The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

This is a rather lengthy post and I don’t want to monopolize the front page. So be sure to click the Supersize to read the whole thing. Or don’t. It’s a free country.

One hundred forty-five years ago today a military ceremony took place at a small courthouse village in Southside Virginia: the formal surrender of the infantry of the Army of Northern Virginia. Three days earlier, his army surrounded, General Lee had asked for terms from Ulysses S Grant, Lieutenant General commanding all United States forces. Here’s how Joshua Chamberlain, designated to receive the surrender, recalled the event a half century later in his memoir The Passing Of The Armies:

Our earnest eyes scan the busy groups on the opposite slopes, breaking camp for the last time, taking down their little shelter-tents and folding them carefully as precious things, then slowly forming ranks as for unwelcome duty. And now they move. The dusky swarms forge forward into gray columns of march. On they come, with the old swinging route step and swaying battle-flags. In the van, the proud Confederate ensign — the great field of white with canton of star-strewn cross of blue on a field of red, the regimental battle-flags with the same escutcheon following on, crowded so thick, by thinning out of men, that the whole column seemed crowned with red. At the right of our line our little group mounted beneath our flags, the red Maltese cross on a field of white,* erewhile so bravely borne through many a field more crimson than itself, its mystic meaning now ruling all.

The momentous meaning of this occasion impressed me deeply. I resolved to mark it by some token of recognition, which could be no other than a salute of arms. Well aware of the responsibility assumed, and of the criticisms that would follow, as the sequel proved, nothing of that kind could move me in the least. The act could be defended, if needful, by the suggestion that such a salute was not to the cause for which the flag of the Confederacy stood, but to its going down before the flag of the Union. My main reason, however, was one for which I sought no authority nor asked forgiveness. Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond; — was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured?

Instructions had been given ; and when the head of each division column comes opposite our group, our bugle sounds the signal and instantly our whole line from right to left, regiment by regiment in succession, gives the soldier’s salutation, from the “order arms” to the old “carry” — the marching salute. Gordon at the head of the column, riding with heavy spirit and downcast face, catches the sound of shifting arms, looks up, and, taking the meaning, wheels superbly, making with himself and his horse one uplifted figure, with profound salutation as he drops the point of his sword to the boot toe; then facing to his own command, gives word for his successive brigades to pass us with the same position of the manual, — honor answering honor. On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum ; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, nor motion of man standing again at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead!

And so the Confederate States of America, the failed dream of rebellious southern slavocrats passed out of life and into the dusty pages of The Big Book Of Places No Longer On The Map somewhere between the Byzantine Empire and the Spanish Republic.**
Or maybe not. The new Governor of Virginia sparked some controversy the other week by proclaiming April Confederate History Month, a tradition his recent predecessors had allowed to whither away. And even such an illustrious personality as our own Governor For Life Perry is not above dropping hints that secession might be worth considering again if the weight of federal tyranny presses too heavily on the Lone Star State. The Confederacy is not entirely laid in its grave.
Okay, there’s a funny thing about Chamberlain’s account I quoted above. Some present-day historians raise questions about what actually happened that day 145 years ago. Chamberlain may or may not have been in command of the surrender. And the famous salute—“honor answering honor”—may not have actually happened. If it did apparently he didn’t think it worth mentioning in a letter to his sister he wrote soon afterwords. And it doesn’t seem to have been worth noting in anyone else who was there’s letters or diaries.
Now, I don’t mean to rag on old Joshua. After the war he went back to Maine and had a long public career that included four terms as governor. He also promoted good relations between veterans of both sides of the conflict. And if Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Hero of Little Round Top***, badly wounded at Petersburg, wounded again at Quaker Road, recipient of a battlefield promotion to general, recipient of the Medal of Honor, in the twilight of his years remembered “with advantages what feats he did that day,” I can cut him a little slack.
But I’m going to expect more from current day leaders who seek to use things that happened a century and a half ago for their contemporary purposes. Last week, Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell issued a proclamation:

WHEREAS, April is the month in which the people of Virginia joined the Confederate States of America in a four year war between the states for independence that concluded at Appomattox Courthouse; and

WHEREAS, Virginia has long recognized her Confederate history, the numerous civil war battlefields that mark every region of the state, the leaders and individuals in the Army, Navy and at home who fought for their homes and communities and Commonwealth in a time very different than ours today; and

