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Should Confederate soldiers be honored?

By Scott Tibbs, March 3, 2003

Indiana Daily Student columnist Matthew Murray wrote a thought-provoking column on February 28th in which he referred to Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson as heroes. This is certain to generate a lot of outcry in the IDS letters to the editor section, especially given the recent outcry over the allegedly “racist” political cartoon published on the IDS opinion Page February 5tth. Paul Musgrave, an editor for Hoosier Review, wrote in the HR blog “Can we please agree that neo-Confederate sentiment is racism?” In the comments pop-up window, he wrote: “While the North was not perfect, the Civil War--as with World War II--is one of the most nearly textbook examples of Good vs. Evil that you will ever find.”

I’m not sure it’s so simple. To be sure, slavery was a great moral evil and concern that it would be abolished was one reason why the South seceded from the Union. Slavery needed to end, and the federal government had a responsibility and a right to end it. No credible person today argues that slavery should not have been abolished.

But for many who fought for the South, the war was about protecting their home from an invading army. The loyalty to their home was greater than the loyalty they had to the Union. General Robert E. Lee, for example, was a well-respected man whose love for his home state of Virginia would not allow him to refuse to defend her from that invasion.

The civil war was not about slavery for the North. While President Abraham Lincoln was an abolitionist, he said that his primary objective was not abolition of slavery, but holding the Union together. Lincoln stated that if he could hold the Union together without freeing a single slave, by freeing some slaves, or by freeing all the slaves he would have done so. In fact, in his first inaugural address (before the Civil War began) Lincoln said he would not interfere with slavery in states where it existed.

Former Libertarian Presidential candidate Harry Browne points out that many Southerners were infuriated with high tariffs that benefited Northern businesses but placed a burden on Southerners who bought foreign goods. These tariffs also were used to fund federal projects primarily in the North. Syndicated columnist Walter Williams wrote in 2000 that black Southerners served in the Civil War as well, on the side of the South. Were these people fighting to defend an institution that amounted to genocide of their race? Or were there other reasons for this phenomenon?

The Civil War devastated the South. According to the PBS Web site, Northern General William Sherman’s “march to the sea” created havoc for the South, implementing the concept of “total war” (as in military action against civilians) fifty years before World Wars I and II made the practice commonplace.

Did the South have the right to secede? I will not go into that argument here. However, there is one statement thrown about regarding secession that must be addressed. Some say the question of secession was “settled by the Civil War”. This is a misguided sentiment. Jefferson Davis, the only President of the Confederate States of America, once said, “A question settled by violence, or in disregard of law, must remain unsettled forever.” While people can debate the secession issue, it is important to understand that America is a constitutional republic. Our government is based not on the rule of a king, a president, a parliament or a legislature, but is based on a document created over 200 years ago. Our government is based on the rule of law, and a war cannot, and should not, “settle” a question of legality.

It is not necessarily racist to honor some of those who fought on behalf of the South in the Civil War. The circumstances surrounding and reasons for the Civil War were complicated, and cannot simply be reduced to a black and white description of good vs. evil. General Lee and others may be on the wrong side of history defending a region that allowed the horrific practice of enslaving other human beings. But there were good people and bad on both sides of this war, people with strong convictions and personal character. I see nothing wrong with recognizing this fact.