Posted: February 8, 2014 in Civil War
Tags: , , , , , , ,

I can really see you wearing this…”

I’ve been fascinated by our civil war since I first found out that Americans were killing Americans in combat here in America.  I’m not exactly sure when I discovered this — I’m sure it was later than most southerners, as the war itself is far less ingrained in the minds of the young up here in Wisconsin.  It was my 8th grade social studies teacher, Mr. Derus, who gave me my first hard lesson on the war between the states, and ever since I haven’t gone more than a few days without thinking about the subject, talking about the subject, learning about the subject.

As a Wisconsinite, my position on the war has always been that of a pale pastel, just a bit of pure Americana that happened to be the biggest catalyst in shaping our nation today.  I’ve never felt the anger that many southerners feel, even today, about losing their bid for independence.  I’m sure that a few of them reading this post will feel their ears burn when I mention that Lincoln violated the constitution by suspending habeas corpus by throwing the Maryland secessionists in jail without trial.  Right now, these same folks are thinking of all the other things Lincoln did that made him evil in their eyes.

As a white man, I won’t even try to convince anyone that I can relate to the plight of the African-Americans at the time of the war or in today’s world.  Yes, I know the history.  Yes, I understand what racism is, what slavery is, and I understand what hate is.

When we were 21, the woman who would later become my wife and I went to one of those old-time photo shops while we were at the Wisconsin State Fair.  Neither of us had ever done this before, and we had fun playing dress-up and posing for the camera.  Since I’m a “Union man” by birth, I decided to go with the Confederate uniform instead, as the allure of being a Rebel was too much to pass up.  We bought the photo, had it framed, and it hung on our wall for over twenty years.

Today, I manage a Facebook page that is dedicated to the “Iron Brigade,” one of the most celebrated Union brigades to fight in the civil war.  Staring at the photo of my wife and me in southern garb one night last November, I decided to pull it down, scan it, and use it as my profile picture on Facebook.  I’ve always liked the photo.  I look good in it, and the mullet I’m sporting could actually pass as the long hair worn by many of the officers and soldiers of the Rebel army.


The photo attracted a lot of attention, mostly because it’s over twenty years old and people were giving me grief about my age and my hair and my lack of hair in today’s world.  A lot of friends simply “liked” the photo, including one of my African-American friends, a friend whom I haven’t seen in person since 1994.  We’ve been Facebook friends since April of 2010.

His comment, however, was striking:  “I can really see you wearing this…

It took awhile for this comment to grab hold, but it stayed with me in a dormant state for weeks, rolling around in my thick head, waiting for translation or moderation or arbitration or…


Damn.  Why did I upload that photo?  Why couldn’t I have worn blue instead?  What kind of image does it send to people that a Wisconsin boy is wearing the uniform of those who had fought to preserve slavery?

We all have our prejudices.  Those who claim otherwise are either in a box or they’re lying.  But there are stark differences between being prejudiced and being a racist… and I’m not a racist.  I would NEVER fight for slavery.

I can really see you wearing this…”

My friend “Liked” the photo even as he commented on it.  Knowing him, and knowing that he knows me, I don’t think that he thinks I’m a racist.  It is my deepest hope that he would have said the same thing had the uniform been blue and the flag had been the Stars and Stripes rather than the Confederate Battle Flag.

Now, the kicker:  I haven’t ASKED him about it.  I’m afraid to even approach the subject with him, as I’m afraid of how trite I’ll seem, how ignorant I’ll seem, how downright stupid I’ll seem.

But it doesn’t matter how he sees me, because I am the one wearing the uniform.  It is the perception that is important, not the person holding that perception.  Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that my friend’s opinion isn’t important.  I’m saying that it’s too late for me to take off the uniform.

What if I’d dressed up as a Nazi for Halloween, instead?

Perhaps my Jewish friends would say something like, “I can really see you wearing this…”

  1. Very thoughtful. Do you think that as a young person when you took the photo you may have been experimenting imaginatively with a role that you could not actually see yourself playing? A role, however, toward which you might have had some impulse? We have all seen “Gone with the Wind” and other such things, and have been influenced in some way by the portrait of heroic Southerners ostensibly fighting for their freedom (when they were actually fighting for other people’s enslavement). It is hard not to harbor at least some impulse along those lines. But an impulse is not a belief.

    • It would be a nice way out, saying that I was partaking in some form of hero worship or emulation. The south has produced some of the finest military men in world history… before, during, and even well after the civil war. It is my opinion that Stonewall Jackson is the finest field commander that this country has ever produced, and I find it fortunate that he struggled – mostly due to exhaustion – during McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign. It proves that the General was human and capable of fault… which only makes him more alluring in my eyes.

