I spent the month of April in NYC looking after Kyle while his mother was in Brazil. Usually I fly up but I hadn’t driven the route since leaving NYC in 2009 so I decided spring might be a great time to hit the road stopping along the way to see the sights.
April 12th was the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War with the Confederate shelling of Ft. Sumter and after reading an intriguing article in the NY Times about how Southern museums depict the war years. (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/17/arts/design/in-the-south-civil-war-has-not-been-forgotten.html) I made my first stop Charleston, South Carolina. Ft. Sumter lies in Charleston harbor, the city has a Confederate Museum and I booked a morning Civil War Tour that had been lauded on several websites.
Early that morning I was exhilarated. The City of Charleston is singularly beautiful with many antebellum homes intact or magnificently restored.Flowers and trees were blooming everywhere. The sun glistened on the waters along Battery Street across from mansions that had stood since the war. It was a Saturday morning, not much traffic a few locals and tourists on foot enjoying that same exhilaration on what felt like the first day of spring.
How could a day that began so promising leave me with such a bad taste, placing me under an onerous cloud by sunset?
The tour began at 9am in the lobby of the historic Mills House Hotel. Although renovated since, (and now under Holiday Inn ownership!) it was built in 1853. Robert E. Lee slept here during the Democratic Convention of 1860. (http://www.millshouse.com/amenities/history.html)
Our guide was what tourists often refer to as ‘a real character’. A man in his seventies with an animated face under a straw boater, he had directed this tour for over a decade, yet never once sank into rote delivery, always sparked with spontaneity as if telling the stories for the very first time and the war had occurred decades ago rather than a century and a half. He had compiled a picture book about Charleston (which we bought at the end of the tour) and was knowledgeable in every answer to questions. He had even memorized letters from Confederates in Charleston during Union bombardment and frequently stopped to recite their words.
There were two other customers for the tour, men about my age, both from North Carolina and descendents of Confederate veterans (one was the great-grandson of the designer of the first Confederate stamp!)
So far so good.
But strangely, before we began our guide asked if we wanted the tour ‘with slavery or without’, as if we were in a Chinese restaurant picking from column A or column B.
I was flabbergasted. “How can you have a Civil War Tour without slavery?”
“Well, some folks just get too sensitive about it. They can’t enjoy the tour. You have to understand the people who lived here at the time. Ya’ll can’t judge them by our present day standards. I try to get you to appreciate the world they were living in so you really can understand what happened here.”
That didn’t sound unreasonable. Taking national pride in the laudable, revolutionary achievements of the Founding Fathers, many of whom were slaveholders, has always been an American balancing act. But on the other hand, ‘many of the people who lived here at the time’ were enslaved. They lived in that world too.
We all agreed. We chose Column A: the tour WITH slavery.
The very first stop on the tour was a small, white house near the hotel.
This was the home of a free woman of color. We were told that Charleston had over 3,000 free blacks before the Civil War. (Later, doing my own research, I found that these were mostly mixed-race ‘mulattoes’, that their wages were regulated by law, that they were women by a ratio of 2-1 and that they had to wear little badges depicting a liberty cap when they were out in public like Jews in a ghetto. Our guide didn’t mention these historical facts). He pointed out curled spikes on a fence around the house. They looked like the anti-burglar fences you find in NYC but he cited them as protection against slave revolts. Yes, even black Charlestonians feared the slaves! And we were regaled with the animal viciousness of the slave revolt sparked by Denmark Vessey. Vessey and his followers planned to kill all the whites, women and children included, take over the city and then sail to freedom in Haiti. (Of course, there had actually been no revolt. Two slaves opposed to the revolt informed authorities. Vessey and 34 others were hanged.) Our guide pointed to a park with similar spikes above the fence, pointing out that this is where embattled whites would find a last redoubt against murderous blacks. The citizens could fire outward through the spaces in the iron fence and the curled spikes atop it would prevent slaves from climbing over.
So now we were seeing Charleston from the perspective of ‘the people who lived here at the time’. At least the white ones. They lived in constant fear of dangerous blacks.
“Now, what kind of darkie do you want to buy here today?” asked the guide helping us to ‘appreciate the world they were living in’.
“What?” I asked.
“What kind of darkie do you want to buy?” he repeated. “You know, you don’t just buy a darkie. You buy a carpenter, a wheelwright, a blacksmith or a field hand. Now the field hand is the cheapest. Maybe $500. But some of those others could run you into real money. Maybe a thousand dollars. Now what kind of darkie do you want to buy today?”
