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Jewish World Review
May 1, 2012/ 9 Iyar, 5772
The war goes on
It was a pleasure, kind of, to hear from a reader plumping for the Confederate names of Civil War battles rather than the Union ones. You demand to know why Arkansas' statewide newspaper would refer to the Battle of Pea Ridge up in the northwestern corner of the state rather than to Elkhorn Tavern, the name for the battle in Southern accounts.
The same difference applies to the names, Confederate and Federal, for other battles: Manassas (Bull Run), Shiloh (Pittsburg Landing), Sharpsburg (Antietam), and, for that matter, the name of The War itself.
It's a tribute to the remarkable continuity of American history that you no longer hear much about the War of Northern Aggression or the War of the Rebellion. And when those opposite but equally partisan titles are deployed, it may be only for ironic effect. As with the euphemism, the late unpleasantness.
By now most of us, North and South, have settled on Civil War in an attempt to meet on neutral ground, though the name War Between the States was favored for a time in these latitudes.
What's in a name? A whole history sometimes. It can reopen old divisions or attempt to heal them. Or aspire to the sense of elevation, the mix of pity and sorrow, that tragedy should evoke (The Brothers' War).
Geography need not be destiny. Northerners, too, now speak of Shiloh rather than Pittsburg Landing and Southerners of Antietam rather than Sharpsburg. And we in Arkansas speak of Pea Ridge rather than Elkhorn Tavern.
But, you point out, Arkansas was part of the Confederate States of America, and therefore Arkansas' Newspaper should use the Confederate name for the decisive battle fought here. But before and after and, some would say, even during The War, Arkansas was still part of the United States of America, an indissoluble union of indissoluble states, thank God.
The secession convention of 1861 here in Arkansas thought otherwise on its second try, but when the time comes that legislative enactments, let alone secesh conventions, can dictate our choice of words in this matter or any other, whatever is left of the English language is done for.
This whole, arcane debate over whether there was still a Union circa 1861-64 and, if so, what states composed it, may have its fascination for some. The first and only president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, devoted two stultifying volumes to that moot question even after The War was over. The man was, in a word, incorrigible -- in war and peace.
His ideological descendants, though they seem to be growing fewer with each passing generation, are still heard from on occasion, as when our editorial page dares observe Lincoln's Birthday, and the usual Confederate apologetics are trotted out in angry rebuttal.
How meaningless such debates can be in the real world of power and politics was demonstrated as soon as The War was concluded. The more zealous theorists of both persuasions immediately switched sides for their political benefit:
Northern abolitionists (aka Black Republicans) who had been arguing that the Union was indestructible now said it had been destroyed, therefore they were entitled to treat the former slave states as "conquered territory" with no right to representation in Washington.
At the same time, Southern leaders who had led their states out of the Union argued that they'd never really left and so were still entitled to their seats in Congress.
Ain't politics grand?
It was Mr. Lincoln who pretty well summed up the uselessness of such purely theoretical debates when he said they were "good for nothing at all -- a merely pernicious abstraction." I'd like to think I'm above engaging in the same pointless debate at such a late date. I wish you were. One might as well argue over the right names for battles.
Me, I tend to agree with a Union general and a president of the United States named Grant: "Let us have peace."
That saving sentiment was seconded by a Confederate general and icon, Robert E. Lee. The greatness of both those men is inseparable not just from their military prowess but their equanimity once the issue was decided.
Conclusion: G0d bless America -- North and South.
Yours for comity,
Paul Greenberg Archives
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