The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Opinion

May 2, 2014

The graying of history

ENID, Okla. — “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”  ~  Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

During the American Civil War, so-called Quaker guns periodically were used to deceive an opposing force into thinking one army or the other was better armed with artillery than truly was the case.

Painted black at the muzzle, these simple hewn logs were positioned behind fortifications — sometimes on real gun carriages — to deceive.

The most famous use of Quaker guns was by Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston at Centreville, Va., in March 1862. To the opposing Union troops, it appeared the Confederate fortifications were strongly defended, when in fact, painted logs were the cannon and the outnumbered Southerners had withdrawn across the Rappahannock River to safety.

But the kernel of truth from this story is not that of the actual deception, but the reason they were called Quaker guns in the first place

You see, history books gloss over the gray areas of the Civil War, as they do in most wars.

The Civil War just had a lot more gray areas than any other in this nation’s history.

There were strong pro-Confederate sympathies throughout the North during the war, with secession and with slave ownership.

There were numerous areas of the South where staunchly Union, anti-slave and anti-secession sentiments burned just as brightly as in the North.

So, how can this be? That, in a nutshell, is why the Civil War was so personal, so gut-wrenching, so devastating for many families, and still is so intensely debated even to this day.

The Quakers, or The Society of Friends as they were known in early day America, became the first American colonial organization to ban slaveholding, created slavery abolition societies and openly promoted emancipation of all slaves on these shores.

In fact, as this nation hurtled toward Civil War, the proportion of Quakers in the abolitionist movement far exceeded their actual population.

Yet, Southern Quakers — as opposed to virtually every other Southerner of faith at the outbreak of the Civil War — were against the war, and against the prevailing fervor over secession from the Union.

A large colony of Quakers in North Carolina — the Quaker Belt — held beliefs other than their neighbors in that particularly strong Confederate state.

They believed pacifism was the correct and moral high ground — that war and violence were wrong.

Many considered any service in a state or local militia to be immoral, and that it was unethical to pay taxes to support such a war.

Male North Carolina Quakers of military draft age in large numbers attempted to escape being forced to fight for the Confederacy by hiding out in the deep woods or simply headed North.

You could say, to some extent, Quaker conscientious objectors viewed war much as many young Americans of military draft age who fled to Canada to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War in modern times.

In 1861, the new Confederate government did not much care what a man’s moral or religious beliefs were, they needed men for the ranks of Confederate regiments.

In 1862, the Confederate Congress enacted a $500 exemption fee, which many Quakers paid to avoid military service.

Also, later in the war, some Quakers were granted approval for alternate service, working at saltworks, in leather tanning and shoe industries to help with the war effort.

Many resisted even this help, feeling any contribution to the war was immoral.

Quakers who were unable to avoid military service were harassed by fellow Confederate soldiers in the ranks for their principles and beliefs.

And there is this chilling excerpt, from “Occupied At Home: Women Confront Confederate Forces in North Carolina’s Quaker Belt”: “Because Unionist women in North Carolina’s Quaker Belt abetted men’s avoidance of Confederate service, many Confederate supporters viewed torture and deprivation of deserters’ wives as the product of simple necessity. In some counties, pro-secessionist millers denied deserters’ wives government grain even though there was no official Confederate policy to that effect.”

Since Quakers believed in the equality of all peoples, including blacks, women and American Indians — which was not the prevailing and dominant view of the day in Southern states and in areas of the North as well — they suffered greatly for these deeply held beliefs.

We in this nation have a long proclivity with so-called “feel good” history. We want to think that things are black and white, good and bad, moral or immoral. Yet, history, almost without exception, is painted in deep shades of gray, and many times more perspective than actual truth.

It’s for us to delve into this history, and find what truth there is to be had, even when it is painful and forces us to re-examine ourselves in the mirror of that history.

Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at enidnews.com/historicallyspeaking.

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