This Thursday, it will have been one and a half centuries after the Civil War effectively ended with General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. To mark this occasion, Brian Beutler writing for The New Republic has engaged in a little historical revisionist trolling, by suggesting that we celebrate the anniversary by obliterating all memory of the Confederacy. It’s possible that Beutler is having a laugh at our expense, but more likely, he is in earnest. As the cynical aphorism goes, “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.” In liberalism today, this is not a tongue-in-cheek observation on human nature, but is dutifully followed as a campaign strategy.Photograph of Robert E. Lee taken by Julian Vannerson, 1863
This is significant, because the tenor of our public discourse all too often descends into ad hominem attacks calling opponents of liberalism Nazis, racists, or bigots. Just as certain other slurs have become thoroughly and totally unacceptable in public speech, to call someone a bigot is now a magical incantation for personal destruction of one’s enemies. The left often accuses conservatives of employing “dog whistles” to secretly agitate the supposed racial biases of their constituents, but in truth, there is no word today more guaranteed to elicit a furious mob than the cry of “bigot” directed at a conservative.
To wit, the reason Beutler gives for his not-so-modest proposal is that the Confederate leaders were all a bunch of racist bigots. This is undoubtedly a true statement in as far as it goes, but it also foolish. There were a whole host of reasons that men were willing to die in the war which pitted state against state and brother against brother. The abolition or perpetuation of slavery was perhaps the greatest reason for many who fought, but it was not the only reason. Indeed, many of the ordinary soldiers fighting for the Union were just as virulently racist as even the most infamous slave-owning generals of the southern cause.
In the age of cable television, we are accustomed to commentary and “analysis” after every public spectacle no matter how great or trivial, whether in the intellectual preening of a panel of self-styled political experts after the election returns have been counted to somehow discern the “will of the people” or in the obligatory interview after a college sporting event which gives us such dazzling pearls of the oratorical and rhetorical arts as the witty and scintillating colloquy following the Final Four round of the NCAA basketball tournament this past weekend, which is not suitable to be reprinted here.
It is never enough for the broadcast to simply end with the result. Most people have already moved on to the bathroom or to search in the fridge for a late-night snack, but the airtime must be filled. Anything less would be anticlimactic. Even though the dénouement is as yet unwritten–unless television producers have somehow learned to see the future–our culture is addicted to spin doctors to constantly assign meaning and narratives for us and to tie up all the loose ends–as though real life follows a neat and tidy dramatic arc–instead of allowing ourselves to think critically about the portent and effects of current events.Photograph of Abraham Lincoln taken by Alexander Gardner, 1863
In the case of Civil War revisionism, it is folly to attempt any sort of summary which could even begin to capture the full scope of its enduring impact which is still felt today. Even the Gettysburg Address, poignant and resounding as it is for us as a statement of ideals, does not do justice to the complexity and scale of the Civil War as it really was for the people who lived and died in it–and Lincoln meant it when he said as much. This was perhaps the most momentous struggle in the history of this nation–arguably farther-reaching than even the Revolutionary War–and it touched on so many aspects of our government and society that, for good or for ill, it has come to define what it means to be an American not only in our ideals but also in our shortcomings.
Moreover, even the darkest points of our history can teach us valuable lessons. In current debates, we should take heed and care to properly understand and avoid the mistakes of the past, not sweep away their remembrance as worthless refuse, to be carried down the memory hole to oblivion. As Orwell wrote, “Who controls the past controls the future.” As we saw with allegations of gang rape at a UVA fraternity, or with the vicious mob making death threats against the owners of the Memories Pizza parlor in Indiana based on irresponsible and dishonest reporting, or in the popularity of the “Food Babe” brand of charlatanry, facts are no longer necessary to fabricate the desired narrative. Sadly, this kind of thinking is all too prevalent on the left: the perception of error or dissent must be completely and totally stamped out–and not even the dead are safe.
Conversely, there is a dangerous tendency on the left to idolize their ideological leaders even while they are still living as Beutler’s adoring praise of Obama as the arbiter of American values makes clear. However, you will find few Christian saints in the fields of politics, warfare, statecraft, and the law. Success in these spheres in the temporal realm requires compromises, such that men of great worldly achievement are usually also compromised. The leading abolitionists and generals of the Union were in many respects no better than their Confederate counterparts, and Beutler does concede at least this much. Almost all of them, even the Great Emancipator himself, held views about racial inferiority which are appalling and despicable to us today. Their main advantage is that they won.Photograph of Joshua Chamberlain taken by Mathew Brady, c. 1865
History belongs to the victors, and the Confederacy did not merely lose, but from the revisionist perspective writing with the benefit of our modern sensibilities, the Confederacy was a Satanic cabal obviously motivated by nothing short of sadistic malevolence and demoniac possession. Slavery was a truly evil institution, so maybe the revisionists are right, but the very Union generals who led the fight so that men might be free did not share this view, but had great respect for their adversaries. As Brigadier General Joshua Chamberlain wrote so eloquently of the formal truce (and it is really worth reading the whole thing) a few days after General Lee signed the instrument of surrender:
The momentous meaning of this occasion impressed me deeply. I resolved to mark it by some token of recognition, which could be no other than a salute of arms. Well aware of the responsibility assumed, and of the criticisms that would follow, as the sequel proved, nothing of that kind could move me in the least. The act could be defended, if needful, by the suggestion that such a salute was not to the cause for which the flag of the Confederacy stood, but to its going down before the flag of the Union. My main reason, however, was one for which I sought no authority nor asked forgiveness. Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond;—was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured? Instructions had been given; and when the head of each division column comes opposite our group, our bugle sounds the signal and instantly our whole line from right to left, regiment by regiment in succession, gives the soldier’s salutation, from the “order arms” to the old “carry”—the marching salute. Gordon at the head of the column, riding with heavy spirit and downcast face, catches the sound of shifting arms, looks up, and, taking the meaning, wheels superbly, making with himself and his horse one uplifted figure, with profound salutation as he drops the point of his sword to the boot toe; then facing to his own command, gives word for his successive brigades to pass us with the same position of the manual,—honor answering honor. On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, nor motion of man standing again at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead!
It is right and proper that April 9th should always and evermore be a day of somber and thoughtful reflection, but there is no need to either deify or denigrate the men who made that day possible. The victory ought to speak for itself. As for the name-calling, let’s stop the thoughtless accusations of racism and bigotry before these words are stripped of all their meaning. Most of all, let us not judge the dead by our standards, but by the mores of their own time, for they have already gone to their eternal reward. When we remember their deeds, we would do well to consider that we too will stand in judgement before the throne of God Almighty and that we too will have much to answer for.