Monday, January 7, 2013

The Perception of Time and Historical Events

I am fascinated by how we perceive the passage of time and how this effects our perception of history. These perceptions are probably also affected by the region that we grew up in. America is famously said to pay very little attention to history, their own or anyone else's.

I use the following story to illustrate how events that we consider to be very distant in the past were actually not very long ago at all. Growing up as I did in Virginia, the story involves the American Civil War.

My father also grew up in Virginia and when he was ten years old, his elementary school brought a man to speak who had been Gen. Robert E. Lee's personal assistant and valet from before and during the war. He was a black man, probably in his 70s, and he had started working for Lee as a very young man. He stayed with Lee after the war and was with him when Lee passed away in 1870. 

The man my father heard speak was probably the Rev. Wm. Mack Lee.  Mack Lee was well known in Virginia, helped to build many churches after the war, and spoke very highly about Lee.

A short biography of William Mack Lee is here:

The electronic edition of his autobiography is here:

Since my father was ten years old in 1920 and the Civil War ended in 1865, that means that the Civil War had been over for about 55 years. What I find fascinating about that is that World War II, which was one of the defining events of my father's generation, has been over for longer than that (almost 70 years).

In other words, we think of the Civil War as being impossibly long ago. But for our parents, it was more recent than World War II is for our 20 somethings that we work with.

Many of the issues that we have in this country today are in many ways a result of those two wars. They were just the day before yesterday in the bigger scheme of things.


For those who are interested in such things, Mack Lee, who has the same last name as R.E. Lee was a slave originally for the Lee family, and stayed with Lee when he was freed in the course of the war.   What I find amusing is the southern tradition of keeping the same last name, e.g. if you were a slave for the Lee family, you were also a Lee.   I have many friends who are part of the Carter family (e.g. Carter Burwell, Carter Emmart, Jimmy Carter, etc) and they report that there are a lot of African American Carters around.  Well, maybe I should say this is interesting, not amusing, given what we are talking about here.

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