Guest Columns


The Civil War as America’s Iliad and Odyssey? Or maybe our Richard III

The American Civil War is often referred to as our nation's Iliad. As an enthusiastic fan of both U.S. history and Greek mythology, I’ve always enjoyed that wonderful, “Life Imitates Art” analogy. Until recently.

About two months ago, I began writing for The Colorado Statesman about issues, people, and other matters relevant to the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. As a student of the Civil War era, and of Abraham Lincoln in particular, I have long been certain that numerous examples of both success and failure from that period are relevant and hopefully instructive as we grapple with today’s daunting challenges.

But during the past two weeks, I got knocked off course. A miniscule and fleeting glimpse of the depth of America’s civil rights struggle suddenly thumped me in the head, heart and soul.

I visited Memphis, Tenn., and Jackson, Miss. More precisely, I visited the National Civil Rights Museum, located at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, and I visited the former home of Medgar Evers and his family in Jackson. Those locations are, or course, the assassination/ambush scenes, respectively, of two great and courageous civil rights leaders: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, and Medgar Evers in 1963.

I was hit by an overwhelming and muddled sense of sadness, anger, and personal shortcoming and triviality in my own lack of contribution to our civic health. Given the luxury of a few thousand miles of driving for further analysis and reflection, particularly during the solemn and unifying seasons of Passover and Easter, I’m feeling much better now.

I began my “road trip” with the primary goal of exploring and experiencing the “hallowed ground” of the Civil War battlefields at Shiloh, Tenn., and Vicksburg, Miss. I returned home as a dues paying member of the National Civil Rights Museum and to encourage anyone visiting Memphis or Jackson for business or otherwise to take some time to visit the Museum (Memphis) and/or the Historically Designated Evers Neighborhood (Jackson).

I’ll continue to appreciate the Homeric comparisons between the Trojan War, its heroes, and their subsequent “journey home,” and our own epic war and its aftermath. But I also realize even more keenly and urgently than before that we must be particularly careful during this Sesquicentennial remembrance of the Civil War.

In short, if we only recount the day-to-day battles and political machinations, we will have failed to grasp a wonderful opportunity for self-improvement. Because, even if we acknowledge the core importance of slavery as the cause of the Civil War, that’s not enough.

The Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., site of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, now is part of the National Civil Rights Museum.
Courtesy of the National Civil Rights Museum

We are hopelessly myopic if we don’t also try to better understand our ability to largely nullify the redemptive value of a hard-won Civil War victory by allowing Jim Crow segregation and subjugation to replace Lincoln’s vision for reconstruction in the South. And, of course, we simultaneously cultivated an equally insidious, if less definable, racism throughout the entire nation. Likewise, we must examine our country’s abject failures from 1774 to 1861, which led up to the war itself.

Just as Homer’s vivid description of the seemingly needless bloodshed of the Trojan War was followed by his more familiar tale of returning warriors losing their way home after apparent victory, so too were we, as a nation, knocked tragically off course from 1865 to present.

So, as we enjoy re-learning childhood lessons about Fort Sumter and Shiloh, Vicksburg and Gettysburg, and so many other battles of 150 years ago, and sharing those history lessons with our children, we must also candidly acknowledge the shortcomings of subsequent policies and attitudes. By doing so, perhaps we will all come to the renewed awareness that our national dialogue about civic duty, race relations, and other sometimes elusive reasons for American exceptionalism, require a lot more effort from all of us.

Instead of Homer, let’s use our very own English speaking immortal, William Shakespeare, as our literary guide for the Sesquicentennial. At the conclusion of Richard III, the Earl of Richmond (soon to become King Henry VII) has defeated and slain the evil King Richard III. He optimistically proclaims the final words of the play:

“Now civil wounds are stopp’d, peace lives again;

That she may long live here, God say amen!”

But just as a great deal of hard work remained to repair England after Richard’s evil doing, our own work remains unfinished, albeit certainly headed in the right direction.

Patrick Teegarden is an attorney in Denver who has an insatiable desire to help us all learn the lessons of the Civil War.