Sunday, April 10, 2005

None Dare Call It Treason

By: UnrepentantNewDealer

"Treason doth never prosper:
What's the reason?
Why if it prosper,
None dare call it Treason."

Lee's Decision

General Robert E. Lee, commander in chief of the Confederate armies, and nearest and dearest to his heart, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, had faced difficult decisions before. Deciding to divide his army at Chancellorsville two years earlier, sending Stonewall Jackson with the majority of his forces to flank the bluecoats, leaving Lee in the meantime with only two divisions to confront a far larger Union army, had been nervewracking. His audacity had paid off handsomely in the end, though.

Not so for his decision to allow General George Pickett's and Lt. General James Longstreet's infantry attack on the Union center on Cemetary Ridge on that horrible third day at Gettysburg. Failing to forsee the devastating effect sustained Union rifle fire would have on his exposed Confederate infantry on the open field and up the grassy slopes had been Lee's greatest failure as a commander and as a person. He relived it often in his dreams. In those dreams, he saw the corpses of his fallen comrades at The Angle, Malvern Hill,
Dunker Church, Hagerstown Pike, Bloody Lane, and so many other scoured farmlands, north and south. It was those dreams that came back to him now, as he faced the hardest decision of his career.

It was April 9, 1865. Richmond, proud capital of the Confederacy, that fair city that Lee had saved from capture at the hands of the inept McClellan in the summer of 1862, had finally fallen. The Confederate government, led by President Jefferson Davis, was heading south on a fast train. As a parting gift to the city, the Confederates had ordered the commercial district of the city set ablaze, to prevent any supplies from falling into Union hands. The fire had quickly spread to residential neighborhoods. Lee still seethed at that final insult, more destructive than anything Sherman's troops had done in Georgia. He had fought a fierce campaign in the week since, trying to hold off General Grant's army long enough to allow the majority of his army to escape to the mountains of western Virginia, where they could eventually link up with General Joe Johnston in North Carolina and fashion some kind of effective resistance to the advancing bluecoats.

But all such grand plans seemed dashed now. Last night, his supplies had been captured at Appomattox Station by the advance guard of the Army of the Potomac. Lee was now surrounded on three sides by Federal forces. The only escape was to the northwest: into a barren land that could not support his army.

It was obvious that further conventional resistance was futile. Yet, what about unconventional resistance? One of his most trusted aides, Porter Alexander, now urged disbanding the army into small guerrilla bands. What could not be accomplished through massive battles might perhaps be accomplished by turning the South into a minefield of militia groups, irregulars using terrorist tactics.

Again he asked himself: What am I fighting for? Most Southern leaders had favored secession as a means of preserving forever the institution of slavery. Lee abhorred the institution and had no slaves himself. He had joined the Confederacy and rejected the offer to command the Union forces, because he couldn't bear the thought of taking up the sword against his fellow Virginians. Given the choice between taking arms against his countrymen in Virginia or taking up arms against his fellow countrymen in the other states, he had chosen the least repugnant option. Yet, were he to accept Porter's advise, Virginian would be turned against Virginian. Virginia would be laid waste and the wounds of this battered nation might never heal.

The pressure on Lee to adopt a guerrilla strategy was enormous. Davis himself had ordered Lee not to surrender and public sentiment in many parts of the South would be receptive. He could not prevent the Union from conquering the South, but he could make it ungovernable. In the long run, the Union might tire of the thankless task and grant the South independence. It was the best hope for winning the war.

But, yet. Lee's thoughts turned to the terrorist actions of William Quantrill in Missouri. Lee remembered hearing of Nathan Bedford Forrest's "victory" at Fort Pillow. Hundreds of black and white Union soldiers were massacred by his men, upon his orders, after they had surrendered. Was this what it had come to? Would he have to abandon all his principles, both those installed in him at West Point and those he derived from his Christian faith and Southern upbringing, to win this war? No. He had once said, "It is better to do right, even if we suffer in so doing, than to incur the reproach of our consciences and posterity." Those words came back to him now in this fateful hour. Bolstered by this injunction, with a look of sad resignation clouding his countenance, Lee turned to an aide and ordered him to dictate a reply to Grant's letter. After signing the surrender later on that day, Lee had had his band play "The Star-Spangled Banner." The message was clear: We were all Americans now.

