In 1861, during the second week of April, while local militia pounded Fort Sumter at the entrance to Charleston Harbor in faraway South Carolina, Seattle was a village, not to be incorporated till 1865, then unincorporated in 1867 and then incorporated again in 1869. 

This early experiment in trial-and-error decision-making is the first recorded instance of “The Seattle Way,” our local curse.

We were not so directly cursed by the Civil War. Notable combatants were stationed in the Washington Territory: Phil Sheridan, George Pickett, William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant saw service here during the Indian Wars. 

Our first territorial governor, Isaac Stevens, made a name for himself, forcing treaties on the tribes and hanging Chief Leschi of the Nisqually for leading warriors successfully against his troops. Stevens would go back East to die in Virginia at the Battle of Chantilly, with a bullet to the brain — a small Confederate victory.

A few Seattle places bear the memory of our Civil War. McClellan Street recalls George McClellan, the Union general who could mount a parade but not a victory. North of Volunteer Park rests a quiet cemetery for veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic. Fort Lawton honors Henry Lawton, a Medal of Honor recipient, who saw 23 campaigns in four years, including the rebel victory at Chickamauga. Lincoln Park is named for the president who made us whole.

The guns of Antietam, Shiloh, Gettysburg and The Wilderness offer distant report, though their cause and consequence are near. As we enter the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, comparison between our own divisions and those of the Union and Confederacy is inevitable. There will be recreations of battles. Revisionists will trot out chivalric pastoral society that appeared in “Gone With the Wind” but nowhere else. 

Those of a certain bent will recall “the war between the states.” Those in greater denial will reference “the war of the Northern aggression.”

We can do better than historical denial.

 

The curse of prejudice

During the Civil War centennial of 1961-1965, re-enactment became popular with some white Southerners. It was a way to find pride in family and heritage, yet it also affirmed Jim Crow while the civil-rights movement and the federal government challenged and defeated state-based segregation. 

As law implemented programs to benefit African, Asian, Latino and Native Americans —and poor and middle-class, white Americans - those who stood to gain from the status quo fabricated “the culture wars,” “neo-conservatism” and now the Tea Party.

The Civil War was not about secession, states rights, ladies in hoopskirts and gentlemen with mint juleps; it was about slavery. It propelled us a century later to ensure equality under the law — if not always in practice. The Civil War’s battles still rage in rhetoric and legislation, in personal interactions, even in a city like Seattle.

Can we transcend the American curse of prejudice? When King County was renamed for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., some ridiculed the change for the sake of ridicule. The original namesake was William R. King, a Unionist, a slaveholder from Alabama and vice president to Franklin Pierce (of Pierce County) for about three weeks, till he died of tuberculosis. He was so close to his housemate — future President James Buchanan, who postponed but could not avert the approaching war — that wags called him “Mrs. Buchanan.”

 

Important dates

Other, more local anniversaries than the shelling of Fort Sumter go unnoticed. Feb. 7 marks the date of the 1886 Seattle Riots and the expulsion of Chinese from the city. Feb. 19 marks the date in 1942 when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, excluding Japanese from the West Coast, creating internment camps.

Chief Si’ahl (Seattle’s namesake) joined attacks that would exterminate the Chimacum, Puget Sound’s only known genocide. Chief Sealth (as he’s also known) kept slaves, a part of his tribal culture. The Chimacum are all but forgotten.

Memory is selective; history is not.

Overlooked is the date when Gov. Dan Evans opened our state to the South Vietnamese “boat people” after their civil war. So are those moments when the first Somalis, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Cambodians, Hmong, Tibetans, Koreans and Iranians found refuge here from war and revolution that wracked their homelands.

So is the date lost when the first Southerners arrived to begin anew around Puget Sound.

My relatives faced each other across that divide of blue and gray. As a Southerner, I know Seattle doesn’t get what the South was or is, though lessons of our great war play upon our neighborhoods and relationships. We can only look at ourselves with the strength of each other to overcome America’s curse.

Still, what would I have done that bright afternoon when so many boys obeyed Gen. Pickett and charged across that bloody line.