      I cannot claim to have been experimenting with a role when I posed for the camera that day in 1992. And although I could see how charismatic and enchanting the portrayal of the defeated southern gentleman could be, the end result has always been enough motivation to steer clear of such illusions. As a child, it was fun to pretend I was Davy Crockett. By the time Crockett reached San Antonio though, I’ll bet it was no longer fun to be him.

      No, I wore the gray simply because I thought it looked cool.

      Whatever the reasons, and even in the absence of antipathy, a photograph does not communicate motivation. Each individual perceives what he or she will based on their own convictions, culture, or upbringing.

  2. Very thoughtful and compassionate. We learn as we go. Brad

  3. jgarrott says:

    One of my greatgrandfathers was a Southern officer at Gettysburg, (He survived.) and a book has been published about him, based on a manuscript my grandmother had written but not published. He later became a pastor, and was never pro-slavery. The issues were, and still are, complicated, which is why we need the help of the Holy Spirit.

  4. firecook says:

    Hello and nice to meet you. Thanks for liking a post. I am sure that if your friend had seen you a real friend would understand. What you wear is clothes from a long time ago .It was actions that was really wrong but times was different..if you are curious nothing wrong with that .Time to change and not worry about such things anymore life is to short . I am not trying to angry you or offend you. It’s in this day and age people worry about what another would say and times was never like that .I would wear that out of curious but don’t punish me for the past. .Now for the Nazi that’s something different. One more thing if people banned it an bury(symbols of hate)(history , and evils of our genarations past) it how can we learn and never teach the young what hate does to another human? Hope you have a nice day and thank you for this post in makes one think..

  5. Wow. That is very deep and powerful to think about. Sometimes the simplest words can jolt us into seeing a deep truth or problem.

  6. EverWriting says:

    One of my distant relatives was among the survivors in the 20th Maine battle for Little Big Top. As you know, my recent blog on this subject was a review of Lochlainn Seabrook’s book, redressing many of the misconceptions about the war between the states. What struck me about this book and about your blog above, is the will and desire to know the truth about the ugliest event in our country’s history. The manufactured truth we have beenfed served to divide this country even further and obliterated the North’s political expediency that fueled the conflict.The South had already foreseen the end of slavery. Robert E. Lee was an abolitionist. U.S. Grant was a slave-owner. Lincoln refused to free any enslaved person in the North. Thank you for this thoughtful piece.

  7. floridaborne says:

    Strange that people don’t remember how it took a lagging war effort for Lincoln to pull out the slavery card. Or that the thought of slavery as a practice was growing disfavor in the south. It didn’t start out as a war against slavery, but of economics. Sad.

  8. hermansteinn says:

    Great Learning of Life. Our kids should take learning’s from this past history to reflect on those happenings of the yesteryears

  9. To floridaborne: LIncoln abored slavery BEFORE he was elected, so how can you use the phrase “slavery card” Try reading about the Civil War and Lincoln and pay particular attention to the famous Douglas-Lincoln debate during the campaign for president, 1860. It clearly showed what side Lincoln was on, debating against a pro-slaver like Douglas. In addition, you might find it interesting to examine society of that era, noting the efforts of Abolitionists, et cetera. And to Eric S: good reflective article.

  10. Kathryn says:

    Hi Eric, I can relate to your story. I am Canadian. My first husband was american, and our son turned out to be totally obsessed with war. Any war! wW1, WW2, north/south, grandpa had been in Korea, etc. My son is in DeNang Vietnam. Totally obsessed with the past and their issues. In fact he is running a Jeep Tour company over there! He gives tours to GI’s that are looking for closure, people who want to see their old turf and many curiosity seekers. A unique service.
    Eric, do not apologize for trying on another man’s shoes, it helps us all to understand the other side. And, when we understand the intentions of others, we can empathize, and strive to make the world a better place. Somehow, you were meant to show this photo to the rest of the world, as it shows how far you’ve come. Sending warm vibes to you and your family.

  11. cbt4you says:

    Hi Eric
    I was really moved when I read your blog.
    We do things innocently, perhaps a little for our own vanity, without realising the potential offence and upset we might cause. I know I am guilty of that.
    Would you object if I posted your blog on my facebook site – Your mental health matters?
    Thank you for your consideration.

  12. Reblogged this on Kitchen Scenes and commented:
    One of the most interesting personal accounts I’ve read by a Civil War buff.

