Should We Honor Confederate Soldiers?

The Confederate Memorial Monument at the Alabama Capitol. Jefferson Davis laid its cornerstone.

The Confederate Memorial Monument at the Alabama Capitol. Jefferson Davis laid its cornerstone.

Gentle Readers, I need a short break from the Congressional Globe transcripts and have meant to write about this since last week. So here goes.

I take my title from Brooks Simpson’s post asking the same question. I don’t think we should, but the question warrants some unpacking. Not honoring Confederate soldiers does not also entail that we should go around smashing up their headstones, installing sewers that empty into their graves, dig them up and throw their remains in the garbage, bulldoze their battlefield memorials, or anything like that. It does not require that we endlessly castigate them. It certainly doesn’t require that we adopt a hostile attitude toward their descendants, who no more chose their ancestors than the rest of us did.

I say that we should not honor these men because the word implies something more than recognition or understanding. It carries with it a kind of endorsement. Honoring someone entails celebrating them and their deeds, paying tribute. Only the great war of rebellion to defend and preserve slavery brings all of those men, and probably some women, together. Whatever their individual motives, whatever sacrifices they endured, however that war traumatized them, they signed on to armies pledged to the cause of slavery. I don’t know how, short of some very selective attention, one separates them from their ultimate cause.

But even if we can, should we? I know that some people have a very strong emotional commitment to the idea of the military as a noble profession, perhaps the noblest. They would probably argue that these men demonstrated great bravery and endured great sacrifices and that warrants our respect. I don’t agree because you can say that about every soldier who goes off to war, whether the soldier joined on to steal Cuba, to break away from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, or to purge Europe of Jews, Communists, Roma, Homosexuals, and other allegedly inferior people. From that one could pivot to saying that the soldiers fought for what they believed in. Probably they did, but what did they believe in, precisely? I can think of a great many ideals, some of which I just listed, that don’t deserve celebration, let alone fighting and killing for.

All of this talking around the fact, however heartfelt, does something that I would think most people insistent on honoring Confederate soldiers would find very problematic indeed. It sidesteps the question of what they did fight for and ignores what individual motives may have impelled them to take up arms. Does one really honor a person by reducing them to a blank icon for veneration? Perhaps so, but it seems very strange to me. They did not make people out of marble in the past, but of flesh and blood just like they do now. I confess that my personal inclinations run very much the opposite direction, but my intense antipathy for the Confederacy’s cause does not demand that I turn every man in gray into a bloodthirsty devil or every Union man into a moral titan.

Ultimately I don’t think that any of the dead deserve honoring. We owe the dead nothing; they’ve had all that they could ever be given and have no use for more. But we owe ourselves the truth about the dead, their times, their virtues and faults. They, like us, had their share of great humanitarians and great villains. Like us, the great and good among them could have horrifying personal failings and the scorned and infamous could have surprising moments of humanity. Their times produced our own, but are not our own. They did not simply rehearse our struggles, but had their own. We should imagine them complexly.

I suppose all of this amounts to saying that we would do better to understand the dead than to honor them. In turn that deeper understanding of the past can deepen our understanding of the present and the long, difficult road from there to here.

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4 comments on “Should We Honor Confederate Soldiers?

  1. ryantlax82 says:

    Where did you learn your history? We shouldn’t honor the sacrifices of Confederate soldiers because they fought for slavery? Why did Lincoln issue the emancipation proclamation in 1863? If your logic is accurate, what were Southerners fighting for during the first two years of the war? Could you explain to me why southern cites like Fredericksburg, Vicksburg, and Richmond were looted & destroyed by the Federals during the war? I guess defending your own livestock and home from an invasion isn’t a valid reason.

    • I learned my history from, among others, a collection of long-dead southern gentlemen who were very clear about their motivations back in the winter of 1860-1. For example, the men who endorsed this document, the Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union” (http://civilwarcauses.org/reasons.htm#SouthCarolina)

      “But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution.”

