Sunday, January 08, 2012

My Sunday Feeling

"The past is not ever dead.  It's not even past."
                                                                 William Faulkner

It is also said that history is written by the guys that won.  The folks that showed up in period drag for yesterday's commemoration of the death of David O. Dodd's execution by the Union troops that occupied Little Rock in 1863 would probably agree with both sentiments. 

It occurs to me that the phrase "occupy Little Rock" was not an abstraction in those days.  Forgive me.  I ramble.

I confess that I don't know much about Civil War reenactors.  Yesterday's performance was the first time I had ever encountered any of them live and in person.  It is my understanding that their attention to detail in their garb and equipment is painstaking and sincere.  Certainly there is something to be said for historical preservation.  There is much that is right and purposeful about remembering and maintenance of traditions.  And I suppose it might even be fun to spend the day pretending to be Johnny Reb. 

There is nothing inherently wrong with any of that.

The execution of David O. Dodd resonates still for a couple of reasons.  First and foremost, it is a compelling story about a brave young kid who refused to rat out a friend during a time of war.  And it cost him his life.  Personal bravery and steadfast courage in the face of certain doom are both exceedingly appropriate metaphors and/or examples to ponder.  The story of David O. Dodd is also a metaphor for martyrdom for the folks that showed up at Mount Holly Cemetery yesterday.  Martyrdom is a romantic concept.  To some, the death David Owen Dodd is a symbol of denial of self in the furtherance of a noble and just cause.

The speeches were instructive.  The great conflict that gave rise to yesterday's event was referred to repeatedly as "The War Between the States."  There were copious references to "freedom" and "the cause." The blessings of Jesus Christ were invoked repeatedly.  "Dixie" was sung by the troops.  Many variations of the "Stars and Bars" were on display.

And these folks have an absolute right to peaceably assemble (something of a figure of speech since the ceremony involved the discharge of ersatz weaponry) and make speeches in which they espouse whatever they wish to believe while wearing the symbols of these beliefs.

But it's bad history.  I am willing to bet that if you asked any of the organizers of yesterday's service to explain the root cause of the Civil War, none of them would mention the institution of slavery in the South.  I'm leaving the rank and file out of this.  I'm willing to suspend disbelief long enough to think that some of them are out there just to have a good time or because they gave up golf.

But as the great historian Casey Stengel might say, "You can look it up."  Off the top of my head, it is my recollection that every declaration of secession from every state that broke off from the Union mentioned preservation of "the peculiar institution" to borrow Mr. Lincoln's phrase.  And the "Northern aggression"-which was completely unaggressive until noted whiskey drinker U.S. Grant was given the keys-was instituted to put down the rebellion in service of preservation of the Union.

But you heard none of that yesterday.  And that's OK.  Everybody is entitled to their own view of history. You're certainly entitled to your own facts, I suppose, just so long as you're not in a debate.  And there was no debate about the sanctity of the cause yesterday.  Everyone there was a True Believer.  Well, everybody but the media types and a former lawyer armed with both a camera and unrequited curiosity about such events. 

The story of David O. Dodd is what it is.  But it's not what it's not. 

And we are certainly free, in this great country of ours, to believe what we will.  Even if the guys that won get to write the history.

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