Behind the Stars and Bars

by Bernard McCormick Tuesday, April 19, 2011 No Comment(s)

The Civil War began last week – 150 years ago. Predictably there has been a renewal of the historic debate over the cause of the Civil War. Liberals for the most part say it was caused by slavery. Many conservatives, particularly in the south, argue that it was about states' rights. The Neutral Party, which is the one here, says it was both.

Slavery was the economic cause of the war; it was the underpinning of the southern agricultural economy. The dispute between the states over slavery began with the Constitution, and continued right up to Fort Sumter. Andrew Jackson’s presidency, 30 years before the shooting actually started, was especially contentious. From a state which eventually went with the South, he backed down other southerners who were threatening to dissolve the union.

Slavery, however, was not the only cause of war, or more precisely it was not the only reason men went to battle. Overwhelmingly, soldiers fought for their neighborhoods, whether they thought slavery was a good thing or not. The current issue of Gold Coast has a Fort Lauderdale Centennial salute which includes the story of P.N. Bryan, who came to South Florida to build part of Henry Flagler’s FEC Railway. He had been in the Civil War, fighting with a Florida outfit, but he always told people that none of the men in his unit owned slaves, or fought to preserve slavery. Like most men on either side, he fought for his state.

That’s where states rights comes in. The 1860s were a far different time. Lincoln at Gettysburg noted the union was a young enterprise, and states which 87 years before had been separate colonies had not yet lost their parochial identity. Many did not think the federal government was their boss, and certainly the northern states had no right to tell the southern states how to live. Each state had retained a certain sense of independence. The great Civil War historian Shelby Foote put it well. Before the war, he wrote, the expression was “The United States are…” but after the war it became “The United States is…” The great war which disunited a nation came to represent a more perfect union.

The immigrants of that era told the story. Irish who settled in the North fought for the Union. The Irish Brigade, men from New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, became one of the most celebrated units of the conflict. Yet Irishmen who had settled in the South usually fought for their states, sometimes in all Irish units. Both groups had come from a place where they had been the next thing to slaves under British rule. They were the same people, who could be expected to share common values, but they saw the war from different street corners. The much admired Confederate Gen. Patrick Cleburne was Irish born and had settled in Arkansas. He felt welcomed as a newcomer to America, and became successful, so his loyalty was to his friends and neighbors. Yet late in the war he became suspect in the Confederacy by proposing that the South free slaves and enlist black soldiers, in effect recognizing them as equals. Robert E. Lee, incidentally, agreed with that idea. Cleburne died in the battle of Franklin, Tenn.

The war was filled with such ambivalence, all the way to the top. Lincoln did not oppose the South to destroy slavery, not at first. And Robert E. Lee opposed secession and had a benign attitude toward slaves who worked in his home. Still, he felt his higher loyalty was to his native state of Virginia. Gen. John Pemberton, Confederate commander at Vicksburg, was born in Philadelphia but had moved south when he married a southern woman. He also spent much of his military life in the South, including participation in Florida during the Seminole War of the 1830s. After the Civil War, when his wife died, he returned north and is buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.

One of the poignant stories of Gettysburg is a young soldier named Wesley Culp, who died in the attack on Culp’s Hill, part of his uncle’s property. But he wasn’t wearing blue. Although he grew up in Gettysburg, he had moved to Virginia three years before the war when his employer moved a business there. He died for his new state, fighting an army in which his brother was serving.

The debate over the cause of the war will doubtless continue for the next four years, but it should be noted that the cause of the war and the reason men fought so bravely are not the same. Today the Confederate flag is sometimes likened to the Nazi Swastika. Part of that is due to the rednecks who enjoy flaunting it. But it was not originally a symbol of racism, at least not to men who fought and died for it.

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