Columnist Peggy Noonan’s recent tweets criticizing the Washington National Cathedral’s decision to remove the stained glass windows of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson might have landed her in hot water among Twitter’s reactionaries, but she was right and doesn’t deserve to be called a white supremacist simply for speaking the truth.
In response to scrubbing the church of Confederate symbols, she tweeted, “A shonda [Yiddish for shame]. They were figures in the greatest, most killing moral struggle in U.S. history. They didn’t tweet, they took to the field and died.”
“Then one side won,” she continued, “they reconciled, the American experiment continued and we learned through this history. Keep em. Let it be. They are us.”
The reaction was to be expected:
They fought against America. They are the poison in America's soul you are far too willing to drink — and right here — spread. Shameful.
— David Avallone (@DAvallone) September 7, 2017
THEY WERE TREASONOUS, PRO-SLAVERY GHOULS, WHO HAVE NO BUSINESS BEING ACKNOWLEDGED ANYWHERE OTHER THAN HISTORY BOOKS AND MUSEUMS. pic.twitter.com/q2Jg2ELv3A
— Erick Fernandez (@ErickFernandez) September 7, 2017
EXACTLY! Peggy lives in a delusion that pretends white folks r actually good…if u look REALLY hard. She's just another #whitesupremacist
— Cynthia Kelly (@cykelly1718) September 8, 2017
Another tweet said, “They owned slaves, Peggy”—to which she responded: “That’s what the fight, which existed from our national beginning, was about. They resolved it: all men are and must be free. They RESOLVED it.”
The reactions to Noonan’s tweets reveal the ignorance many have of the Civil War and the rash judgments they place on people in the past. The men who fought in the Civil War deserve our remembrance, because we judge them by the best of who they were, not the worst. To make such a generous judgment, we need to understand why these men fought.
Slavery Was Not the Only Thing They Fought Over
Contrary to popular opinions today, Union soldiers did not primarily fight to free the slaves or to secure their equality. Most believed they fought to preserve the Union. Likewise, Confederate soldiers did not primarily fight for slavery. Most believed they fought to preserve the independence of the South from Northern invaders.
In saying this, I am not making the case that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. It certainly was, but it wasn’t only—or even primarily—about slavery. This doesn’t diminish the integral role slavery played in the war, but there was much more to it, and our judgments need to be based on the words of those who actually fought in the war, not on tales spun by propagandists.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author James McPherson, who wrote “What They Fought For,” researched hundreds of letters from both the North and South, and he found an intricate record of ideals and motivations among the soldiers. No side, no one person was all evil or all good. They were human beings, struggling with moral issues and perspectives shaped by beliefs, cultural biases and prejudices. Some of these were just, and others horribly unjust—there is no justification for the evil of slavery—but this doesn’t change the complexity of the individuals or their motivations.
Because of this fact, we should be circumspect in our judgments of human beings from the past even as we condemn their sin. Instead of casting them in a frame that makes them easy targets for current political gain, we should know them as they were, not as we imagine them to be. These men were our relatives—fathers, sons, brothers, real human beings with strengths and weaknesses. We should remember them this way, as men of their times, fighting and dying for what each individual believed was right, wrestling with moral dilemmas as real as those we face today.
Both Sides Were Motivated by a Desire for Freedom
Reading through these men’s letters, McPherson found that “themes of liberty and republicanism,” not slavery, “formed the ideological core of the cause for which Civil War soldiers fought, Confederate as well as Union.”
“Americans in both North and South believed themselves custodians of the legacy of 1776. The crisis of 1861 was the great test of whether they were worthy of the heritage of liberty bequeathed to them by the founding fathers. On their shoulders rode the fate of the great experiment in republican government launched in 1776. Both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis appealed to this intense consciousness of parallels between 1776 and 1861.”
Soldiers from both sides loved their country and wanted to honor their forebears who secured for them liberty and independence. Confederates fought for freedom “from what they regarded as a tyrannical government.” The unionists, on the other hand, “fought to preserve the nation created by the founders from dismemberment and destruction.”
This theme repeats itself throughout Confederate letters: “bursting the bonds of tyranny,” fighting for “those inestimable and priceless rights . . . . obtained by our forefathers and bequeathed to us,” and “fighting gloriously for the undying principles of Constitutional liberty and self-government.”
These men saw the South as their country and the North as having betrayed the legacy of its founders. An enlisted soldier who owned no slaves said he would joyfully go to war “as a means of repelling a dastardly, plundering, oppressive, and cowardly foe from our homes and borders.”
Remember, most Confederate soldiers did not own slaves. They saw the North as invaders, and they cherished their freedom and rights. Even those who owned slaves and were admittedly fighting for the right to own them also believed that Northern aggression was a threat to be thwarted by any means, not just on account of slavery, but for their very welfare.
This fear stemmed from economic and constitutional issues that threatened the financial and cultural stability of the South. Congress passed tariffs that benefited the North and punished the South. The most egregious and unconstitutional was the Tariff of 1828, which favored Northern industries. This led to the Nullification Crisis in which South Carolina declared the tariff void, citing Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to support its claim that a state had the right to reject an unconstitutional federal law.
Violations of the Constitution that infringed on sovereign states, conflicts over representation in Congress, and taxation that hurt Southerners of all types were major ssues for the South. This is made clear in the 1860 address of the people of South Carolina in which they identified their struggle against the North as the same as that of the colonies against Britain: “The consolidation of the Government of Great Britain over the Colonies, was attempted to be carried out by the taxes. The British Parliament undertook to tax the Colonies, to promote British interests. Our fathers resisted this pretension. . . . And so with the Southern States, towards the Northern States, in the vital matter of taxation.”
