Wednesday, February 09, 2011

On this day in Tennessee History

One hundred and fifty years ago today Jefferson Davis of Mississippi and Alexander Stephens of Georgia were elected Provisional President and Vice-President of the Confederate States of America. On this same day a referendum was held in Tennessee to determine whether or not the state should hold a secession convention. Unionist candidates outnumbered Southern Rights candidates three to one. Tennesseans decided not to assemble a convention by a vote of 69,772 to 57,708 and Tennessee does not secede from the Union at this time. Nevertheless, deep divisions in the Volunteer state were evident--divisions that would play a pivotal role as the Civil War bloodied every corner of the state. Even now as we begin to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War evidence of a once deeply divided Tennessee remains. While on this day 150 years ago Tennessee did not secede, later the state did leave the Union. Tennessee was also the first state to be reclaimed by the Union in battle. It was a high price to pay, a very high price.

To honor this day I have chosen to feature a photo of the Tennessee Monument located between the North Carolina and Virginia monuments along West Confederate Avenue on Seminary Ridge in the Gettysburg National Military Park. I was fortunate to visit Gettysburg last summer. A knowledgeable tour guide took me through the events of those bloody three days in July, 1963. I walked the Hallowed Ground where tens of thousands of men, as Abraham Lincoln proclaimed, "Gave the last full measure of devotion." Late in the afternoon, after my tour was over, I returned to the site of the Tennessee Monument. By this time very few people were in the area so I was essentially alone. The inscription on the monument erected by my state to honor those who fought says, "Valor and courage were virtues of the three Tennessee regiments." I sat down on the edge of etched stone slab and stared out across the grasses of the battlefield. I thought about what it means to have valor and courage. I thought about what it must have been like to walk hundreds of miles in all kinds of weather, often without adequate food, clothing, or shelter. I thought about what it took to leave one's family behind to fight in a war about things that may or may not have impacted them personally, about going to war because it was the honorable thing to do, about following the orders of your commander, not knowing if he was making wise, informed decisions or not. I looked across the fields that once were covered with bodies and blood--and I cried.

I am the offspring of immigrants. My people did not live in America at the time of the Civil War; nevertheless, the Civil War was fought for my benefit. America would not be the nation it is today had we not endured the tragedy of the Civil War. Caught up in our fast-paced self-centered society, too many Americans have forgotten the lessons of our Civil War (or they never learned them in the first place). Now is the time for us to make sure our Hallowed Grounds remain hallowed. Now is the time for us to first learn, then teach the lessons of the Civil War to the future generations. We need to know the major names and places, but also need to know the stories of the little-known people. Real names, real faces, and real places make the war real in our contemporary lives. It is in that reality that we are most mindful of terrible damage that inevitably follows when leaders refuse to listen to one another, refuse to work together, and stubbornly insist that their ideology is the one and only true way. If we cannot unite as One Nation, we will fail. We should not forget. I will not forget!