The fiercest, bloodiest wars are those fought not over territory or a throne, but over a way of life. The Civil War was one such war. The way of life at stake was slavery — lifetime, heritable, chattel slavery — and the ideology on which it rested: that men, women, and children of African blood could be property (like a cow or a horse), because (like a cow or a horse) they were not human.

The battle over slavery — what southern planters called “our peculiar institution” and northern abolitionists called an affront to God — was decades old when the first cannonballs flew at Fort Sumter. The question was put to the citizens of the Kansas Territory in 1854 — enter the Union as a free state or a slave state — and by the summer of 1856 armed guerrilla warfare had broken out. Later than summer, in a Senate debate over the Kansas situation, Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts accused Sen. Preston Brooks of South Carolina of embracing “a mistress . . . who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight. I mean the harlot, Slavery.” Brooks, enraged, attacked Sumner at his Senate desk, beating him senseless with his walking stick.

Portrait of a chasm. Portrait of a nation, tearing itself apart.

The election of 1860 came, Lincoln won, and the Southern states bolted, convinced that upon inauguration in March he would unleash the abolitionists. They declared — one after the other — the principle for which they stood: the right to maintain, and expand, the practice of chattel slavery. We know the reason because the states, and the confederacy they formed, declared them in writing: boldly, clearly, and without equivocation. Soldiers on both sides who committed their thoughts to paper were equally clear about the causes of the war: slavery, its future in America, and the future of America.

Let me take a moment here to underscore two points:

It is frequently said that those who fought for the Confederacy committed treason, but they did not. President Lincoln took the position that — because the Constitution did not allow states to secede –—the Southern states had not, in reality, seceded. Having not seceded, they had not positioned themselves as a now-foreign enemy, and those who gave them “aid and comfort” had not committed treason against the United States. Make what you will of his legal argument, the fact remains that if the government against which you take up arms declines to indict you for treason . . . you didn’t commit it.

It is also frequently said that not all those who fought for the Confederacy enslaved people, benefited from the enslavement of others, or even supported the idea of enslavement. True as this is, at a superficial level — “not all” is a low bar to clear — it is also beside the point. Regardless of why they went, regardless of what they thought, regardless of what was “in their hearts,” those who wore the uniform of the Confederacy and took up arms on its behalf knowingly fought for a regime openly committed to the perpetuation of chattel slavery.

The war ended and the Confederacy dissolved, but ideas do not fade away so quickly. The 13th and 14th amendments outlawed slavery as an institution and explicitly extended the protections of the Constitution and Bill of Rights to all Americans. But saying it is one thing and enforcing it is another. The federal government did enforce it (after a fashion) for a decade after the war, but with the election of 1876 African Americans in the South were — like the Kurds in northern Iraq after the Gulf War — thrown to the wolves.

Cottage City, 1891. Charles Strahan — once a soldier in the 21st Virginia Infantry, now publisher of the Martha’s Vineyard Herald — is a stranger in a strange land: a southerner in a northern town, wash-ashore at a time when the Vineyard was far more insular. Snubbed by the local chapter of the GAR — the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans’ organization — when he expresses his intention to attend their Memorial Day picnic, he launches a campaign to erect a statue in their honor.

Their honor. Not “the Union soldiers” . . . not even “the GAR” . . . but “the Henry Clay Wade Post of the GAR.” The statue, and the original three plaques, were a gesture by an individual toward a group of other, identifiable individuals. The statue went up, with a blank plaque of the fourth side of the pedestal. And speeches were made. Some day, Strahan said, perhaps the men of the GAR would see fit to return the gesture of honor, respect, and — the thing that Strahan clearly, achingly craved — acceptance.

There are African Americans in Cottage City in 1891: bellmen and cooks, laundresses and landladies. Others come each summer to worship at the Methodist Tabernacle in the Camp Ground and the Baptist Tabernacle in the Highlands. They rent rooms in boarding houses, or cottages from owners to whom the color of their money matters more than the color of their skin. The big resort hotels will not serve them.

Meanwhile, in the South, Jim Crow has solidified. Five years later, the Supreme Court will declare it legal in Plessy v. Ferguson. Poll taxes, “literacy” tests, and open intimidation make the voting “rights” of African Americans a cruel joke. Enslavement has been reestablished (in everything but name) in prisons, poorhouses, and sharecropped farms. Lynching, on imaginary charges or just for the hell of it, is epidemic.

Citizens of the “new South,” nursing wounded postwar pride and desperate for northern investment, craft a new narrative of the war known today as the “Lost Cause” myth: The antebellum South, a genteel society of gallant men and demure women (think: Gone with the Wind), war-crushed by the North in a senseless war and a brutally harsh decade of Reconstruction . . . a “quarrel between brothers” over the proper balance of State and Federal power. Can’t we all be friends again? Can’t we all just get along?

