War & Peace – Civil Wars Leave The longest Memories


Christopher Lee

Memphis 14 March 2016

Driving through the Mississippi Delta and it’s shining like a National guitar. Gracelands playing in the dashboard because the car’s old enough for that. Long John Morgan reckons this is the bleeding heart of the Civil War.

Not the Syrian, the Iraqi, the Libyan or any other ‘Goddammit fig eating civil war boy’.  Long John taps the bakelite steering wheel in time to Paul Simon. The war.  I understand.  So I have for the 20, maybe 30 years he and I have driven this trail. We’re talking four years – 1861-65. `The American Civil War.  The scar on all American lives even today.

In 1861 there were 34 states in an America not then a hundred years old.  That year seven southern states refused to give up slavery and pulled out of the Union and formed the Confederate States. The continent went to war. States went to war. Regions went to war. Families went to war. Brothers went to war. About three quarters of a million die – more Americans than died in two world wars and Viet Nam.

Long John Morgan  – he stands six seven in his cotton socks and butt-kicking boots  and comes in at 275 lbs – knows the name of every one of the Morgans (and the Delleys) who died in that thing. He knows the name of every skirmish and gut spilling moment in that four years.  Forte Munro, Pickens, Taylor and especially Sumter.  The lands were angry he says.  The ones who were not cut down were made prisoners of that war. 56,000 of them, 56,000 Americans died in those prisons. That’s somewhere near the same number of GIs who died in Vietnam.

We’re on Route 61 the Blues Highway. Greenville, Leland, Cleveland. South of Memphis.  No monuments but still in the American psyche. The black people rode this highway in search of a future. The hopelessness of it all in the music Muddy Waters, Bessie Smith, John Lee Hooker and B. B. King. Not in the uptown of Paul Simon. Simon and I were born on the same day. The directions weren’t so different.  They all, he said, led to Gracelands. Monuments. The symbolism of a ghost of America’s past.

Bad Joe is big on symbolism.  He did nine years in Parchman Farm, the state pen. So did Elvis’s old man, Vernon Presley. So did Stokely Carmichael. Remember Stokely? Long John rhythms the wheel.  “Hell no-We won’t go!”  That was him.  “He sang that against the draft. Against Nam”. The civil rights activists the 300 Freedom Riders were jailed in a 6×8 cell in Parchman. Jailed, stripped, chain-ganged.  “You remember that” says Long John. “You remember Deputy Tyson. A tobacco mouth that would have backed the devil hisself into the darkest corner. Peace marchers? He knew everyone. They still quote him.  ‘Y’all all a time wanna march someplace? Well y’all gon’ march right now, right t’yo cells. An’ ahm gon’ lead ya. Follow me. Ah’m Martin Luther King.'”

We pull into the dustiest gas station ever seen.  A truck with the shiest cleanest highest pointing exhaust alongside.  America is full of contradictions. Long John Morgan rests his belly into the counter and orders two coffees and chocolate cake. “Now they’re telling us we have to burn the flag.” The symbol of the Confederates. He calls it stamping out the past but not the soul. These seem nothing things.  But they are big.  You want to talk about the tragedies on Syria? Of Libya?

To Long John Morgan and the truck driver, the bar tender, the help out back with the bucket and swab, the highway patrol officer with the cop-show blank look of a leather face US lawman Syria, Libya, Iraq are sad places for “those folk over in that place”. It is not that they do not care.  It is that they do not know. The American Civil War all that time ago they do know about, even when the facts are only folklore. They know it because it has not left them.

That’s the point the big man makes. A nation doesn’t forget even if it is not sure what it is it’s not forgetting. He repeats repeats repeats.  The Civil War has left a scar. Understand that you will begin to understand even modern America. Those folk over there, he says,will not forget.  Three four generations on from what we have let happen will still remember.  Suits in Geneva may one day call a truce. But just as 1865 was about identity so Syrians, Iraqis and all will only call truce on their memories.

What they are negotiating in Geneva this week has a hundred years to go.




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