It was the centennial of the Civil War we celebrated when I was a boy, not the sesquicentennial. Families went on pilgrimage to battle sites, photographs of long-dead ancestors were dusted off, prominently displayed, and, instead of charging the beaches of Normandy or Guadalcanal, all the little boys on my street suddenly wanted to play “Civil War.”
As I remember it, what struck me as odd about the new game was that it involved a choice: you had to pick which side you wanted to fight on. If someone had suggested I might want to be a Nazi instead of a GI, I could not have been more surprised. But how to choose? One side's name reminded me of baseball—Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford—while the other's sounded like something you might call a bank. How did one know which was the right side, the American side, the side we would have fought on? And by “we,” of course, I meant my family, my mother and father, the only country, allegiance, I recognized at that age.
It is interesting to note that, if the question I asked that night at dinner was childishly direct (“Daddy, are we Yankees or Confederates?”), my father's response was uncharacteristically indirect. Instead of a complicated discourse on the divided loyalties of border states or the confused histories of my mother's family and his, my father told me that in half the country it had been legal to own slaves and in the other half it hadn't been, and the two halves had gone to war over the difference. Then he said no more. He let me choose. But such an answer made it seem easy. Owning someone was clearly wrong, and so my parents (who were always good and always did the right thing) would, of course, have fought for the North. And so, with all the moral certainty of childhood, I declared myself a Yankee ... and was immediately welcomed as such in my neighborhood—Yankees being, as it turned out, in short supply on my street.
So began my uneasy relationship with “The War,” for, though I was only eight or nine at the time, I was already old enough to have learned that, given a choice, I'd rather be on the side everyone else was on.
I wonder how many Americans grew up with a similar uneasiness about the Civil War? I wonder how many experienced a similar uneasiness as they made their decisions in 1861? I invite you to join me in an investigation of that question at the Talbot County Free Library. Over the course of the sesquicentennial, I will, from time to time, host a book discussion about “The War.” We will begin on the night of August 29 with a conversation about one of my favorites, Michael Shaara's “Killer Angels.” You can call the library at 410-822-1626 to sign up. I look forward to hearing what you think.