My Traitorous Ancestors

Young Traitors

(As I posted this article, I suddenly realized that I had posted a very similar article two years ago. Please forgive me for being repetitious. It tends to go with age.)

My grandfather Jordan and his five brothers all served in the Confederate army.  It disturbs me that today many people try to label my Civil War ancestors as traitors. 

Little more than eighty years prior to 1861 these men’s own forefathers had fought for freedom from British rule.   Now their sons and grandsons were fighting to separate themselves from the northern states.  The union was thought of as a voluntary association of states.  Why couldn’t they leave the union?

In 1861, a man’s loyalty was to family, community, state, and nation in that order.  The nation was rather far down the totem pole.  When secession happened, a southerner faced a dilemma.  He had to be a traitor to his family, community and state or to the nation.  Northerners had no such problem.

Were southerners fighting for a good cause?  Of course not!  But slavery in the south was a matter of history and geography.  It was highly profitable for the large plantation owners, and these wealthy men usually controlled the machinery of government.  When the institution was threatened, they pushed for secession.  Slaveholding was not profitable in the north.  Had it been so, I am certain that slavery would have continued in that part of the country as well.  I seriously doubt that northerners were morally superior to their brothers in the south.

If the south had successfully seceded, I’m virtually certain that slavery would have ended there before 1890.  The tides of civilization were against it, even in those places where it remained economically profitable.

These men who fought for the South should be evaluated in the context of their time and place. They were not traitors.

One thought on “My Traitorous Ancestors

  1. This comment is via e-mail from my son Stuart.

    “A traitor is entirely in the eye of the beholder. OK, so Robert E. Lee was a “traitor.” By that very same measure, so was George Washington. Both openly resigned their commissions and fought for the rebels. As an aside, both were slaveholders.

    “The thought and possibility of secession was nothing new. In January 1815, the states of New England came within a hairbreadth of secession until news of General Andrew Jackson’s victory at New Orleans arrived (the Hartford Convention). What makes the South’s secession beginning in 1860 so odious was that it’s primary purpose was the protection and extension of slavery. This is well documented in the speeches and declarations made by the seceding states in 1860-61. Only after the war did the South turn to saying it was more about “States Rights” and much less about slavery. However, by voluntarily joining the Confederacy, southern states gave up whatever “states rights” they had so briefly held, putting the kibosh on that argument.

    “Had the differences in climate and geography been reversed, no doubt circumstances would have found the North more reluctant to give up slavery than the South. In his 1858 speech in Ottawa, Illinois, Lincoln said as much himself. “I have no prejudice against the Southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist among them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up. This I believe of the masses North and South.”

    “Even after Lincoln’s death, the North was more magnanimous than Parliament would have been. Had Washington, Adams, or Jefferson been caught, they would have doubtless hung. In the end, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee & Alexander Stephens were allowed to return home.

    “The spirit of reconciliation between North and South that reigned from the late 1800s all the way to the 21st century has now been extinguished. Blacks have never revered southern military heroes – now those statues are paying the price as liberals join in the melee. Not just monuments, but even historical markers and gravestones have been desecrated. I would not be at all shocked if someone went through Hollywood Cemetery with a sledgehammer.

    “I will probably never return to Richmond again. Why should I?.”

    Like

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