Saturday, April 12, 2008

General Orders Number Twelve

When I first became aware that there was such a thing as a Civil War enthusiast, I was overjoyed. I met a whole bunch of them on an on-line forum. Wow! People who were as interested in the war and the men who fought it as I was. I was like a kid turned loose in a candy store. Happy, happy! Joy, joy!

Needless to say, I was in for a rude awakening and a valuable education. Sides were drawn and, if you didn't pick one, your fellow enthusiasts would pick one for you. And once that happened, in the eyes of the "other side" all your comments were tainted and basically lies. The conversations were cut-throat, rude, and had one goal... to destroy any argument you might bring to the forum. I couldn't believe it. This wasn't rooting for Ohio State to beat Michigan. This wasn't putting a bumper sticker on your car that reads, "my favorite teams are Ohio State and whoever is playing Michigan." No, these enthusiasts were deadly serious about defending their side against the other.

Actually, I thought it might just be confined to that forum and those particular enthusiast. But, I'm learning that is not the case. Sad to say, after the surrender of Lee 143 years ago this week (April 9), that most enthusiasts have a dog in the fight.

I was reading a book about Grant's leadership. Now, I like Ulysses S. Grant. But the author was determined to advance Grant's case at the expense of Lee. Grant was all brilliance. Lee was overstated. Grant was all that and a bag of chips and Lee was not. Whatever.

But this mentality is even in the most casual of conversations. If I don't believe that slavery was the lone cause for the war, I'm branded a Lost Causer. I recently joined another on-line group, in which a poster stated that it wasn't fair for Phil Sheridan be compared to Jeb Stuart, since using Stuart as a standard was setting the bar a little low. I'll admit, I was a little offended for my poor Stuart, but mostly, I was suddenly tired of the whole attitude that permeates any meaningful discussion on the war.

If all we are doing is protecting our side at the expense of the other side... then what's the use of having these conversations? Why can't you admire the men who fought on both sides? Why act like it still matters who was right and who was wrong? The war is over. The men who fought it are consigned to their graves. The issue has been resolved and there is nothing anyone can do about it now. Both sides followed the conviction of their hearts. Both sides believed they were right. Both sides believed they were fighting for their homes and their families. One side won and one side lost. This attitude to strip one side or the other of the valor and honor that is due them is juvenile. Why can't we honor all their sacrifices... all their heroism... all their choices?

As this week closes, 143 years ago, Robert E. Lee, accompanied by his aide-de-camp, Colonel Charles Marshall, rode up to the McLean house at Appomattox Court House to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia to General Ulysses S. Grant. Now, in this scene, my heart is drawn to Lee. I can't help it. I've read about his actions, his feelings, his behavior and I am moved by the quality of his character. But I don't perceive Grant as the "enemy," to be hated. When I read about his magnanimous behavior in light of his army's victory and his kindness toward the vanquished, I am equally moved by the quality of his character. Both behaved admirably and with honor and a respect toward each other that today is seldom seen when enthusiasts get together to "refight" the war.

Perhaps the answer is that simple. Some come together to "refight" the war. For those who support the Union, I see an attitude that is likened to doing an end-zone dance and spiking the football in triumph. For the South, it is the need to strike back at the victors. If that is the purpose for the conversation or debate, then, I guess, it does matter which dog wins. I don't like poor losers or winners. So, I won't be joining you.

But if you are like me, and the reason you study the war is because you are drawn to the men and want to honor the lives they lived, then you and I have a lot to talk about. I really don't care about the politics of the era. What I care about is the courage under fire, the genius under duress, the honor in defeat, and the compassion in victory. For me... these are the great lessons to be learned from the Civil War.