In Alexandria, Va., there is a bronze plaque that one would think should embarrass the residents of that city almost as much as the prominent statue of murderer Pancho Villa embarrasses us Tucsonans. And yet it doesn't.
In the early days of the Civil War, a giant Confederate flag flew over the Marshall House hotel in Alexandria, and due to the size of the flag and the geography of the surrounding area, the flag could be seen by President Abraham Lincoln when he looked out the window of the White House. In May 1861, United States troops crossed the Potomac River and took control of Alexandria. Among other things, they grabbed Robert E. Lee's home, Arlington, and turned it into a national cemetery.
Leading the troops was the ridiculously young (24-year-old) Col. Elmer Ellsworth, a personal protégé of Lincoln's. As Ellsworth led his men toward the telegraph office, he couldn't resist stopping by the Marshall House to deal with the offending flag. Ellsworth himself burst up the stairs to the roof of the establishment and took the flag down. As he descended the stairs, the proprietor of the place, a racist secessionist named James Jackson, fired a shotgun blast into Ellsworth's chest, killing him instantly.
Ellsworth's men, in turn, killed Jackson. Lincoln was devastated by the heinous event and actually presided over Ellsworth's funeral, which took place in the East Room of the White House.
As for the plaque, there is no mention of Ellsworth, but it does refer to Jackson as "the first martyr to the cause of Southern Independence," and adds, "the justice of history does not allow his name to be forgotten."
It makes you want to fly to Alexandria just to hock a loogie. And then to forget that guy's name.
We're all going to be subjected to a lot of revisionist-history nonsense this year, for 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. I'll admit that, over the years, I've grown tired of listening to otherwise-intelligent people try to explain how the Confederate flag is not a racist symbol, or how the Civil War wasn't really about a bunch of people willing to fight and die to retain the "right" to own other human beings.
I once thought it funny, but now it's just sad. And with the emergence of the Tea Party as a political entity, this year, it's going to be sad and loud. We're undoubtedly going to be subjected to a never-ending chorus of "states' rights!" in a pathetic attempt to defend the indefensible. States' rights to do what, exactly? To base an entire economy and society around the treatment and use of human beings as livestock?
It's understandable that Southerners would honor their war dead. Even after 150 years, no one wants to admit that their ancestors died defending an ignoble cause. But ignoble, it most certainly was.
Some lamely argue that the Civil War wasn't entirely about slavery, and that there were peripheral issues. There were indeed issues that didn't directly have the word "slavery" in them, but the specter of the abomination cast its shadow over everything. Virtually every significant political action of the four decades leading up to the Civil War—from the Missouri Compromise to the Wilmot Proviso, the Kansas-Nebraska Act to the Dred Scott Decision—involved slavery in one way or another.
Furthermore, does anybody sincerely believe that the Civil War would have happened if slavery hadn't existed? That the nation would have split in two, and the lives of 650,000 men would have been lost, over commerce disputes? Unlikely.
It's heartbreaking imagining how many potential Mark Twains or Thomas Edisons or Stephen Fosters were lost in that awful war, and for what? So that some racists could squeeze a few more years out of a system that never should have existed anywhere on Earth, let alone in the United States, a system so vile that it did not deserve to be defended at the cost of even one drop of human blood?
Even if the lofty goals of more civil dialogue are met, that does not mean that Confederate apologists should be allowed to peddle their whitewashed drivel with complete impunity. Falsehoods that go unchallenged in the public arena have a tendency to coalesce into something with a false veneer of respectability.
There aren't two sides to the issue of slavery; there is but one. Likewise, history has long since determined that there is but one way to look at the Civil War, and that is that it would not have happened had it not been for slavery, and that its only glorious outcome was the abolition thereof. To attempt to find some intellectual high ground from which to argue otherwise is a fool's mission.
Some people will say, "Slavery is 150 years in our past. Why keep bringing it up?" Well, I'll stop bringing it up when people stop glorifying the government(s) that fought to preserve it.
In the meantime, as we endure a year filled with faux intellectualism and cockeyed interpretations of states' rights, I just hope that the current resident of the White House doesn't have a clear line of sight across the Potomac to the place where the racist rag once flew.