Thanks for all the mail on my Gods and Generals column. I am baffled by the few readers who thought I was somehow justifying slavery by my defense of the film against the political criticism it received. All I can say is: read the thing again. Who in their right mind would justify slavery today? Ron Maxwell’s film certainly doesn’t. But it does put the Confederate generals in a more human light, which serves to illuminate the tragedy of their gallant service. Being willing to fight and die for one’s homeland is noble; when the defense of that homeland includes protecting that homeland’s right to enslave human beings, it’s tragic. Anyway, lest there be any confusion, I’m glad the South lost, because that loss not only delivered the slaves from bondage, but it delivered Southern slaveholders, and those whites who supported slavery, from their own corruption.
Others have written to say that Lee, Jackson, et al., were traitors, pure and simple, and they shouldn’t be given any sympathy. I think this is the error of presentism, which is applying contemporary standards to a time and culture far removed from our own. Similarly, some have said that the Southern generals should have known that slavery was wrong. Again, this is applying the moral standards and clarity of the present day to the past, which is problematic. This is not to excuse, simply to offer a possible explanation for the failure of the South’s moral imagination in that era. You know, 150 years from now, our descendants may say of us, “How on earth didn’t they know how evil [abortion/cloning/etc.] was? How could they have let it be legal? How could their consciences have been so dull?”