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Posted at 11:38 AM ET, 04/12/2011

Forget Yuri Gagarin! A Civil War primer for Fort Sumter’s 150th Anniversary


Citizens of Charleston watching the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter, starting the American Civil War, 1861. Hand-colored woodcut of a 19th century illustration. (North Wind Picture Archives via AP Images) (North Wind Picture Archives - AP)
Today is both the 50th anniversary of human spaceflight and the 150th anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter. Both had a lot in common. Yuri Gagarin’s mission inspired future generations to look up. The firing on Fort Sumter inspired future generations to look up — the spelling of “Sumter” in a dictionary.

But impressive as Gagarin’s feat was, we may not have a space program in a few years, given all the budget cuts and the need to “fix Earth first,” or whatever the rationale is these days. And fixing Earth may take a while, given that Earth has been here for millions of years (or thousands, depending on your theology) and nobody has ever stopped, stepped back, and said, “Yeah, looks great. I think we’re done here and can move on to other problems like Space and Understanding The Nature of Time and that cave thing Plato thought we should look into.” We have scientology, Hinduism, Christianity, and Keynesian economics to help us with all our problems, and we can’t even pass a continuing budget resolution!

Spaceflight comes and goes, but the legacy of the Civil War is something we will always have. Don’t think it’s affecting us today? Ask the fourth graders who were forced to pretend to be engaged in a slave auction in Virginia on April 1. (I wish I were joking.) This just goes to show that the lessons we learned from the Civil War about racial tolerance and not dividing your fourth graders by race and pretending to auction them off really penetrated and remain with us today. No, I’m sorry. It showed that people remain idiots. The Civil War was a great illustration of this principle, with memorable incidents like the general whose last alleged words were “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist — ”

The Civil War remains especially fraught in Virginia, a Confederate state where much of the war was fought. Virginians were extra invested in the cause because all the Confederate generals conveniently had the same names as Virginia roads, schools, and state holidays.

Fortunately, the wounds left by the Civil War have pretty much healed, and we’re all cool and fine about it now. In fact, we’re so completely recovered that descendants of Union soldiers and descendants of Confederate soldiers sometimes get together on weekends and march around in period attire pretending to shoot at each other. This is called “reenacting,” and it is invariably disappointing to the people dressed as Confederates. They say the definition of insanity is to repeat the same action over and over again expecting a different result. That’s also the definition of reenacting. Most bad losers simply throw the scrabble board at you and stomp away. Reenactors show up every weekend demanding a rematch.

The war has many names: The War Between the States, The Civil War, the First World War (that one is inaccurate), Bernie (to its friends), The War of Northern Aggression (if you’re far enough south of the Mason-Dixon Line), The War of Southern Passive-Aggression (if you aren’t). Oscar Wilde visited the South several decades after the war and commented that the moon looked beautiful. “Ah, but you should have seen it before the war,” his Southern hostess replied.

But in all fairness, this was the first Modern War, and it defined us as a country, what we stood for, and what we stood against. They tell you in high school that before the war, people said “the United States are” and after the war, they said “the United States is.”

This just goes to show that during a brutal and prolonged conflict, grammar is the first thing to go.

By  |  11:38 AM ET, 04/12/2011

Tags:  Civil War

 
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