I’m very sure that if you watch the History Channel, you may have noticed more than one special on the United States Civil War.
It has been 150 years. A century and a half.
This is an interesting piece of writing that I’m doing now, considering that I am not 48 hours off my plane from Texas. The largest state in the US has its own curious history, including one post office in a tiny, tiny town that’s barely on a square mile’s worth of arid land, and seeing that structure, comprised of wood and the ghosts of a time long past, was sobering in many ways.
Even though the politics of this country, especially today, seek to trumpet that the world has gone to shit because of corporatism as though it’s the first time such a thing took place, it’s a sober reminder that history repeats if not learned. Southern plantation owners profited on the backs of people whom they have treated as less than dirt for no pay and little food on no basis other than skin, just like the industrial magnates profited on the backs of severely underpaid workforce that has dogfought for the benefits that today’s employees enjoy. And today, corporations are fighting tooth and nail to squeeze their employees out of even such a basic luxury of sick leave.
This isn’t new.
To think that this part of social history goes back to that time too, I can’t help but look at what strength it takes to fight through conflicts, especially ones on a national scale.
Think back to America of the 1850s. Technology-free, farmland, still-expanding America. A country that had yet to turn a century old, a fledgling in many ways, and still hammering out such an issue as to whether or not consider nonwhites to be human beings. Not to put slavery as the sole cause to the Civil War – it was not. A large part, yes. But that isn’t what this post touches on.
Think of the strength that it took both sides to fight those years from the first shot at Fort Sumter, to the surrender of Robert E. Lee. War is a dirty, bloody business, and I cannot imagine that any of the young men – boys, in some cases – on both sides of the lines wanted to fight for long when they got to have a first-hand look at the realities of it. Back then, with no antibiotics, with death and fear around them, sometimes going without food or water for days, they asked themselves, “What cause is this that we are fighting for?”
The women, both the Yankee gals and Southern belles, weathered out the Civil War alongside the soldiers, and their strength too is of note. They were the ones who nursed the soldiers, housed them, and watched whatever life they knew crumble around them as one regiment after another would storm through their town. Which side they were coming from depended on which side was winning at the time. And yet, they held together, whichever way they knew how to hold on, their strengths hammered out by the harsh realities of life around them.
It’s one of the most absolute primary tenets of human psychology, and human character alike: you never know exactly what you’re made of, and how strong is the cut of cloth that you come from, until it’s tested by struggle. The people who lived through the Civil War, whatever lives they held before then, were carved through the transforming effect of that particular phase in history, from the field hand who finally faced freedom to do as he saw fit for the first time in his life, to the young girl in hoop skirts who was suddenly asked to care for a platoon of wounded soldiers, to the businessmen in the city that they had to flee – all walks of life were overturned, and from that overturn, a new strength emerged. If the chips were down and they survived…then they knew that from there, come what may, they would be fine.
The post office in Luckenbach, TX, put that into perspective. What news have traveled through the walls of that building? Who re-emerged a different person after tearing open a letter from a loved one?
One location, one tiny structure…a world of memories of a different era, and the raw human willpower that it took to live through it – in the North and the South alike.
I’ve also been shaped by struggle, cut from a tough cloth to begin with, and reinforced even further. Choice between eating and paying a bill? Yes. Caught between a rock and a hard place, no safety net except to get into more debt for a reprieve? Yes. And I know that the same choices are faced by thousands, millions of young people across the country. Theirs and mine isn’t a wartime, but nonetheless a struggle real enough to reshape world views. Just more modern. We still fight our own, internal battles.
And yet, right now, in a country fraught with social issues, financial struggles, vast disparity between what constitutes the haves and the have-nots, I can’t help but think back to 150 years ago and wonder, have they thought of the struggle that they would face? What did the students and the newly-graduated scholars say then? They were the ones on the front lines a few months or years after their graduations.
And think on it this way: this country is still young. Others have centuries, millennia of battle-worn history behind them. Ours is still being shaped as we speak.