Christopher Dickey writes: Seven score and ten years ago, Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, and the great American Civil War ended, or so we’ve read in high school textbooks and on Wikipedia.
The chivalrous Lee, in countless hues of grey on his white horse, and the magnanimous Grant in muddy boots were icons that the reunited-by-force United States needed desperately a century and a half ago, and that we’ve cherished ever since.
But the war did not really end at Appomattox, just as it did not really begin four years before when South Carolina militias opened fire on the tiny Union garrison in the massive, unfinished fort called Sumter that dominated Charleston Harbor.
And if we want to stop and think today about what that war was about — what made it happen — then cannons, shot and shells, minié balls, muskets and swords do not, in the end, tell us very much. Brave men were called on to fight for their homes and their ideals, or because they didn’t have better sense, and, as in every war, they kept on fighting for their brothers in arms.
In the South, the spirit of camaraderie and defiance ran so hot and so deep that for generations afterwards, and to this day in some corners of the air-conditioned Sunbelt that was once the Confederacy, people will tell you about “The Lost Cause.”
But, let’s be clear. The cause of the South was not the cause of chivalry, nor was it about the revolutionary ideals of the Boston Tea Party, as many claimed at the time. “The tea has been thrown overboard; the revolution of 1860 has been initiated,” declared Charleston’s Robert Barnwell Rhett as the Carolinians prepared to secede from the Union and precipitate the war.
Rhett was one of the coterie of radicals in the South who came to be known as “fire-eaters,” and their cause was not the cause of freedom that the founding fathers fought for in the American Revolution. Their cause was slavery: holding slaves, working slaves, buying and selling slaves — black chattel considered less than human beings by custom, by the courts, and even by the Constitution, whose authors never mentioned slavery but weasel-worded it into the founding document of the Union. [Continue reading…]