No surprise. It wouldn’t be politically correct to do so, right? After all, Johnny Reb wasn’t doing battle on behalf of the United States of America. And if the modern perception of the Civil War is to be believed, he certainly wasn’t fighting for freedom.
Of course some in the South would say that’s okay because we have our own separate day — Confederate Memorial Day — set aside to remember the boys and young men who lost their lives fighting for the Confederate States of America.
But what kind of message are we sending by honoring the Confederate dead? Will we be accused of being racist and having a twisted moral compass? It’s an awkward and complicated predicament for Southerners, to say the least.
I would argue that it’s proper to remember fallen soldiers of the Confederacy.
Call me a naïve, revisionist redneck if you like, but I refuse to believe the common soldier was motivated to sacrifice his life on behalf of some deep, heart-felt belief in slavery.
And I think the evidence makes a strong case for this argument.
I watched CNN political contributor Roland Martin once describe all Southern Confederates as “terrorists.” If I think Mr. Martin’s comments to be grossly unfair, as well as a mangling of historical context, what do I offer to support my position?
Simple. Human nature. Like all creatures, we are innately territorial.
I believe Confederate soldiers felt — above all else — they were fighting to protect their home state, their communities, their farms, their land, their families. Robert E. Lee turned down Lincoln’s offer to lead the Union Army against the Confederates because of his loyalty to the state of Virginia. Stonewall Jackson fought for the Confederacy for the same reason.
In their hearts and minds, these causes were honorable.
Are they not?
The notion that the average Confederate waged war to preserve slavery is a tenuous one at best. Only 6 percent of Southerners owned slaves, and 3 percent of that 6 percent owned the majority. Recruits themselves referred to the war as “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”
Consider these facts:
Historians note that “conscription” service (commonly referred to as the “draft”) was directly or indirectly responsible for putting most men into service after the first year of the war. Records show some soldiers refused to pledge an oath of allegiance to the CSA, but enlisted anyway because they were “willing to fight.” And an estimated 100,000 or so Confederates deserted before 1865.
The reasons behind most desertions, I suspect, had little to do with cowardice.
Case in point …
William Dickey was a company commander in Georgia’s State Militia. On July 13, 1864, he wrote to his wife from his post on the outskirts of Atlanta about the many “Tennesseans and Georgians” who were deserting the army to return to their homes. Sherman’s army was advancing on Atlanta at the time.
“They know their families are left behind at the mercy of the yankies and it is hard to bear … I tell you it is enough to make any man desert. If the Yankees were to drive our army through our country & we were to pass on by you and the children, I could not say that I would not desert and try to get to you.”
All of these factors reinforce my conclusion that most were not in this war to uphold or protect the institution of slavery.
Few soldiers — Union or Confederate — had any prior battlefield experience. Like their Northern counterparts, my guess is the common Confederate soldier also went to war over patriotism, steady pay or what they naively perceived as the chance for adventure.
On the other hand, they were not ignorant of the causes of war; and slavery, sadly, was chief among them.
And with that in mind, I ask myself, “what would I have done?” given the same choices these men faced in 1861?
One of the most memorable moments in Ken Burn’s Civil War documentary comes when Southern historian Shelby Foote paraphrases from one of his favorite writers to make a point. Foote says:
“… William Faulkner, in “Intruder in the Dust,” said that for every southern boy, it’s always within his reach to imagine it being one o’clock on an early July day in 1863, the guns are laid, the troops are lined up, the flags are out of their cases and ready to be unfurled, but it hasn’t happened yet. And he can go back in his mind to the time before the war was going to be lost and he can always have that moment for himself.”
I’ve often imagined what my life would have been like had I lived and been of “fighting age” between 1861 and 1865. It’s very unsettling to think of myself as someone who might have willingly volunteered to go to war to uphold and preserve a state’s right to enslave its people. And though I’m interpreting history through a prism, with 150 years separating my lens from the actual events, I don’t think slavery motivated the heart of the average Confederate soldier. That’s why, as a Southerner, I remember those who wore gray and lost their lives in the war.
And I do so on Memorial Day.