Since early childhood I have been interested in the American Civil War. Like most interests in my life, this one was overdetermined. For one, as a self-aware Northern born boy growing up in the rural South, it was imperative to learn about the subject and its continued relevance for the place where I grew up. For another, the large number of battlefields and fortresses between Central Florida and Western Pennsylvania provided an area of common interest between my father and I . Likewise, the Civil War provided a fitting image for the unpleasant reality faced by children of an ugly and contentious divorce, an example that was highly relevant to my life as a child and is no less relevant to me now in reflecting upon the complications of the past on the present.
There are some people who tend to think that the American Civil War is ancient business and not relevant to the contemporary life of the United States at all, but this would be deeply mistaken. A short blog entry like this one cannot convey all of the relevance of the American Civil War to contemporary life, but it should at least be somewhat hinted at. Most personally, the course of my family destiny was greatly affected by the loss of an ancestor during the American Civil War, part of a pattern of a loss of fathers during early childhood that has blighted my family for generations . There is also the matter of the continued mistrust between different regions of the United States with each other and with the federal government, and the lingering dependence of blacks on the government and the lack of strong families and legitimate marriages among large swaths of the population, leading to generational patterns of failure as well as patterns of dependency and exploitation. There is also the matter of constitutional theory as well as a regional balkanization of politics that reverberates to the present day.
The American Civil War, like civil wars in general, is considered a matter of ‘brother against brother’ , but this is not necessarily true on a familial level. To be sure, there were some families (especially among the political elites of border areas like Missouri, Kentucky, and Virginia) that were deeply divided by family, where fathers fought against sons and where brothers and cousins were on opposite sides. That said, the brethren that fought were more common American citizens rather than members of feuding nuclear families in the vast majority of cases. In a sense, the American Civil War was a great divorce battle, where people had to choose whether to support or allow the breakup of their family (nation) or whether to choose to be loyal to their region and its blighted culture or to the larger national government that was supposed to protect and nurture their own well-being.
Children in the midst of an ugly divorce are in a bad situation, to which there are ultimately no good options. When parents fight and feud with each other, children are ultimately forced to pick sides–either they choose to support one parent or the other or are alienated with both. Some children may find themselves relied on by both parents as a sympathetic listener to the complaints that each parent has about the other, which is a very stressful place to be. Others may be burdened by additional and age-inappropriate responsibilities because of the greater strains present on parents. Other children may find a certain tenuous freedom of action that is gained because of the lack of concerted action between estranged parents, such as the freedom to seek inappropriate friends and partners. Different children may choose different strategies or be placed in different binds, which can increase the division between those who should be friends and allies in the midst of a common crisis.
Sadly, even the length of time that people know each other does not guarantee that they will know each other well. Sometimes years spent apart or simply a lack of compassion and insight and understanding leaves us to consistently and tragically misinterpret the actions and motives and approaches of those around them. Sometimes we can see people for most of our lives and not really ever understand what makes them tick, or the heart that they have for us. Broken and dysfunctional families do not help us to understand others better, to communicate easier, or to let ourselves be vulnerable in risky situations. This is true whether our dysfunctional families are nuclear families or communities or institutions or societies. The same brokenness runs through them all, the same threat that brother may wage war against brother instead of standing strong side by side.