Saturday, June 11, 2011

An Ashokan Reminisce

As I read an excellent retrospective on Slate by Sacred Heart University professor and Civil War lecturer James M. Lundberg, I was reminded that I had lived in my current hometown, Durham, North Carolina only just over a year when Ken Burns epic documentary, The Civil War, first aired on PBS, as it did again month before last.

I was one of the 40 million viewers who turned in but little did I know at the time that Burn’s epic would soon signal two elements of significance during the first of my two decades as chief of Durham’s marketing agency, a position from which I am retired after nearly four decades in that field.

The haunting centerpiece of that documentary’s soundtrack, Ashokan Farewell, composed by Jay Unger eight years before the documentary was made, masterfully evokes that tragic conflict and it has often played across my mind in the years since.

For me the song captures the melancholy of the Civil War, as the late historian and novelist,Shelby Foote (click here to hear his wonderful voice in interview) notes in the documentary, a hinge between the time when as a Nation we went from referring to the “United States are” in the plural to the “United States is” as one. It is also another reason I find myself Listening To The Civil War during this 150th anniversary year.

Less than eight years later, that seminal Burns work would do much to inspire the founding of one of Durham’s signature events and what has become one of the most, if not the most, important annual showcases in the world for documentary film, the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which is held here over four days each April. Along with the Southern Documentary Fund, it has literally put Durham and the State of North Carolina at the center of this creative endeavor.

Even as a Westerner who hadn’t lived east of the Great Continental Divide let alone the Mississippi until I was drawn to Durham, I had nonetheless grown up fascinated by the Civil War, almost always electing to be a Union soldier during our frequent school-boy re-enactments.

This was long before I learned that my great-great maternal grandfather, Thomas K. Messersmith, had served in the Union Cavalry during the war protecting the overland stage routes, mostly from indigenous Indian tribes, through the Intermountain West to and from the gold fields that he had previously worked along side his boyhood Missouri-friend Samuel Clemens, who, of course, went on to be better known as Mark Twain.

The Burns documentary preceded by six years a letter I received and to which I was copied from an expert on that conflict which confirmed and documented, to a doubtful member of Durham’s Bennett Place staff, the accuracy of our references to the surrender commemorated at that historic site as not only the largest but the one that effectively ended that war.

Successfully correcting the misperception still fostered recently by the Associated Press that the conflict ended when General Lee surrendered what was left of his much smaller army at Appomattox was just part of reclaiming Durham’s story, a pivotal part of my job at the time as chief of Durham’s community/destination marketing.

While the AP is still not up-to-date, Bennett Place has been recognized shortly after the turn of the new Millennium in books like Mark Bradley’s This Astounding Close: The Road to Bennett Place, Durham journalist and historian Jim Wise’s On Sherman’s Trail and as was rerun recently one part of the History Channel’s excellent series the last days of the war entitled, April 1865 – The Month That Saved America.

Counting those who were no longer capable of fighting, General Lee surrendered fewer than 29,000 troops at Appomattox but the war wasn’t over, although the North propagandized that event, much as a former President infamously did eight years ago when he proclaimed “mission accomplished” for a war that is still ongoing today.

However, much is inspirational about how both Generals handled that earlier surrender, including General Grant’s prohibition of any celebration among Union troops, stating “the rebels are our countrymen again” and when Union Brigadier General and Medal of Honor-winner Joshua Chamberlain ordered his troops to “come to attention and carry arms” as a sign of respect as the Confederate troops marched past them to lay down their arms and colors.

Nearly three weeks later, near Durham, after disobeying an order from his commander-in-chief Jefferson Davis to disband his ground infantry and continue a guerilla war with mounted troops, General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered to General Sherman more troops than Lee and the other commanders combined and effectively ended the War.

Upon that agreement (the word surrender isn’t used in the document), the CSA government took flight from Charlotte and ceased to function, another reason experts say the war effectively ended in Durham at Bennett Place.

As much as the intent of both surrenders was to reunite and heal the country, we know the events precipitated after President Lincoln’s assassination ensured a tension-filled aftermath still evident, 100 years later in the 1960s and many think evident in our Legislatures today.

In South Carolina today, where the Civil War began 150 years ago, 30% of Republicans, the party of Lincoln, wish the Confederacy had prevailed compared to 36% of Republicans and 46% statewide who favor the Union and 24% who don’t.

Still, it is comforting and to me tells more about the American character to read this documented narrative about a healing gesture by Robert E. Lee a month after the Civil War ended in Durham and two months after the fall of Richmond as taken from April 1865: the Month that Saved America :

“It’s a warm spring Sunday at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond. As the minister is about to present Holy Communion, a tall well-dressed black man sitting in the section reserved for African Americans unexpectedly advances to the communion rail; unexpectedly because this has never happened here before.

The congregation freezes. Those who have been ready to go forward and kneel at the communion rail remain fixed in their pews. The minister stands in his place stunned and motionless. The black man slowly lowers his body, kneeling at the communion rail.

After what seems an interminable amount of time, an older white man rises. His hair snowy white, head up, and eyes proud, he walks quietly up the isle to the chancel rail.

So with silent dignity and self-possession, the white man kneels down to take communion along the same rail with the black man.”

Lee’s noble wish for reconciliation and fervent wish to move on is belied by evidence that for more than 50 after that war, veterans groups on both sides had committees but especially in the South, struggling to control the way the story of the war was told in text books, as many legislators and groups still seek to do today for different and related ideologies.

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