought for the South.
Going through the military park, tracing the names etched on the monuments, reading bits and pieces of Confederate diaries and battle accounts in the museum, walking the Cairo and touching the giant, black cannons, creeping through the underground tunnels that soldiers hid in…
I love them. I love those men and boys who loved the South, who loved it so much, they died for it. They died for their homes. They died for these hills, they died in these hills. I grew up in the relics of their heartbreaking stories, surrounded by their history. Walls with bullet holes, old ruins and cemeteries, musket balls or belt buckles out in the woods. Vicksburg isn’t stuck in time, but we bear the mark of those days still. The grass has grown back green and thick, but our hills are littered with their bullets and their bones.
We grow up with ghosts.
So, it’s tricky.
We acknowledge the bad, but celebrate the good. There was good. We’re skittish of saying it these days, because it looks like we might be defending an ugly thing.
But, there is no shame in loving the South. The South doesn’t equal Slavery. We were more than that, our history is so much more than that. That’s what I want the kids to see, to understand. I don’t want them to hang their heads. I want them to roll down hills, and climb on top of the cannons, listen to the stories of people who lived and died for something. I want them to be unafraid to scratch the surface of a difficult subject. I want them to sift through the ashes, and find what was good, what there is to be proud of.
So we’ll drive the park on Friday, stopping to play here and there. We’ll stomp our feet and yell our names in the Illinois monument. We’ll run and hide in the tunnel. We’ll gaze out over the Mississippi River at Fort Hill. We’ll walk the cemetery, with its endless horizon of stone markers, and remember.
No, it’s not quick and simple.
But then, almost nothing in life is, is it?
(Image, courtesy of Vicksburg Park Essay)