Today is the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of what is considered the official beginning of the American Civil Warâ€”the bombardment and surrender of Fort Sumter, near Charleston, SC (April 12-13, 1861).
Ft. Sumter was one of five Union forts that remained in the newly formed Confederacy. In the months preceding the battle, U.S. Army forces held the fort but found themselves increasingly under seige, short of men, food, supplies, and weapons. This was the first crisis faced by President Abraham Lincoln, who had just taken office in March, shortly after seven states, led by South Carolina, had declared secession and formed the Confederate States of America. Lincoln notified South Carolina’s governor Pickens that he would be resupplying the fort. In response, the Confederate government ordered that the U.S. army forces evacuate Ft. Sumter at once.
At 4:30 a.m. on April 12, Confederate forces under the command of Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard began bombarding the fort with artillery fire. Within thirty-four hours, the army forces, significantly outmatched, agreed to evacuate. Not a single person was killed in the battle (though one perished because of an accident). Yet this “bloodless” battle inaugurated our nation’s bloodiest conflict.
The American Civil War.
In response to the battle, Lincoln called each state loyal to the Union to raise a volunteer army to oppose the secessionists and recover government property. Four more states then seceded. Several northern governors had been quietly getting their state militias ready for action, and on the day after the surrender of Ft. Sumter, they began to move. Lincoln soon announced a Union blockade of all southern ports, which proved to be a major factor in the Union’s ultimate victory.
By the time the great conflict was over and the Confederacy had surrendered, the Union had suffered 630,000 casualties, 360,000 of whom were killed in action or by disease. The Confederacy suffered 340,000 casualties, with over 250,000 killed in action or who died from disease. Two percent of the entire population of the United States died in the Civil War.
In an overview to Ken Burns’ great documentary on the conflict, we read this summary:
The Civil War has been given many names: the War Between the States, the War Against Northern Aggression, the Second American Revolution, the Lost Cause, the War of the Rebellion, the Brothersâ€™ War, the Late Unpleasantness. Walt Whitman called it the War of Attempted Secession. Confederate General Joseph Johnston called it the War Against the States. By whatever name, it was unquestionably the most important event in the life of the nation. It saw the end of slavery and the downfall of a southern planter aristocracy. It was the watershed of a new political and economic order, and the beginning of big industry, big business, big government. It was the first modern war and, for Americans, the costliest, yielding the most American fatalities and the greatest domestic suffering, spiritually and physically. It was the most horrible, necessary, intimate, acrimonious, mean-spirited, and heroic conflict the nation has ever known.
Whether we understand it or not, the Civil War has shaped each and every one of us who is an American. I am still learning to appreciate this as I grow older and reflect upon my own sheltered life. I am particularly moved when I consider the state of racial relationships in our country. Though measurable progress has been made, we have far to go.
As a privileged white man in America, I take so much for granted and far too often ignore the ongoing plight of those whose lives have continued to be difficult and discouraging since our greatest national conflict. And yet the circumstances have been all around me, crying out, every day of my life. My youth was salted with television news accounts of the Civil Rights movement, my heart stirred by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s dream. Members of my family were part of the “white flight” from Chicago’s city neighborhoods to the suburbs, as the descendants of slaves whose families had traveled north in the Great Migrations moved in.
I now live in the city where Bobby Kennedy calmed the crowds after Dr. King’s assassination, a city that ironically once housed the headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan, whose mission was to stir up racial hatred and violence. I visit her neighborhoods in my work; neighborhoods that remain largely segregated by race and class. I still wince when I have to speak of “the black church” after attending a service in the city for one of my patients of African-American heritage. Why not simply “the church”?
Returning to my small town residence south of the city, I drive past homes where Confederate flags still fly, where people of color remain few and far between, and where prejudice still speaks, albeit in quieter tones. Even in recent years,Â a few schools in our region have been penalized for overt demonstrations of racism at sporting events. You won’t find African-Americans in the local congregation where I worship, I’m ashamed to say. For the most part, black is black and white is white, and we maintain our distance.
Biblically, tolerance of this state of affairs is unacceptable. My fellow Christ-followers and I have been redeemed from the slavery of sin by a Savior in whom “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27), “a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.” (Col 3:11) Yet our world is still divided by color, race, ethnicity, class distinctions, and in some ways, it seems as polarized by rhetoric as it ever has been (though our words may be more carefully chosen). And frankly, where I live, I don’t see much difference in the church that claims to follow a Savior who loves the world. The “Christian Activity Centers” in the communities around me cater almost exclusively to middle class suburban white families. We can still point out the “black” churches and the “white” churches easily. We have to look hard and long to spot cooperation or participation with one another in the Body of Christ and the Missio Dei.
The aftermath of the Civil War is still with us.
We cannot come to terms with the Civil War because it presents us with an unacceptable kind of self-knowledge. We think, as Americans, that we possess a heroic past, and we like to think of our history as one of progress and the spread of freedom, even transcendence. But the Civil War tells us that we possess a tragic history instead, over which we must continually paste a mask of hope.
Now, you might regard the Civil War as the birth hour of modern liberty and equality. In this view, a quarter of Southern white men of military age, and one in 50 of all Americans, were killed for justice. The war redeemed a barbaric society in which the whole nation tolerated slavery into the salvation of widening rights and freedoms.
Except, of course, that it did not: the stream of blood that started at Fort Sumter passed through Jim Crow and into the civil rights era, right down to the present. Southern whites, having gone down in the fight, turned their recollections into rage and resentment at being displaced â€” fuel for politicians ever since.
Likewise, for blacks emancipation was not a jubilee, but rather the beginning of a long season of bitter disappointment. Black national memory in some ways is still commensurate with despair. Redemption turns out to be a false idol.
Speaking about the commemoration of the Battle of Ft. Sumter, Bell goes on to say, “They are sad, these memories and this knowledge, and Americans donâ€™t wish to occupy a landscape of sorrow. Many people stick to the military story of the Civil War, especially in the South. But not all is playtime in the commemorations here. During the pre-dawn hour of the re-enactmentâ€™s first shots, the Charleston Symphony, sitting under the oaks near the site of one of the gun batteries, is to perform sorrowful songs in a concert called ‘When Jesus Wept.’ “
He is still weeping.