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When I was in graduate school, I believe working on my Masters Degree in History, I ran into the legendary VMI professor, John Barrett on the street one day.  We began a conversation about my studies and he asked me an interesting question, “Why wasn’t I studying the American Civil War?” to which, I replied, “I want to maintain my amature status and not be confounded by facts.”  We both got a good laugh.  I suspect that one reason John Barrett asked why I was not studying the American Civil War, was because he knew my interest in Southern History and politics of the 20th Century, neither of which can be understood without understanding the American Civil War.

This will be a very intellectual and contradictory post.  I will explain this statement at the end of this essay. I know, I am going to get cards and letters from many people for what I say—so be it—hopefully if nothing else I caused those individuals to think about the American Civil War.

One of the problems of studying the American Civil War it is very hard to separate the myth from reality.  The myths, largely the making by Southern Historian after the Civil War is the war was not about Slavery, but it was about protecting ones home from the evil invading forces from the North.  It was the myth of the lost cause, it was the myth of superior Southern Generalship, it was the myth of the Sainted Robert E. Lee.  These myths which continue to linger the fertile minds of succeeding generations must confront the reality of history.  Perhaps the Sesquicentennial will allow us as a nation to finally bury the myths, confront the truth once and for all.

In the end, one must accept that the American Civil War was about slavery.  But you say, there are those who say it was about the Constitution, yes it was, but it was about a constitution that sanctions slavery by counting slaves as 3/5 of a person, which permitted keeping another human being in bondage.  But others say it was about economics, and again I say yes it was, it was about two distinct economic systems; a free market industrial based economy, although not without it faults of exploitation, found in the North, and an agrarian based economic system, that thrived because they were permitted to have slaves, found in the South.  But you say it was about a philosophical difference is how one viewed government, yes it was, it was about the South who wanted strong individual state governments and a weak federal government so they could ensure the preservation of slavery.  Every argument made that slavery was not the central issue; when you get beyond the surface you find it was about a singular issue–slavery.

Slavery was the underpinning of the South’s rebellion.  Another cold hard fact that must be faced, it was a Rebellion, against the constituted government of the nation.  It was one section, saying, we do not like your rules so we are going to go and play by our rules.  If the South had won then we could call it a Revolution, but they lost so it was a Rebellion that was put down by force.  By rebelling against the United States, the South collectively was guilty of treason, as defined by the United States Constitution.

Article III Section 3 – Treason

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.

The Congress shall have power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attainted.

The magnanimous approach of Abraham Lincoln towards the South survived his assassination.  Without a magnanimous approach it is quite likely the Civilian as well as some of the Military Leadership of the South would have been executed.  At the time of the Civil War the prescribed penalty of Treason was death—either by hanging or firing squad.

There is no question the Civil War is part of the collective memory of our nation.  It lives on in many families because of their ancestors some of whom fought for either the North or the South, and for others it was their ancestors who ultimately were freed by the war.

I don’t want anyone to think that I want to erase the memory the Civil War for the collective body of our nation, no rather I want us to see it as it was and to understand what it was about.  By perpetuating the myths of the Civil War we sugar coat the truth; it was a horrible war, a war were many good men and women, soldiers and civilians alike died, and that was fought over the question of slavery.

I am proud of my ancestors who fought for the South as well as those who fought for the North.  Those who fought for the South, fought because they believed their cause was just.  As with any war there were Saints and Sinners.  I grew up in Lexington Virginia, even today a small sleepy college town.  In 1861 it was even smaller and initially Lexington and Rockbridge County rejected the call for secession.  That changed with Lincoln’s call for troops, and Lexington and Rockbridge County like the rest of today’s Virginia voted to secede.  But Lexington is more than a sleepy college town; the essence of the Civil War can be felt in the very fiber of the community in part because the two most famous of the South’s military leaders are buried there.  Today, as they have for the last one hundred and forty one year’s Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson rest for eternity within a mile of each other.

Lee and Jackson, the two Southern saints were very much a part of my formative years, but it was their military exploits not their lives which we learned about.  It was only later as I was older, that I began to appreciate the larger continuum of their lives.  Lee who came to Lexington not to wallow in pity rather to do his part in healing the breach between North and South; to see that a generation of men received a liberal education that would enable them to make valued contributions to the Nation and the South.  Jackson was a paradox in that he fought for the South yet he deplored slavery (it should be noted he did own a slave for a period) and had at one time defied the law of the Commonwealth of Virginia by teaching slaves to read.  Jackson had little in common with Cavaliers of Virginia as he was born in the mountains of what is now West Virginia, he was religious zealot having more in common with Cromwell’s Roundheads, but whose loyalty was ultimately to his native state.

If Lee and Jackson were the Saints of the South, then Nathan Bedford Forrest was the Sinner.  He made a fortune in the years prior to the Civil War trading and selling slaves.  He created name for himself during the Civil War for his hard charging tactics but also for his brutality in particular when his units encountered Black Northern Troops.  But he sticks in my mind, as the embodiment of the Southerner who manifests his superiority through the hateful acts towards those he considers beneath him.  It was Forrest organization the Ku Klux Klan who imposed a reign of terror on the newly freed blacks and who actions set the stage for the imposition of the Jim Crow laws.  It was Forrest and his ilk that turned the Confederate Battle Flag into a symbol of hate and bigotry rather than a symbol of those who gave their upmost for a cause.  The spirit of Forrest lives on in those—even today—who wish to inflate their importance by belittling those who they have contempt.