      And

      “We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.”

      I have available to me many more such documents. Four states passed such declarations, and others expressed themselves via commissioners dispatched to encourage other slaveholding states to follow their example. On top of that are a myriad of other speeches. I shall quote one of those, from the lips of Alexander Stephens, then Vice-President of the Confederacy (http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1861stephens.asp)

      “Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.”

      I could go on.

      It may be that this large collection of southern gentlemen of property and influence, well enough esteemed by their peers to hold high offices, conducted a systematic fraud up to and including the precipitation of a massively destructive civil war for some obscure reasons known only to them. This seems, however, much less likely than the proposition that they meant what they said and were to no great degree fantastical liars and conmen of peerless skill and nigh-limitless amorality. They were, in your own words, defending their human livestock and the vast fortunes invested in it.

      What were southerners fighting for for the first two years of the war? They told us in plain terms. I invite you to read the full documents if you don’t believe me. Or do you just think that they were all amazing liars after all?

      Why were various southern cities devastated by the war? Their participation in the rebellion to protect and defend slavery, of course. There’s a reason Baltimore, Chicago, and New York didn’t get burned, shelled, or otherwise militarily molested. They weren’t in rebellion.

  2. ryantlax82 says:

    So according to your logic, the Federal government has every right to destroy a southerner’s property because their government succeeded from the Union? Can you provide a resource which reveals the entire white southern population owning slaves? Prior to the Battle of Fredericksburg, I’m sure Confederate soldiers of the 30th, 47th VA Inf. (Fredericksburg units in case you didn’t know), or the Fredericksburg Artillery were worried about their slaves, while their homes was being looted and destroyed by the Federal Army for no apparent reason. And before the war, I do recall riots in Baltimore as well as rioting in New York in 1863. Could it be a possibility, Baltimoreans were upset over Lincoln suspending Habeus Corpus and imprisoining Marylanders without any just cause. But based upon your logic, Baltimore wasn’t molested since it didnt take part in the rebellion. Try researching accounts from the 2nd MD CS Inf. That’ll give you a clue. And what do you mean by they (I dont understand your sentiment about what southerners fighting for?)? Do you really believe they were fighting for politicians? Today, do you really believe American serviceman have fought for the blunderous foreign policies for either Bush or Obama? Please continue your arugment by coping more rhetoric from ‘Declarations of Causes of Seceding States.’ To enhance your motives, it’d be a good idea to read more accounts of the actual fighting men, and the hardships they faced. Not the politicians, including Lincoln, who caused the war. So please, continue…

    • I suppose now that southern politicians, elected by southern white men to lead southern white men and enact policies preferred by a majority of southern white men no longer count as representatives of southerners and their opinions, despite the clear position of southerners of the time on the issue. This is a strange position which I don’t think gives sufficient credit to the people alive at the time.

      That said, I believe the Confederates were fighting for the paramount objective of preserving slavery. Any other reasons that might have existed are a very distant second to that. And yes, I do believe that soldiers signing on today know that they will be fighting for the foreign policies of whoever gets elected. It’s part of the job and they know where the chain of command ends. So did the men (and the women who successfully pulled it off) know where the chain of command ended in 1861.

      If they could not have that, then they would settle for preserving white supremacy. The politicians threw a war and thousands on thousands of southerners came to fight it. I can see only a few explanations for their behavior:

      1) Southerners in general were just incredibly stupid and did not understand what the dispute was about despite the clear word of the politicians who threw the war on the subject.

      2) Southerners in general were just bloodthirsty nuts eager for any fight they could get, and so didn’t care what the dispute was about.

      3) Southerners were adults fully competent and capable as any other people, quite able enough to figure out what was going on and make their choices accordingly. Mind you, some of them went and fought for the United States instead of the proslavery insurrection.

      Perhaps you have some special insight into the southern nature which leads you to believe the southerners of the 1860s either fools or crazed murderers, but in my inquiry into the subject I have found no cause to reach any such conclusion.

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