The Honored Dead

For a long time, there’s been a great deal of controversy about the effect of a legal fiction used during the Civil War.  To this day, the U.S. Armed Forces maintain this position, and a lot of folks don’t much care for that fact.  Let me simplify it a little and lay it out for you, and you can judge for yourselves.

The Confederate States of America was never a country; it could not have been.  If the Confederacy had been its own country, that means its states would have successfully seceded from the Union.  Had that ever happened, it would mean they’d have had to have been legally entitled to secede. Therefore, the Union never recognized the Confederacy and refused to negotiate with their officials.  To do otherwise would have been to offer legitimacy, which could well have been used in a petition before the Supreme Court to declare the conflict an unlawful invasion.

That means the soldiers of the Confederacy were, officially speaking, misguided Americans. Therefore, as Americans fighting in duly constituted state militias, they deserve American military honors: hence the Confederate Memorial at Arlington, in addition to countless other national monuments.

After Reconstruction, they officially became our honored dead.

Many were conscripts, same as in the North.  Many fought because they could never have faced their family and neighbors had they not done so.  I cannot imagine that men who understood warfare would have willingly lined up on a battlefield to exchange volleys with other men who also used rifled muskets; this supposition is borne out by the invention later in the war of modern entrenchments and their widespread adoption.  They had no idea of the horrors they were getting into, and most certainly had no idea the war would last as long as it did.

These men were not categorically evil any more than any other.  Most owned no slaves and did not benefit from slavery.  Some few owned slaves and thought it was a morally proper thing to do; they were wrong, and some may have been evil men even according to the dictates of their time.  But the past is another country, and it’s fallacious for us to judge its residents by the morality of today; we must instead judge them by their own lights.

I mourn the brave men who fought and died in this conflict even now, a hundred and fifty years after it ended.

Somewhere in the north of Maine, the little town where my forebears lived was a bustling little farming community called Amity. There were a few hundred people, mostly living in families of a dozen or so, and the whole place was under cultivation.  Prosperous little farms stretched as far as the eye could see.  There was a coach road, a farrier, and a little mercantile.

I’ve seen a tax map from 1883.  Most of the farms were abandoned, most of the houses vacant.  Some of my people made it home, but many didn’t; the 20th Maine had some heavy casualties at Fredericksburg and Gettysburg, and then later at the Siege of Petersburg where “Little George” fell.  Today, Amity is all but deserted.

Much of the South went the same way, and that includes vast regions where there were no slaves to speak of.

An entire generation died, North and South alike.  It is proper to mourn them, even today, when not a man of them would still survive, for they died untimely, often in great pain or terror.  Many fell who would have written great books, invented wonderful things, painted masterworks, composed symphonies.  With them died a national sense of innocence, a belief in virtue and the nobility of man; the flowery words of the time are all but incomprehensible today.  The war was horrific and should never have happened; wise men should have foreseen and prevented it.

Slavery should have been stopped; in truth, it should never have come to these shores, to a land dedicated to freedom, to liberty, and to the proposition that all men are created equal.  But it did come here, and when the civilized world ended slavery, it should have ended here as well.  That it did not is a great shame, one our nation will have to bear forever.  It is a part of our legacy, just as is the Trail Of Tears, Patrice Lumumba, and the Ponce Massacre among a hundred other foul deeds.

To dishonor our own dead would not be equivalent to any of these great shames.  It would indeed be a foul deed, but no one would die as a result.  Still, it would add to our national burden of guilt, and I do not want that.

We have enough to bear.

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2 comments

  1. John, this isn’t about cemetery monuments. The statues that have become bones of contention weren’t put up as monuments to the fallen. They were put up as celebrations of segregation and white supremacy, portraying the military and civilian leaders of that “Lost Cause”.

    They were erected by outfits such as the White Citizens Councils, and they were put up for the purpose of reinforcing Jim Crow laws in the public mind and opposing any efforts toward their repeal or toward desegregation.

    It would be as if neo-fascists tried to erect statues to Goering and Goebbels and Himmler in 1990s Germany. The *only* difference is that the white supremacists in the South had sufficient clout to get away with it.

    They should be relocated to museums, where they can be discussed in context.

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  2. Doubtless some were, and doubtless some were raised by the Daughters of the Confederacy, in loving memory of their dear fathers. I’m quite confident that most were pumped out of low-grade foundries en masse and sold cheaply to every town that could pay, North or South, and the dedication ceremony was to the memory of the dear loved and lost. The half dozen survivors came out in their tattered uniforms, six legs and seven arms between them and a total age of half a millennium, and there were grand speeches and bombast and tears.

    And today, most of these statues are markers that say, “Remember the dead.” And I don’t much care who raised the money and why; what matters to me is whether there might be dead for whom these are the only markers that don’t say “Unknown Confederate 1138”.

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