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Lessons of Antietam 

The Civil War was the beginning of paying penance for America’s original sin — but the battle rages on

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September 17 marked the 150th anniversary of the “bloodiest day of the Civil War,” the culminating fight at the Battle of Antietam, named for a creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland, some 70 miles northwest of Washington, D.C. More than 22,000 casualties were suffered there in just one day.

Historians call the battle a draw, but a draw was all the Union needed. Confederate General Lee was forced out of Maryland and back into Virginia. Although he would win major victories only a few months later — Fredricksburg in December and Chancellorsville the following May — many regard Antietam as the high-water mark for his Army of Northern Virginia.

Antietam was important for another reason: It gave Lincoln the victory that he needed in order to officially transform the Civil War from just saving the union to also freeing the slaves in the South. He presented his Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet just five days after Lee’s army began its retreat.

The battle occurred 154 years from the founding of the Jamestown settlement in 1608, the first English settlement in the Americas. The first slaves were brought to Virginia only nine years later, and America’s original sin was committed.

Lee was as far removed from Captain John Smith as we are from Lee. Think about that.

Now, 150 years later, while great progress has been made, and the United States has its first African-American president, racism continues to bedevil if not plague the country. Brown v. Board of Education was handed down in 1954, yet it took another 10 years — and the civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965 — before African-Americans could sit anywhere but the back of the bus, could expect to be served in any public restaurant or rent where they chose to rent. “States rights,” private property rights, the filibuster and the U.S. Senate made certain that although technically “free,” blacks would continue to be segregated.

Even today, during the 2012 election season, we see the Republican Party engaging in grotesque efforts to suppress black voting throughout the South, in Ohio and in Pennsylvania. And surely no one would seriously argue that racism doesn’t have more than a little to do with the right wing’s regurgitative opposition to Barack Obama. The white southern male vote in 2008 against Obama defies any other explanation: It was that far out of line with numbers anywhere else in the country.

A very bright former student of mine, a lifelong Republican who won a presidential internship just out of high school, tells of the southern politicians coming to the Bush White House. Ever so courtly they were, he told me — until they got together out of earshot (except for the ears of a young intern). “I couldn’t believe the racist jokes,” he reported.

Or consider arrest demographics. Or executions. The statistics boggle the mind.

The ever-acerbic H.L. Menken, way back in 1926, observed that members of the southern gentry made a huge mistake when they didn’t immediately integrate the former slaves who, said Menken, would have, like “all peasants” gone along with business as usual. Instead they injected racism and cast their lot with the, to use Menken’s words, “white trash.”

I don’t think Menken went back far enough. The late novelist, William Styron, in an essay he wrote in 1963, cites the 1948 book written by Professor Frank Tannenbaum, Slave and Citizen. Through Tannenbaum’s work we can better understand “the psychic and moral devastation” that American slavery left in its wake.

It’s an important distinction. Tannenbaum draws our attention to the difference between slavery in the English colonies and United States and slavery everywhere else, especially in the Catholic colonies and countries, going all the way back to the Roman Empire. To the Spanish and Portuguese, slavery was a condition of servitude brought about usually because one came out on the wrong end of a war. The Justinian Code showed consideration for the rights of slaves. But, points out Tannenbaum, the Protestant English had no experience with slavery. Their laws were ill equipped to deal with the status of slaves. So, “forced to choose between regarding him as a moral human being and as property, they chose the definition of property. The result was the utter degradation of a people.”

Manumission — a master’s legal right to free his slaves — was hit and miss in the United States, and after the invention of the cotton gin it was severely restricted. As late as 1967, anti-miscegenation laws were enforced in several southern states. And so it went.

Exodus 20:5 about sums it up: “For I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon their children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.”

Iniquity of the fathers visited on their children. The horror of Antietam couldn’t stop it. Today, 150 years and generations later, we still struggle with it. 

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