Here I am in my palatial office above my garage, outlining a speech for a gathering of Civil War Battlefield Preservation Trust contributors, of whom I am one. First, I’ll tell a few jokes, and then I’ll talk about how I read a lot about the CW. I’ll talk about how I grew up in Maryland a stone’s throw from the house where Jubal Early made his headquarters during his 1864 raid on Washington, D.C., and how the old house behind me still had slave quarters rotting away when I was a lad. I’ll talk about how my wife’s family, from Mississippi, had many men fight and die in the Civil War, and how my childhood best friend, David Scull, was on his mother’s side a Lee and also a Montgomery Blair descendant, and how discussion of the Civil War was a constant part of childhood conversation. I’ll talk about how I read John Brown’s Body when I was a boy, and how it moved me, and how I read as much of Bruce Catton as I could, and even started Lee’s Lieutenants as a teenager, but never finished it because it was so sad.
With all of this conversation and reading — I am still reading Lee’s Lieutenants, and it is still too sad to finish — I always have a number of questions to which I do not know the answers, but I think they are provocative:
(1) Did The Civil War Have To Be Fought? The Northern states lost about 400,000 men. Two hundred thousand Southerners died — roughly one in nine Southern white males died. Each was a tragedy for his family and friends, and all died in agony. Did this have to happen? Was there not some way it could have been avoided? Was there a way of buying up the slaves? After all, abhorrent as it sounds and is, they were considered property. Could they have been emancipated by money rather than blood? What could have been done had the powers that be on both sides known how many would die? By Antietam or Shiloh, surely Lincoln knew it was going to be long and bloody. So did Jefferson Davis. Couldn’t something have been worked out to end the killing?
(2) To slightly restate this — assuming, as I do, that slavery was a moral evil of horrendous proportions — could it not have been allowed to wither away? Slavery was horrific, but so are the deaths of 600,000 plus men and the maiming of millions. Does the ultimate responsibility lie with the abolitionists, the secessionists or with both? And how could any of them live with themselves ever after, when they saw the rivers, oceans of blood?
(3) Why was it legal for the colonies to rebel against Britain but not for the South to rebel against the North? Again, I assume slavery was and is horrible and disgusting and a crime against humanity. But it was legal under the U.S. Constitution, so why was it allowable to wage a moral crusade killing six hundred thousand men to end it and to compel the slave states back into the Union? If popular sovereignty and right of self-determination mean anything, why did they not mean something in North America? Clearly the South (most but not all of it) wanted to be separate. Why was war the response to popular sovereignty? Or did the Southern firebrands force it on the North? If so, could the North have walked away from the fight? And, again, I am convinced that slavery was thoroughly horrible. But so is war.
(4) Could the South have won? Once Lincoln decided that the “grim calculus” favored the North, could Lee and Davis have done anything to save the Confederacy? Was it Jefferson Davis’s fault that the South lost the war for keeping on such incompetents as Bragg and Hood? Was it Lee’s fault for his catastrophes at Gettysburg and Malvern Hill? What would have happened if Lee had won at Gettysburg? Or if he had then seized Washington? Or Philadelphia? Was the South basically out-generaled despite Lee and Jackson and Forrest?
(5) How would America have been different if the South had won? Does anyone really think slavery would still be a stain on humanity in 2003? What would have happened if Lincoln had just said, “Erring sisters, go in peace”? Would the North and South not have reconciled and been one nation again? There were mystic chords of memory, after all, to coin a phrase. Would they not have pulled the Union together eventually without bloodshed?
(6) What would the South have been like if slavery had ended peacefully, as a result of moral awakening in the South, instead of through a bloody war? Might the situation of blacks in America be better today? Might there have been no segregation, no Klan, no lynchings?
