Not about the Rebel Yell

Fellow blogger Snaggle-Tooth Jones has leveled a misguided attack:

This here’s a YouTube video showin’ a 1938 reunion of Confederate and Yankee soldiers on the field of Gettysburg:

Now, here’s a litte question for Ben DeGrow and the othah no-account neocons (and damn fool libruls) who ‘r vexed over All Things Confederate: why do ye suppose these men cud get together in such a spirit of civility, if not chivalry?

I’d like to hear from ye in my commints box, Ben DeGrow.

Why d’ ye ‘spose U.S. Grant happily tolerated the playin’ of “Dixie” at this here event? Or why do ye ‘spose that Grant was so magnanimous at Lee’s surrender at Appomattox? Or why Lee defended Grant when one of his feller professers at Washington College made a deerogtoree comment ’bout Grant?

How unlike the Politically Correct Grant wuz. And among the ranks of the Politically Correct I include so-called conservatives like you. *Especially* conservatives like you, since y’all should know better.

‘L, anyway, it’s said that the Yankees in that YouTube video got chills done they spine when that Reb feller did the Rebel Yell. Y’all oughter still be gittin’ chills.

The Northern conservatives of the 21st century surely ain’t like the Northern conservatives of the 19th and early to mid-20th. More like damn fool libruls, I’d say.

First of all, I had to chuckle when reading and finding out that I am “vexed over All Things Confederate.” I like to think I have a more balanced view informed by a fairly thorough and widespread reading of primary and secondary sources in 19th century American history. Though I by no means have come close to plumbing the depths, I do believe I’ve read and studied enough to form intelligent opinions on the topic. And no, it has not led me into political correctness – which Mr. Jones should feel free to elaborate on more in depth (as well as provide examples).

I have seen the Newsreel footage before, both from the 1913 and 1938 Gettysburg reunions. The service and sacrifice of the soldiers who served on both sides is equally deserving of honor. All I can say to Mr. Jones is that he has conflated the grand political and philosophical issues at hand with the wide-ranging personal motivations of individual soldiers who donned the Union and Confederate uniforms. To answer my detractor’s question, I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant penned in his memoirs about the surrender at Appomattox:

What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. 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. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us … [Emphasis added]

We can scarcely begin to scratch at the surface of deep historical complexities in the blogging venue. Untangling countless motivations and decisions momentously made, we will find plenty to respect and plenty to condemn. But all such judgments must be made with due deference to the political and cultural realities in which the historical actors lived. That being said, I believe that Confederate leaders blindly led their soldiers and civilians down a path of failure and destruction for the perpetuation of a dying and immoral institution. With pro-Southern factions effectively in control of the executive, upper legislative, and judicial branches of national government during the 1850s, states’ rights was largely a convenient excuse concocted in defense of the “peculiar institution” of racial chattel slavery.

Does this impugn the personal honor of men like General Robert E. Lee? Hardly. There is much to be emulated in his life, and his devotion to Virginia despite a conflicted conscience is to be admired. But it must also be remembered that Lee’s decision was made after pro-slavery Southern radicals had forced President Lincoln’s hand and invaded federal property. That’s where Lincoln’s unfettered devotion to two overriding principles (Union and opposition to the extension of slavery) came in. He summoned 75,000 volunteer troops to quell the rebellion, states like Virginia voted to secede, and then Lee cast his lot with the Confederacy. Of course, there’s a lot more here to discuss. And I’d be glad to do so at some future point.

Regarding Grant and Lee, they had great personal respect for each other as fellow fighting men, sharing the West Point camaraderie and having both shouldered the burdens of leadership over vast amounts of human carnage.

As for general North-South relations in the generations following the War of the Rebellion, the story gets more tangled and complicated. Fatigue over Reconstruction, the lure of Westward expansion, and various internal political battles pushed the North’s focus forward onto new ventures. Because of the relative direct impacts of the War on the two regions, the North was more ready to put it behind them. In the South, various Confederate leaders constructed a Lost Cause mythology, many aspects of which eventually made their way into the accepted canon of historical understanding of the time period. The North and South had moved forward to reconcile on “the white basis.” As racism grew across the country, evidenced most strongly in the Jim Crow South, the contributions of blacks to the war effort and the emphasis on ending slavery were diminished in the textbooks. Have you not seen, for example, “Birth of a Nation“?

A good place to start looking is this book. It’s worth a close, critical read, to be judged on the strength of its arguments. You don’t have to be “politically correct” to accept some of the authors’ conclusions.

But all this is largely separate from the issues of soldierly camaraderie and respect between men who served in Blue and Gray uniforms. Yes, I am emotionally affected when I witness these scenes. Having the barest sense of what those men (including my ancestors who served on different sides) endured and sacrificed can not do otherwise. But it’s only one portion of the larger picture.

Mr. Jones, you have misrepresented my views. I am glad I got the opportunity to provide some clarity, and knowing that we have only begun to touch on issues of vast import and magnitude, I am glad to continue the dialogue as opportunity provides.

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