A handful of southern states celebrate Confederate Memorial Day. I’m not entirely clear on the purpose of the holiday for those who observe it, but my understanding is that it is to honor the confederate soldiers who served and died during the Civil War. Understandably, this holiday is controversial:
Are these fair assessments of the holiday? I’d say that, for the most part, they are.
The simple fact is that the Confederate States of America existed for the sole purpose of maintaining the institution of slavery, which is almost certainly the greatest evil in the history of the country. Southern apologists may tell you that the Civil War was about “states’ rights.” Don’t be fooled. The South wanted to extend slavery as far as it could, even into free states, if possible. At common law, before the zenith of antebellum sectional tension, slaves went free after residing in free jurisdictions. Southern states, however, stopped enforcing the common law, instead deciding that their own laws governed the status of slaves regardless of where they were. In other words, once a slave, always a slave, and the laws of free states could do nothing to change that. So much for states’ rights.
And if you don’t believe me, listen to the Mississippi declaration of secession:
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world…
The hostility to this institution commenced before the adoption of the Constitution, and was manifested in the well-known Ordinance of 1787, in regard to the Northwestern Territory…
It refuses the admission of new slave States into the Union, and seeks to extinguish it by confining it within its present limits, denying the power of expansion… [emphasis added]
The Confederacy was a self-declared nation committed primarily to the preservation and expansion of the perpetual subjugation of one race to another. There is no justification for regarding it with anything except horror.
But what about the individual soldiers who bravely “fought in defense of their homes, their families, their way of life, and their state”? After all, they are the subject of the holiday, not the Confederacy itself.
Some of them were undoubtedly admirable individuals. Nevertheless, they fought, killed, and were killed for the sake of perpetuating a grievous moral abomination. Why honor that? When good men are sacrificed for an abominable cause, there is nothing to celebrate.
That’s not to say, however, that the confederacy should not be remembered. But if we are to observe Confederate Memorial Day, it should be the same kind of observance as Holocaust Memorial Day. We should mourn our egregious moral failures as a nation and pray to God that we don’t repeat them. After all, we are always in danger of participating in grave collective evils, whether through our action or inaction, especially when we are willfully blind to the dark episodes in our history.
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address is instructive:
The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
To honor those who fought in the Civil War instead of grieving and repenting of the collective sins that led to the war is to flout the advice Lincoln gives in his speech. Both North and South justly incurred the wrath of God by their willful moral blindness. Today, we still have not yet come to terms with the grave evils our ancestors committed. Indeed, we cannot atone for this sin, which has become our sin. We cannot escape the responsibility to remember it with grief and horror, and to promise that we will guard ourselves from committing such atrocities in the future.
Bravery and valor are virtues when used in service of the good, but they are vices when used in the service of evil. Let’s not gloss over the fact that the confederate soldiers honored by southerners on Confederate Memorial Day were fighting to preserve evil, even though they may not have been evil people themselves.