When I was a whole lot younger than I am now, I became fascinated with the American Civil War. I was maybe twelve or thirteen. I couldn’t understand how a nation could be so divided, so angry that the only possible solution both sides of the argument saw was to take up arms against fellow country-men, against lifelong friends, against extended family, and in many, many cases, brother against brother. There is a good reason why this war was also called The Brothers War.
The more I studied the conflict, the more I read, the more I realized that the simple answer of what so divided this great nation is no answer at all. Slavery played a part in why the Southern States chose to secede from the Union, but it was not the only reason, contrary to what those who wish to rewrite history claim. Lincoln’s election to the highest office in the land played a role, but again it was not the only reason. The reasons the South seceded are myriad and complex— the very human desire for self-determination, oppressive taxation, Lincoln’s election, slavery, State’s Rights…
No one argues that the United States of America became a country when we declared our independence from king and crown in 1776 and our early patriots preferred to die in the struggle for independence than to live in the shackles of bondage to a tyrannical monarchy. However, most historians will agree that our modern nation was forged in the crucible of the Civil War and drenched in the blood of men and boys who wore Federal blue, Richmond grey, and butternut. The Civil War became indelibly etched into our national psyche, and is embedded in our national DNA. We are a nation because more seven hundred thousand men and boys gave the “last, full measure” in a battle to either gain independence from what they saw as a tyrannical government or to preserve a “more perfect Union.”
We fought for the right of self-determination in the Revolutionary War, and paid for that right with blood and treasure. Every single man who signed the Declaration of Independence committed treason because they had sworn fealty and allegiance to King George and the crown. Every single man who signed that document knew he faced the very real prospect of death, but if death be their lot, it would be in a battle for something greater, something higher. They also knew when signing that declaration they were signing an admission of treason. We revere these men and honor them as our Founding Fathers—these self-admitted, self-professed traitors.
I’ve heard people say that those who fought for the Confederacy were traitors. The Southern States wished to secede from the Union, which each State in the Confederacy voted to do in all good conscience, because they believed that right was guaranteed to them under the terms of the Tenth Amendment. The Bill of Rights was a compromise so that there could be a consensus to ratify the Constitution. The document we know as our Constitution was not the first document governing our nation. Before that there was a document called “The Articles of Confederation.” The State’s Rights Amendment, also known as the Tenth Amendment, was the lynchpin of that compromise to get the states to vote for ratification. Treason also involves taking up arms and waging war against one’s country. Because the Southern States voted to secede, they were no longer part of a less than voluntary Union. They were members of the Confederate States of America. And, they took up arms to defend themselves against an invading army determined to force them remain in this union by force, at bayonet point. If the men who fought to be free of what they saw as unfair taxation, an over-arching, intrusive and tyrannical government, and for self-determination are traitors, then yes, I guess both the Founding Fathers and the Sons of Dixie are traitors.
And now, because of a very deranged young man, this country is facing our troubled past again. There are many who see the Confederate Battle Flag as a symbol of racism, a symbol of horror, and of slavery. South Carolina is arguing whether or not the Battle Flag will continue to fly on the grounds of the State House. Just for the record, because the Battle Flag NEVER represented the whole of the Confederacy in any official capacity, it should never fly over any capitol building. However, that flag does have a place at memorials and monuments, and on the graves of the men and boys who fought under that banner, because just as there are people who see only racism in the Confederate Battle Flag, there are many who see that flag as a symbol of bravery, of unshakeable resolve, and unfailing honor. The United States House of Representatives has passed a resolution that will not allow even private citizens to place the Confederate Battle Flag on the graves of the Confederate fallen at the national cemeteries in Vicksburg and Andersonville. (I will add a personal note to my representative in that body—Congressional votes are a matter of public record. I have a very, very, very long memory and I will vote.) The city council in Memphis, Tennessee has voted to disinter Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest and his wife and move them to another place as well as the large monument which marks their grave. Apparently, the city council hasn’t been told or is choosing to ignore that the Historic Preservation Act in Tennessee mandates that the monument cannot be renamed, moved, removed, taken down, or hidden. No one on the Memphis City Council seems to care that by an Act of Congress, all Civil War veterans are American veterans. Not Federal veterans. Not Confederate veterans. AMERICAN VETERANS.
But, in this rush to erase a part of national history, it is perfectly fine to desecrate the grave of an American veteran.
And, that’s just what this is—it’s a rush to erase a part of our history. This part of history makes people uncomfortable. History should make us uncomfortable. It should make us think. It should make us look inside of ourselves and question who we are, who we were, and how we reached such a point in our history. Good, bad, or ugly, we must own our national history, admit that while we have had an amazing record of success and the “blessings of heaven,” we have also had moments when our actions and decisions have been darker and more vile than the deepest pits of hell itself.
I had a hard time when I was younger understanding how a nation could go to war with itself. Unfortunately, I can understand it now. And, deep in my heart, I fear we are staring into that abyss again. I know which flag I will proudly fly, in the belief that the Constitution still means something, and in complete and utter defiance of this attempt to cleanse our history of that which makes us uncomfortable.