Identity and Generals

Lee

“I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”

— Gen. U.S. Grant recalling Appomattox

In this day of virulent revisionism of history all over the world, we again hear of the greatness of the southern gentry (who fought to maintain and extend slavery) and how rosy was their nationalism. Comparisons to “TJ” and “The W” are bandied about, like so much candy at halloween. When the office of the presidency seeks to confer grace upon “southern culture”(read: slavery and it’s accoutrements), we stand in danger that quite a few citizens might start wondering about the history that they have been taught.

Let’s try to elucidate three key differences between the founding fathers and southern generals of the War for the Abolition of  Slavery (yes, the civil war was almost entirely about that).

For one thing, the former were fighting for freedom and against tyranny of a government who was giving the colonies no heed and treating them with barely concealed contempt. The latter had declared war on their own citizens whose only provocation was to have elected a candidate, Mr. Lincoln, who favored the gradual end of slavery.

The North did not start the fight. The South fired on Fort Sumter!

Secondly, these generals didn’t ever flinch from promulgating slavery. At every juncture in the war, when black people confronted the southern armies, they suffered untold calamities. The exchange of prisoners in the war was stopped because the south refused to countenance the black man as an active combatant. This directly led to Northern prisoners of war languishing in prison camps like Andersonville. These gentle Generals did nothing to recognize the humanity of the black man. The founding fathers, with all their faults, wrote a declaration beginning with the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Thirdly, and most importantly, unlike the founding fathers, our erstwhile gentlemen of the south, gave no thought before resorting to rebellion against their duly elected government. Gen. Lee’s declaration to Gen. Scott that he would not raise his sword against his own state smacks of nativism and lack of thought. There is no moral uprightness to what they did.

They were brave no doubt, but so were other military men who served odious regimes before and after them. Gen. Lee’s disbanding of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox rather than carry on a guerilla campaign is thought to be the act of a statesman. It was, rather, the recognition that the horrors of war would increase for the south in this war of attrition.

In conclusion, while we may remember the military campaigns as actions of distinction in war, much like Mongol cavalry tactics are considered very impressive, there is NO moral equivalence between the men of the south and the founding fathers. The former championed the worst government of their time, very much like the neo-nazis and the KKK propose to do today. Let us not forget that.

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