Friday, May 13, 2016

My Civil War Ancestors: Summary

There is something we all know which can only be rendered, in an appropriate language, as realpolitik. As a matter of fact, it is an almost insanely unreal politik. It is always stubbornly and stupidly repeating that men fight for material ends, without reflecting for a moment that the material ends are hardly ever material to the men who fight. In any case no man will die for practical politics, just as no man will die for pay. Nero could not hire a hundred Christians to be eaten by lions at a shilling an hour, for men will not be martyred for money. But the vision called up by real politik, or realistic politics, is beyond example crazy and incredible. Does anybody in the world believe that a soldier says, 'My leg is nearly dropping off, but I shall go on till it drops; for after all I shall enjoy all the advantages of my government obtaining a warm water port in the Gulf of Finland! Can anybody suppose that a clerk turned conscript says, 'If I am gassed I shall probably die in torments; but it is a comfort to reflect that should I ever decide to become a pearl-diver in the South Seas, that career is now open to me and my countrymen! Materialist history is the most madly incredible of all histories, or even of all romances. Whatever starts wars, the thing that sustains wars is something in the soul; that is something akin to religion.
-- G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man
As he does so often, Chesterton puts his finger right on the essence of the matter.

Relationship Name Rank Unit Outcome
great2 uncle Alford, Jasper Private 6th Florida Infantry, Company E (H?) Died in GA, 26 Sep 1862 (no details).
great3 grandfather Bradshaw, Samuel J. Private 8th Florida Infantry, Company B Died (of disease?) in VA, 19 Feb 1863.
great2 grandfather Conoley, James Wallace Corporal 2nd North Carolina Cavalry, Company D Wounded Sep 1863 in White Oak Swamp, VA. Survived War. Died 3 Jul 1922.
great3 grandfather Edmondson, David Private 7th Georgia Militia, District 660 Company Died May 1864 (no details).
great2 grandfather Edmondson, David Private 26th Georgia Infantry, Company I Wounded and disabled at Spotsylvania, VA 12 May 1864. Survived War; Died 1895.
great3 grandfather Hines, Charles Wesley Sergeant 29th Georgia Infantry, Company H Wounded 19 Sep 1863 at Chickamauga. Died of wounds 25 Sep 1863.
great3 grandfather Jenks, Wiley Sergeant 10th Confederate Cavalry, Company C Survived War; Died 1885.
great2 grandfather McDaniel, Benjamin Franklin Private 11th Florida Infantry, Company L On leave sick since 17 Sep 1864; Survived War; Died 3 Mar 1926.
great3 grandfather Miller, Mason Covington Private 10th Georgia Infantry, Company E Lost his right foot on 23 June 1864 near Petersburg, VA. Survived the War; Died 12 April 1903.
great2 uncle Pelt, Obadiah Private? 6th Florida Infantry, Company F Killed at Missionary Ridge 25 Nov 1863.
great2 uncle Pelt, Peter Private 2nd Florida US Cavalry, Company E Executed as deserter from 2nd Florida CSA Cavalry, Company G, and turncoat, March 7, 1865
great2 uncle Pelt, Robert Corporal 6th Florida Infantry, Company F Killed at Missionary Ridge 25 Nov 1863.
great3 grandfather Prevatt, Furney A. Private 18th North Carolina Infantry, Company D Wounded at Hanover Courthouse, VA. Captured and imprisoned in Elmra, NY. Survived War; Died 18 Mar 1921.
great3 grandfather Richards, Daniel Thomas Private 6th Florida Infantry, Company G Wounded at Chickamauga. Survived War; Died 1879
great4 grandfather Richards, John George Private 2nd Florida Cavalry, Company A Survived War; Died 1876.
great2 uncle Thomas, Edward Private 5th Florida Infantry, Company H Left sick at private house 20 Sep 1862. Died 8 Dec 1862.

No one in his right mind expects a soldier to go on until his leg drops off for a warm water port in the Gulf of Finland, but many people unthinkingly hold that Mason Covington Miller went on until his leg did fall off, just so that his wealthier neighbors could own slaves.  In fact, I have found no record of any of the men above owning slaves with the exception of David Edmondson, Sr.  Perhaps slavery was a sufficient motivation for him and for his son, but it fails to explain the others. [Update May 29, 2017:  Samuel Hines, the father of Charles Wesley Hines, had 8 slaves in 1840, as shown in the 1840 census.  Whether or not he had any at the time of the War is not clear.]

No, what divided the Union was not in its essence the issue of slavery, though perhaps that was the final straw.  What destroyed the Union was what has destroyed countless marriages:  a breakdown in mutual trust.