WHEREAS, it is important for all Virginians to reflect upon our Commonwealth’s shared history, to understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War, and to recognize how our history has led to our present; and

WHEREAS, Confederate historical sites such as the White House of the Confederacy are open for people to visit in Richmond today; and

WHEREAS, all Virginians can appreciate the fact that when ultimately overwhelmed by the insurmountable numbers and resources of the Union Army, the surviving, imprisoned and injured Confederate soldiers gave their word and allegiance to the United States of America, and returned to their homes and families to rebuild their communities in peace, following the instruction of General Robert E. Lee of Virginia, who wrote that, “…all should unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of war and to restore the blessings of peace.”; and

WHEREAS, this defining chapter in Virginia’s history should not be forgotten, but instead should be studied, understood and remembered by all Virginians, both in the context of the time in which it took place, but also in the context of the time in which we live, and this study and remembrance takes on particular importance as the Commonwealth prepares to welcome the nation and the world to visit Virginia for the Sesquicentennial Anniversary of the Civil War, a four-year period in which the exploration of our history can benefit all;

NOW, THEREFORE, I, Robert McDonnell, do hereby recognize April 2010 as CONFEDERATE HISTORY MONTH in our COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA, and I call this observance to the attention of all our citizens.

The proclamation received the immediate approval of the Sons on Confederate Veterans, praise from other quarters, not so much.

“I don’t think you can understand the Confederacy and the Civil War unless you understand slavery,” said Mr. Obama, who sent a wreath, as presidents have done since Woodrow Wilson, to the Confederate Monument at Arlington National Cemetery last Memorial Day. (Moreover, first lady Michelle Obama is a descendant of Southern slaves.)

McDonnell’s initial omission of slavery in his proclamation was “unacceptable,” Obama said.

“Dayam!” said the guvnah, “did I somehow forget to mention slavery? It’s bad, m’kay,” Amending the original with an additional whereas

WHEREAS, it is important for all Virginians to understand that the institution of slavery led to this war and was an evil and inhumane practice that deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights and all Virginians are thankful for its permanent eradication from our borders, and the study of this time period should reflect upon and learn from this painful part of our history;

Let me be clear, I am a Civil War geek. I’ve stood where Jackson stood like a stone wall. I’ve been to that cornfield at Antietam where the Texas Brigade was slaughtered and I’ve walked Pickett’s Charge. And I’ve been to plenty of places you’ve probably never heard of. So I have no problem with Civil War History. But I do take exception with the idea of Confederate History Month.
For starters, the proclamation calls on Virginians to recall the sacrifices of her Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens. The Governor seems to forget that there were many Virginians who were not so fond of the Confederacy. In fact, there were enough of them in the northwestern part of the state that they got in a little secession action of their own and set up their own state. In addition to the West Virginians, a further battalion of Virginians fought for the Union. In fact, every seceded state proved to have enough loyal citizens to form military units loyal to the Federal cause, something that’s been written out of Confederate History Month. And bear in mind, that’s just the white folks.
Following the Emancipation Proclamation, Congress authorized the raising of African-American regiments. By the time of Appomattox, three hundred thousand or so were serving in the United States Colored Troops. Untrusted by many commanders, subject to all the racial prejudice of the day, when given a chance they showed that they were soldiers indeed… even if they were subject to re-enslavement or execution if captured. In addition to the USCT of course there were the thousands and thousands of slaves who took the opportunity to “self-liberate” themselves from the plantations whenever s column of Mister Lincoln’s soldiers came through the neighborhood. Their sacrifices don’t seem to fit into Confederate History Month either.
While I’m not a fan of Confederate History Month, I suppose I could get into Civil War History Month. There’s certainly a lot to be learned from that era. Maybe the greatest lessons are that the war was a catastrophe for the South, and that the war was brought on by perhaps the most idiotic decisions in American history, made by the political leadership of the South.

Okay, it’s getting late, and I have other things to do. I’ll wrap things up in a day or two.

*Chamberlain is describing the flag of the Union Fifth Corps, First Division, in case this is confusing to non-Civil War geeks.
**Okay, there were other rebel forces still in the field that took several more months to surrender, but after Appomattox the CSA was kaput as a going concern.
***One of several deserving that title, it must be said.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.