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Time for a Whiff of Union Grapeshot? The Ugly Return of States' Rights

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Traveling in New England, particularly through Maine, you cannot miss the simple, imposing granite obelisks set on the greens of so many villages, town and cities across the State and region. These monuments commemorate those who fought and died in what, at least in New England, was known simply as "The Rebellion of 1861-1865."

Although the fighting took place hundreds of miles away, the Civil War was a visceral chapter of New England's history. Part of it was the toll; Maine, which alone sent more than 80,000 young men to the fight, suffered a nearly 20% casualty rate -- the highest of any Union state. The reason, in part, was the immortal heroism of units like the Twentieth Maine Infantry at Gettysburg. The regiment, under command of Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, anchored the end of the Union line on a hill called Little Roundtop, driving off the Confederate charge in the key moment of the key battle of the Civil War.

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Over the last century-and-a-half, Maine, like many of the other Union states, has commemorated the victory in unprepossessing ways. In New England, Civil War commemorations are often folded into Fourth of July or Veteran's Day celebrations. There is, simply, no Northern "Civil War" Day, Week or Month. Again, part of it is that this understatement is simply the Yankee way. Perhaps more has to do with the fact that the reasons for fighting the war were so universally understood in New England, that quiet pride seemed the just response to having preserved the Union and, most crucially, excising the cancer of slavery from the American South. In retrospect, perhaps the North has kept a little too quiet about the righteousness of the Union cause in the most seminal of American conflicts.

Not so the South. There, over the last century-and-a-half, the noisy affirmation of the Confederate cause has been the political currency with the effect of transforming what was an unconditional surrender into something like a political photo finish. To this day, Southern politicians, without so much as a tip-of-the-rebel-cap for being so seamlessly let back into the Union, still variously refer to the "War of Yankee Aggression," "The War of Secession," "the Northern Invasion," and "The War Between the States" -- the latter suggesting that the United States barely existed at the time and various states merely chose up sides.

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So we should probably thank Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour for what is either their breathtaking ignorance, or a desire to send a coded message to the American right, when both proclaimed April as "Confederate History Month" without so much as a hint that African-American slavery might have had something to do with the bloodiest war ever fought in the Western Hemisphere.

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Richard Rapaport is a Bay Area-based writer. Originally from New England, he understands the quiet Yankee ways, and thinks its time to make a little noise.
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