Honoring Confederate heroes, with reservations

Robert McCartney
Columnist July 23, 2011

We might as well scratch the itch right at the start. As the United States begins observing the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, let’s ask whether it’s moral to honor both sides even though one of them — the Confederacy — tried to break up the nation primarily to defend the institution of slavery.

I admit I’m prejudiced on the subject. I grew up with strong Yankee sympathies, inherited from Minnesota and Michigan forebears.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

But Lincoln urged charity for all. It would spoil the observances to spend the next four years tut-tutting half the country for having been on the wrong team. So I went to talk to Confederate reenactors in Manassas on Thursday, determined to seek out what was respectable, even admirable, in their point of view.

I found them in a camp of hundreds of neatly aligned white tents sprawled across farm fields and filled with working replicas of Civil War rifles and cannons. Reenactors spend many weekends and many dollars pursuing their hobby of reliving soldiers’ experiences of the 1860s. If anybody could describe what’s right to celebrate about the Confederacy, it was these recreational soldiers from the Southern side.

They didn’t make it easy. When I asked what caused the war, most of those I interviewed minimized the importance of slavery. They said economics, states’ rights and a desire to protect “the Southern way of life” sparked the conflict.

“From what I’ve read, slavery was on the down slope anyway” when the war erupted, said Gary Parisi, 63. He was to play the role of a Confederate militiaman in this weekend’s reenactments of First Manassas (or Bull Run), the war’s first major battle.

In two of the interviews, I winced when reenactors first noted that they abhorred slavery and then made a point of saying that masters treated slaves well. “Contrary to popular belief, slaves were treated like thoroughbreds,” said Bob Slifer, 70.

This was hardly reassuring. Earlier Thursday, at the official ceremony marking the 150th anniversary of the battle, speakers stressed that slavery was central to the conflict.

“Had the Civil War turned out differently, American slavery, never stronger than it was in 1861, might have lived on for generations more,” said keynote speaker Edward Ayers, president of the University of Richmond and a professional historian who has specialized in the American South.

In an interview afterward, Ayers added, “No historian of standing has said for decades that the war was about anything other than slavery.”

Despite all that, my quest ended happily. Numerous interviews made clear that the rebel reenactors were not motivated primarily by politics — and particularly not by some misplaced, latter-day enthusiasm for slavery.

Instead, they want to immerse themselves in the most dramatic period in American history (even if they get some of it wrong). They spend hours around campfires sharing and debating such arcane details as which unit did what in a battle and the correct spacing of stitches on a soldier’s tunic.

In addition, many reenactors want to show respect for ancestors who fought in the war. From yellowed letters and diaries, many know much personal history about great-great-grandfathers and great-great-uncles who served.

“I do it to honor their past, to honor those that came before us,” said Richard Oates, 27. He is descended from rebels on his father’s side and Yankees on his mother’s.

This link to the past helps explain why many Confederate reenactors are uncomfortable about slavery.

“The main motive is to honor their ancestors. That’s the reason why it’s very difficult for Southerners to admit that the war was fought over slavery. . . . All of a sudden, it’s a family issue. It’s very personal,” said a reenactor who has decades of experience and plays a Confederate officer. He spoke on the condition that he remain unidentified for fear that his views would offend his comrades.

As for the Confederates back in 1861, reenactors noted that the rebels had many of the best generals and troops. Although he lost in the end, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee repeatedly defeated larger, better-supplied Union armies.

Finally, regardless of what caused the war, the reenactors are right that most Southern soldiers picked up arms at the time largely because they were defending their home states against Northern attack.

“They were fighting because Yankees came down and invaded their turf,” Parisi said.

A passion for history. Family respect. Military prowess. Self-defense. Those are traits I can applaud, even though the South’s overall objective was unworthy.

So, while I’ll always root for the North and insist that slavery stains the Southern cause, I can see that the reenactors have grounds to esteem their Confederate heroes. Let the commemorations proceed, for both sides.

I’m taking a break. The column will resume Aug. 11.

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