None Dare Call It Treason

Yesterday marked the 140th anniversary of Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, the final act of the Civil War. Today the "Lost Cause" is still idolized by some Southerners. Shirts picturing Lee in front of the "Confederate" flag are commonplace, though the Confederacy was not around long enough to officially adopt a national flag. (The "Confederate" flag was merely the banner of Lee's army of Northern Virginia until it was adopted as a symbol by the terrorist organization founded by Nathan Bedford Forrest in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War: the Ku Klux Klan.)

If anyone should be so foolhardy as to challenge the Confederate mythology of the Lost Cause or attempt to take down a Confederate flag from a public place, such as the South Carolina Statehouse, they will be bombarded with strident charges of trying to take away "Southern heritage." Now, I've lived in the South my entire life. To me Southern heritage includes grits, BBQ, cornbread, and sweet tea. It includes a vocabulary complete with "y'all"s, "I reckon"s, "over yonder"s, and "usetacould"s (one word). It seems ridiculous to claim Southern heritage begins and ends with the Confederacy. After all, the South has been under the control of America, Britian, and Spain for hundreds of years. It was under the sway of the Confederacy for a mere four years. The British flag is more a part of "Southern heritage" than the Confederate.

Most people who object to displays of the Confederate flag object to the Confederacy's embrace of slavery. No matter how you slice it, the South only remained in the Union as long as they could extract concessions on the slavery issue by threating disunion. When the slavocracy lost one election to a man they had reason to believe might not continue the policy of appeasing the South, they made good on their threat. When reconciliation still seemed possible and when the slave-owning border states seemed vulnerable to secession fever, Abraham Lincoln refrained from making the war a crusade to end slavery. After the bloody victory at Antietam, Lincoln had a convenient excuse to do what he had wanted to do all along and issue an Emancipation Proclamation. Escaped slaves fled to Union lines and enlisted on the side of freedom. The Confederacy refused to free slaves to serve as soldiers until just before Richmond's fall and there is no record of any having served. No war is truly a matter of black and white, good and evil. But the Civil War was the closest thing to such a struggle as exists in American history.

While this objection is perfectly understandable in light of present-day morality, I think it overlooks the most important point. The Confederacy was not simply a group that struggled to maintain "Southern heritage." It was a group of people who committed treason against the United States of America. Because of their treason, more Americans died than in every other war in our nation's history combined. And for what? Some just and noble "Lost Cause"? For "State's rights"? They fought for state's rights, I concede: A state's right to seceede and take up arms against the United States at any time should a particular election not go its way. For "individual liberties"? Yes, they fought for the right of one man to own and abuse another simply because of the color of his skin.

The Confederate flag is the flag of traitors. We can admire the remarkable leadership and fighting abilities of men like Lee and Jackson who fought underneath its banner like we can admire the strategic genius of Rommel without worshipping at the altar of National Socialism. General Lee gave up on the "Lost Cause" 140 years ago. It's long past time everyone else did as well.


Anonymous said...

You make some good points, but theres one very important idea that I think you've overlooked. I've lived in the south my entire life; I love the Confederate flag, yet to me the flag doesn't represent "heritage" that southern groups yell and scream about, nor do I identify it with slavery. To me it represents the will of a people to stand up (in a big way) to a powerful, centralized, authoritarian government. Even if you don't approve of, or we can't agree on, the real reasons behind the south "giving the finger" to Washington, by god, you have to admire it when a people has had enough and they take matters into their own hands.
And heres a thought to ponder next time you're focusing on the issue of slavery and the American Civil War...what were the real differences between the "patriots" of 1776 and the defeated Southern rebels of 1865? Both were fighting, in part, to establish a new nation, independent, that would allow slavery to exist. The difference was this: the colonists won and the south lost. History, you see, is written by the victor.