Remember that I mull. Mulling results in looking at both good and bad in the world, maybe more bad. Would that I could solve all the world’s problems. I suspect that even if I could, though, the world would not listen, would not react well. I cannot. But sometimes, with heavy soul, I mull what has happened, what is happening. I pray for answers not for myself but for those who might be able to do more than mull.
On 21 May 2015, the Orlando Sentinel and Tribune Newspapers published an article by Patrick J. McDonnell and Nabih Bulos focused on the news that Islamic State fighters had advanced to positions near to threatening the ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra in present-day Syria, a city more than 12,000 years old with 2,000 years documented history.
As I read the report, I noticed that Palmyra’s treasures are already ruins—no less precious for that, but ruins nevertheless. And I remembered the March 2001 pictures of the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the toppling of those great works of religious art. And I pictured the myriad images of rubble coming daily from photographers stationed in the Middle East. And I imagined those ruins further reduced to shards of ruins.
And I thought, How can humankind keep doing this? How can we afford the loss of such treasures? How cannot we see that destroying art destroys history? How cannot we see that destroying history destroys humankind, us?
Perhaps some do not see such destruction as loss. Perhaps some even cheer the annihilation of what they perceive as idols belonging to another culture. I understand that the followers of such organizations as the Islamic State and the Taliban would react that way as their religion appears to be mostly an excuse to kill, maim, obliterate, eradicate.
But I do not understand how anyone else in the world, especially the Christian world, can tolerate, even celebrate, such loss.
And I know of only one way, one single way, to stop our own demolishment of our history and of the treasures that reveal our history to us.
Again, notice that what are in danger in the ancient city of Palmyra are ruins. They are the remnants of architectural wonders already damaged in wars. They are not the only objects in the world in danger of erasure. As long as there is war, they are many of many more. All over the world, our natural and manmade wonders are in danger. And that includes the wonders of the United States. And when we lose the wonders, we lose the ordinary, everyday, too.
Why is all this applicable to us, to our lives? Why do we care what happens in wars far from our shores? How can solving disputes by war possibly affect us in our ordinary, everyday lives?
As a hobby genealogist for thirty-five years, I have researched dozens of families and created a family tree of over 8,000 names. Almost all my research has been of families named Jackson, Windham, Riley, Brannon, and Graham, and their branches. They are ordinary, mostly middle-class families of the South. Most of the lineages are untraceable before 1850 except for the Federal Censuses from 1790 to 1840, censuses that listed only heads of household.
So why? Why is it almost impossible to research Southern families before 1850? Why does my family’s historical connection to older records disappear during the nineteenth century? Because of a man named William Tecumseh Sherman.
William Tecumseh Sherman believed in his cause as fervently as do the Islamists of ISIS. And many Americans today will agree that his cause was just, that saving the Union when the South seceded from it was good enough reason to go to war, that stopping slavery was worth sacrificing more than 620,000 lives (possibly as many as 850,000).
But Sherman and the Union armies did more than save the Union, more than stop slavery, more than sacrifice lives; they also destroyed the wonders and the ordinary, and they destroyed something people often do not even realize was destroyed: the historical records of the South. That is what a genealogist soon discovers. The walls that stop Southern researchers are as thick as the brick walls of the burned-out shell of Old Sheldon Church in Beaufort County, South Carolina, and as solid as the ruins of Palmyra, Syria.
When Sherman destroyed and burned the cemeteries, the courthouses, and the churches on his march to the sea through Georgia from 15 November to 21 December 1864 and through South Carolina from early January to 09 March 1865, he did not just do what he stated he intended to do: destroy the South’s ability to make war. He destroyed the South’s art, the South’s history, the South’s stories, and the South’s records, the proof of marriages, births, deaths, parentage, land ownership, connections—connections between people and each other and between people and their country, the evidence of the very relationships that wove the fabric of the society.
That is what is happening now in Egypt, in Afghanistan, in Timbuktu. That is what war does. There is no excuse for war. We have to mull, to think long and hard before advocating such horror. We have to find alternatives that solve problems without destroying the wonders as well as the ordinary, the everyday.