One hundred and fifty four years ago today concluded the largest battle fought upon this continent. Between the two armies, there were approximately 51,000 casualties. Remember these men today.
People talk about the supposed decline of civility in our politics today. Remember Charles Sumner. For speaking out against the barbarous institution of slavery, in 1856 Preston Brooks assaulted him upon the floor of the House of Representatives, causing injuries that would plague him the rest of his life. Meanwhile, Brooks was regaled with praise from Southerners and slavers across the country, who sent him new canes. Whenever men of conscience would try to hold him to account on the dueling ground, he would flee the fair fight.
Four years later, after losing a fair election, Southern states opted to leave the Union. Instead of negotiating their departure or the purchase the Federal property within their territory, they opted to draw the first blood at Fort Sumpter. While they claimed it was a matter of honor, their own Vice President, Alexander Stephens, described the reason the South fought quite clearly:
“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
There exists a very striking parallel between how much a modern day American would attempt to downplay or minimize this rationale in how they articulate the reasons for which the Civil War was fought. Those white Americans who seek to dissemble about the importance of slavery in the Civil War are often the most likely to hold racial grievance at the forefront of their politics.
On those hot summer days in Southern Pennsylvania, soldiers grew sick due to the amount of cherries they ate. Supply lines for the Southern Army were precariously short, and they had to scavenge. The battle itself started because Lee’s army was trying to procure themselves adequate footwear.
Hardly any other figure in American history has been more valorized than the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia that day, Robert E. Lee. In a long standing attempt to shield his legacy from the fact that he owned other human beings, even Pulitzer Prize winning works have been complicit. But the stark truth remains that the Lee plantation at Arlington was infamous for its willingness to break up slave families, selling members into bondage into distant plantations.
Is it any wonder then, that the Rebel Army in Pennsylvania seized every African American they found, regardless their state of prior enslavement, and shipped them into bondage in the South?
The myth of the Lost Cause dominated our histories for a century. They tried to bury such atrocities. But we remember. With Confederate monuments and flags at the forefront of our current national consciousness, to what extent do the people who seek to display them want to honestly discuss these events?
While Lee attempted to maintain a largely apolitical stance after the war, one of his lieutenants, James Longstreet, actively sought to heal the wounds of division. He joined the Republican Party, and sought to aid in Reconstruction. For his efforts, he was a pariah in his community, and excluded from Confederate Veteran organizations after the war.
The thousands of dead upon Gettysburg may have perished for what they saw as a slighted sense of honor. But during the early years of the war, it was common for the wealthy plantation owners to buy out their draft. They hired substitutes rather than fight in the ranks themselves. While rich men held officer’s ranks as a matter of “honor,” they filled the heads of the poor white people with spurious notions of “state’s rights” to send them off to die while the land owners would continue to profit and enjoy the luxuries that the forced extraction of the blood and sweat of other human beings could provide them.
Meanwhile in the Union, there existed a whole host of contradictions and conflicts. Rich men could purchase exemptions too. Race riots in New York City. One of the most significant challenges to the First Amendment in our nation’s history. Yet through that all, what started as a conflict to preserve the nation became something higher.
In one of my favorite American novels, Michael Shaara cuts to the heart of why the Civil War was important. Imparting the thoughts of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, he succinctly describes why Gettysburg and the Union cause was the most important in American History.
“He had grown up believing in America and the individual and it was a stronger faith than his faith in God. This was the land where no man had to bow. In this place at last a man could stand up free of the past, free of tradition and blood ties and the curse of royalty and become what he wished to become. This was the first place on earth where the man mattered more than the state. True freedom had begun here and it would spread eventually over all the earth.
“But it had begun here. The fact of slavery upon this incredibly beautiful new clean earth was appalling, but more even than that was the horror of old Europe, the curse of nobility, which the South was transplanting to new soil.
“They were forming a new aristocracy, a new breed of glittering men, and Chamberlain had come to crush it. But he was fighting for the dignity of man and in that way he was fighting for himself. If men were equal in America, all these former Poles and English and Czechs and blacks, then they were equal everywhere, and there was really no such thing as foreigner; there were only free men and slaves.
“And so it was not even patriotism but a new faith. The Frenchman may fight for France, but the American fights for mankind, for freedom; for the people, not the land.”
The fact is, in spite of all we were taught in school, the Civil War did not begin in 1861, nor did it end in 1865. In 1776, a slaver penned these words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This contradiction has stayed a hugely defining feature of our political landscape through our history.
In our modern age, we are still fighting that battle. Those questions of what our nation means that were bled out onto the grounds at Gettysburg have never stopped being fought. Are we a nation of equals? Or should we follow the tacit understanding that the men in Independence Hall had, and consider only white men the only ones worthy of political equality?
On this Fourth of July, I’m not solely reflecting on the act of unity undertaken by the Continental Congress. I’m also thinking about the way our nation is and has always been divided. I’m thinking about those poor boys who were killed or maimed on that hot Pennsylvania day paid the ultimate price for our divisions. And I hope that we may learn from those past mistakes.
So too did the most notable visitor to that site after the battle:
“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”