Almost in spite of myself, I’ve been reading a couple books lately that have given me some food for thought, especially given the recent controversy over monuments to Confederate officials and ideals.
In general, I am not a big Civil War fan. I find it one of the most wasteful conflicts this country has ever engaged in—and we’ve been part of some real doozies. I’ve just never been able to get my head around a large chunk of the United States, founded on the principal that all men are created equal, violently attacking the rest of the country in order to force the expansion of slavery on them.
Nevertheless, last fall, I read Ron Chernow’s Grant (Penguin Press, New York, 2017), his fine biography of U.S. Army general and former President Ulysses S. Grant. Then this past month in Causes Won, Lost, & Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know About the Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2008), I found that author Gary W. Gallagher (besides giving me a warm, fuzzy feeling by using the Oxford comma in the title) makes several good points about how everyone from Hollywood producers to publishing houses to artists have distorted the facts of the Civil War, from its causes to its basic historical facts to its effects on the country.
Some of the good points in both those books led me to wonder if there isn’t another way to solve the Confederate monument problem. My idea is pretty simple: why not erect monuments to the real Southern heroes of the war? Not the traitors that resigned their commissions in the United States Army and the U.S. Navy to serve in armed rebellion against their own country, but the Southerners who resisted the appeal to treason and remained loyal to their country and Constitution.
Take Winfield Scott, for instance. Serving as the U.S. Army’s commander in chief when the war began, Virginian Scott not only remained loyal to the Union—unlike Robert Lee—but he also outlined the strategy that President Lincoln adopted that eventually won the war.
Or George H. Thomas, another Virginian, whose decision, again unlike Lee, to honor his oath to defend the Constitution cost him his family, which disowned him. Thomas rose through the ranks of the U.S. Army to become one of its most respected commanders, earning the sobriquet “The Rock of Chickamauga” for the stand his corps took during that battle that prevented the complete collapse of the Union army.
Or on the civilian front, maybe Sam Houston deserves recognition for his principled stand when he was pressured to betray his country. Houston, the governor of Texas when the war broke out, refused to swear loyalty to the Confederacy and so was removed from office after which he retired to his home after a distinguished political and military career in Tennessee and Texas.
Or on the female side, how about Elizabeth Van Lew, an outspoken Virginian abolitionist who decided to stay in her home in the Confederacy’s capital of Richmond, Va., where astonishingly enough, she ran an effective spy ring throughout the war that fed information to the American government. She was even able to place one of her operatives inside Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s household. Certainly she ought to be entitled to at least a few monuments for that alone.
And we shouldn’t forget the largely anonymous, regular citizens and the escaped slaves from southern states who served their country against the pressures to transfer their allegiance to the treasonous Confederacy. Surely some of the 100,000 Unionist Whites who served against the secessionists in their own states, or a few of the 94,000 escaped slaves and free Blacks who fought against the Confederacy deserve monuments to their service and heroism.
Those Black soldiers who fought in the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) regiments deserve special recognition if anyone does. When they were first mustered into federal service they were paid less than their White comrades, although that disparity was eventually rectified. In addition, they faced excessive cruelty from Confederates when captured in battle. It was not uncommon for Black prisoners to be summarily executed, while others were forced back into slavery and otherwise brutalized.
Many of the Black troops who served in the USCT who enlisted in Northern states were actually escaped slaves from south of the Ohio River. A good example is Kendall County’s own Nathan Hughes who escaped from slavery in Kentucky and made his way to Illinois where he subsequently enlisted in the 29th USCT Infantry Regiment. Since slavery remained legal in Kentucky throughout the war until the 13th Amendment was ratified in December 1865, if Hughes hadn’t escaped, he would almost certainly have been prohibited from serving. Instead he had a distinguished career, being wounded twice, the first time in the hip during the infamous Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, Va., and the second time in the hand during a skirmish later in the war. The 29th, by the way, was on hand at Appomattox Courthouse when Gen. Grant accepted the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia.
Then there was Anthony “Tony” Burnett who was a slave during the war when Company C of the 4th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry Regiment came to visit. Pvt. Bob Jolly apparently convinced Tony he’d have more fun riding with the cavalry, and he spent the rest of the war as a company cook. After the war, Bob and Tony came back to Oswego. Tony moved around some, apparently got married and had children, and is buried in the Oswego Township Cemetery here in town.
While about 5,500 Blacks from South Carolina—the state that initiated the Civil War by attacking Fort Sumter—served in U.S. regiments during the war, no Whites from the Palmetto State did. But 25,000 White North Carolinians did serve in the U.S. Army during the war, joining 42,000 Tennesseans, 22,000 Virginians and thousands of others from the rest of the Confederate states.If one story of the Civil War was hidden over the years, especially by Southern historians and propagandists, it was this huge number of White and Black Southerners who declined to participate in the mass treason that was the Confederate States of America. I was about as guilty as anyone in failing to be aware of just how many patriotic Southerners there were between 1861 and 1865. It really didn’t click for me until our second visit to the Gettysburg National Battlefield when an exhibit in the on-site museum caught my eye enumerating the numbers of Southerners who fought for the Union.
A big fan of Western movies as a youngster, I was familiar with the nickname “Galvanized Yankees” given to captured Southern soldiers who agreed to fight against the Plains Indian tribes during the Civil War as a way to avoid the hardships of Union prison camps. But none of the history I’d learned in junior high or high school had mentioned that tens of thousands regular Southern citizens declined to fight against their country during the war and instead fought for the Union.
Certainly these men, Black and White, deserve to be honored with monuments to their heroism in marching against the historical tide of their home states, something that led to many of the White volunteers being disowned by their families and ostracized by their communities for their refusal to commit treason.
If the recent past’s arguments about who deserves a monument have taught us anything, it ought to be that erecting heroic statues to traitors is not a good idea. Nor is the puzzling practice of proudly waving the Confederacy’s battle flag. After all, you don’t see statues erected in honor of World War II German generals in Germany, and statues and other monuments to monsters such as Saddam Hussein came tumbling down as soon as people realized they didn’t need to be afraid of them any more. And flying flags bearing swastikas is a good way to get arrested in Germany.
So if people want to be proud of Southerners who fought during the Civil War, why not honor those who remained true to the Constitution and refused to do the popular regional thing and commit treason? Seems like it’s an ideal that’s been a long time—too long a time, in fact—coming. Unless, of course, the idea behind those monuments wasn’t to honor brave Southerners in the first place, but was rather to intimidate Black citizens and those who remained loyal to the Union. Right?