  13. cbt4you says:

    Hi Eric
    Thanks very much,
    With all good wishes,

  14. I merely want to point out mildly that, in fact, most Southerners have accepted the outcome of the Civil War and are happy it came out the way it did. One reason it may seem more important in the South, even now, is that most of the battles were here.
    I, for instance, am a Southerner, and my favorite figure in the War was Joshua Chamberlain.
    We have more than our share of nutcases and firebrands, but most of us have a modicum of sense.

  15. By the way, the previous commenter was incorrect in citing the Lincoln-Douglas Debates as being in the presidential campaign of 1860. They were before the Illinois Senate election that Lincoln lost.

  16. swabby429 says:

    Fascination with military uniforms is rather common. When I was a kid I thought the Nazi uniforms were very attractive. I didn’t make much of their connection with evil until I read *The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich*. The entire idea of Nazism and what it represents is abhorant to me. But, if I see an old WWII photo or movie, those Bill Blass designed uniforms still tug at my sense of visual pleasure. At the same time I cringe at what they represent.

  17. Interesting stuff. Context is often ignored when looking at images. It’s hard to judge anything or anyone without knowing the back story. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar……

  18. You have an interesting take on life — thanks for following WordSisters!

  19. Wendy says:

    Very thoughtfully written, and thought provoking.

  20. greyzoned/angelsbark says:

    very provocative post! I can see how that comment would’ve been jarring. What would it hurt to ask him about it though? Would most definitely lead to a raw, engaging and enlightening conversation. Let us know if you do ever get his answer. I’m going to venture to say that he probably said that knowing you and your love of all things Civil War and I bet he didn’t even make the connection between the uniform that you’re sporting and what that meant back then. That’s just my guess, and I’d love to know if I’m right so definitely let us know! 🙂

  21. themofman says:

    I’m black, born in England and have live in Canada my entire life. Of course I have my own perspectives on the treatment of Native Canadians, American vs. American conflict, and the American Civil War in particular:
    I had a similar experience as you growing up, although I do still harbour a considerable amount of personal guilt for being an ignorant kid when I felt I should have known much better.
    One of my best friends in my early adolescence was Troy, a Canadian of Japanese-descent.
    Our elementary school Grade 7 class learned the Gilbert and Sullivan play “The Mikado” (you can probably see where this is going already). All of us being a part of the production weren’t a choice. It was a dictation. So, the audition process was only to see who would be fit for what role, not that we auditioned because as individual students we thought the roles were important to go after.
    I was cast as Koko – Lord High Executioner, had over 50% of the lines in the abridged version we put on for the younger grades, and we were to perform for two consecutive nights.
    For his audition, Troy was given a very small part and although he didn’t complain about it he also didn’t act all that enthused about the production.
    For about one month, our class studied, rehearsed and created the set.
    On the first performance night I killed it. Everyone was so proud of me, and I felt really proud of myself. Between that night and the next; however, knowing what it is to suffer racism, I began to question the lyrics I was reciting, the songs I was signing and the perception of feudal Japanese in the eyes of white Europeans. In the school library and encyclopedia at home looked up the history of the play and also found the criticisms of it.
    For a while, I was able to put on a “show must go on” attitude and ignore the controversies. During the show; when I was singing “Willow Tit-Willow” in front of a full house, the weight of all of the mockery of the Japanese that I had learned impacted me tremendously. Lyrics that in the first night were sung with relative ease were completely forgotten in an instant.
    I thought of Troy somewhere backstage, and knew that I was betraying him.
    I thought about how sickening it was that I, a black kid who should have seen the signs long before, was aiding in the belittlement of a culture and friend that I thought had respected.
    I glanced over at the music teacher playing the piano at the side of the dimly lit audience. He was glaring at me. He turned his head away and shook it in absolute disgust. He had no idea of the shame that was filling me at that moment, and would never care. My guilt was crushing me.
    I’ve hated that play ever since.
    One of my teachers still extolled my performances, and when I went on to high school, he proactively went to the school to advise them to seriously consider me for their drama program. They weren’t interested anyway, and neither was I. I still love the performance arts almost as much as I love the visual arts, and I am a professional artist today. That realization of the insensitivity I participated in; however, has permanently scared me in attempting anything related to drama.
    On another note Eric, thanks for taking a look at the Hammer Home Street Photography Project a while back.

  22. OldenGray says:

    To be young is something most people get a chance to experience. Those who know you will not judge you for something so innocent, like dressing up at halloween. Your full recovery comes from your closest friends and family. The photo looks great.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s