Racism and the Great Divide

One of the things I love about traveling around Middle Tennessee is the rich history that exists here from many key historical moments during the formation of the United States of America. I love history and I really enjoy being in old places. For me, I’m transported back in time and in my mind I work to imagine what it would be like to live out whatever we might be exploring. Here in Tennessee, much of that history has to do with the Civil War.

The pictures in this post are from two places, The Hermitage (historical home of Andrew Jackson) and the Carnton Plantation (home of the McGavocks and site of The Battle of Franklin). And there are some poignant takeaways from both experiences.

When you tour the Carnton Plantation, the focus is certainly Civil War history. This is not your typical Southern plantation. This 1,400 acre farm served as a Confederate Army hospital during the Battle of Franklin, thought to be the bloodiest 5 hours of the Civil War counting some 9,500 soldiers in close combat as killed, wounded, captured or missing and 7,000 of that number were Confederate soldiers. Think about that, 5 hours. The home endured the war and still stands and during it’s time as a military hospital, cared for some 700 soldiers.

There are things that really affect you as you tour this property, the greatest of which might be the blood-stained wood floors in the bedrooms of the home. The floors are still to this day stained with the blood of wounded soldiers coming off the battlefield, especially in the room where the surgeons were performing amputations by the minute. There is a story told of the pile of limbs that was stacked out behind the house all from the work that went down in that one room. Also on the property is the largest privately owned Confederate cemetery, filled with bodies from that single battlefield. As you can see in one of the pictures here, there are 18 soldiers from my home state of Louisiana buried here under the shade of a magnolia tree. I stood there for a moment and wondered who they were and why those boys were there that day.

The tour guide made a statement that stuck with me about the Carnton’s original owner, Randal McGavock. This was the South and as a plantation owner, he held slaves, about 22, I believe. It’s worth noting that at one time Randal McGavock was the mayor of Nashville and also close friends with Gen. Andrew Jackson. McGavock was known to be a Presbyterian, a faithful and good man, kind, gracious and a gentleman. The statement was with all that being said, he was also a slave owner. It’s hard for the mind of a modern man or woman to really grasp that. We can grapple with those facts all day long and probably never really come to any sense of understanding, primarily because that was then and this is now. But fact remains, he was a slave owner, and a God-fearing man.

There’s another interesting find at the home of Andrew Jackson. In one of the pictures here, you see the grave of Uncle Alfred. He was a slave of the Jackson family. Alfred died at 98 years old. Alfred was born a slave on that farm and lived out his entire 98 years of life on that 1,000 acres in Tennessee. Telling the truth here, as I walked the grounds of The Hermitage (slavery aside, of course), I thought spending a life here on this farm ain’t so bad compared to the stresses of modern life. As the story is told, though we know “Stonewall” Jackson to be a rugged, tough soldier forging a nation and running a pretty tough Presidency, he was known at home as a kind and fair man. Alfred loved the Jackson family. At his death, he requested to be buried at the side of Andrew Jackson, the family obliged and there he lies today.

All this seen and said, here are some thoughts rummaging around in my head as I contemplate the deep division of race that still exists in our country today.

WE ONLY KNOW WHAT WE KNOW. The fact that these men owned slaves didn’t necessarily make them evil. And that’s an important distinction because otherwise, we can’t learn from them. These families didn’t own slaves because they were racists as we understand racism today. They held slaves because it was a way of life. It’s what they knew. And we only know what we know, for better and for worse.

WE NEED TO LEARN FROM OUR PAST, ALL OF IT. I hope that we don’t allow ourselves to be blinded by our politically charged conversations on Facebook and continue to see a movement to wipe away portions of our history, the parts we don’t like. Slavery was a nasty business, but it happened. The Civil War, the South, the Confederacy and everything that went along with it hold critical information that we need to learn and understand. This is who we are. And we should not hide from our past, but should face it and learn from it.

UNDERSTANDING ALWAYS LEADS TO HEALING. Like any disease, you have to understand cause and effect before you can even think about treating it. Before we tell each other how much we suck, or how stupid we are, we should all attempt to think what it might be like to walk a day in the other’s shoes. Admittedly, it’s not hard to watch a movie like 12 Years a Slave and empathize with a slave’s struggle. But imagine how hard it might be to empathize with a slave owner of his day. It is important to do both. Understanding is a critical ingredient to the recipe for healing.

THIS STUFF IS HARD. Nothing about walking a Confederate cemetery and trying to reconcile slavery and this hollowed battlefield is easy. In many ways, it may even be unreconcilable. But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t grapple with it.

The bottom line here for me is simply that I love my country. I love our way of life and part of that is the tapestry woven by all of us, our ancestors, and our history, the good and the bad. All of it has made our country what it is today and without the struggle, it most certainly would not be what it is.

There is a story told of a conversation that happened between two soldiers at the end of the Civil War where one says to the other, “there was a time when some wore blue and some grey, but today, we are brothers.” Wow, how much we need that sentiment of the mid-1800’s to resound in our hearts now. Today, we are Americans.

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