When mobs are attacking statues of Ulysses S. Grant, it is difficult to have an intelligent discussion about why some Confederate generals and officials deserve respect. No one today defends the role of slavery. However, if belief in racial equality is the sole measure of the worth of Americans at the time, few people, including in the North, would pass muster.
Racism was rampant, and many northerners objected to slavery not on grounds of humanity and liberty, but because it created sectional division and, in their view, harmed white laborers. Most northern states denied free blacks the right to vote and serve on juries, and imposed other disabilities, such as barring their testimony in court. Some states, as different as Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, New Jersey, and Ohio, passed Black Laws that sought to limit and potentially exclude free blacks from within their borders.
Moreover, while the deep seven southern states seceded to protect slavery, President Abraham Lincoln did not issue enlistment calls and organize troops to end slavery. If he had, he would not have had an army. The rallying cry was nationalism: preserve the union! As Lincoln bluntly explained to Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”
Indeed, had the North quickly won the war — imagine Robert E. Lee accepting Lincoln’s offer of command of the Union military — slavery would have remained undisturbed in the slave states, though barred from expansion through the territories. The Emancipation Proclamation, a war measure which only applied to slaves then outside the North’s control, did not take effect until January 1, 1863, two years into the conflict.
Notably, the outer four slave states, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, left only after Lincoln called for troops to suppress the rebellion. They refused to leave with the others to protect “the peculiar institution,” but would not wage war against their southern siblings. A North Carolina citizen wrote, “Union sentiment was largely in the ascendant and gaining strength until Lincoln prostrated us. He could have adopted no policy so effectual to destroy the Union.… Lincoln has made us a unit to resist until we repel our invaders or die.” These states’ position was profoundly moral: an unwillingness to wage war, meaning to kill and destroy, to force people to remain in a political union against their wishes.
Looking back, it is easy to judge secession unwise. That does not mean it necessarily was illegal. This issue was decided on the battlefield, but before the war the question was open. In fact, the idea did not begin with the South. New England states threatened to leave the young nation after Congress voted for what became known as the War of 1812, a foolish misadventure against Great Britain, which the U.S. barely survived. Thankfully, that conflict was settled within a couple years. Slavery tragically persisted, a moral affront that increasingly sundered relations between states.
Even if secession was illegal, its “central idea” was not “the essence of anarchy,” as Lincoln claimed. While the departure of the deep seven was driven by so-called “fire-eaters,” the radicals were largely left out of the new government. From constitution to institutions to officials, seceding southerners largely retained their existing political and social arrangements. They didn’t want a revolution. Far from it: theirs was essentially an aristocratic society based on accepted hierarchy and order. They just wanted a new national authority.
So the question recurs, why coerce a union with states against the will of the vast majority of their populations (recognizing that slaves were not consulted, just as free blacks were mostly disenfranchised in the North)? Why did preserving the Union warrant war? Some thoughtful people on both sides questioned a country that could be held together only by force. For instance, the Unionist Greeley opined, “We hope never to live in a republic whereof one section is pinned to the residue by bayonets.” Sharing this martial image was Lee: “a Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me.”
Many people never thought about the cost because they imagined the fight would be short. James Chestnut Jr., a pre-war senator from South Carolina, promised to drink all the blood that would be shed after secession. Southerners didn’t expect northern wage slaves to fight. Northerners figured secessionists were all talk and would run from the sound of gunfire. Many on both sides believed that one big battle would settle everything. Indeed, at First Bull Run northerners flocked to watch what they expected would be a fine, bloodless rout. The total casualties of about 4,700 shocked everyone, yet that would barely count as a skirmish another year into the conflict.
Some men in both North and South were more clear-eyed. For instance, William Tecumseh Sherman, superintendent of a military academy in Louisiana before heading north to join the U.S. army, warned a friend that “You people of the South don’t know what you are doing.” He lamented, “This country will be drenched in blood and God only knows how it will end.… You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Lee shared Sherman’s fears. He warned his wife that a war could last years. As states began seceding, he wrote, “I only see that a fearful calamity is upon us, and fear that the country will have to pass through for its sins a fiery ordeal.” While serving Virginia in Richmond after it seceded but before it joined the Confederacy, he was criticized, even accused of being a traitor, for being so gloomy about the impending conflict, which other Virginians welcomed.
The resulting carnage — recent scholarship suggests that some 750,000 Americans died in the conflict, the equivalent of eight million today — changed some minds as to whether or not the North should have taken up arms. (Perhaps a half million were wounded, the modern equivalent of 5.3 million; about 60,000 lost a limb, which would be roughly 636,000 today.) In 1864, Sen. Henry Wilson of Massachusetts viewed the hideous toll from the Virginia theater, which alone cost North and South some 85,000 casualties, over 900,000 in current U.S. population terms, and observed, “If that scene could have been presented to me before the war, anxious as I was for the preservation of the Union, I should have said: ‘The cost is too great; erring sisters, go in peace.’ ” Many voters seemed to share this view, since for months all the Union achieved at terrible cost was stalemate. Before Sherman’s capture of Atlanta on September 2, Lincoln figured that he would not be reelected.