Of Course Slavery Played Into It
This, however, doesn’t mean slavery wasn’t a very real motivation. It was. Vice President of the Confederacy Alexander Stephens said slavery was “the immediate cause of the late rupture and the present revolution.” One soldier echoed this, writing, “This country without slave labor would be completely worthless. . . . If the negroes are freed the country . . . is not worth fighting for.”
These views on slavery, however, “were the exception rather than the rule,” McPherson writes. Confederate soldiers were mostly concerned about their own enslavement to a despotic government. “Sooner than submit to Northern Slavery,” one soldier wrote, “I prefer death.”
Fighting for one’s liberty while denying liberty to others creates a dissonance in our modern hearts and minds—as it should. Southerners had a huge blind spot in demanding liberty for themselves that their governments refused to extend to those who were enslaved within their domains. It was a disconnect the British accused slave-owning American revolutionaries of having in 1776. Lincoln later said of the Confederates, “The perfect liberty they sigh for is the liberty of making slaves of other people.”
Still, as the war progressed, some in the South were willing to let go of slavery to win the war, thus showing their most important goal. As a Mississippi newspaper put it, “Although slavery is one of the principles that we started to fight for . . . . if it proves an insurmountable obstacle to the achievement of our liberty and nationality, away with it.”
The Union itself understood Southerners’ motives despite the rhetoric of the day, and shared some of their sentiment. Most unionists (though certainly not all) didn’t care about slavery until it became expedient in winning the war.
“Freeing the slaves was not initially inseparable from preserving the Union,” McPherson writes. Many Northern soldiers believed that “emancipation was an unconstitutional and illegitimate war aim.” When Lincoln emancipated the slaves, the Union army faced many desertions.
One Union soldier wrote, “No one who has ever seen the [n—-r] in all his glory on the Southern plantation will ever vote for emancipation. If emancipation is to be the policy of this war. . . I do not care how quick the country goes to pot.” If Lincoln made it an “abolition war,” another Northern soldier said, “I for one shall be sorry that I ever lent a hand to it. . . . This war [must be] for the preservation of the union . . . and for that purpose only.”
It was only later, as the war dragged on, that Northern soldiers began to adopt a more abolitionist attitude, just as many in the South began to loosen on slavery for the sake of winning a “second war of independence.”
Despite the Complexity, the Civil War Did End Slavery
As you can see, the Civil War was indeed complex. Issues of government abuse and power were real, and these people lived with the warm glow of the American Revolution still on their faces.
The South’s embrace of slavery was a disgrace, just as it was among those in the North who owned slaves. Slave owners and non-slave owners fought on both sides. The deadly conflict ended slavery for good. This, however, did not end racial conflict in America. In a way, it was only its beginning—as much in the North as in the South.
When Noonan says the conflict over slavery was resolved, it was. More than 600,000 American lives were lost in that conflict, each one a precious soul. Judge them if you want, but I contend none of us has that right. We were not there. We did not look into the hearts of any of these men. We only have their words, and those tell us they were not demons or angels, but merely men fighting for their liberty as they saw it guaranteed in the Constitution.
You can scoff and say that at least the North was fighting for the liberty of others, but even this is not the case. As we’ve seen, many Union soldiers didn’t care about the black man. Even when slaves escaped into their camp, they often put them to work doing menial tasks, holding them in contempt as mere pawns in their effort to hold the Union together.
What’s Most Important Is the Reconciliation Afterwards
When Noonan says these two sides reconciled and the American experiment continued, she is exactly right. They did reconcile. The American experiment of liberty and republicanism has continued, though it is now on shaky grounds. Today, we don’t have the love for self-government and independence those in the North and South once had. The warmth of America’s revolutionary fires has grown cold in our hearts. No wonder we can’t appreciate the complexities of a war for freedom and the inconsistencies and struggles imbued in each soul.
In Arlington Cemetery, a monument stands in Memory of the Confederate Dead. It displays a fallen figure of a woman who represents the South. She’s leaning on a shield emblazoned with the words “The Constitution.” This is what the South ultimately fought for. They wrongly believed slavery was a right the Constitution protected, but their love for the Constitution itself cannot be denied. They sacrificed and died for that beloved document, a noble act many today are shamefully unwilling to emulate.
Honoring those who fought for American principles, which set us apart as the greatest nation on earth, enriches us—it does not diminish us. President Woodrow Wilson understood this when he accepted the Confederate monument at Arlington in 1914: “I am privileged for the time to represent this emblem of a reunited people. . . . To declare this chapter in the history of the United States closed and ended, and I bid you turn with me your faces to the future, . . . knowing, as we have shed our blood upon opposite sides, we now face and admire one another.”
“The generosity of our judgments did not begin today. The generosity of our judgment was made up soon after this great struggle was over. Men came and sat together again in the Congress and united in all the efforts of a peace and of government, and our solemn duty is to see that each one of us is in his own consciousness and in his own conduct a replica of this great reunited people. It is our duty and our privilege to be like the country we represent and, speaking no word of malice, no word of criticism even, stand shoulder to shoulder to lift the burdens of mankind in the future and show the paths of freedom to all the world.”
Through much struggle and pain, black Americans came to enjoy the same rights as whites. They still do to this day. We are all—black and white—a united, free people living in an imperfect country, but that union is becoming frayed, almost to the point of being lost. Without a united heart, we will no longer be great.
One step in finding that unity is to remember our successes and our failures with a generosity of judgment that leaves no room for malice so we can, as Wilson said, stand as one and walk together in freedom.