Sunday, October 01, 2000

Clearing history's view of Cincinnati and the Civil War




By David Wells
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Cincinnati Museum Center is planning a look into one of the most cracked mirrors of history — the American Civil War.

        An exhibition in 2003 will look at Greater Cincinnati during the conflict; how the war was perceived here; how it was waged; its aftermath and what echoes we still hear from it today.

        I call this a cracked mirror because our reflections are distorted by the distance of history, the prejudice of our myths and, even after almost a century and a half, the searing pain of this particular conflict.

        Begin with Lincoln

               The images of the Civil War, real and imagined, all revolve around Abraham Lincoln.

ABOUT THE EXHIBIT
  The exhibit “The Ohio River Valley and the American Civil War” will be presented at the Cincinnati Museum Center from April through October, 2003, as part of Ohio's bicentennial celebration.
  The exhibition, now in the planning stages, will cover events in Ohio and Kentucky leading up to the war, the war years, the aftermath of the conflict and the impact it had on life in Greater Cincinnati.
  The Museum Center is gathering material for the exhibit from its own collection and in cooperation with the Ohio Historical Society, the Kentucky Historical Society, the Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne, Ind., Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, Conn., and numerous private collectors.
  After the exhibition closes in Cincinnati, it will tour the country, said Meg Olberding, spokeswoman for the Museum Center.
        For simplicity, Lincoln's 1860 campaign is hard to beat. After winning the nomination in Chicago, he went home to Springfield, Ill., and sat on his front porch until the voters made their decision.

        He decided it would be unseemly to go out and personally grub for votes while the nation faced serious moral and political questions. He reasoned that his opinions were well known and if he talked too much it would just cloud the issues and confuse the people. And he got elected.

        Imagine what today's campaign would be like if George W. Bush stayed home in Texas and Al Gore camped out in Tennessee, leaving the rest of us to just ponder the choice and make a decision.

        Apathy, disgust and disbelief are common among voters in today's campaigns. There was plenty of dismay and disinformation going around in Lincoln's day, but there wasn't much apathy. In the election of 1860, Ohio had voter turnout near 90 percent.

        The decision made by the voters 140 years ago was one of the most pivotal choices in American history. Unwilling to accept what a Lincoln presidency might mean, the southern states seceded. Unwilling to allow the election results to be dismissed, the northern states went to war.

        The People's contest

               “This is essentially a People's contest,” Lincoln said of the war on July 4, 1861. In few places did the “People” come together as they did in Cincinnati. This corner of the country was both the gateway to the West and the top of the South. Cincinnati was heavy with German and Irish immigrants who could not accept slavery, but was close enough to the South to feel the pull of the Confederacy.

        If the Civil War was an earthquake in American history, the Ohio River was its fault line. The horizon seen from the Cincinnati shore was considered by many to be the key real estate in the struggle. Kentucky was a slave state, but one that chose to stay in the Union. Lincoln's policy on emancipation was crafted so as not to alarm Kentucky and stampede it out of the Union. Slavery did not end in Kentucky until 1865, with passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

        “To lose Kentucky was to lose the whole game,” Lincoln said.

        The part of Greater Cincinnati we refer to as Northern Kentucky became an armed camp for the Union. A series of forts arced from Bromley to what is now Fort Mitchell, guarding against a Confederate Army that was expected to march up the road from Lexington.

        Cincinnati became a staging area for Union movements into the South. Supplies piled up on the riverfront waiting for shipment down river to the armies of Grant and Sherman. Pontoon bridges were stretched from Cincinnati to Covington, next to the stone piers of the uncompleted Roebling Suspension Bridge.

        The Union never lost Kentucky — at least not until after the war.

        A joke told by Civil War historians is that Kentucky didn't join the Confederacy until after Appomattox. And that brings us back to that cracked mirror.

        For Kentuckians who cheer for Colonels and Rebels and wave the stars and bars, think about this: Your ancestors were more likely to have worn blue than gray. There were far more Kentuckians in the Union Army than in the Confederate Army. Jefferson Davis was born in Kentucky, but so was Lincoln.

        Reflections may be just as distorted on the north side of the river.

        The jumping-off place for the Northern armies is not far from the site of the soon-to-be-erected National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. But the north shore of the Ohio River was not an automatic haven for African Americans. Emancipation was not a cause universally embraced in the north. Escaped slaves were likely to be returned to bondage if they were caught in Cincinnati before the war. The people of 19th Century Cincinnati had no interest in a migration of freed slaves surging across the river.

        Myths, memories and history

               The myths of the war — the chivalric glory of the Confederate cause, the righteous march by the north to end slavery, or the Godlike wisdom and magnanimity of Abraham Lincoln — are important parts of our culture, but they should not be confused with history.

        Fath Davis Ruffins, an archivist with the Smithsonian Institution and consultant on the Museum Center's project, says that history is our memories, combined with our myths, and subjected to the rules of evidence and argument.

        Bringing together all three, as the Museum Center is doing — myths, memories and history — mends the cracks in the mirror and allows us to see a reflection of who we truly are.

        David Wells is associate editorial page editor of the Enquirer.

       



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