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Saturday, 12 February 2011

The Other ...



By David S. Traub, Jr.
[Writers Clearinghouse News Service]
Where I grew up back in Louisville, Kentucky, the boys took up a new fad each year. These were the 1950s, and one year it was Davy Crockett with everyone sporting coonskin caps and a fringed jackets. Another year it was Hopalong Cassidy, prompting the boys to put on holsters, spurs and the other paraphernalia associated with that cowboy hero. Still another year, it was the Civil War. In this case, the boys broke off into sides; some wore the grey uniform of the Rebels while others wore the blue uniform of the Yankees.

I should say that the boys I am speaking of were the white boys on my side of town whose parents could afford to buy them costumes. Although Louisville was the first city in the South to begin desegregating its public schools after Brown versus Board of Education, it was otherwise quite a segregated city, and for that matter, still is. As today, the African-American community largely resided on the west side of the city. Given the established social order, I never got to know anyone in those western neighborhoods. But there in one of those neighborhoods, a little boy almost exactly my age, named Cassius Clay, later Muhammad Ali, was growing up. To my knowledge, young Clay never took part in our mock Civil War pageants. Of course later he had his own fights.

Now surely you must ask: what does all of this have to do with Abraham Lincoln? Well, Lincoln was born in 1809 in a log cabin near Hodgenville, Kentucky about thirty miles from my birthplace in Louisville. When he was seven, his father led the family across the Ohio River to Indiana partly to get away from the system of slavery that prevailed in Kentucky. Lincoln’s father, Thomas, was a small, independent farmer who resented the competition of the big plantations with their numerous slaves.

Though Lincoln moved away from Kentucky at an early age, he never lost contact with the state of his birth. His best friend, the wealthy Joshua Speed was a Kentuckian as was his devoted law partner, William Herndon, and his wife, the aristocratic Mary Todd. In the course of the years as a successful politician and lawyer, he visited the state several times. Lincoln knew the culture of Kentucky well.

Getting back to our boyhood pageant, let me say that in an attempt to maintain my objectivity about the Great War, I am not going to tell you which uniform I wore. But the fact that we split into sides is logical, because Kentucky itself during the Civil War was split. Kentucky did not
leave the Union to join the Confederacy, but nevertheless asserted its right to maintain slavery.

Though fierce battles were fought on Kentucky soil, the state government tried to keep its neutrality militarily, initially not sending troops to the South or North. Of course, individuals went off on their own to fight on the side of their choosing. And so it was again with the boys in my childhood of 1950s Louisville.

With Missouri, Delaware, and Maryland, Kentucky became a so called “border state” that remained in the Union while retaining slavery. Of all four states, Lincoln was most concerned with keeping Kentucky loyal, perhaps because of its strategic geographic location stretching across the top of the South. Lincoln famously said,” to lose Kentucky is to lose the whole thing.” Lincoln received reports from his Kentucky friends on conditions there and made efforts to pacify restive contingents while sending armaments to sympathetic ones.

As the Civil War wore on, Lincoln came closer and closer to becoming a true abolitionist, which he had never really been, although he had always disliked slavery. His turning point was the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863. Many are not aware, however, that the Proclamation did not free the slaves in Kentucky or the other border states. It freed the slaves only in those states in rebellion. Here Lincoln’s strategy was to keep Kentuckians happily wedded to the Union, while not tampering with their “peculiar institution.” It took the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified by two thirds of the states after Lincoln’s assassination, to end slavery everywhere. But Kentucky itself refused to ratify the amendment and the subsequent amendments that gave further rights to the freed slaves.

Now it is 150 years later at the anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War in 1861. Yet it seems that war is still being fought, at least on political and intellectual terrain. On a trip last October to Columbia, South Carolina, I saw the Confederate flag waving on the lawn out front of the state capital, though the black community there had demanded that it be removed from top the capital building itself. Evidently some down that way still hope “the South will rise again.”

Lincoln was also on center stage, two years ago in 2009 with the celebration of the two hundredth anniversary of his birth. That year I traveled to Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy, to see a controversial statue of Lincoln. Many in the city didn’t want to erect a statue of the hated leader of the North. After much disputation, it was finally erected in an unobtrusive location hidden behind a park building which I could only find with the help of the clerk at my hotel who was studying history at a local university.

Recently in the North there has been little of the same demonstration of emotion in support
of the Union cause. Perhaps our cool Yankee temperament is not given to such expression.

Lincoln himself, though, is generally revered, cloaked as he is in mythic grandeur.

Still many questions remain. This year as we reconsider the Civil War, shall we “celebrate” or “commemorate” it? Was the war fought over states rights or slavery? Did Lincoln seek only to save the Union without much concern for the slavery issue? Was the liberation of the slaves, or any of the other supposed reasons for the war, a justification for the horrific loss of life it entailed on both sides?
nsider though if we had not had the catastrophic war culminating in the abolition of slavery, Cassius Clay, born in 1942, might have had a very different future. Lincoln’s hope for most of his career was that slavery would be subject to “ultimate extinction” in an extended, gradual process over time. Without the war, who knows how long that would have taken? As preposterous as it may be to suggest, perhaps Clay would have been born into slavery. In that event, he would never have been able to become Muhammad Ali, he never would have been able to protest the Vietnam War, and he would never have received the Presidential Medal of Honor in 2005 from George W. Bush. The little boy from Kentucky would never would have been able to say of himself, “I am the greatest.”