Monday, February 13, 2017

Mississippi Learnin': The Civil War

Prior to this past summer, I had spent very little of my adult life in the South, with the majority of my time down there spent either partying in Columbia, SC or at amusement parks in Tampa and Orlando.  Oh, or buying fireworks at South of the Border.  Definitely have done that a bit.  As a Northern Yank, I only had some stereotypical ideas about what Mississippi was like, which included thick, molasses accents, stars and bars flags, and baptist churches as far as the eye could see.  What I didn't expect to see were prevalent reminders of a war that happened over 150 years ago.

As a Philadelphian, I very seldom think of the Civil War.  It just isn't a big part of the cultural identity this far north the Mason Dixon line, with the exception of major battleground cities like Gettysburg.  We studied it in school and then move onto the next subject, mostly learning that it rectified the wrong of slavery.    If anything, the echoes of the Revolutionary War are what still reverberate through the streets of my home town.  The Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Elfreth's Alley; these are our historic artifacts of Americana we embrace.  Portals through time, they represent the good on which our country was founded.  The symbols of the Land of Opportunity that won it's freedom from tyranny through valiant battle and sheer determination of will.  Be sure to ignore the fact that history is written by the winners, and that the freedom's extended by that war only applied to a select few, while others are still playing catch-up with Civil Liberties nearly 250 years later.

Mississippi is much different, in that the war it holds onto, whether it wants to or not, is one that ended horribly for the state.  The Civil War and its aftermath can still be felt over a century and a half later, with a battered economy and towns that still lie in ruin.  Maybe it's not so much that Mississippi holds onto the war, and more that it can't escape it.

Prior to the war, cotton was king in the South.  Sprawling farms and free labor afforded affluence and luxury to the families that would one day most feel the negative effects of the Civil War.  With everything to lose, they had to fight back against what they viewed as Federalist tyranny (in the South, they don't say Union).  And as a result, they lost everything.  Family members killed, homes burned to the ground, farms destroyed, fortunes lost, sanctions levied, and all their slave labor all gone.  Mississippi was set back over 100 years by the war and its repercussions, and their current economic conditions reflect that setback.

The Windsor Mansion survived the Civil War, but Karma caught up in 1890 in the form of a cigar. 

I feel little sympathy for the Confederates that lost their lives or livelihood in the war, as I can't even begin to fathom the horrific nature of the atrocities committed on those plantations by Southern gentlemen.  I do feel bad for any good people living in the South during the war that ended up dying for or ruined by a cause that they were opposed to.  It's easy to lump a whole region together, but the fact is, every nation is made up of individuals, some of which don't want to be defined by the worst of their neighbors or leaders.

In any case, I saw reminders of the Civil War that I had not expected.  I expected to see memorials and statues, but I didn't expect to see a cannonball still lodged in the side of a church:

First Presbyterian Church.  Rodney, MS.

Look directly above the middle window on the second floor.  That is a cannonball that was fired by a Union ship out on the Mississippi.  Crazier to me, though, was the fact that the Mississippi river is currently over a mile from that church, as it's been rerouted over the years by levees, floods, and the Army Corp of Engineers (the latter to undo the damaging floods caused by initial straightening rooted in commercial interest).

I also didn't expect to see cities that had never really recovered after having been razed to the ground during the war.  Before continuing, do we really antonymic homonyms in our language?  Raise and raze? C'mon, we're better than that.  Anyway, as Grant cleared a path to Vicksburg (more on that later), towns that resisted the Federal troops could potentially end up burned to the ground.  The post-war economic crush then left those towns unable to rebuild, even to this day.  One of the most famous exceptions, though, is Port Gibson, a town that Grant said was, "too beautiful to burn," which still thrives to this day even though it was part of a major battle.  But getting back to the point, there are towns that were leveled in the 1860's that never recovered, meanwhile Dresden has a shopping district.

Finally, I didn't expect to learn about an American city that protested the 4th of July until the 1900's.  Depending on who you ask, it's said that Vicksburg refused to celebrate America's birthday from 1863-1945.  The reason for the initial protest was that Vicksburg fell to Gen. Grant on July 4th, 1863.  Following that defeat, the town remained butthurt until the 1900's, and refused to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  A brief pause here to remind everyone how young America is.  The Civil War ended less than 90 years after the country first declared itself an independent nation, and the Vicksburg protest went for another 82 years, to when the Second World War ended and they finally saw a reason to feel unity with the rest of the country.  That is such a short span of time.

While I found all of the above interesting, none of those things were quiet as incredible as a story told to me about a young soldier in Raymond, MS.  As legend has it, during an overwhelming Federal victory, a young solider was shot in the testicle, and that bullet, more magical than the one that struck JFK three times in the head, passed through that soldier's crotch, through town, and into the abdomen of a young woman that stood on her porch, watching the battle from a distance.  That young woman went on to give birth to a perfectly healthy baby some nine months later.  Woah.

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