The Sesquicentennial for the Civil War honors a war which still rages on in America. An example of the ongoing nature of the war was seen in the dispute over a memorial to northern troops at Olustee, Florida, the site of the largest and bloodiest battlefield in the state.
The issue of a memorial to the northern troops who died there has been compared to the reopening of a 150-year-old wound. According to a report on the front page of the New York Times, John W. Adams, commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Florida division, said “Old grudges die hard. And feelings run deep.” Another person with ancestors who fought on both sides said, “There are some, apparently, who consider this to be a lengthy truce and believe the war is still going on.”
They were responding to the request by the Florida chapter of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War to the state parks department for permission to place an obelisk in honor of the Union soldiers who died due to the battle fought there February 20, 1864. The existing Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park currently has three monuments commemorating the Confederate soldiers. As it turns out, the number of Union casualties exceeded those of the Confederacy.
Nonetheless, the request has enraged members of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans as a betrayal in what has been called the Second Battle of Olustee. As one might expect, the current Civil War re-enactment there draws thousands to the community so it is big business, for the small community. Battle re-enactments can attract tourists.
But the Florida of today is not the Florida of the Civil War. The demographics has shifted considerably. Huge numbers of northerners including from New York State now reside in Florida. In this regard, the descendants of the Confederates may well feel besieged, as if the blood spilled by their ancestors counts for less and less with each passing year. Their sense of having their past taken from them is palpable.
What can New York do? Our state provided the most soldiers to the Union cause. One can travel the counties, villages, towns, and cities across the state and see where those who fought for the Union came from. Often, their descendants still live in those same communities. Their connection to the Civil War is deep, but less dramatic since the battlefields on the New York State landscape are missing.
A few years ago when I was organizing county history conferences, it turns out that two people in attendance had ancestors who had fought at the same battle in the Civil War, but on different sides. That revelation did not lead to yelling, shouting, and a call to renew the hostilities. Instead it was an insightful anecdote in the knitting of the fabric of American society. Two Americans from Virginia and Massachusetts, which had been allied states in the War for Independence and enemies in the Civil War, were now meeting in peace and harmony in upstate New York to share the stories of their ancestors.
All Americans share a heritage of blood spilled and lives lost. The participants in both sides of the Civil War were human beings and their descendants now share a single country. We should see each other as people, not monsters, share the painful loss of 750,000 Americans in an internal war, and to join together as real people for a better future.
Can that be done? It would be difficult in the present political environment, but there may be a way. New York’s local historical societies know where New Yorkers fought. From letters, diaries, and newspaper accounts, they know where the sons of their communities marched, bivouacked, fought, were wounded and died across the south.
We should identify those places and reach out to those communities. We should visit the home communities of the people from both sides of the war and the battlefields where they died. We should work at bringing the two sides together, Yankees and Confederates, in a tourist exchange program.
We should do it for the good of the country so we can move forward together. We should reach out to the states who stars fly on the same flag as ours.
Photo: The Monument at Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park being dedicated October 23, 1912.