One of the most seductive forms that Confederate memory has taken in the century and a half since the alleged return of peace truly reeks of a David vs. Goliath complex. The image of the luckless-yet-plucky Johnny fighting off endless blue waves of Northern invaders—with all of the hope of a man stabbing the ebbing ocean with a butter knife—endures in popular memory. As Tony Horowitz’s investigations in the 1990’s uncovered, those sympathetic to the Southern cause have long since codified the notion of the rebel cause as A) nobly doomed from the start on account of the North’s overwhelming industry and manpower and B) a stand for noble principles of personal freedom from governmental intervention—i.e. the ‘States Rights’ argument. In all of this, of course, there is no longer any serious contemplation of the horrors of slavery, the clear unhappiness of the slaves, or the palpable class-based oppression of the South’s antebellum ‘Haves’—the slaveholding aristocracy. The days when political alignments eclipsed the dark side of the South have long since passed, but the old rationalizations still persist and mistakenly defend the Southern war effort, portraying her soldiers as spotless martyrs.
And these views can be hard to challenge. Not from an objective standard, necessarily, but from an emotional one. A visit to Point Lookout, Maryland—former site of one of the larger prisoner of war camps to hold captured rebels—reminds visitors of how strongly the plight of the rebel prisoner of war is still felt today. The sight sports not one but two grand monuments to the Southerners who perished in Federal captivity. A sober obelisk placed by the United States government post-war marks a mass grave for 3,384 Confederate prisoners who could not be identified for individual burial. A dazzling, lovingly-maintained mash-up of state and rebel unit flags, soldiers’ names carved in stone, and the illuminated likeness of the ubiquitous Southern son sits separated from its sister by a few yards and a scraggly tree line. This addition appeared on the scene in 2008. Every time I visit I find reminders, such as wreaths, that people have taken time out of their lives to drive to the very tip of Maryland to pay their respects.
My intent is not to deny the immensity of suffering and mistreatment that follows the outbreak of war. My intent is to remind those who feel strongly about the suffering of soldiers to feel it universally—not just vicariously, as a personal investigation into metaphysics, but to an end. It cannot be anything but irresponsible to divorce the suffering of Confederate prisoners at Point Lookout from the merits of their cause. True, the cause produced many victims of circumstance—of conscription, of fear and concern for one’s home, of youthful indiscretion and a lust for excitement and significance in one’s early years—but the marrow in the bones of each soldier’s decision to give himself to a side in war is that there is a war. There is a cause to flock to. Whether that cause is just, and whether it should be collecting tithes in blood and lives is a distinct yet inseparable question that we who enjoy the stability of peace and the opportunity for reflection that comes with hindsight have no excuse to ignore. Just because the Confederacy as an armed organization is long past does not mean that its ideas, if left unchecked, will stay dead and toothless forever.
That is why I write these posts: to question events and rationalizations that in the past cut lives short and wrought rapid changes and in the present structure our collective consciousness and the decisions that we all make as Americans. With an eye toward the long stretch of history, we can glean information to critique ourselves in the hope of improving ourselves and to improve our house, which invariably will be passed down to faceless generations just as our ancestors who built and revised for our sake entrusted it to us. We cannot afford to sweep our national failures—our unhealthy obsessions and bad ideas—under a carpet of faith. It makes for a rather wobbly place to stand.