On Oaths and Outcomes: A Reply to Esquire

Cannon at the Chickamauga battlefield

Cannon at the Chickamauga battlefield

A friend asked me what I thought of a recent essay posted on an Esquire blog, “The Meaning of Oaths and a Forgotten Man,” by LTC Robert Bateman. It’s an interesting piece, and recalls the story of George Thomas, a Union general from Virginia, who, despite even his family’s wishes, remained loyal to the Union and became known as the “Rock of Chickamauga” for his valiant leadership in that battle.

But as for the self-righteous swagger of the essay itself, it’s hard to get through. I have to say that I’m fairly irritated by the line of argument that casts the Confederacy as traitors, where northerners like to play the “my-ancestors-were-better-than-yours” card. The same accusation of treason was made against British officers who broke their oaths and chose to fight in the Continental army (including its commander, George Washington). The “meaning of oaths” is simply not as straightforward as Bateman might seem to prefer.

The story of Gen. Thomas is compelling, but it would be a rare individual who could be capable of serving on the side of an army that invades your own state and hometown and slaughters your brothers, sons, uncles, and cousins, or a navy that encircles your entire region, starving out your daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers. Few Civil War battles were fought outside the states that seceded, and the toll on southern society was profound and lasting: 1 in 5 southern white men of fighting age did not survive the war. Civilians starved en masse in the South. There are still mass graves of Confederate soldiers at battlefields, and those families never had the closure of seeing their men receive a decent burial. The cult of the “Lost Cause” grew directly from southern families trying to find ways to cope with profound loss and our human need to remember and honor our dead.

None of this is to say that the South should’ve won. But the federal military occupation of the South after the war was a tragic failure, and only further entrenched a culture of insurgency and resistance in southern white society.

Northerners must disabuse themselves of the idea that the Union fought a war to liberate African Americans in the South. Slavery was an American problem (the mayor and city council of New York City, for example, actually voted to secede as well because of industry’s profound dependence on slavery), and while ending slavery was imperative and took far too long to accomplish, ending slavery did not end the slavery-esque labor practices and violent repression of African Americans that became the norm in the South after the North stopped pretending to care. The North did precious little to end the violence of southern vigilantes, white “redeemer” demagogues took over and incited riots across the South for decades, African American leaders and journalists were lynched or run out of town, and only one justice—a former slaveholder—was willing to dissent in the Supreme Court’s judgment that African Americans should be kept separate from whites.

It is tragic to me that Americans took up arms against other Americans in the 1860s. But I see it as an even greater tragedy—and shame—that America essentially abandoned former slaves soon after the Civil War, and did not see fit to do anything for their descendants until the Civil Rights Movement nearly a hundred years later. So I don’t take kindly to the “my-ancestors-were-better-than-yours” smugness. There is plenty of shame to go around for our ancestors on both sides.

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