RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Those Who Remember the Civil War Fondly

On July 4, there was a parade of old cars on Court Street. The first convertibles, each restored a polished to 1960s glamor, carried the names of local-boy soldiers killed in Vietnam, each with a name and each carrying family members. The bright colors of the cars, the waving families, provided a moving contrast to the messages on their signs. Kids, born about when I was, dead when I was in college.

After the convertibles came a long line of restored old vehicles driven by veterans, a long line let me repeat, then few motorcycles driven by American Legion members in their vests, then enough fire trucks to make us all worry that the entire county could burn with nobody being able to get to the trouble. Then, finally, the high school band and at the end, where they always are, the horses.

It was a fine parade, brought a lot of people downtown, and it carried its bit of controversy. One parader, a Vietnam veteran who is a known entity here, long-bearded and addled, soft-spoken and sometimes drunk, drove his military-style jeep with the Confederate flag displacing Old Glory for the highest position. We all know this guy but I was surprised the veterans in the parade hadn’t pulled his display out. I figured that they figured that the VFWs are full of vets ready to flick into PTSD mode and, hey, it’s tough to be a single guy in a small town.

But, around me and my friends who had come mostly to hear the band and opine about the horses, minds reeled and tongues wagged when the jeep rolled by.

“We should boo,” said Jane. I replied that that’s exactly the attention he wanted.

“We should turn our backs then,” she said, with the kind of giggle that said she wouldn’t do it unless I did.

I said I needed time to process. Just as I said it, one couple standing near me gave each other a high-five.

“Republicans,” Jane said.

“Where is the band?” I countered, hoping to distract her.

Now I’ve had some time to process and it’s clear that the Confederate flag has a ton of lessons for us, first of which is that we need to study war differently. For the winners, wars are easy to forget. Witness the “Made in Vietnam” sticker on your latest t-shirt.

For the losers, it’s a different story. The symbols of the loss go on for years, adopted by every disheartened citizen and defended... forever.

The 150th anniversary of Civil War battles goes on. The Missouri State Museum put together a nice display, with displays and stacks of brochures you could carry off. Since I know the people assigned to carry this display around, I stopped to say howdy and I pointed out the major error... there is only one image of a woman, and she was in a panel that represented refugees from the rural areas of the state, driven from home to the city of St. Louis.

This particular image showed this woman, her husband, a passle of children, looking woeful and distressed but also, somehow, strong. They would survive, it seems to say, but they have no idea how.

The answer to their situation was another group of women ... the Ladies Union Aid Society. When the refugees were pouring into St. Louis, the LUAS found housing, clothing, medical attention, occupations, and food. In fact, they raised the gardens and built the kitchens to feed the refugees and supply the hospitals full of wounded that were also flooding the city.

The LUAS’ office was at City General Hospital as thousands of wounded soldiers came to St. Louis. The women cut sheets and clothing into strips for bandages and rolled them into neat coils for the doctors. In the early days of the War, LUAS members helped only Union soldiers and their families. In November 1863, their mission changed to include Confederates. They saw firsthand the ravages of war and the poverty of widows and children as they visited the sick, read to the soldiers, and held the hands of the dying.

In 1863, they were visiting a Refugee Home, the Gratiot Street Prison Hospital, and 684 destitute soldiers’ families. They staffed the kitchen at Benton Barracks, serving 19,382 meals between May and October, financing their work with fund-raisers and donations. They won a government contract to cut and assemble hospital garments, putting five hundred soldiers’ wives to work. They raised over half a million dollars for their projects.

Thousands of newly freed slaves, mostly women and children, came to St. Louis and were housed in the Benton Barracks and the Missouri Hotel, which severely strained city services. One mother of five became treasurer of the Freedmen’s Relief Society, raising money to establish a hospital. With a letter in the newspaper, she singlehandedly raised three thousand dollars.

If we want to find some lessons from the cruel war years, we shouldn’t be waving flags, teaching about generals, or arguing about slavery vs. state’s rights or brother fighting brother. In other words, let’s not just reinforce something that we all know ... War is Hell, and it’s all about conflict.

But reconciliation? Kindness? How do we honor it?

Margot Ford McMillen farms near Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2015

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