It is difficult to disagree with Wilson’s judgment. How many Americans today would sacrifice eight million lives for the Union? Accept 5.3 million wounded and 636,000 maimed Americans? The $5.2 billion then spent would be about $822 billion today — cheap compared to modern war, coming in a bit less than half of Pentagon outlays on Afghanistan and Iraq so far. Additional would be substantial indirect expenses, such as lost economic growth, caring for disabled veterans, rebuilding ravaged communities, and more. This was a very high price to pay to force people to remain in a political system that claimed to prize individual liberty and limited (national) government.
However, as the mob has turned against all people Confederate, the clinching argument of those demanding elimination of any commemoration of anyone wearing gray, no matter how laudable other aspects of their lives, is that they were traitors. Hence, they should be tossed into utter darkness, their names never again mentioned in polite company.
In fact, it makes sense to reconsider how history is commemorated — whether through statues, school and base names, flags, or other symbols and remembrances — with the passage of time and transformation of society. It should be done with respect to the rule of law and democratic decision. Nevertheless, in today’s Richmond, for instance, the traditional Monument Avenue, though impressive and grand, was too obviously a relic of a distant and ugly past to remain untouched.
Yet understanding history requires considering the choices actually facing those then living. Treason sounds terrible, but George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and the other founding luminaries were traitors. What is different with them is that they were on the winning side. Most Americans have no objection to treason, only unsuccessful treason.
Moreover, in a way that virtually no living American can understand, many people, like Lee, viewed their state as their first, foundational, and essential loyalty. It was home for them and their families, which often included ancestors stretching back before the United States was formed. Lee’s father was Light-Horse Harry Lee, a celebrated Revolutionary War general. Mary (Custis) Lee was the daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, Martha Washington’s grandson and George Washington’s adopted son, which is why Mary and the Lee children — not Robert E. Lee — inherited Arlington, now the site of the national military cemetery. Virginia, with Lee’s and his wife’s families, preceded the United States.
For him, to fight to conquer Virginia would be treason. He opposed secession, which pained him deeply: “I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union.” Nevertheless, Lincoln’s decision for war forced Lee to choose between two basic but competing loyalties. When offered command of the U.S. army, which would have been the culmination of every fine officer’s career, Lee replied, “If the Union is dissolved and the government disrupted, I shall return to my native state and share the miseries of my people and save in defense will draw my sword on none.” When he wrote Winfield Scott, the North’s commanding general under whom Lee had served with distinction during the Mexican–American War, he explained: “Save in defense of my native State, I never desire again to draw my sword.”
His objective was not to overturn the Union, but to prevent the subjugation of his state/home. That view looks odd, antiquated, even mysterious today. Yet it should not be casually dismissed as treason. Secession divided families across the South. Lee had close family members who fought for the Union. Virginian Gen. George Henry Thomas stayed loyal to the Union; his siblings disowned him. Kentucky’s famous Henry Clay was known as the Great Pacificator or Great Compromiser, as he attempted to hold the Union together. His children and grandchildren split between South and North; three grandchildren died in the war. Across the Confederacy brothers, sons, and fathers fought on opposite sides.
The challenge of divided loyalties is one of many factors that makes the Civil War so fascinating to study and difficult to understand. Rather than dismiss as traitors those who chose differently than we would, we should grapple with their challenge of ranking and accommodating competing loyalties. In a sense it is similar to the duty of Christians and other religious believers who place their duty to God above that to the state. Was World War II’s Desmond Doss, whose story was told in the movie Hacksaw Ridge, a traitor for choosing God over Washington? Presumably not, since he received the Medal of Honor. True, he did not fight the U.S., but the U.S. did not attack Doss’s God, in contrast to the Civil War, when Washington did attack Lee’s Virginia.
The statue wars offer a learning opportunity, if Americans can seize control of the discussion back from ideologues seeking to do what the Left does so well: use examples of genuine injustice to grab power, intimidate opponents, browbeat critics, and push failed collectivist nostrums that would never be accepted in normal times.
History is messy. Even great men and women often were captives of their times, unable to see great truths that are now clear to the rest of us. So it was with some of the revered figures who fought for the Confederacy. Theirs was a flawed cause that rested upon a profoundly evil institution. Understanding why otherwise admirable figures such as Lee decided as they did could help us better prepare for the profound challenges likely to come our way.