Many controversies have been waged across the South over the display of the Confederate Flag—be it the Battle Flag or National Colors.  In simplest terms it was the white south that allowed the Confederate Flag to be appropriated by purveyors of ignorance, intolerance, and bigotry.  It was the white south that stood silently and passively as these purveyors of the hate lynched and inflicted terror and violence on African-Americans attempting to exercise their god given and constitutional rights.

The Confederate Flag has lost its symbolic relationship with those who fought honorably and valiantly for what they believe was a just cause.  The Confederate Flag belongs in a museum or in reenactments of the Civil War.  Its display, regardless of intent, symbolizes to many Americans, hate and bigotry.  While it may be part of many Southerners heritage it still does not change the fact that it is a powerful symbol of rebellion and hate.

The myth of the Civil War is the collective narrative that was perpetuated in the years after the war.  It is the myth, which Southerners invented to counter the harsh realities of the War and Reconstruction.  It is the myth of the lost cause.  A myth rooted in mythology of the South as the noble cavaliers, the noble Knights who sought to vanquish the barbarians of the North.  The myth was incorporated through the selective recollection of the participants, became the rallying cry of the Veterans of the South, and later the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

But like any myth, while there is some truth, it is often more a fictional account.  The myth of the lost cause, of the Southern Knight may have enabled a defeated South to create the aura of a lost civilization; the truth is the majority of the Confederate Soldiers were not slave holders.  They were what Jefferson referred to as the Yeoman.  They may have been described as farmers, mechanics, laborers, or businessman, they may have owned property, some may have even owned slaves, but they were not the aristocracy as portrayed by the mythical accounts of the Civil War.

Why an individual fought for the Confederacy is often hard to determine, most likely they fought for their native state, to defend their friends and neighbors from an Army that threatened their state.  The notion of fighting for the Confederate States of America was foreign; they fought as Virginians, North Carolinians, or Floridians.  They were loyal to their native state.  In fact an examination of the Confederate Constitution shows that rather than be the united will of the people, it was the will of Confederation of States.  (See http://www.filibustercartoons.com/CSA.htm for a comparison of the two Constitutions.)  When one reads the preamble of the Confederate Constitution one is immediately struck by the difference; that it is the sovereign and independent states that have joined to form the Confederate States of America.

We, the people of the Confederate States, each State acting in its sovereign and independent character, in order to form a permanent federal government, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity — invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God — do ordain and establish this Constitution for the Confederate States of America.

They fought not for a nation, but for their states, it was only after the war that they had fought for the lost cause, it was only after the war that the reality that they had partaken in a rebellion was forsaken.

Loyalty to ones native state seems quaint in our modern, diverse, and mobile society.  Our society is one where individuals often live in several states in the course of a lifetime.  For many of the soldiers who fought the Civil War their service in one of the two armies took them out of their home county and their native state for the first time in their lives.  In many respects it was the Civil War that first spawned the notion of a national identity vice a state identity in the minds of the citizens of the United States.  It did not happen over night but by the dawn of the 20th Century citizens identified themselves first and foremost as Americans.

They fought to defend their native state, their home, their friends, and relatives from the perceived evil of the North.  For the soldiers of the North their soldiers may have fought to preserve the Union, but more as with their Southern counterparts they were defending their state, their home, their friends and relatives.  In many cases it was brother against brother, family against family in this struggle for the soul of the nation.

One outcome of the Civil War was the concept of citizenship was fundamentally altered for the sake of creating a united nation.  Liberty as defined by the Declaration of Independence was conspicuously absent from the Constitution.  Abraham Lincoln, in the Gettysburg Address, forever changed the understanding of what liberty meant, that all were created equally and “that government of the people, by the people, and for the people would not perish.”[1]

By altering the citizens understanding of liberty and the right of all men to be treated equally, Lincoln in less than three hundred words fundamentally altered the understanding of the concept of nationhood for the United States.  By doing this, he defeated the arguments of the southern fire-eaters who adhered to a philosophy that the rights of the states prevailed over the individual liberties of citizens and the collective rights of the nation.  Lincoln defined and made dominate the concept of the United States forever defeating the concept of predominance of the individual states.

I stated at the beginning of this rather long and verbose essay it would be intellectual and contradictory post.  It is intellectual as it deals with issues that the average American gives little thought about. Ideas and notion that are the providence of those, who like myself, feel and need to understand the thinking, which makes up our history.  It is contradictory in that I find myself torn between two loyalties.  I am American, and I am proud of that fact.  But I am also a Lexingtonian, and Virginian, and Southerner.  My psyche was and is influence by my culture.  I am proud of my ancestors who fought for a cause they believed was noble; but at the same time I am ashamed they fought for a cause whose raison d’etre was to preserve slavery.

It is important that as American we remember the Civil War, the valiant efforts of those on both sides who fought for their vision and understanding of America.  It is also important that as Americans we study, appreciate, and remember the Civil War.  Only through understanding can we apply the lesson of that war to preserve the Union.  Nothing more and nothing less is as important.


[1] http://showcase.netins.net/web/creative/lincoln/speeches/gettysburg.htm.  Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on the American Civil War

  1. “The magnanimous approach of Abraham Lincoln towards the South survived his assignation. ”

    Abe? Fooling around? I’m sure you meant assassination.

    Time to fix that “armature historian” word, too.

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