If you are an American who is unhappy with way the United States has gone the past five decades (and what orthodox Catholic living in any Western country is happy with the way their nation has gone?), there is nothing better than to leave the internet behind you. Take a road trip – the longer, the better.
A friend’s daughter was graduating from Harvard, and he was intent on driving from Los Angeles to Boston and back to attend the ceremony. He asked if I would care to go with him, holding out the golden opportunity to visit all sorts of Civil War sites either way. I jumped at the chance.
Now, although I am of French Canadian descent, my father’s family has been in New England since the 1880s, and I myself shall be buried there. My mother, like my brother and me, was born in New York. The Hudson River Valley, with its charming colonial atmosphere and strange legends, is the place on Earth I feel most at home. Moreover, I have lived in Los Angeles most of my life. My parents were active at one time in the Civil Rights movement, and as far as any true-blue son of Dixie would be concerned, I am a Yankee’s Yankee.
For all of that, I have always have had a fascination with the Lost Cause of the Confederacy – as indeed I do with the Loyalists, Jacobites, Cavaliers, recusants and Yorkists. Had any of these triumphed, the Anglosphere would have been quite different, perhaps even better. In any case, with the exception of Virginia, I had not been in the Land of Cotton for any length of time in over 20 years.
The war on Confederate monuments goes on apace. The battle flag has been removed from National Park films, and the pillar in the middle of New Orleans’s Lee Circle stands empty. An increasingly annoyed populace is digging in to defend what remains, and not all of those to whom I spoke were white.
This last is added to the pre-existing pile of resentment Southerners share with the Midwest and most of the interior of the country at the double-whammy which they believe our ruling classes have handed them: woeful social changes married to economic collapse. It became easy to understand not only why Trump was elected, but also why our national elites had no idea that it would happen.
The bloody wounds of the Civil War – sewn up within five decades of that horrible conflict – have been torn open once more. Moreover, the erasing of history is not simply a matter of attacking Confederate symbols, the Founding Fathers or Christopher Columbus. At the Warm Springs FDR Museum, we found that the state of Georgia no longer supplies batteries for the audio tour machine because the state’s schools no longer teach about Roosevelt. Presumably they ignore the Depression and World War II thereby.
At Vicksburg, maintenance of the more than 1,400 various memorials and monuments is complicated by the fact that a number of states no longer fund the upkeep of those they erected. One can only speculate, of course, why FDR has been consigned to the Memory Hole. Perhaps the kudos he once earned from the Left for his para-socialism is now outweighed, in their eyes, by his undoubted (if oddly expressed) patriotism.
My brief sojourn in the North, however, reminded me of the effects of our first civil war, usually called the Revolution. The countryside of the north-east has more in common with that of Tidewater Virginia and the Low Country of the Carolinas than one would at first suspect – to no small degree because outside major urban areas, colonial settlement patterns remain intact.
In New York City, I had a joyful extended lunch with several of my Catholic Herald colleagues: fellow columnists Matthew Schmitz and Sohrab Ahmari as well as US editor Michael Davis. I was then able to spend two contented days in rural Goshen, Connecticut, at my favourite B&B, the Mary Stuart House – one part Green Acres, another part Rivendell.
The South, as with much of the heartland, is primarily Protestant. “Christ-haunted, rather than Christ-loving,” in the pithy words of Flannery O’Connor – though, she quickly added, that still means He gets more attention here than in the North.
The South has a sense of the tragic that the North lacks, because she has faced defeat in a way the North has not. Graciousness and gallantry still live there – as do the conflicting but intimately related legacies of Reconstruction and Jim Crow. If the land of Cavaliers was also the land of lynching (and it most certainly was), let it be remembered that the currently tranquil New England and Mid-Atlantic states achieved their wealth partly through the slave trade, and their political independence through the thorough purging and oft-times torture and expulsion of the Loyalists. In our past lies the slaughtered thousands of the Indian tribes; in our present, the never-ending piles of infant skulls.
All of which having been said, this does not detract from the incredible scenery, beautiful buildings and friendly people we encountered everywhere on this trip – to say nothing of the mountains of delicious food. Despite our strange and conflicted history, it is impossible not to love this land, once one gets out to see it. But that is the paradox of humanity itself.
Charles A Coulombe is an author and lecturer based in Los Angeles
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