Honor, Shame, and "Some Battles"
I wrote an essay recently for Bitter Southerner about how growing up around Civil War battlefields formed the way I thought about the conflagration. There were two main portions of the piece that I had in my head from the beginning, around which I built the rest. The first was a list of places I frequented or had some connection to as a kid, accompanied by flippant notes about casualties accumulated nearby (17,332). The second was a line that came a little closer to the end:
Even those Southerners least invested in Confederate mythology are unwilling to speak ill of the dead. But we ignored the death in the first place, pretended a gunshot wound was a handshake, imagined the corpse to be sleeping, and fancied our ignorance respect.
I learned a little too much about history books, monuments, and highway names to be surprised at the ingenuity of Confederate apologists. But, in the wake of the terror and chaos a year ago in Charlottesville (also about twenty-five minutes from my hometown), I heard a rationalization that actually stopped me for a moment.
It was a Facebook post that had already been liked a hundred thousand times when I first saw it. On the left side, a classic photo portrait of Robert E. Lee; tall and straight, hat off, right hand on the hilt of his saber, gloved left fist upon his hip. On the right side, an account of his life’s work: his record in the Mexican-American War, his time as a Marine Colonel, a whitewashed tale of his loyal and honorable service to his state during the Civil War (that it’s actually the Commonwealth of Virginia and that Lee would’ve found that distinction vital slipped past this particular propagandist). At the end was a sentence about the cowardly revisionists who sought to erase his memory followed by a bold-face, all caps exclamation: NO SOLDIER SHOULD BE TREATED THAT WAY.
I’ll say again that it takes a lot for me to be surprised at the ingenuity and resilience of the “lost cause.” But something about that post rang me like a church bell. The blatant misrepresentation coupled with the cynical manipulation of sympathy people feel for veterans of war was nauseating. Historian Eric Foner once wrote an essay for The Nation in which he said of the century-long (at the time, and counting) campaign to scrub the Confederacy of its evils: “There is no better way to honor one’s forebears than by taking their ideas seriously.” That whitewashing history wasn’t just an obfuscation but a manner of disrespect really registered when I read it.
First and foremost, rank and file Union soldiers were utterly villainized by Confederate narratives. Critics of the “Lost Cause” are deeply mired in a complex web of rationalizations before they’re even able to get to their criticism. “Of course, most Southerners didn’t own slaves.” “Of course, most Confederate soldiers were defending their homelands.” “Of course, the causes of the war were complex.” BUT …. The truth (or lack thereof) in these statements is relevant but only later. The operative point is that Confederate apologists are never asked to follow the implications of their arguments for cannon-fodder-and-powder-burn Union troops. Their ranks were varied: abolitionists waged righteous war against a horrendous evil, others fought for parochial sense of homeland, immigrants earned citizenship with rifles, freedmen crusaded for freedom, others were conscripts, but all fought for the preservation of their country. The “Lost Cause” claims that the war was one of “Northern aggression,” waged on behalf of tariff policies and cynical economic concerns, but critics never ask its proponents to answer to the Union dead. No soldier should be treated that way.
Which brings me back to the truth.
It’s likely true that some rank and file Confederates fought for their homes without much thought to slave politics, but it’s certainly true that most fought for the preservation of a racial hierarchy that (even if they weren’t slave owners themselves) protected their livelihoods. It’s certainly true that any abstract conception of a “southern way of life” was built around a proper order of things: white first and black last, if at all. It’s certainly true that officers, generals, and politicians fought to build a Slaveholder’s Republic – the most radical were even explicit about expanding it southward into the Caribbean and Central America and westward to the Pacific. That much is indisputable, and most men, women, and children died either resisting or serving that end. The rest died in the crossfire.
It’s rare that we consider the profound disrespect we heap upon Union dead when we rationalize the radicalism of the Confederate South, but it’s equally rare that we consider the cheapness of a Southern honor built on lies. There is no better way to honor one’s forebears than by taking their ideas seriously. It’s a difficult thing to stomach when, by taking their ideas seriously, you come to the conclusion that they’re not all that worthy of honor; that the proper honor is inseparable from intense shame. Sometimes the only honor is recognizing and learning from mistakes.
I wrote the essay in large part because of how politicized the Civil War is. It’s always been that way. It’s not coincidence when a Confederate general guards the courthouse steps in a city in Kentucky or Jeff Davis’s name graces the entrance to an elementary school in a mostly black neighborhood (or mostly white one). But we’ve lost track of the toll of the war. We deliberately misrepresent the ideas of our forebears in order to whitewash the wealthy, the powerful, the decorated, the Southern. During the bath, we wash away their guilt and scrub away the memory of all those who died fighting their war.
The Civil War was the single defining moment in our country’s history. It was not inevitable and it was not tragic in the sense of being regrettable. That war was required was regrettable and tragic, but it was required and brought an end, utterly good and unequivocally moral. It was a war waged by men with ideas in furtherance of those ideas and fought by company after company after company of men and boys who believed in the leaders and their cause. Any respect or honor we owe any single one of the hundreds of thousands who died over those five Aprils is dust and ash if not built on the truth of that cause. The South – its generals, its politicians, its officers, its soldiers, its sympathizers – waged war for slavery. The fight they met in legions of freedmen, abolitionists, unionists, conscripts, immigrants, activists, saboteurs, conductors brought slavery to its end.
If we can’t admit as much, then we’ll never do justice to any of the dead left in its wake.