Lee Martin, PhD, Tampa, Florida — July, 2017
The American Civil War was fought primarily over slavery. Yet let no one tell you otherwise that it was not also fundamentally about state’s rights versus the role of the federal government, the Westward expansion of the nation, and the differing economies that shaped the North and South. This brief essay is not meant to be an analysis of the war’s origin, as you must educate yourself by the vast literature and historical record of the Civil War that is abundantly and easily available. My premise is that there is a relatively small group of Black activists and others who sympathize with their cause of having state and local governments remove Confederate memorials because their feelings are hurt over a profound misunderstanding of the history of this most tremendous event in America’s story.
About 620,000 American men died during the Civil War, more than during both World War I and World War II combined. Many died on both sides during battle or later from wounds, but hundreds of thousands died from disease. Fifty thousand or more died as prisoners of war. As in all wars, no one knows the number of deaths among survivors whose fate of suffering and demise was contributed to by experiences during the war. The sequela of war’s trauma is not easily measurable or able to be disentangled from the behavioral and medical consequences it manifests, leading to later illness, life disruption, and death.
My problem with the activists who think that Civil War Confederate monuments should be removed from public places because they view them as signatures of racism is that they are haunted by the hobgoblins of their own ignorance and do not appreciate that men died in our greatest war. The vast majority of them were simple citizen soldiers. Nearly all white Confederate soldiers were poor farmers who did not own slaves, were themselves subordinate to slave-owning elites, and were psychologically captured by propaganda of the ruling ideology like the human fodder of every great war. The common Confederate soldier in the course of battle was no different from the common Union soldier—afraid, tired, and wrapped up in a war they did not ask for nor want. To honor them is to honor their lives, their deaths, and the rebirth of a new Nation. Lincoln’s Gettysburg address curiously does not say the words that the dead commemorated on that bloody field of battle were just from the North, nor ignores those who died fighting from the South. He said “we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow, this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have hallowed it, far above our poor power to add or detract….we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people by the people for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”  That means all the dead, and that the war itself was of larger import than any one person no matter their position or station in life, or what side they were on.
There are many statues and monuments memorializing the sacrifice and deaths of Confederate soldiers throughout the United States. While most are unsurprisingly located in the Southern states, they appear out West in Arizona and California, and in the Northern states like Illinois and Ohio. There are at least six Confederate memorials in or near Washington, D.C., including 480 Rebel soldiers buried in Arlington National Cemetery, which is land once owned by Robert E. Lee. Lee’s house that overlooks the cemetery is an official federal memorial site governed by the National Park Service. In fact, statues of Lee and others who served in the Confederate Army are in the United State Capitol building, the seat of our federal government. 
Historian Fergus Bordewich pointed out that “thousands of Civil War veterans lived far into the 20th century. In 1913, 54,000 Union and Confederate veterans gathered at Gettysburg for the battle’s 50th anniversary, and an astonishing 2,000 were still alive to show up for the battle’s 75th anniversary in 1938. The last verified Union veteran died only in 1956, and the last Confederate in 1951.” My father was born in 1917, and purportedly his Georgia mother gave him his middle name to honor Robert E. Lee, which he then gave me. I am a Northerner who has founded a home in the Deep South, and I do not hate people because of what they are from birth. I have learned a few things about war though, and what it means.
James J. Fitzpatrick of the 16th Mississippi Infantry was in the midst of the fight during one of the most horrific battles of the Civil War during the battle of Antietam in Western Maryland. I have been there and walked in the corn field that still grows there, where men assaulted each other in a desperate firestorm that was part of the single worst day of war dead in American history. I was walking among the ghosts of the dead. The rebel soldier wrote in his diary:
Tired and sleepy we still march on, and as we come in proximity of the battle ground the scores of wounded passing to the rear remind us that bloody work is going on. A little further on, to the left of the pike, we halt & “load at will.” No sooner done, then in again. The enemy’s batteries give us shot & shell in abundance causing many muscular contractions in the spinal column of our line. But all the dodging did not save us. Occasionally a shell, better aimed than the rest would crash through our line making corpses & mutilated trunks.
The Civil War killed and injured over a million Americans, roughly a third of all those who served. This grim tally, however, does not include the conflict’s psychic wounds. Tony Horowitz pointed out in the Smithsonian Magazine that “disease killed twice as many men as combat. During long stretches in crowded and unsanitary camps, men were haunted by the prospect of agonizing and inglorious death away from the battlefield; diarrhea was among the most common killers. Though geographically less distant from home than soldiers in foreign wars, most Civil War servicemen were farm boys, in their teens or early 20s, who had rarely if ever traveled far from family and familiar surrounds.” When they came home, especially after having lost a war, they often suffered from what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In past wars the condition was called “nostalgia,” and then later after the terror of World War I, veterans were found to suffer the results of “shell shock.” The newest rhetorical formulation is the introduction of Traumatic Brain Injury, which has been widely reported among some battle veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, although just as easily could have applied to many soldiers on both sides of the Civil War. Horowitz notes that “at war’s end, the emotional toll on returning soldiers was often compounded by physical wounds and lingering ailments such as rheumatism, malaria and chronic diarrhea. While it’s impossible to put a number on this suffering, historian Lesley Gordon followed the men of a single unit, the 16th Connecticut regiment, from home to war and back again and found ‘the war had a very long and devastating reach.’”
Rapprochement may take centuries. Ignore the KKK, skinheads, and redneck racists who will rot in their sorry graves. Read history, have empathy, gain perspective, and perhaps, just maybe, shed a tear for all the men who struggled and died in a war that brought forth upon this land a new nation. Those were men who fought and died on both sides. The war is long over, but not forgotten. However, this nation has clearly had some retrograde cultural reaction, a degradation borne of anger, fear, and ignorance among a vocal minority. Freedom also involves remembering….and clarity of thought.