I demurred, explaining that I would do my own work and was remonstrated that if I insisted on not buying a ‘darkie’ I would face lifetime penury. My tour partners were more amenable to playing slave-master. One said he would buy a carpenter for $800, the other a field hand for $500.
When we got to the site of the ante-bellum insurance company I again refused to play the game and insure my ‘darkie’. By now, I must have roused suspicions that I was not a fellow-traveler and my companions on the tour began to ask questions; what I did for a living, where I was from etc. They were excited when I told them my TV show was cancelled the day after Bill Clinton’s mistress made an appearance and more so when I told them I was a political radio broadcaster in New York. ‘Did I know Sean Hannity?’ ‘Yes. I worked in the same studio as he did and used to follow him on the air.’ ‘What was he like in real life?’ ‘Well, one to one he was a likeable enough, if shallow fellow but considering the requirements of the job he wasn’t all that bright.’ I quickly added that Mark Levin, on the other hand, was an extremely bright, well educated individual who surely must know better about the things he tells his audience.
I wasn’t making any friends here.
‘And what do you do now?” one of them asked.
“I do a lot of fill in on Sirius Satellite Radio, but I’m on Sirius Left. You probably don’t listen to that channel…”
“You’re right. I would NEVER ever listen to that…” he assured me. He smirked: “So I guess you’re happy with YOUR president?”
“Not with everything,” I answered truthfully. “But you mean OUR president. He’s the American president. Just like George Bush. Bush was MY president even though I didn’t vote for him.”
“Obama’s not MY president!” he insisted and the others nodded in agreement.
Fortunately we were only halfway through the tour and as we moved on to General Beauregard’s house, the breathtaking homes on Bay Street, the Hunley Confederate Submarine monument, listening to our guide recite contemporaneous letters and compare scrap-book pictures of post-war destruction with modern renovation. There were only a few jibes about modern politics. I was told the slaves did not receive Obamacare and the plantation owners looked after their medical needs. That the mayor of Charleston was a lib supporter of Obama just like me. I held my tongue.
The end of the tour came to a big finale and our guide became agitated over the election of Lincoln and the war. “And all this destruction and death could have been avoided,” he railed. “South Carolina didn’t vote for Lincoln. He wasn’t our president, that damn abolitionist. If he had reached out to the South, if he had assured us about the continuation of slavery all this wouldn’t have happened and we’d all be a lot better off…”
I cut him off. I’d had enough.
“Wait a minute. First of all Lincoln was not an abolitionist. He wasn’t going to take slavery away from the South. The problem was over new territories and whether they would become free states or slave states. Second, South Carolina seceded in December, before Lincoln was even president! And what do you mean we’d be better off if slavery had continued in the South?!? For how long? How many generations of human beings would continue to live their lives as slaves? You had state sponsored segregation in the South until the seventies. Would we be better off having slaves through the 20th century?”
“Segregation is different. It’s not the same thing…” he insisted, waving his hands at me.
“So how many more decades would slavery have existed without the Civil War? And over all those years these slaves would be better off?” I continued.
“All I’m saying is that the country could have avoided the war and we would be better off…”
“What do you mean ‘we’? Yeah, Churchill could have avoided World War II too! England might have kept its Empire…good deal for England. Bad deal if you’re a Jew.”
We calmed as we returned to Mills House, our starting point and I bought his book which seemed a conciliatory gesture. I had one last question for our guide.
“Do you ever get any black people taking your tour?”
“Not many,” he replied with what seemed sincere regret. “I wish more would sign up. But not many do…”
Now, from MY point of view while based upon historical fact the tour began by downplaying slavery (there were over 3000 free Blacks in Charleston before the war), then demonized the enslaved (the whites were terrorized by the prospect of imagined bloody slave revolts), then we were prompted to enjoy the imaginary thrill of buying human beings and finally the Civil War was portrayed as Lincoln’s fault although the offensive actions of secession and military attack were initiated by the South.
Our tour guide was extremely knowledgeable and enjoyed his work. I did not want to destroy the experience for him or the others and until the end of the tour often restrained myself from commenting on presentations I found offensive.
Was I too sensitive about slavery (as I had been warned at the start)?
What would you have done?
(Still to come: The Confederate Museum, The Slavery Museum and Fort Sumter)