My family was in Iowa at the outbreak of the Civil War and I have one ancestor that fought for the Union. I grew up in the South but I was always grateful that the North won the Civil War. Slavery was noxious and a great evil in the American experiment. We could have had a peaceful resolution to slavery but the South broke the rules of the game and as they started to lose politically they tried their very, very best to destroy the United States. It was a very good thing that the Confederacy lost the Civil War — and in the long term — it was very good for all the states in the Confederacy that they lost the Civil War.
Having said that, I have always thought that America’s reconciliation after the Civil War is an under-appreciated miracle. The speed at which the country could unite against a common foe during the Spanish-American War — when many Civil War veterans were still alive — is remarkable. Not only that, but the career of Varina Howell Davis is equally amazing, going from being the First Lady of the Confederacy to becoming a celebrated writer in New York City.
Many have talked about the courage of Lee in making sure the Confederate Army did not break up and start guerrilla war against the Union, and rightly so. But equally important was the fact the the South could have just sat out of the American life as well. That would have been disastrous.
There was a brutal and evil price to pay for the quick reconciliation — the Jim Crow regime — and I can’t emphasize enough how much better American would be today if Jim Crow had never existed. Fortunately, we dealt with Jim Crow fifty years ago and, today, the only people that think Jim Crow was or is a good idea are a tiny lunatic fringe.
The best thing about the reconciliation has been the ability of all Americans to celebrate the martial valor of both sides of the Civil War. This has led military tradition of valor that greatly benefits our current military and contributed greatly to our military success as a nation.
When I watch a movie like Gettysburg, I want the Union to win and I would have been proud to make a stand with Chamberlain on Little Round Top. But how could I fail to be moved by the tragedy of Longstreet, or awed by the bravery and sacrifice of Pickett’s division, or not appreciate Lee’s leadership and audacity? I think it is to the nation’s benefit to that I am able to feel and emphasize with the soldiers and military tradition on both sides.
Now, however we have a strong attempt to disqualify that reconciliation to see the all the men of the Confederacy as unremitting evil. To my great disappointment Jason Lee Sterots argues this view at National Review. He thinks we should see all the Confederacy as racist cowards that deserve no respect for their military exploits. I think he writes this, as he writes much else, with little thought to the cultural consequences of his attitude.
I am more on the side of David French who debates Bakiri Sellers here. French takes the view that the reconciliation process after the Civil War is important and the South’s military history is important and distinct enough from the racist cause of the war to be worth keeping. Mr. Sellers who, at one point, uses the word “Sheroes” does not even seem to understand what Mr. French is saying. I pray that “Sheroes” has not become a thing in the United States.
That disturbs me because every great nation has to stand up and fight for its survival at times and its martial culture and courage is a very important ingredient to a nation’s survival. It bears noting that the French had everything they needed to resist the German invasion in 1940 except the will to fight. While many French soldiers fought bravely — as well as a very few French Government officials — it was not sufficient to the task of stopping the German army, whose military élan and determination was in much greater supply.
Whether the Confederate Battle Flag continues to fly anywhere or not, must we jettison the important reconciliation we have achieved after the Civil War? Am I — are we — not allowed to acknowledge that even the best and bravest of men can sometimes fight for the wrong cause? Is that lesson not important for us all to learn? If you throw away an entire tradition of marital valor and courage you do not easily replace it. Do people even bother to pause and contemplate that? I fear they do not, and we could easily lose an important part of American culture as a causality of a lone man’s racist attack.