Pondering the Question of Confederate Honor

Statue of Confederate soldier nicknamed Silent Sam in Chapel Hill, N.C. (Reuters photo: Jonathan Drake)
Yes, honorable men can fight for dishonorable causes.

In the town square in Mount Pleasant, Tenn. — just a few miles from my house — there stands a weatherbeaten monument to a small Confederate unit nicknamed the Bigby Greys. Sworn into service on April 20, 1861, Company C of the Third Tennessee infantry numbered just over 100 men. They fought in most of the significant campaigns of the western theater of the Civil War. From Fort Donelson to Vicksburg to the Atlanta campaign and through General John Bell Hood’s desperate and doomed offensive in Tennessee, the Greys bled and died. The entire Third Infantry suffered immensely. By late 1864, only 17 men remained.

The Mount Pleasant monument was dedicated on September 27, 1907, during one of the first waves of Confederate monument-building. It was a day-long affair, featuring meals, prayers, and speeches. Confederate veterans were present, men who were reportedly moved to tears by the event. At the base of the monument, a simple poem is engraved — hardly readable today:

Crest to crest they bore our banner

Side by side they fell asleep

Hand to hand we rear his token

Heart to heart we kneel and weep

I live in a place steeped in antebellum and Civil War history. Just down the street stands Samuel Watkins’s historic home. Watkins served in the Confederate Army and wrote a book about his experience, Company Aytch, one of the few published memoirs from the common soldier’s perspective. He’s buried in my church cemetery, along with dozens of other Confederate veterans.

But Confederate history isn’t the only history. There’s a newer monument on my church grounds, this one dedicated to the slaves who were also members of the church, people who left our congregation after emancipation and started their own church not far away. Both churches still stand, and in both churches there are descendants of that Civil War generation.

I think of this history often — and not just because I see the tombstones and monuments every time I’m on church grounds. My own ancestors were Confederates — on both sides of my family — and they fought in the same battles and campaigns as the Bigby Greys. I was taught the names of the battles from childhood: Shiloh, Vicksburg, Franklin, and Nashville. My uncle’s house in Nashville sits on a spot not far from where a member of our family fought for his life in one of the last and most futile battles of the war.

Earlier this week, Donald Trump’s chief of staff, General John Kelly, reignited a controversy that never truly dies. In the middle of discussing whether historical monuments should still stand, he echoed a common view of the Civil War that critics are calling “white nationalist.” He said three things of real note, that “the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War,” that Robert E. Lee was an “honorable man who gave up his country to fight for his state,” and that “men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.”

Putting aside the issue of compromise (a series of compromises long sustained the moral atrocity that was slavery; it was doomed when both sides ultimately rejected additional compromise), let’s focus on a different question. Could “honorable” men — or men of “good faith” — wear gray? Or was the decision to march and fight in the Army of Northern Virginia or the Army of Tennessee dishonorable to its very core? Were my ancestors dishonorable people?

I agree with General Kelly on his core point. Honorable men could and did choose to fight for the Confederacy. That does not mean that they fought for an honorable cause. The southern states seceded to preserve slavery. That’s plain from their articles of secession. While a free people have a right to self-determination — and that includes a right of secession — the cause for which they seceded was repugnant and reprehensible. No amount of revisionist history can permit the descendants of Confederates to turn away from this terrible truth.

In 1861, the invading northern army was not seeking to free the slaves. It was attempting to restore the union by sheer force of arms.

But many truths operate at once, and here are others. In 1861, the invading northern army was not seeking to free the slaves. It was attempting to restore the union by sheer force of arms. The Confederates who lived in the southern states — even those who opposed secession — saw themselves as citizens of their states, yes, but also as citizens of an entirely different and new nation. One nation was invading another, and invasions mean death, destruction, and despair.

Moreover, lest anyone doubt the fear of mass death, there is something else that was front of mind for the white men and women of the South — the fear of a bloody, genocidal slave rebellion. Time and again, the declarations of causes of the seceding states condemn the North for attempting to incite “servile insurrection” or “servile war.” Southerners were appalled at the northern response to John Brown’s unabashed attempted to ignite a slave rebellion across the South.

