I’m not a native Virginian. When I entered the Abbey in 1977, I was more aware of the monastic culture–and it’s claim to continuity to Twelfth Century–than of the local culture. I was born and raised in New York City and New Yorkers can be as blase as we can be skeptical. I suspect we’ve had the “been there done that” attitude a few centuries before anyone put a label on it; “one-up-manship” is certainly one of our less endearing characteristics. Mention the Civil War to me, and I think of the notorious draft riots which wreaked havoc in Manhatten for several days; and I think of it as the past, not quite forgotten but not quite relevant either. Or I’d think of watching Gone With the Wind, playing at the Brooklyn Paramount or the Valencia on Jamaica Avenue.
I was, quite frankly, perplexed by the fascination exerted by the Civil War in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Gradually it dawned on me that all those names we memorized in Grammar School and High School and regurgitated for the American History exams were now local: I have been living in the Shenandoah Valley! I began to realize that the Civil War is not just data from our national chronology but a living wound, if not in our national consciousness, then in our unconscious. It’s not a bad idea to try to understand it and the issues involved.
My current impressions revolve around the incongruities or the ironies or the inconsistencies of the War between the States. To name a few: when the Federal Army clashed with the Confederate troops here at Cool Spring, they found support and were given supplies by local Unionists. There may not have been a sizable Unionist population in Clarke or Loudon or Frederick counties, but they were there and unmolested. They suffered no reprisals after the battle. In a similar vein, a Federal Officer, after the battle, could pay a call on his (Confederate) kin living between Berryville and Winchester. There was no battle in progress and he could move freely and safely across lines. Or there were those local women who came to the battlefield that is now our property, with food, medicaments, bandages and attended the dying and wounded of both sides, indiscriminately. These weren’t medical professionals but women who shared the conventions and prejudices of their society; one of those “pre-judgments” was to assist the dying and ailing. Robert E. Lee served his homeland (Virginia, not the United States) although he regretted the break-up of the Union. He believed and hoped that slavery was a doomed institution though his view of the African population in this country was conventionally patronizing. “Stonewall” Jackson, already dead by the Battle of Cool Spring, not only despised slavery and prayed for its extinction but opened a school for blacks. But then that sort of initiative was personal, not systematic and failed to set a precedent. Of course, abolition of slavery wasn’t the cause of the Civil War. Many who fought for the Union were not abolitionists; the New York draft riots, fueled racist sentiments and free-African Americans were lynched in the streets. Yankees were hardly the great liberators.
The issue was States’ Rights and whether they took precedent over the Union. After the firing on Fort Sumpter, the arrival of Federal troops was interpreted as an invasion; the Federal government was attacking its own citizens. Both sides could quote a Virginian, George Washington (who, however, had worked hard to maintain the Union) and the other Founding Fathers, sometimes ignoring the full context of their opinions. I imagine, as with all of history, the dominant account is written by the victor and issues seem more clearly defined in retrospect. But who really does “win” a civil war? Who wasn’t defeated? The political Union was preserved but what is permanently lost when you are, in any and every engagement, killing your own people? What violence have we inflicted on ourselves?
Liturgically, 18 July is simply Thursday of the Fifteenth Week, Year B; there is no satint’s memorial or feast. Several of the priests here will use one of the Masses in the back of the Missal on such days–for Persecuted Christians, for the Imprisoned, for Vocations, in Times of War or Civil Disturbance, for the Sick… The morning we celebrated the Mass for Peace and Justice, for that peace between peoples that can only exist in a just society. That’s not a bad choice for the anniversary of the Battle of Cool Spring. To know more about our local history is not unlike relinquishing denial about our family issues. May our faith guide us to recognize and heal the wounds that still cripple our American society. May the tension of our inconsistencies save us from inflexible, stifling consistency and generate creative energy. May all those who died on our property, who died for what they believed was right, or died in fear and confusion and loneliness, or died in their youth, reign in the peace that this life cannot give. But may we, the living, still strive to realize that peace that a just society can actually bring to all her people.