(7) Why is the Southern Cause so compelling even now? Knowing — as we do — that the Southern economy was largely based on a horrifying notion of racial supremacy, why do we find the South still so haunting and sympathetic? Is it Gone With the Wind? Is it moonlight and magnolias and nonsense? Is it the romance of a lost cause? Why do we find Lee so much more compelling than Grant? Why do we find Lee so much more compelling than a general that even Lee said was the finest on either side in the Civil War, Nathaniel Bedford Forrest? Why do I cry when I visit one of my favorite battlefields, the one at Upperville, Virginia? And why do I have nightmares every time I visit Gettysburg, when most of my ancestors did not even come to America until thirty years after the Civil War ended?
(8) Of all of the amazing, breathtaking truths and myths about the Civil War, why is this one almost always omitted from mention: that men of one race fought and died in the hundreds of thousands to free from bondage men and women of another race. From all corners of the Northern States, men came and laid down their lives for the Union, yes, but also to free the African slaves, the ancestors of today’s African Americans. When else in history has anything like this ever happened, that one racial group should die in droves for another’s liberty? This surely is one of the brightest shining dawns in human civilization. When reparations are discussed for African Americans, I am mindful that a certain reparation has already been paid, that every drop of blood drawn by the lash has been paid for by a hundred drawn by the sword, to coin a Lincoln phrase.
(9) Why is not more attention paid to the stunning contributions of the black man to his own freedom? Both sides considered blacks unfit to be good soldiers until about 1863. When Lincoln finally relented, they proved to be superb fighters, and their presence on the Union side was a major factor in the Union victory. Other than maybe in the movie Glory, I don’t think that the black soldier gets the credit he deserves for coming from a tradition of oppression and humiliation and then fighting with utmost courage as soon as the chains had been struck from his body.
(10) But most of all — and closely connected to this last point — how could all of the men and women who participated in the war have been so amazingly brave? How could they have carried such heavy loads, under such grueling conditions, slept in the rain, slept in the snow, marched right into massed rifle fire and certain death? How could they face death from belly wounds, in agony, maddened with thirst? How could they have undergone surgery with primitive anesthesia or none at all? How could the Army of Northern Virginia, starving, under-clothed, bled white by Grant, still have fought so gloriously in a lost cause at Petersburg? How could the Union soldiers have crossed those pontoon bridges at Fredericksburg under intense rifle fire and then attacked the fortified Confederates time after time? How could Pickett’s men have marched across that horrible open field into the jaws of death, keeping good order, doing their utmost as all of their friends and comrades fell and died around them?
THE CIVIL WAR WAS OUR BLOODIEST conflict, but also the densest concentration of courage ever shown on this continent. And nowhere is this most precious American quality — courage — more fittingly memorialized than on our Civil War Battlefields. Shiloh and Gettysburg, and — saddest of them all — Franklin and Lookout Mountain, and Vicksburg and Upperville and a thousand other battlefields I have never seen make us think more about the courage and sacrifice of Americans on both sides than any other monument or memorial.
The preservation of these battlefields is partly because of their beauty. Partly it is because they are a respite from the relentless strip-malling and subdividing of America. But mostly the battlefields tell us something we need to know about us, and about our nation, and this is something we need to know now more than ever, as we are under attack by a new enemy who believes we are weak and cowardly.
The Civil War battlefields tell us that we are a nation of idealists and a nation of heroes, and that no matter what the struggle, no matter how difficult or long, if we truly believe in the cause, we will fight it out until the end. Our battlefields inspired us to fight the Nazis, to fight the Japanese, to win the Cold War, and now they will inspire us to fight and win the war of the terrorists against all decent people.
In a real sense, the battlefields we preserve pay us back by preserving us and this great country that God has blessed so abundantly. As I say, courage is the primary, indispensable element of a people and a nation. America’s Civil War battlefields are where that courage is best memorialized. Let’s keep them, and keep them glorious and beautiful, keep them above commerce. And let us always remember that the courage that Americans have is a gift from God, and that when we preserve memorials to it, we are thanking God. The battlefields we seek to save are reminders of gifts from God that will save us if we invoke them, even now, one hundred and forty years after Pickett’s Charge.
That’s it. That’s my speech to the Civil War Preservation Trust. And now I have to leave.