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Jay Evensen: 150 years later, the Civil War is still a hot issue

Published: Sunday, April 10 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

While writing an editorial years ago on one of the many topics that tend to catch my eye, I decided to quote Confederate Gen. Edward Porter Alexander. In his memoirs, he included a poignant comment about the danger of making mistakes.

We can repent and be forgiven of sins, he said, but our mistakes "laugh at repentance and go on piling up consequences." It worked perfectly for the point I was trying to make, and that point had about as much to do with the Civil War as the breakfast you ate this morning.

And yet a few days later I received an angry phone call from a woman with a decidedly Southern accent, calling from a Southern state, where my writing had landed on her presumably Southern coffee table. How dare I insinuate that a Southern general felt he needed to "repent" of his decision to join the Confederacy, she demanded.

After rejecting my explanations that neither the general nor I was making such a comment about the war, she ended our discussion with an indignant declaration. "From now on, when you feel it necessary to quote a Southern general, please confine yourself to Gen. Robert E. Lee."

Such is the life of an opinion writer. You raise your shield against the artillery you know will come from familiar enemies, but you never can guard against the stray bullets that come from random directions.

There was, however, a greater lesson to be taken. No matter how far down the road the nation travels, it never quite can get the Civil War out of its rearview mirror.

Tuesday will mark the 150th anniversary of the first shots against Fort Sumter. The two-day bombardment to force federal troops to evacuate Charleston harbor was the start of the Civil War.

American history is filled with pivotal military moments, from the battle of Trenton to the attack on Pearl Harbor and beyond. It is filled with lesser moments that inspired a fevered public passion, such as the alleged attack on the USS Maine, anchored off Havana. But none of those has an anniversary that will light the sky the way Tuesday's commemoration in Charleston is supposed to, or will cause thousands of men to don period uniforms and recreate battles, as is bound to happen over the next four years.

Then again, no conflict was as bloody, or as defining, as the Civil War. It's the precise meaning of that definition that has kept us periodically fanning the embers ever since.

No matter what one thinks about the recent events at Alta and Bingham high schools along the Wasatch Front — incidents that at once raised issues of both possible racist attitudes and possible over-reactions — they are seen through lenses colored by the Civil War and the civil rights struggles that extended that conflict's main theme a century later.

That may seem ironic in Utah, where the main link to the war may be Soldier Summit, named for soldiers who died there during a snowstorm while on their way to join the Confederate Army. But conflicts over race and equality (and even states' rights, the light under which some have chosen to cast the war) have no boundaries in time or space.

The Associated Press recently interviewed Freddie Parker, a history professor and a member of North Carolina's sesquicentennial commission, who talked about the sometimes-heated meetings held over ways to offer "a balanced commemoration" of the war. The nation will need more time, he said, "before we get to the point where we are less emotional, where we're less polarized" when discussing the Civil War. Apparently, 150 years just won't do it.

Given the horrors of slavery and war, the tug of ancestry and the way racial bigotry is a part of the human condition, it may not be a bad thing that we have yet to leave the Civil War behind. Forgetting comes with its own dangers.

But as the old general said, mistakes, whether by people or nations, can pile up consequences that don't easily disappear.

Jay Evensen is a Deseret News editorial writer. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his web site, www.jayevensen.com.

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