When the Civil War got under way, it was being fought for different reasons, depending on whom you might ask. The South was fighting to keep from losing the right to own slaves, and thus the basis for much of its economy. Historical documents show this clearly, despite the presence of other, less critical, factors. The North was fighting to preserve the Union. Abolitionists were all for emancipation, but most of the population was not yet engaged in that cause. And even many of those who philosophically opposed slavery, including President Lincoln, were not in favor of social equality or the right to vote for those who might be emancipated. Racial prejudice was alive and well on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.
Part way through the war, for military and political more than for moral reasons, the President issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring slaves held in the Confederate states to be free. This, among other things, pretty much guaranteed that neither England nor France would find it politically feasible to come in on the side of the South, which, in turn, virtually guaranteed that the South could not win.
From the beginning of the war, slaves tended, naturally and pretty clearly, to see the struggle as a contest for their freedom. So, in simple terms, we had a disastrous war being fought for a confusion of ideas: defend slavery, end slavery, save the union. The various points of view were never really rationalized into an acceptable national position after the war. President Lincoln chose to welcome the straying citizens, and their army, back into the family with open arms, and many in the South reflected that spirit, picking up what they could of their old lives and considering themselves Americans. Some Confederate Army veterans shifted back into the U.S. Army with little apparent problem.
The South in general, however, was not yet ready to accept African-Americans into the mainstream, and the North mostly looked the other way. Both regions quietly shifted to considering the war primarily as a contest between two valiant armies, not really connected to a large moral issue. More than half a century after Appomattox, an extremely racist U.S. President Woodrow Wilson often exemplified this selective amnesia.
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Viewing the war as a struggle between two armies, both American, both brave and determined, and ignoring the real cause, made a degree of reintegration easier. Veterans of the two armies came to be considered virtually two sides of the same coin. Confederates are buried in a number of national cemeteries, including Arlington, with tombstones provided by the U.S. government. The U.S. ones have rounded tops, the CSA ones pointed tops. The last few Confederate widows were given pensions by our government. I can access my Confederate ancestors’ records by contacting the National Archives, just as I can my father’s World War I U.S. Army records. While current law does not seem to go quite so far as to consider all veterans, from both sides, the same, as some contend, those of us descended from both U.S.A. and C.S.A. veterans tend to revere them in the same way.
In the meantime, concentrating primarily on the war as just bloody and horrendous, as wars tend to be, has let some of us forget what caused it to be fought. African-Americans, however, cannot forget that, and it’s understandable that many would be affronted by public memorials honoring figures they see as leaders in the fight to keep their ancestors in bondage. Many white citizens share their view.
At the same time, many Americans, often with no desire to be racist or to antagonize their fellow citizens who have paid, and continue to pay, a huge price for the color of their skin, find it difficult to disown their own ancestors. Ancestors caught in a maelstrom not of their own choosing.
My point is, maybe we ought to talk to each other quietly before rushing in to demolish statues. Demolition may be the right solution. It may not. In any case, understanding each other and considering varying backgrounds and viewpoints can’t hurt. If we do that long enough, maybe we can finally put the Civil War to rest and devote our concern to present wars and threats of war.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of “Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage.”