The Question Remains Why
The Civil War is a part of our lives. It will always be a part of our lives. What we must do is keep asking ourselves, "why?"
As a historian, I am often asked my opinion on the Civil War. People ask me "Was the war fought about slavery or about state rights, or both?" On this eve of the 150th anniversary of the effective end of the American Civil War, I will not answer that or any other questions. In fact, I will ask you the questions and all of those questions begin or end with "why?"
If you want to start a spirited discussion, you can talk about religion, politics or you can ask what was the main cause of the Civil War. For some Americans, there is a desire to relive that horrible war - its battles, its causes, its results, and its combatants. There are some who say that slavery had absolutely nothing to do with the war while there are others who boldly proclaim that the cruel bondage of human beings had all and everything to do with the war. I do expect you to be spirited and confident in your thoughts, but I do hope you can be civil in your discussions. Remember that's what started that terrible, most uncivil war.
Other than religion, more books have been written about the American Civil War. We can't seem to agree even what to call it: "The War Between The States," "The Civil War," "The War of Northern Aggression," "The War for Southern Independence." Officially the four-year war was named "The War of the Rebellion," by the victors, our Federal government.
In many of the battles between the Army of the Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac, there was a disagreement as to the name of the battles. The Union armies named their battles after the nearest water feature (Antietam, Bull Run) while the Confederates named their fights after the nearest town (Sharpsburg, Manassas.)
"It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we may grow too fond of it," remarked General Robert E. Lee as he surveyed the 8000 or so dead and dying Union soldiers lying at the base of Marye's Heights after the Battle of Fredericksburg.
For a century and one half since the surrender of General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865 and Gen. Joseph Johnston's Army of the Tennessee in Greensboro, N.C. on April 26, 1865, generation after generation has figuratively fought the war over and over again. There are those who speculate, "What would have happened at Gettysburg had Stonewall Jackson been Lee's right arm during the climatic battle?" "What would have happened if England had entered the war on the side of the South? What would have happened if the Union Forces didn't run from Bull Run? What would have happened if Abraham Lincoln had never been elected?
As a journalist, it is my mission to seek out the facts and write about the who, what, where, when and why. Well, we know who fought and died, what were the results of the battles, where the battles were fought and when the firing began and when it ceased. What we can't seem to answer and as a people agree on is why?
Why did the racist blacksmith from New York City fire artillery shells randomly into Fredericksburg, with no idea of where his cannister may have landed? Just to free slave? Why did the preacher from North Alabama fire his rifle into the face of a young father of three from Michigan? Just so his wealthy neighbor could keep getting wealthier?
On this 150th anniversary of the General Lee's surrender at Appomattox, we should no longer celebrate the war, but commemorate it and study it, for the Civil War (with the American Revolution and World War II coming in right behind) is the most defining event in American History.
All of us look back at the war through the scope of what were taught about the war when we were young and what impact the war had on our family. My scope is filtered by the thought that if David Douglas, of Emanuel County, Georgia, and Benjamin H. Brantley, of Washington County, Georgia, had not been mortally wounded at Gettysburg and Sharpsburg respectively, their widows would have never remarried two of my great-great grandfathers. Why did they die so that I and all of those in my family, so dear to me, could live?
Why would my gigantic 14-year-old great grandfather, William A. Scott, Jr., masquerade as an adult and ride with Col. John S. Mosby, "The Gray Ghost," as he stole and pillaged northern farms and storehouses and then abruptly leave Virginia Military Institute as a 16-year-old to return home to fight the armies of George Armstrong Custer and Phillip Sheridan as they attacked his homeland? Why, especially would this kid be willing to die in defense of his home when after the war, his thoughts turned totally against the war as one of God's most Christian of soldiers? Why?
I ask myself why did my nineteen-year- old great-great uncle James Powell Scott have to die at the crossroads of Five Forks, Virginia on April Fool's day, some eight days before the end of the war? Why did a Union soldier pick up the prayer book of this young lieutenant, just a boy, and deliver it to my great-great grandmother on his route home? I ask myself why? Why were his two oldest brothers spared after they were sentenced to death by firing squad?
Why would my great, great grandfather John A. Braswell, a nineteen-year-old whose father died in the war, leave the Confederate army and steal a horse to go back home? The answer was simply that he was sick, scared and tired - sick of washing horse manure to retrieve undigested grains of corn just to find something to eat, scared of dying with his whole life in front of him and tired of running away from General Sherman's vastly superior army.
Depending on whose figures you believe, approximately 600,000 men were killed during the war. Laying the corpses of these men head to toe, the line would stretch nearly 650 miles, the distance between Dublin and Washington, D.C. Ask yourselves, why were nearly two-thirds of a million men killed in four years? Why did they die? Why were they willing to die?
Why was General Ulysses S. Grant, known to his own men as "The Butcher," so magnanimous in the terms of his surrender demands at Appomattox? Why was General William T. Sherman, considered by several generations of Georgians as the Devil himself, even more generous when he simply allowed the Confederate Army of the Tennessee to simply go home?
Why were so many highly ranking Confederate officers like James Longstreet, Joseph Johnston, Joseph Wheeler, and John S. Mosby asked to serve in Federal government positions by those very same men whom they fought against? Why was the bond between Free and Accepted Masons stronger than the missions of war? Why a slave like Bill Yopp of Laurens County, not cross the picket lines and stay with his white comrades until he surrendered at Appomattox?
Why did the end of the war and resulting constitutional amendments not bring about equality of the races? Why did Southerners object to the abolition of slavery in new western territories when it would have given the South the decided economic advantage? Why did the men of Montgomery County, Georgia, who were almost unanimously against secession and war, suffer ninety-percent casualties during the war?
I will ask you one final question. Will you please not forget the war? To forget it would make you forget the evil and ignore the good which happened during and after the war. Ignoring the question of slavery versus state rights versus sectional economic domination may doom us to another war in the not too distant future. For all of us, of all races, the war changed the destiny of the entire world, so you must always keeping asking yourself why? To the millions of us who lost family members, we askw hy? Ask yourselves did all of these men die to secure the freedom of slaves or keep them in eternal bondage? Or, was it something more? The question remains, why?