American Stories: The ties that bind us, still

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With Independence Day occurring at a tumultuous time marked by a global pandemic and a national crisis over racial injustice, Climate gave local contributors carte blanche to write their perspectives on what makes America special. We will be publishing our contributors’ American Stories now through July 4. Keep an eye out for these unique and personal pieces.

During the recent period of enforced inactivity, I found that the Civil War provides an inexhaustible number of ways to pass the time.

There’s a new biography of William Tecumseh Sherman, a Reddit group arguing about whether Jefferson Davis was right to replace Joseph Johnston with John Bell Hood at the gates of Atlanta, a History Channel series on Ulysses S. Grant.

Civil War issues still assert themselves. Should statues of Confederate leaders be forcibly torn down, as Black Lives Matter protesters are doing? Should the coastal California town of Fort Bragg be renamed to expunge the tribute to a rebel general? Does Abraham Lincoln’s military crackdown against draft rioters in New York furnish a precedent to give Donald Trump the power to call out troops in cities?

“Anybody who’s looked into it at all realizes that it truly is the outstanding event in American history insofar as making us what we are,” Civil War author Shelby Foote wrote.

One of my neighbors flies California’s Bear Flag from his flagpole without the stars and stripes, a more subtle political statement than the Confederate battle flag, but a token of separation nonetheless.

Upset with Trump’s America, people talk wistfully about California leaving the United States and setting out as the world’s fifth largest economy. During the presidency of Barack Obama, Texas’ governor openly speculated that the Lone Star state had the right to revert to an independent republic, as it was from 1836 to 1845.

In fact, the Civil War settled this issue. The Supreme Court in the 1869 Texas v. White decision codified the North’s position—secession is illegal. No state can leave.

In 1850, South Carolina separatist Senator John C. Calhoun made the uncanny deathbed prediction that the Union would “explode in a presidential election” within twelve years. In 2020, it sometimes feels the same way, that inevitably the culture wars will cause a dissolution.

To which I say, not in my lifetime. My great-great-grandfather Tandy Pritchard fought for the Union as part of the 54th Illinois U.S. infantry, including at Vicksburg. To give up that cause now would be a betrayal.

Our ties will reassert themselves. As Lincoln said: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Vlae Kershner is a longtime Bay Area journalist and a frequent writer for Climate.


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