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Soldier's Song

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
I would be late, I would be late, for a very important date. Here it was already 2012 and the war, The War, had started in 1861.

Tonight a traveling troupe of musicians from Nashville, Tenn. -- banjo, fiddles and all -- were in town to present a program of Civil War songs at the Old State House here in Little Rock. Time was ticking away, but it was impossible to hurry or fret. Something in the old columns and proportions, in the sheltering shadows, in the age and elegance of the old state Capitol and now museum slows visitors down. All that history. We want to linger on the old camp grounds.

The ante-bellum design (Greek Revival, circa 1836) would soothe even more if the Victorians of another century had not "improved" it. The classical symmetry of an old riverside state Capitol, whether you were arriving by steamboat or carriage, would have been preserved.

Still, it charms. Without being showy. Like any well-bred lady. It just waits there to be admired.

Inside, the band was swinging into "Dixie," and, old Unionist or not, I rose. Everyone used to stand when "Dixie" was played and I was young. That was before it became just a fight song or, worse, a political statement. Now not playing it has become a political statement. I'm not sure which is worse. Americans ought to be able to share "Dixie," respect it, enjoy it, without having to ponder its political correctness or lack thereof in any given era. But this much remains incontrovertible: It still stirs the blood.

The day after Appomattox, the victorious commander-in-chief was greeted by a crowd of celebrants and a military band. "I propose closing up this interview by the band performing a particular tune ..." announced Mr. Lincoln. "I have always thought "Dixie" one of the best tunes I have ever heard. Our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it, but I insisted yesterday that we fairly captured it. I presented the question to the Attorney General, and he gave it as his legal opinion that it is our lawful prize. I now request the band to favor me with its performance."

And it did. To cheers and stamping feet. The united states were united again, the United States of America one. Kind of. It was restored but not the same. Never would be, never could be, after The War. It had become one nation indivisible. Singular, not plural. Now it took a different verb: Now no one said the United States are but is. The old South was gone, the new one unformed. It would take another century and another revolution, happily peaceable for the most part, for Emancipation to approach completion.

Soon enough "Dixie" gave way this evening to the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and the beat of freedom's march, as it had 150 years ago. "Mine eyes have seen the coming of the glory of the Lord/ He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored/ He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword...."

And terrible it was, though anything but swift. The agony would go on for four long, bloody years. Familiar daguerreotypes flashed across the screen that had been set up in the historic old chamber. Old, awful images recurred, as in a nightmare remembered -- graphic, still awful the morning after, grotesque yet beautiful in a surreal way. Only this nightmare had been all too real. The music and the history turned dark. Bull Run. The sunken road at Antietam piled high with corpses. Gettysburg, and the dead sharpshooter sprawled out at Devil's Den....

The carnage. The bodies buried and unburied. By the thousands, the tens of thousands, the hundreds of thousands by war's end. Seven hundred and fifty thousand of them, more of them carried off by disease than by enemy fire. Though even now I cannot use the word "enemy" without knowing better. They were all Americans.

And the band played on. Even now, I cannot think of the fools who called themselves statesmen rushing to war without feeling furious, undiluted anger. The waste, the folly, the sea of patriotic gore, the betrayal of their trust and of the South that our leaders professed to love.

Not far from the Old State House, the Confederate cemetery here in Little Rock became part of the national cemetery long ago, and the blue and gray were at last united -- in death.

Nor was it just Southern fire-eaters who destroyed what Walt Whitman called the greatest poem -- the United States of America -- and turned it into a Republic of Suffering.

What of those Northern "statesmen" always sure they could put off the day of reckoning for one more decade, for one more era, for one more Compromise of 1820 or 1850, forever? The sleek, silk-vested lawyers with their eye on the main chance who thought they could finesse any moral question by finding just the right verbal formula. (Squatter Sovereignty!) The chief justice who thought he could settle all moral doubts, and decree evil good and good evil, with just one, forever definitive Supreme Court decision. The copperheads and dough-faces who thought they could make peace with evil, appease it, and make it an ally. All we had to do was show it understanding, extend the hand of friendship, and all would be well. (Sound familiar?)

And the war came. The War.

In the end moral questions cannot be got around, they must be got through. And the longer they are evaded, the higher the price. In every age there are those who tell us the truth need not be faced, not now, and maybe not later, wither, that it can be put off indefinitely. ... But it proves all too urgent, obdurate, implacable, inescapable. And we learn better. Or do we?

At the end of the evening, we walk out into the night, our backs to the Old State House, shining in the dark, growing smaller and smaller as we walk away. Much like The War itself. But the music, the grief, the emotions, the old chords and phrases persist in the sweet Southern night air. Let us have peace. Strike the tent. Let us cross the river and rest under the shade of the trees. And still The War haunts us. It is us.

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