23 June 2012

Four confederate heroes

Ten years ago, in June 2002, I had the honour of contemplating, within walking distance of each other, the mortal remains of four heroes of the Confederacy: its two greatest soldiers and their horses. The greatest confederate general was, of course, Robert E. Lee. He has even been qualified as the greatest general the world has produced, Napoleon not excepted. (Echoes of Glory, Illustrated Atlas of the Civil War, Time-Life Books 1991, p. 15) There is also little doubt about the stature of the other great soldier of the war: general Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. He lost an arm and died of his wounds, whereas Lee ended his days peacefully (as compared to the civil war battles, that is), as president of Washington College at Lexington, Viriginia. That's how and where I met him, attending the 26th Summer Symposium in Real Analysis at what is now The Washington and Lee University.

Lee is buried in the chapel on the campus. A fine monument shows him asleep, fully dressed, somewhere in the field. I was deeply moved by the scene, the place, and the presence of a great man, respected by friend and foe alike.

There is also some tragedy in his figure. His wife supported the Union, his daughter the Secession, he had spoken against the Rebellion. He was offered a high command both by the North and the South, and for a while he even tried to avoid getting militarily involved at all. Finally he resigned from the U.S. Army to take command of the forces in his native Virginia.

His horse, Traveller, is buried just outside the chapel. Notice the apple, a touching gift left by a thoughtful visitor.

Also in Lexington: the Virginia Military Institute, where Jackson taught science and artillery tactics before the war. How disliked he was, "Fool Tom", but what a soldier he turned out to be! "Standing like a stone wall." His death was a terrible blow to the Confederacy. He's buried (body and arm separately) at Lexington Cemetery. All graves are well kept and adorned with Confederate flags by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

Jackson's horse, Little Sorrel, is preserved at the Virginia Military Institute. 

Later I found out that only the hide is authentic, and that the animal itself has a grave on the parade grounds at V.M.I. (I missed the spot.)

That makes four. As for figures, some 258,000 men died defending the rebel Cause. Though you may think otherwise: slavery was not the issue. Lincoln himself said so: I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so. (Full text of inaugural address here.) The issue was, whether states were free to leave a union they had freely joined. (Read here about the Legality of Secession.) Nothing expresses this claim better than the Bonnie Blue rebel flag, proudly displaying a single star taken from the "stars and stripes". The accompanying song says

when our rights were threatened,
the cry rose near and far:
hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag
that bears a single star!

(Full text of the song here). I have no difficulty understanding why Virginians or Texans were prepared to die for the right to run their states their way. It's more of a mystery why citizens of, say, Massachusetts (a rebellious colony having resorted to violence in order to secede from England, let's not forget it) would die in order to prevent them. Anyway, they did, and union was restored manu militari. My sympathy lies with the losers, because I think theirs was a just cause. I feel the same about states seceding from the Soviet Union (strangely, so do the United States, 150 years after going to war against states seceding from their Union), and would feel the same about states leaving the European Union. Unions form and fall apart, crowns rule and roll, that's history.

There's no doubt that southern "rebels" felt the enforced union as tyranny. After shooting Lincoln, Booth shouted the Latin phrase which was, and still is, the state motto of Virginia:

Thus always to tyrants!

P.S. After the war, Lee and Sherman, independently of each other, mentioned the same man as the greatest soldier on either side: confederate cavalry general Nathan Bedford Forrest, said to fear no one except his younger brother captain William Forrest. He's buried in Memphis, but it would be difficult to locate his horse, because he had twenty-nine horses killed under him in battle. (Robert M. Browning jr., Forrest: the Confederacy's Relentless Warrior, Brassey's Inc. 2004, p. 107, captions on second and eighth photographs.)