Gettysburg, 1913. Fifty years after the great battle, old men in blue and gray uniforms smelling of cedar and mothballs meet each other for what is billed as “The Last Encampment.” They sit around campfires, tell stories, and — gripping one another’s hands — declare the wounds of the war to be healed. Cameras flash, speeches are made . . . and the quarreling brothers of 1861-1865 are declared reconciled. “We are,” they declared, “all Americans again.”

African Americans might well have asked: “What do you mean ‘we?’ And what do you mean ‘again?’”

Two years later, D. W. Griffith brought the Lost Cause mythology to the screen in Birth of a Nation: a grotesquely racist cinematic caricature of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Six years later, President Woodrow Wilson purged the federal civil service of African American employees. Eight years later, a white mob attacked the Greenwood district of Tulsa — a prosperous neighborhood of African American owned homes and businesses — with small arms and improvised bombs dropped from airplanes, burning it to the ground. Nine years later, the Ku Klux Klan was re-formed at Stone Mountain, Ga. Ten years later, the predominantly black town of Rosewood, Fla., was torched by another white mob. Twelve years later, a plaque was added to the Soldiers Memorial in Oak Bluffs.

Oak Bluffs, 1925. Charles Strahan is an old man now, slowly dying. The members of the GAR — those still alive — are old, too. Prodded by Sydna Eldridge of Vineyard Haven, a member of the GAR women’s auxiliary, they decide to give Strahan what he has wanted for so long. Acknowledgment. Acceptance. A fourth plaque to replace the empty one he put on the pedestal half a lifetime ago.

There are more African Americans — “colored people,” in the language of the day, though depending on the speaker that can mean anyone (Wampanoag, Portuguese, Azorean, mixed-race) with dark skin — in Oak Bluffs now. Shearer Cottage, in its second decade, is a mecca for black intellectuals, performers and artists. The first generation of African American summer people, like the Shearers and the Wests from Boston, return each summer to homes they have purchased (mostly in the Highlands) from those — often Portuguese — willing to sell to them. New Yorkers, like Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, are beginning to hear about the place. A second generation, including a young Dorothy West, is learning what it means to grow up on the Vineyard.

Part of what it means is that the big resort hotels still have an unspoken color barrier. Part of what it means is that acting “flashy” or “uppity” is still — if you’re black — problematic. Part of what it means is knowing that there are white people who won’t eat at the homes of their friends who employ black cooks, because they don’t want to eat food that black hands have touched. Not everywhere, not always. Oak Bluffs is not Rosewood, Fla. But the invisible boundaries, and the unmarked minefields, are very much there.

And sometimes they are visible. Blackface entertainment is still considered good fun on the Vineyard in the 1920s. In 1922, the children of the West Tisbury school stage a minstrel show as a fundraiser. If you went to the Ag Fair, or the Vineyard Haven Library children’s carnival, there’d be a booth where you could put down a few coins and get a stack of balls to play “Hit the Negro” . . . except that “Negro” would not be the word that was used.

So: the plaques. One — on the front of the pedestal, replacing an existing plaque — named Strahan as the donor of the statue, and acknowledged his service in the 21st Virginia. The other — on the rear, replacing a blank plaque — began: “The Chasm is Closed.”

Here is where wording matters. The statue and the first three plaques, back in 1890, had been a gesture by one individual toward other individuals. Had Sydna Eldridge and those who made common cause with her responded in the same register, we can imagine what such a response would have looked like: “This plaque erected in honor of Charles Strahan by his brother veterans and fellow citizens of the town of Oak Bluffs.” But for reasons lost to history, they didn’t do that.

The fourth plaque, donated “by Union veterans” and “patriotic citizens of Oak Bluffs” in honor of “the Confederate soldiers” universalized the sentiment. Caught up, perhaps, in the fading echoes of the “Last Encampment” a dozen years before, they reached for a sweeping statement of healing and reconciliation at a time when — for African Americans, in Oak Bluffs and elsewhere — the chasm was far from closed, and the wounds inflicted, over centuries, by the unholy alliance of power and prejudice were far from healed.

Is the centuries-old chasm at last closed? Are the wounds inflicted over those centuries at last healed? You doubtless have your thoughts, as I have mine. I invite you to consider that, if your thoughts (or mine) are different from someone else’s, it may be because — having lived different lives, and experienced different things — we see the world through different, perhaps radically different, eyes.

Bow Van Riper is a historian and research librarian at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. He read a version of this essay at a May 21 forum in Oak Bluffs.