By Peter Amos
Queens, New York
I grew up in a graveyard.
I was born not in the Confederacy’s cradle, but rather at its deathbed. The fields where my friends played soccer were scarred by death throes, the most most violent convulsions of the Civil War. Robert E. Lee spent numerous Sundays at the church on Caroline Street that my parents attended when I was young. My best friend plucked musket balls and worn bullets from the woods near her home, and my sister went to college a few blocks from the Confederate White House.
The South drips with rebel nostalgia. Confederate heroes and iconography cling like molasses to elementary schools, libraries, highways, state flags, T-shirts, bumper-stickers, mailboxes, monuments, and courthouses. For many in the South, the Civil War is an abstraction, the Confederacy a noble heritage. A stone Robert E. Lee stands, stoic in a city he never visited. Plantations nestle in the idyllic lowcountry, museums of antebellum gentility. Obscuring the legacy of secession, slavery, defiance, and white power is existential. Morality mingles and blends with legend and birthright. In mythology, tariffs matter more than the slave politics and white dominance immortalized in the words of leaders. In the absence of broken bones and burst skulls, the blow of history is muffled.
I grew up obsessed with the Civil War. My fascination with tactics and heroism eventually settled into reverence, conflict, and shame. I lived in a state that sent more men to their deaths than much of cotton country combined. Over a million men were counted as casualties in the Civil War. Roughly a quarter was killed, wounded, or reported missing over a three-year span within a hundred miles of my house.
My sisters and I shopped for school clothes just miles from where the “Sunken Road” claimed 18,030. My grandmother lived just north of where 28,699 men fell hacking and stumbling through an impassable wilderness. A dozen miles east, Stonewall Jackson became one of 30,500 casualties near where our high school football team would face down the Chancellor Chargers. A friend’s dad owned a supply company near a corner of Spotsylvania County on which 31,820 war-weary young men spilled blood.
The battles of Seven Pines (11,165), Cold Harbor (17,332), and Gaines Mill (14,830) lay along the highway between college and my parents’ house. We drove to the movies past Brandy Station (1,430) and Cedar Mountain (3,691). One college friend lived a stone’s throw from Sailor’s Creek (8,848), another adjacent the bloodbath at Second Bull Run (21,760). My roommate lived only miles from where Grant laid siege to Petersburg (about 70,000 over 292 days), and many high school friends went to college down the valley from Cedar Creek (8,674). My neighbor and I set up endless columns of blue and gray plastic soldiers 10 miles from a hospital that once housed 70,000 real men in various states of dying.
In fifth grade, we were asked on quizzes to state the cause of secession. Multiple-choice answers included both “states’ rights” and “slavery,” the former earning a check mark and the latter a red X. I watched parades in the summer from the courthouse steps in the shadow of an enormous Confederate soldier made of stone. By the time I was in high school, I knew that his watchful eye and gun were not placed before the courthouse by accident. Confederate flags flew from front porches. Confederate uniforms and postcards hung in novelty stores. A kid at my high school had his truck horn modified to play the first bars of “Dixie.”
Things don’t disappear when they die. We bury them, set them ablaze and scatter the ashes, or just leave them to decompose. I grew up in the putrefaction. Felled by a belly shot, the C.S.A. lay sprawled across the land I walked barefoot. And there we left it, rotting in the sun.
Many in the South contest the exact causes of secession, the first shot at Fort Sumter, the brutality of slavery, and the legacy of its soldiers and officers in the years after their surrender. Decades of deliberate obfuscation on elementary-school history tests, careful guardianship of the courthouse doors, and whitewashing of symbolism make ignorance easy to maintain. Even those Southerners least invested in Confederate mythology are unwilling to speak ill of the dead. But we ignored the death in the first place, pretended a gunshot wound was a handshake, imagined the corpse to be sleeping, and fancied our ignorance respect.
The Civil War was not an abstraction to me. I walked the battlefields with my father. We stared at maps, listened to tours, walked down lengths of split-rail fences as the sun twinkled over the blood-soaked earth.
The battles fought on my baseball diamonds and grocery-store parking lots were an anchor. We weren’t obscuring a murky past, but rather an eruption that killed 620,000 and likely many more. I gave an answer on that fifth-grade history quiz that I knew to be wrong, even then. It haunts me each time I step onto my parents’ porch in the shade of a maple tree fertilized by the bodies of thousands. I lied about what laid them under.
It’s harder to ignore that 100,000 men faced off a half dozen times in the woods around my tiny hometown than it is to make up stories about a statue in a park in Florida or the name of a middle school somewhere in Texas. I couldn’t ignore the destruction forever.
Much of the Civil War was fought in a small area. Most soldiers died near my home in Central Virginia, within a couple miles of the Mississippi and Tennessee rivers, or around the Atlantic coast of Georgia and South Carolina. But the violence of the South didn’t start in 1861, nor did it end in 1865. It had far more staying power.
We memorialize every aspect of our history – the supposed gentility, antebellum architecture, vibrant economy, agrarian culture, food, bourbon, sweet tea, and politics. Southerners imagine these the components of heritage, but when confronted with the darkness of the Civil War, the cause of its generals, and the constant violence on which that heritage was built, we reject the idea that memory matters.
Too often, we memorialize the wrong things, but memorials are incidental to actual suffering and hardship. I grew up in a graveyard and walked in the battlefields. Signs of the death brought to my home by our national shame were everywhere. Stately generals, hewn from rock and scrubbed of their deeds, couldn’t cover up the chaos preserved in the parks and visitor centers. I learned from it.
Memory is powerful. We can work to ignore it, but it’s harder when it’s visible. We can’t reckon with what isn’t there. We can’t rise above what we choose not to see. Still, some battles never end.
Peter Amos is a native of Orange, Virginia.