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A conflict without end?

A conflict without end?

The American Civil War is 148 years in the past, yet that conflict continues to fascinate history buffs in Canada and the United States. Why is that?

What better thing to do in your spare time than “head out on the highway looking for adventure?” For some that means a weekend in Las Vegas; for others, sitting in the front row at a NASCAR race or maybe a Serengeti safari. For three Queen’s grads fascinated by history and politics, it recently meant a tour of Virginia from its beginnings in Jamestown through to ­Appomattox.

We’re all Calgarians. Stan Drabek, Arts’58, a retired U of Calgary political science professor, Chuck Meagher, Artsci’80, a history grad who makes his living nowadays as a lawyer at TransAlta Corp., and I, manager of the University’s western office in Calgary, and incurably peripatetic, conceived the idea over many cups of coffee over several years. Finally, in November we decided it was time to act on our ideas.

Drabeck, Meagher and CampbellThree alumni Civil War enthusiasts: (l-r) the author, Stan Drabek, and Chuck Meagher on their visit to Petersburg National Battlefield Historic Site in Petersburg Virginia.


From the Canadian side of the border, a obsession with the American Civil War may seem quirky at best.However, in the U.S. many of its issues remain unresolved, and in some ways the conflict is still on-going. The wry quote “The War ain’t over; the South is just waiting on supplies” has serious overtones. A 2010 book, The New Jim Crow (The New Press), by American civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander, describes the continuing struggles in the U.S. for racial equality and justice despite the achievements of the past generation. The debate about states’ rights versus federal government prerogatives is never-ending, as was made clear by the long and rancorous 2012 presidential election campaign.

For our tour, my compatriots assigned me the role of guide, as I was once married to a Virginian and my son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter live just outside Richmond. For 30 years, my ongoing quest has been to understand this part of the world – geographically so close, yet culturally so different from Canada.

A good precursor as to how intriguing our trip would be happened when we rendezvoused in the Richmond airport in early October. Our luggage was delayed because Air Force One was waiting on the tarmac for President Obama to return from a campaign event. Very odd when one thinks it’s “cool” to have one’s luggage delayed. This situation was also a prompt to contemplate how far the U.S. has come since the Civil War when an African-American is President.

In addition to touring Colonial and Civil War sites in four states (Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania) over the course of a week, we also indulged Stan’s hobby of visiting university and college campuses. On a previous trip, when Stan met a student who asked what brought him to the campus, Stan replied that he “collected universities.” The young man quipped, “Sir, you must be a very wealthy man.” Not wealthy perhaps, but certainly wise.

In testament to each “score,” Stan purchases a lapel pin and pennant from every campus he visits. While it was his hobby to begin with, Chuck and I quickly latched on, realizing this would expose us to beautiful architecture and grounds that we would otherwise bypass. Ultimately we saw seven campuses, from the well-known to the more obscure. Each was attractive in its own unique way and all reminded us of the vitalrole higher education plays in creating and sustaining our civilization.

Chuck’s contribution to the lighter side of the trip was twofold. Being proud of his Celtic ancestry, at each battle site he would inquire, “Was the Irish Brigade here?” It seemed that they had indeed been everywhere – Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, and finally at Petersburg, site of “the Crater” the setting of the opening scene in the 2003 movie Cold Mountain.

One of those who led the Irish Brigade was Colonel Thomas F. Meagher. While Chuck doesn’t claim him as a relative, he told us the remarkable life story of a man who began life protesting English rule in Ireland, was transported to a penal colony in Tasmania, escaped, and became a lawyer in New York before his acclaimed military career in the Civil War. Afterwards, he was appointed Governor of the Montana Territory and disappeared mysteriously one night over the side of a stern-wheeler on the Missouri River, never to be seen again.

Chuck’s other contribution was the ­ongoing search for a new barbecue restaurant. In the South, barbecue is what you eat and not what you do; to prepare the meal one “grills” it. This quest led to encounters with many friendly locals and much fine southern cuisine. For my contribution, at one such stop I indulged myself by purchasing an entire pecan pie, but I did share it with my traveling companion.

American Civil War cannonMore than 750,000 Amefricans died in teh four years of civil war, 1861-65

Another memorable character who came our way was Colonel Ely S. Parker, Secretary to Union General Ulysses S. Grant. The Colonel drafted the Terms of Surrender for signing by the Confederacy at Appomattox, was a lawyer, engineer, and a tribal diplomat for the Iroquois Confederacy. I’d have dearly loved to spend time with him to hear his perspective on this horribly bloody conflict.

At many sites, the interpretive guides would say, “I’ll tell you the story. You draw your own conclusions.” This might be the story that Thomas Jefferson fathered six children with Sally Hemmings, an enslaved black woman at his stately home of Monticello. Or perhaps the story of John Brown’s attack at Harper’s Ferry, made ­famous in song. Was he a madman or a ­visionary? In each situation we were left with unanswered and unanswerable ­questions, but the end result was two-fold: a deeper understanding of how complex the world was even then and more questions aimed at ourselves as to how we might have responded if fate had led us to be in this place at that time. For thousands of others on both sides of the border, Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln has raised similar questions – proof again that a 19th century war still holds endless fascination.

It’s always worth learning as much of a story as possible before drawing any ­conclusions. For all its quirkiness, craziness, and occasional hypocrisies, the U.S.A. never fails to be interesting, and it’s often inspiring. As Canadians, we presume to know everything there is to know about our closest neighbours. Not me, for I confess I still have much to learn before I’d ever come to any conclusion about who Americans are and where they are going. For that reason, very soon I’ll be compelled to “head out on the highway” yet again.

Did you know...?

The American Civil War (April 1861 to May 1865) began when 11 Southern states seceded from the United States of America to form to Confederate States of America. After four years of bitter conflict, the Confederacy surrendered, and the Union was preserved. The war was the bloodiest in American history. By the time the last shot was fired, more than 750,000 Americans had been killed. By comparison 25,000 died in the Revolutionary War; 116,000 in WWI; 405,000 in WWII; 36,000 in the Korean War; and 58,000 in the Vietnam conflict.

[Queen's Alumni Review 2013-1 cover]