Bowden: We should listen to wise words of R.E. Lee

Mar. 11, 2011 

A soft midday light of an April Saturday splashes over the silent stones of St. Michael’s Cemetery, spilling shadows from the small gathering clustered near a magnolia tree. The year is 1998. Small children hold miniatures of the large American flags flanked by the memorial national flags of the Confederate States of America. Women in hoop skirts and ribboned hats and bystanders stand in the warm spring grass. Two seniors, faces seamed with a long life as first-generation Daughters of the Confederacy, sit in lawn chairs.

By the grave of Stephen Russell Mallory, 12 Confederate soldiers resurrected in gray woolens of the 1860s, led by a bearded captain stepping off the pages of history, stand with muskets, at attention. I rise to speak as if out of the mists of time: On and on they march, in myth, in memory, in bravery. Facing the iron hail of battle, with powder-stained faces of haggard fury. Shoeless, in torn gray or butternut, with scanty rations, loading and firing ancient muskets. They know they may fall; many do, to the mourning of a mother back home.

They know little of the constitutional issues. Some thought they were going to fight the British. Raw personal courage remains the legacy of those who wore the gray and the butternut as Confederates and their brothers in Federal blue.

Now time brings me to last Thursday; the Daughters gather in First Baptist Church; again I rise, speaking the echoes:

Many still be hear the bulletless guns and the immortal Rebel Yell as young Americans embrace the true American spirit by reenacting great battles. The smoke never clears for those strengthened by the courage and will of Blue and Gray.

America was finding itself in full sacrifice — combatants with a common heritage: same God, language, songs, stories; different dreams. The agrarian South contesting the validity of Union; the North defending Father Abraham’s eternal union. Southerners entered the war with little or no hostility and were transformed into sturdy soldiers by hell of combat. A great majority of both Northern and Southern armies never felt any strong animus toward their foes as individuals.

They were all Americans. Reunions captured in old graying newsreel footage reveal the Blue-Gray brotherhood. The long aftermath — Reconstruction, the years of poverty, the humiliating disenfranchisement — deepened long bitterness.

I understand the emotion of black Americans equating Confederate symbols with the tragic, dehumanizing days when African Americans were owned as property; their long denial of basic civil rights as American citizens. No American north or south can defend the institution of human slavery, the angry scar on American history.

But there should be a distinction between the collective memory of the war — central to American history and cannot be erased — and the dreary heritage of racial injustice.

We can no more censor the harsh reality and Southern memory than we can pluck stars from Old Glory. War origins evolved from compromised flaws enabling the nation’s feeble founding as a democratic experiment promising realities of the Declaration of Independence; the surrender at Appomattox weighs heavily on everything American since.

We lose our perspective if we demonize the Confederate memory in an emotional whim of politically correct revisionism and political expediency. As Robert E. Lee advised, "I believe it to be the duty of everyone to unite in the restoration of the country and the reestablishment of peace and harmony."

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