The Civil War and September 11th

2011 September 12
by Ellen Noonan

The Robert Gould Shaw memorial in Boston, which commemorates the 54th Massachusetts Colored Regiment of the Union army

At yesterday’s September 11th memorial ceremony in New York City, former President George W. Bush read a condolence letter written by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864 to Mrs. Lydia Bixby, who was “the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.” It is an eloquent, affecting letter that evokes an unimaginable kind of sorrow. Published in a newspaper on the same day that it was hand delivered to Mrs. Bixby, it was clearly intended both as a private gesture and a message designed to help a war-weary public keep the faith. Fitting, then, on both counts for use at the September 11th memorial.

But decidedly not fitting is the letter’s final line, where Lincoln consoles the grieving mother by reminding her of “the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.” The deeply mourned victims of September 11th were people who went to work, or got on an airplane, and experienced horrifying ends. They were heroic in their support for each other and willingness to put their own lives in jeopardy for the sake of others–an example of communal care that should be commemorated in its own right. But they were not freedom fighters in the way that the young men who enlisted in the Union army were. There is a politics to the slippage that allows us to bundle all tragic sacrifice together into a narrative of national greatness. Equating the September 11th victims with Civil War casualties reinforces the political framework of the “War on Terror” that politicians and the media launched after the 9.11 attacks. It also obscures the nature of the Civil War at a time when many Americans still believe it was fought over “states rights” and not over slavery. By 1864, the Union was engaged in a genuine freedom fight, seeking to emancipate millions of enslaved people. By all means, let’s commemorate examples of heroism in U.S. history, but let’s be true to the spirit and the facts of the past.

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