Regret history, but don't ignore it

Pat Truly

July 29, 1993|By Pat Truly

COMPARED to other stuff, the cost is minuscule: $90 million over seven years to protect 11 Civil War battlefields from being lost forever to the developer's bulldozer and the lava-like flow of suburban sprawl.

The Civil War Site Advisory Committee is asking for this because some important battlefields (Atlanta, for instance) already are lost. Others (including Antietam, Gettysburg and Chickamauga) have been threatened. Saving them is something Americans should be able to agree upon. They are the scars of a common heritage, an event that changed us forevermore.

I've been to most of the existing battlefield parks. I recommend them to anyone who wants to understand the agony that America went through 130 years ago. It is impossible to view Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg or the Sunken Road at Antietam or the mass unmarked graves at Shiloh or the neat cemeteries at Gettysburg and other places without asking, "Had they all gone mad?"

To preserve these places is to better grasp the reality of the biggest, deadliest war ever fought in the Western Hemisphere. We must remember the causes of that war and the cost at which its results were achieved. These sites should be saved.

However, if she is to be consistent, saving them may have to be done over the objections of Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Ill. Senator Moseley-Braun doesn't want to be reminded that at one time her ancestors were slaves, and, if studying the Civil War does anything, it does remind us that there was a time when millions of human beings in this land were subjected to slavery and a war was fought in part because of that.

Last week, when that Jurassic refugee, Jesse Helms, tried to get the Senate to renew the patent on the United Daughters of the Confederacy's insignia (the logo is built around the seldom-seen Confederate "Stars and Bars"), here was Ms. Moseley-Braun, waving the bloody shirt, to use a post-Civil War phrase. She may have had a point about the Senate even being involved with the group's emblem, but she also revealed a scary mind-set.

The real issue, she said, "is whether or not Americans, such as myself, will have to suffer the indignity of being reminded time and time again that at one point in this country's history we were human chattel, we were property, we could be traded, bought and sold."

Such eloquence naturally persuaded the Senate. The United Daughters will survive, as will their logo. But Senator Moseley-Braun's reasoning is disturbing and offensive.

Aside from the fact that the group is hardly subversive (mostly, these days, it does charitable work, gives scholarships and tries to preserve history), all of us "should" be reminded occasionally that slavery once existed. By the by, the few United Daughters members I know consider slavery to have been repugnant, cruel and a terrible misfortune for everyone concerned. Like a lot of us, they have to accept the fact that some of their ancestors supported a system of bondage based on nothing more than color. But they do accept it. It happened. They're not in a state of denial.

Ms. Moseley-Braun, however, says she doesn't want to be reminded that at one time people who looked like her were held in slavery. Yet it is true. It was in all the papers at the time. We may wish things had been different, but history can't be wished away. We can't change it. We can only learn from it.

We all should be indignant that slavery ever was practiced on these shores, that it is the basis of many of the problems we face today. But it is not an "indignity" to be reminded of it, as the late Alex Haley pointed out so eloquently to black and white Americans alike. Rather, it is constructive, even vital, to remember and understand the past.

Perhaps Ms. Moseley-Braun needs to visit Gettysburg and ponder the sacrifices required to begin melding two nations -- one free and one slave -- into one nation. She could visit Little Rock or Montgomery or Memphis and ponder later links in the same chain of historical sacrifice. She could be a uniter, not a divider.

Yes, Civil War battle sites should be preserved, and with them a sense that history is real. But if a United States senator can't come to grips with the demons of America's past, how can the nation possibly do it?

Pat Truly is a columnist and editorial writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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