The American Civil War, that most deadly of U.S. wars, saw the deaths of some 600,000, a social fabric torn and destroyed, by sense of duty and battle and dysentery and amputation and sexually transmitted disease. And yet too, in time, slaves freed, dancing all night long once having heard the news that no master could falsely claim to own them.
Of course how to describe this war, how to get at “what the war was about” remains a contentious question. Ms. Dixie Fulton Williamson is present tonight and a member of Downtown Presbyterian Church. Her great-grandfather was Sam Watkins, a good old boy from Columbia, Tennessee who saw many of the major battles of the Civil War. In his moving memoir Co. Aytch, he reminds us that “north” and “south” were invented somewhere along the way. Once invented, these fictions were soon argued about, and not only argued about, but scratched and clawed, fought and killed for.
Of course the war was not merely about north and south, but inseparably interwoven with other false dichotomies such as slave and free, black and white. Such division was woven into the founding of the United States, for the founders asserted that all are created equal, while simultaneously permitting some white men purportedly to own African men and women, to make motherless a child and childless a mother through the horror of the auction block.
After the war, Sam Watkins said that we have come to realize that there is no such thing as north and south, and we might add, any of the other false divisions between human beings. In that spirit, we shall be looking tonight for tokens of reconciliation, the breaking down of walls, the triumph over the pain arising from the pernicious fictions that alienate one from the other.
If the dead do watch the living, then surely they will be watching and longing with us tonight, soldiers who died in this very room, or alone on a battlefield; the husbands, whether slave or soldier, who grieved their separation from their beloved; and mothers whose children were wrenched from their arms, whether by conscription or by auction. So we welcome you, and we welcome all the other host of those who may happen to gather with us.