Southerners remembered Nat Turner’s rebellion, and while contemporary Americans tend to celebrate Turner, they do so mainly by ignoring his terrible crimes. Here’s what I wrote last year, in response to the film Birth of a Nation:

When Turner launched his real-life revolt, it wasn’t so much a battle against white oppression as it was a pure killing spree — a mass murder of 57 people that included women and young children. Turner’s men hacked kids to death. In one instance, they attacked a school. In another, they reportedly returned to a house after they realized they’d left a child alive. They killed an infant in its cradle and dumped the body in a fireplace.

. . . When northern abolitionists celebrated Brown and treated him as a righteous martyr in a holy cause, white southerners believed that northern radicals wanted them dead.

If you’re a citizen of a new nation — a nation wrongly born, to be sure, but a nation nonetheless — and an invading army is marching to your doorstep, an army that you believe contains radical elements that want to incite a horrific bloodbath, then, yes, an honorable man can take up arms. He can choose to fight against an invader to defend hearth and home.

But that is of course not the only honorable course, and not every Confederate was honorable, including many of the Confederates who are memorialized in monuments today. And there were certainly southerners who were capable of making a different and more honorable choice, a choice to preserve the Union and eradicate slavery. For example, every American should know the name of General George Thomas, the Rock of Chickamauga.

Thomas had compelling reasons to join the Confederacy. Born into the planter class in Virginia, his family — including his mother — narrowly escaped death in Nat Turner’s rebellion. Yet when war came, he wore blue. His sister disowned him, calling him “false to his family, his state, and to his friends.” Southern officers who joined the Confederacy labeled him a traitor.

Thomas held true to his conscience and fought with extreme courage. His finest moment came in the Battle of Chickamauga, one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. On the final day of the battle, as Union lines collapsed around him — threatening a catastrophic defeat — Thomas’s divisions stood strong. In a way, he was the mirror image of another Virginian, Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, the man whose defensive stand saved the Confederate Army at the first Battle of Bull Run.

In fact, Jackson and Thomas make for an interesting contrast, a living demonstration of how two men — to use Kelly’s words — “of good faith” could make different, but still honorable choices. There is not, however, moral equivalence between the two generals. Thomas is the rarest of men, a person able to rise above the pressures of place and peers to perceive enduring truth. How many of us could so bravely defy family, state, and friends? If we want to be men of honor and conviction, it is worth praying, “Lord make me like General Thomas.”

Now we’re supposed to despise Confederates more than Lincoln himself did.

Those conflicts of conviction and conscience made the Civil War so very painful, but they also allowed for an immense amount of mutual respect. But now we’re supposed to despise Confederates more than Lincoln himself did. “With malice toward none, with charity for all” gives way to yanking down statues and declaring as “white nationalist” men and women, like General Kelly, who mirror the views of many of the Union leaders who preserved this nation.

In the battle over monuments, the answer isn’t fewer statues. We don’t suffer from too much historical knowledge. We have far too little. Why is Stonewall Jackson a household name while George Thomas is mainly remembered by Civil War nerds? Why do we remember Nat Turner more than Sergeant William Carney, the first black recipient of the Medal of Honor? He carried the Union standard, “uphill on his knees,” shot in the thigh during the assault on Fort Wagner, S.C. More than two dozen African Americans were awarded the Medal of Honor in the Civil War. Let’s honor their courage. Let’s remember their convictions.

In other words, we need to remember history in full. And that means understanding complexities. It means realizing that honorable men can fight for the wrong cause yet for honorable reasons. It also means understanding that there are those who made the best decisions, for the best reasons, and our nation exists today because of their valor and their sacrifice.

There are weatherbeaten statues in many town squares. Don’t pull them down. Let’s put up new statues that tell different stories. Let’s give a voice to people who had no voice. Most people walk by monuments like the monument in Mount Pleasant and don’t pay the slightest bit of attention. But others stay, they strain to read the inscription on the stone, and they learn. It’s time for all of us to learn more.


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