Confederate Remembrance: Senator Webb, the Confederate Soldier and the Lost Cause

"For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it's going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn't need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago...."

-- Intruder in the Dust, William Faulkner, 1948

"Four years and six hundred thousand dead men later the twin issues of sovereignty and slavery were resolved. A hundred years after that, the bitterness had vented itself to the point that we can fairly say the emotional scars have healed. We are a stronger, more diverse, and genuinely free nation. We are also a different people. As we gather here to commemorate the most turbulent crisis our country has ever undergone, it's interesting to note that a majority of those now in this country are descended from immigrants who arrived after the war was fought.

And so those of us who carry in our veins the living legacy of those times have also inherited a special burden. These men, like all soldiers, made painful choices and often paid for their loyalty with their lives. It is up to us to ensure that this ever-changing nation remembers the complexity of the issues they faced, and the incredible conditions under which they performed their duty, as they understood it."

-- Sen. James Webb, 1990

Recently, the past statements of Senator Webb, especially those made at the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery in 1990, have come to light, and have been used by some writers as a topic of debate as to the senator's commitment to civil rights. I felt compelled to write, as a fellow Southerner of Irish descent, a descendant of both Confederate and Union soldiers, and as a fellow combat veteran, on what I believe is the basic misunderstanding of what the meaning of the Civil War is to those who are descended from the survivors of that terrible conflict.

When I first read Faulkner as a teenager, I was struck by the juxtaposition of what his novels said about the soul of the rural, poor Southern whites, and the "Lost Cause" mythology so greatly propagandized by Gone With the Wind -- the glorification of the exploiters of human suffering in glorious Technicolor, fluttering in their lovely gowns, directing nicely obedient house servants, and surrounded by dim but helpful field hands, whose idyll was destroyed by those "dirty Yankees." During my own upbringing in rural Arkansas, where in the 1960's and 1970's, many of the economic, social and political scars of the Civil War were still evident, I began to understand that there were two competing visions of the American Civil War in the South. I call them "Lost Causers" and "Sacrificers."

The Lost Causers dominated discussion of the Civil War for nearly a century. To summarize, the entire argument was something like "We were right. Everything was perfect. All of us rich, white, God-fearing slave owners were quite happy, as were our slaves and the poor whites, until the Yankee Army came and beat our outnumbered and saintly General Lee." By the time of the Civil War Centennial it had begun to fade; the Civil Rights movement dealt it a body blow from which it never really recovered. Today, modern scholarship has dissected and eliminated the Lost Cause mythology. Few of them are left, thankfully. I don't see Senator Webb in that group at all; I know I am not.

The second group -- the Sacrificers -- are the people who trace their heritage back to the Confederate soldiery of the Civil War. Their focus is on the sheer magnitude of the sacrifice of the common Southern soldier in the war. As has been noted by Senator Webb and a legion of historians, the vast bulk of Confederate soldiers did not own a single slave and many from the most rural areas had never even seen a black man or woman in their lives. Yet that begs the question: Why did these men, who had no direct benefit, in general, from slavery, fight so hard to uphold it? Why did, to paraphrase a military historian speaking of the German Army of World War II, such a great army fight for such a reprehensible cause?

The simple fact is that the individual Confederate soldier -- from the lowest economic rung and in many cases disenfranchised as the slaves were -- fought for a variety of reasons. Localism and tribalism, which we in happily accept being a part of the modern Middle East, but for some reason can't understand as a normal part of antebellum American culture, played an important role. The nationalistic spirit of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which we are still seeing today, was invented to heal the breach of the Civil War... because it really didn't exist before 1861. Soldiers were organized in local companies and state regiments. Go to any battlefield of the war, and you can see hundreds of monuments from the Northern and Southern states, and with a handful of exceptions only a few to the Regular U.S. Army. To the men of that era, New York or Virginia was their country. Tied closely to this is the nature of how men went to war in 1861 -- you fought with your neighbors, relatives and friends in your local regiment. Peer pressure was a major part of why the individual fought. There was, of course, a not-so-honorable side as well, as the vilest of racial fears were encouraged, out of fear that the Yankee Abolitionists would not only overturn slavery, but put white Southern womanhood at risk as well. Others, while not the majority as reflected by the States Righters, believed that the issue was individual freedom and State's Rights == a flexible and nearly mystical idea as diaphanous as that of "Union." The reasons for each man who joined the armies of either side are as complex as each individual.

These men died in droves. I recommend, if you have never done it, take a one hour drive from DC to the battlefield at Antietam, near Sharpsburg, Maryland. Go to the Cornfield and face north. In the area the Park Service has replanted with corn, between 3000 and 4000 men were killed and wounded in two hours. In other words, imagine taking everybody who died in the Towers on 9/11 and dumping their bodies in a 2 acre x 2 acre field. And that was just the start of the battle.

Such sacrifice, regardless of the cause, was the mold by which generations of Southern men measured themselves. It was devastating to the South -- entire small towns vanished by 1865, as every single man who joined in 1861 had been killed in the war. I recall my own grandmother, born in the first decade of the 20th century, referring to it "The War" -- as if there were no other wars that really mattered (she was two generations separated from her relatives who had fought for the Confederacy), and complaining that her grandchildren "talked like Yankees."

For some Southerners, like myself, and I believe Senator Webb, the cost of war to the common soldier becomes the focus. This is what separates us from the Lost Causers. It is not just the sacrifice of the Confederate soldier in the end that matters to most; that respect carries over to the Union citizen soldier who answered the call as well, and died in numbers that would stagger the modern imagination. I've seen adult men, from hardened combat veterans to college professors, some of whose ethos and culture tell them that a man only cries when his mother or his best friend dies, break into tears at the story of the last stand of the 5th New York at Second Bull Run, or the tale of how a college professor and 250 Maine lobstermen and lumberjacks saved the Republic at Little Round Top at Gettysburg. I have seen them stand in humble awe at the stone wall at Fredericksburg and at the open field where Pickett's men charged on a hot July afternoon. For me, and others who respect the sacrifice of the common Confederate soldier -- teenagers mostly, who did their duty in a bad war, who fought for the wrong reasons, who saw their friends and relatives torn apart by shot and shell, who were used and lied to by a morally corrupt government -- the fact of their sacrifice is a reminder of what good men will give when called, and the responsibility of a government to ensure that they are fighting for the right cause.