The Civil War in Us

Allan Gurganus

October 10, 1990|By Allan Gurganus | Allan Gurganus,Allan Gurganus is author of "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All." He writes from Chapel Hill, N.C.

WE ARE DRAWN to the Civil War because it is the 20th century as coming attraction. For all its horror, the struggle took no longer to complete than a bachelor's degree. The diploma was awarded, the fever was survived. Foreign wars are compared to blows from without; civil wars are fevers. Fevers have their own narrative integrity: A crisis arrives, the patient endures it or succumbs.

Despite a seemingly fatal temperature, our strapping young republic lived. Its industrial strength redoubled, it made the quantum lunge at prosperity and unity. True, the slaves were never really freed. Yes, industry's victory over cotton's kingdom spawned the might that spawned the toxins that now kill us. Yes, industry patented the business "ethics" that have fleeced us toward a new Depression. But even so, the patient lived, and we, middle aged, want to know how the young patient did it!

Lincoln's face predicted the 20th century. How else does our insomnia find so much of itself creased there in that witty grieving gaze? Lincoln's face is so beaten to the surface, a private pocket worn inside out. Its humanity and shrewd wasted wisdom almost shame and terrify us now. We current citizens have learned to show so little of ourselves; we're walking safe deposit vaults. We're now accustomed to smooth-faced, trust-funded national leaders. We fear that, uneasy as these guys are with deeper metaphors and others' pain, they privately say, "Let's go the whole nine yards in the Middle East, yo!" Their banality is too much ours.

We long for a leader who can tell us stories that are not subcontracted, personal content not ceded to young Ivy League speech writers. We'd love someone who thinks in narrative beginnings, middles, ends; someone who has held at least one job previous to being rich, then vice president, then president, Our leaders' features are praised as "boyishly handsome." This means untouched by experience. Such fear of maturity proves our contradiction as a people: middle aged, yet forever adolescent. "Oh Captain, my Captain, our dreadful voyage is done. Oh Captain, our Captain, in '94, please run."

I live with daguerreotypes: my Yankee great-grandfather who tried so hard at Shiloh to kill my Southern great-granddad. The Northerner would recall Shiloh's meadow as where his leg got shot clear through; forever after, he walked with a dreadful wobble, couldn't cross the room without a cane. As a kid in North Carolina, I believed my Southern great-granddad had crippled my Yankee one. Though statistically unlikely, couldn't it have happened? So, last month, after planning this since I was 5, suddenly 42, on impulse, telling the reason only to my brilliant travel agent, I rented a very red semi-sports car and drove south toward Shiloh.

The agent booked me a room "with instant off-ramp battlefield access," a term she read from her computer screen. The phrase would seem Serbo-Croatian to those infantry farm boys whose bisected paths I traced. Driving, listening atypically to country music, I propped my kinsmen's images on a red rented --board.

xTC I wondered, as we all have lately, why their scared brave faces, why their war, so spoke to me. What lesson is that war trying hard to teach us while we still remember and therefore can still learn?

Southwest Tennessee. The sign insisted "Shiloh Battlefield Closes At Sunset." Like so many official opinions, this proved something of a lie. Into my jacket I slipped oxidized daguerreotypes, two child enemies partly responsible for me. Armed with maps and no sense of direction, I still managed to pace off the crucial sweeps. I found the spot where my forbear sacrificed his leg. I sat there. The pathos of battlefields rests in just how readily green forgives everything. Stretched out on leaves of grass, I napped by accident, waking at 3 a.m. I'd forfeited the motel room, prepaid.

Then, back aching, sogged with dew, I felt their company. Their question, first: "Why me?" Then, "Why?" Like all personal questions, these are tribal ones. Today we ask of our nation, "Why us? Why now? Why?"

We are kinfolks still battling, Blue vs. Gray, one body's dark red cells eating its fevered white ones and vice versa. These and forgetfulness are our national habits now. In middle age, habits become beloved substitutes for action. We cease to notice how we've changed from the nation of believers, jokesters, jazz and banjo inventors, runaways who started over, daily grateful for this fresh, fresh chance.

I believe our deep, recent feeling for the Civil War is a nostalgia for leadership. In the de-idealized age of Quayle-Bush, Lee and Lincoln, Whitman and Douglass belong not just to another time and race but to another species. True, that early war, like our own age, proves that the most fearful rivalries are family ones. Our Civil War's greatest allure is precisely what our own age lacks and so yearns for: the cult of leadership. That saved us the first time, right? Who, now?

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