I recently inherited some R&R and decided that now was
a good time to refresh my Civil War knowledge. This wasn’t something I
necessarily planned, it all just, came about. I had been going through Netflix
in search of titles that would fill up my ‘Instant Queue’ when “Ken Burns: The
Civil War” caught my attention. Curiosity took over, as the realization that my
understanding of this particular moment in history was overdue for a refresher
course. I knew what the stakes were at the time, and obviously, one side emerged as the
victor; instituting their image of the United States of America into what has
become and continues to be, our pages of history.
Yet something told me that there was more to this conflict.
In college, I had the pleasure of taking this great course on American Studies.
The focus examined a specific time period, which escapes me now, but was
roughly from 1812 to about 1860. I had this wonderful professor, who was a
gifted lecturer and would eloquently piece these important moments in history together. I cannot speak for anyone else but it was like sitting down for a good story, he just knew how to communicate the information effectively. We covered the
general framing for what would become the Civil War. I just didn’t recall much
of the details at the present moment.
I set aside some time and began watching Part 1 or 9. Ken Burns, like my old professor, does a very good job of narrating; People, places, and the times are explained in proper detail, bridging the gaps of a larger story that is to unfold. And as each episode came to an end, I was more and more intrigued by the dearth of events prior to, during, and after the half-decade of turmoil that set the country’s trajectory anew. And then I began to understand each side better, The Union (North) and The Rebel (South) causes. This was no longer an impersonal point in history, but a reminder of what the stakes were, have been, and will continue to be: A human being's ability to control their own life’s journey.
As each episode was about an hour, I had to take a break and
step out of the apartment to run some errands and give myself a chance to process
all the new information. I have been without a car lately, and as anyone
familiar with the situation can attest, your ability to move at your own pace
is greatly decreased. So often people in Los Angeles commute in their cars to
specific destinations, mostly honing in on where they need to be and by what
time they’re required to be there. This factor has been known to limit one’s
sense of awareness amongst the broader community. I embraced this opportunity
to see the city of Los Angeles from a different perspective.
Grasping the totality of the Civil War, my ability to choose how I spent my day, and there, in turn, use the public transportation system to complete these errands was something to be appreciated; no matter how much time it took. Like most big cities in the U.S., using public transit immerses you into the world at large: Men and women, children and adults, Blacks and Whites, Latinos and Asians, the mentally stable and not so stable (a very gray area by the way). There we all sat, the benefactors of hundreds of thousands of lives lost, going on about our days. Of course, you could say this about any conflict throughout time, but the Civil War was a pivotal course in world history too. How we handle ourselves politically was just as equal in importance to the modern military strategies that evolved. This war would set in motion an example of how human beings would go on treating one another, during and after great conflict, for the coming centuries.
Maybe what we had forgotten in America was the sole purpose
of its existence. As I looked around my city and thought about all the places
I had been within the U.S., I began to understand what had become “a serious disconnect” within the country. I recently just finished the movie “The Grapes of Wrath.” Never seen it before: only had a small clue as to what it was about - “The Dust Bowl.” Yet, you begin to see a pattern whereby states, cities, and
neighborhoods continually segregate themselves from the greater whole. In the film,
Californians take offense to the migration of Oklahomans who are in search of a more prosperous
life. Depicting some of the ways these people are barred from opportunity or taken advantage of by those with more power. So goes the
capitalistic ideology we strongly adhere to.
I believe that over the last four decades, The United States
has resembled a young adult or early twenties attitude. Our perception of self and
the idealism in how long it would last dwarfed our admirers’ hopes and dreams for
us. We began to forget who we were, and how we had gotten here. We coasted in
‘n’ out of opportunities to do the right thing, getting the percentage to stay jus
above average. But the United States of America wasn’t supposed to be about ‘being
average.’ This was everyone’s opportunity to mold and create your perception of
a ‘prosperous life.’ And when you look at the history, really studying the
waves of immigrants and the events that occurred within each generation’s
cycle, these events disrupted people’s lives. There were harsh realities that
propelled them to forge whole new paths due to the seemingly uncontrollable
circumstances. There is no denying that the last four decades have had their
share of tragedies and growing pains but, we seemed to have perverted the stakes at play and the opportunity to grow from them.
Could it be that we have basked in the glory too long? We tune each other out, by not combining our problems as a collective whole. Instead, we continue to thwart ourselves by doing the same thing and expecting a different result. The Civil War was about so many issues at one time, and at the heart of the matter, it rested on doing the right thing vs. not doing the right thing for the betterment of our future. This country has had many positives to speak of in the last century but, our goal as a whole should be to aim to ‘do the right thing’ as often as possible. There are too many representations of those doing the wrong thing, and receiving notoriety from it, that we have allowed ourselves to make the same mistakes over and over again. That is not progression, nor maturity. As a nation, you play this thing for the long run. You want to be remembered with Egypt’s, Rome’s, and so forth. But ‘how’ you want to be remembered, is the most important lesson. There will always be problems within any society, but our ability to unite and overcome these obstacles will set the tone for future generations just as the Civil War did. Brother fought brother, father fought son. And in the end, the country was forced to become a better place for this huge sacrifice.
Whatever it is that we are going through right now, let us find a way to shoulder the burden, so that ‘hopes and dreams’ really fuel our economies. We should not have much of an excuse in this day in age. 600,000 men (only 2% of the population at that time) radically changed this country’s future. It should not require the loss
of that many lives currently, for us to make positive strides. That is the mistake that we shall not repeat. I wish that I had the answer, but the first part of solving anything is… realizing that you have a problem. Let’s shake it off, collect ourselves, and find a way to get things right.
by J. Marcus