The Sesquicentennial Rumbles Blues

Published February 7, 2014

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
— William Faulkner, A Requiem for a Nun

Quietly, except for a spate of new history books and the odd movie or two, the 150th anniversary of the United States Civil War is sliding past. It was a war that dragged on for four years and cost the lives of 600,000 to 700,000 people. It was the first of the technological total wars that later marked the 20th century. By its end, General William Tecumseh Sherman’s march through the South had taught that today’s wars are won as much through the destruction of an enemy’s productive capacity as through military victory. By war’s end, the North had introduced the Gatling gun and the repeating rifle, which placed battlefield killing on automatic pilot. The South, with similar ingenuity, if not productive capacity, had introduced the armored ship as well as the submarine.

CSS Hunley

The H.L. Hunley, invented by the South, was the first submarine to sink a ship; the American Civil War was the first of the technological total wars that later marked the 20th century. Photo Copyright © Jane McNiven

On January 5th this year, we left Halifax for Arizona, arriving in Tucson on January 24th. We have been coming to the desert for parts of the winter for most of the last 20 years. Besides being warmer, it is the opposite of the rainy, cool weather and rolling countryside of Nova Scotia, a difference that never fails to bring a bit of wonder to my wife, Jane, and me. Normally, we fly, but this time we decided to risk the snowy weather and drive. We got out of the northeast without incident, spent a couple of days visiting friends in New York City and then went down the coast to Charleston, South Carolina, for a couple of days. There we saw the model of the H.L.Hunley, the aforementioned submarine; it was the first sub to sink a ship, but it itself sank right after. Then we drove across the Deep South, ending up in Oklahoma City and the start of the West.

There are few remnants of the ‘old South’ to be seen. The roads are well-maintained, the cities look newer than Northern ones and the shopping centers and downtowns look, well, American. When we arrived in Charleston the hotel desk person told us it was ‘Second Sunday’ (of the month), when most of King St. is blocked off as a walking street, with a party atmosphere and most of the stores open for business. We stopped in Oxford, Mississippi, William Faulkner’s town, and sought out the historic town square. It was mostly deserted and its architecture resembled what you’d expect of his novels, but given its empty sidewalks, local bookstore and some fashion boutiques, it felt like a struggling New England town square. All of the ‘busyness’ was on the town outskirts with Walmart and McDonalds leading the way.

When we got to Arizona, a Territory contested like New Mexico between North and South in the Civil War, rumbles of that war began to be seen. Now the political geography of this State is a reversal of what went before. Tucson was the central ‘city’ in Arizona 150 years ago. It had been part of the Gadsden Purchase of 1854, when Southerners were trying to get the first transcontinental railroad built in the face of northern competition. The ‘Old Pueblo,’ as the local promoters now call it, was full of Southern sympathizers and the Purchase put them squarely on the best geographical route west. In the North of the Territory, ranchers and miners were of a different political persuasion and during the Civil War, a ‘battle’ was fought near Picacho Peak, about 100 kilometers north of Tucson, and the Southern threat faded. In retaliation, Tucson was denied its claim as the capital of the Territory.

In Arizona the more vocal Republicans, the old party of Lincoln, pay tribute to the very principles he fought against, while the Democrats, who lost most of their power with the secession of the South in 1861, are today the party of federal power.


Today, the capital is in Phoenix, the core of an urban conglomeration, with Tucson being much smaller. Tucson is largely Democrat and Phoenix is largely Republican, but the labels today are the reverse of 150 years ago. Here the more vocal Republicans, the old party of Lincoln, pay tribute to the very principles he fought against, while the Democrats, who lost most of their power with the secession of the South in 1861, are today the party of federal power.

Now, a lot of this political posturing is pure rant and B.S., but it shows the enduring power of ideas. When my wife and I first came to the desert, in 1995, the local media was agog at the possibility that the Legislature might pass a resolution that, were the federal government to outlaw leaded gasoline, the State should secede from the Union. Oh yeah? — wasn’t that settled in 1865, we thought? Leaded gasoline as a ‘casus belli’? And what about Picacho Peak?

Fast forward to 2014. A Republican legislator has proposed a bill of what was called ‘interposition’ by the South, which would make it mandatory for any federal official who wished to question or audit or search an Arizonan or Arizona company, to first register with the local sheriff, come with a warrant and then wait for permission to go forward and do his or her job. By implication, this covers American tax investigators as well as mine inspectors, mine safety enforcement being what this proposal is really about. It ain’t gonna happen, but for the record, such laws passed in Southern States going back to the 1820s have all been struck down by the courts.

More amusing, if that is the word, is SB 1070, which allows law enforcement officials to stop anyone they ‘reasonably’ feel may be an illegal immigrant and ask for proof of lawful residency. The law was heavily criticized as racially-targeted and defended as being the State’s only way to make up for poor federal enforcement of its own laws. The Maricopa County Sheriff , a Republican, was a supporter and aggressively began to enforce the law. Federal judges struck down parts of the law as unconstitutional, the State having drifted into parts of federal jurisdiction. Opponents pointed out that the only ‘reasonable’ transgressors were Latinos, since picking out illegal Canadians or Germans or Argentinians would be not only impossible, but would just rile the ‘ real American’ voters of the State who could not prove their citizenship at a roadside pullover. In fact, a high official of Daimler-Benz had been in a rented car on an Alabama expressway when pulled over by police. He was hauled off to jail under a similar law when he couldn’t prove his residency status, only to have the State apologize later to him as the representative of one of the State’s largest new investors. Now the Arizona law is under question by its supporters as being ineffective, alienating many voters, and protests by businesses as interfering with their ability to employ people in a recovering economy.

Finally, there has been something made of Republican Governor’s decision to go ahead with one of the contentious parts of ‘Obamacare,’ the expansion of Medicaid benefits for target populations, when other Republican-dominated states have not done so. The situation has a kind of political bind for ideologues: on one side is the argument that accepting federal rules and money violates the hallowed notion of ‘State sovereignty’, just what the Civil War was fought about. On the other hand, refusing to set up a ‘State’ exchange cedes the healthcare field to a federal exchange, which also violates….well you get the problem.

All in all, some ideas just don’t go away. Of course, the central issue was settled 150 years ago and even if it wasn’t, when push comes to shove, the federal government has control over the most effective standing army in the world, unlike its predecessor in 1860, which had no real army or navy. So, except for the personal damage caused by these new Confederates, none of this bears taking seriously. The Yankees prevailed 150 years ago and, through the miracle of air conditioning, invented by a Yankee from around Buffalo, they are gradually continuing to turn the South into an analogue of the North.

Copyright © 2014 James D. McNiven

 Contact: j.mcniven AT

 This post was updated Feb. 9 to clarify the nature of ‘Obamacare’ in Arizona, as the expansion of Medicaid benefits for target populations, and to correct the name of the submarine.