So let us imagine a married couple, whom we shall call Sam and Bonnie.  Sam and Bonnie both used to smoke, but a few years ago Sam switched from smoking to dipping snuff.  Many of the arguments between Sam and Bonnie have been about Bonnie's continued smoking and whether or not dipping snuff is more like or more unlike smoking.  Eventually Sam says he will cure her of her nasty habit, and Bonnie says if he tries she will leave him.  Sam responds that if she tries, he will chain her in the basement and beat her until she gives up her cigarettes.

Neither one is a paragon of virtue.  Both smoking and dipping are offensive and unhealthy, though smoking is somewhat more thoughtless than dipping regarding the harm it does to others.  Certainly it would be wrong to suggest that Bonnie leave Sam just so that she can continue an offensive habit!

Correct:  that is not the reason Bonnie should leave Sam.  However, she should leave him, and immediately, while she still has a chance!  She should leave him because he has made it clear that theirs has become an abusive relationship, and whatever sentimental feelings may linger, she can no longer trust him.

The point of my story is not to change your mind about who was right and who was wrong, but rather to make it clear that the Confederate viewpoint is morally comprehensible and does not deserve to be demonized -- a fact that even many, perhaps most, Union veterans acknowledged.

So why is the Confederate viewpoint consistently demonized today, and does it do any real harm to vilify that perspective?  After all, everyone who lived through the Civil War is now dead, and whether such a person is now in Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory, surely his happiness is unlikely to be much affected by whether statues of him are being erected or torn down or whether parks are being named for him or having his name removed, right?

Let me briefly dispense with that last question.  For a Catholic or an Orthodox Christian, burying the dead is a corporal act of mercy, and it is considered appropriate to venerate the Saints, along with their images and relics.   To that can be added the Biblical importance of names (e.g. the Name of God, which was not to be spoken lightly, and changes of name, as with Abraham and Peter), the commandment to honor our fathers and mothers, and many other passages, perhaps most notably Romans 13:7, which says, "Render therefore to all men their dues. Tribute, to whom tribute is due: custom, to whom custom: fear, to whom fear: honour, to whom honour."  To a Christian people (which we were once, even though we may not be now) it is therefore fitting to honor deceased forebears and countrymen who have suffered for what they thought was right, particularly when their beliefs were morally defensible, and it is infuriating to have these forebears and countrymen casually dishonored.

Now back to the other questions.  My answer is that 
  • in general, Americans are very susceptible to two errors:  the idea that "might makes right" and the deification of the US government;
  • there are powerful forces which wish to expand their exploitation of these errors; and
  • anyone who considers the Confederate cause at least morally plausible is partially resistant to these errors, which is inconvenient to the powers that be.
"Might makes right" has been an appealing error in most times and places, particularly when some form of success was being experienced.  In more pious times, it might be expressed the way it was in the song "Just Before the Battle, Mother":
Now, may God protect us, mother,
As He ever does the right.
If God "ever does [protect] the right", whoever has won must have had God's protection and therefore must have been in "the right", so there is still an identity between winning and being in the right.  People back then were not quite so stupid, though, so the possibility that the man "in the right" might still "nobly perish" is explicitly acknowledged.  

Today's version of the error is phrased in terms of being "on the right side of history", forgetting what everyone once new:  that Fortune is a strumpet. What it boils down to, of course, is, "We're going to do such-and-such regardless of your objections, and there's nothing you can do to stop us.  Our triumph is inevitable!"  This is exactly what "might makes right" means, perhaps combined with the cliché about the winners writing history.  It actually goes beyond the already bad idea (found in the Medieval practice of trial by combat) that might reveals right; it is the ancient idea that might creates right.

In fact, the essential conflict of the current "culture war" is over whether human nature really exists at all and whether right and wrong have any stable meaning.  It is hard to overstate how important it is to find the correct answer these two related questions.  As with all the really important ideas, these questions must be confronted by each generation, regardless of which side "wins" in our generation.

The same applies for literal wars.  Just because previous generations have fought successfully to provide us with national independence, national unity, and personal liberties does not prevent us from losing these blessings now or in the future.  In that sense, the most important thing a man's military service can give his descendants (aside from survival itself, of course) is not wealth or power or prestige or liberty, but rather a good example.  That is quite a lot, though, and it is something for which we owe them gratitude.

To sum up a long and rambling post and, very likely, my series of posts about Confederate ancestors:
  • these men probably constituted a reasonably accurate cross-section of the Southern middle class;
  • at least for the most part, they had morally comprehensible reasons for fighting;
  • their defeat provides a counter-narrative to the widespread misconception that might makes right;
  • their willingness to fight and suffer for what they believed set an example for which we should be grateful.


Notes on the table:
  • A great-great uncle is the brother of either a great-great grandfather or great-great grandmother.
  • I have not made any serious attempt to find all the greatn uncles involved in the war.  Those listed here had sisters who were my ancestors, and their fathers did not fight in the Civil War.

1 comment:

  1. You're right. Soldiers fight for a life they would rarely get to see let alone live.