Post Civil War Narratives: Other Points of View

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Confederate surrender at AppomattoxThe ‘Lost Cause’ myth is probably the best-known post civil war narrative. It permeates through the writing of Douglas Southall Freeman and other Civil War historians. it can also be found interspersed throughout Ken Burns’ Civil War mini-series.

But there are at least three other post civil war narratives that we should consider.

The primary narrative on the Northern side can be called the ‘Union Cause’ narrative. It is the direct opposite of the ‘Lost Cause’ myth. This narrative has Daniel Webster as one of its heroes. Even though he died in October of 1852, Webster is looked upon as the defender of the Union in the antebellum years. He along with fellow Whig, Henry Clay of Kentucky, worked for compromises to stave off the sectionalism that threatened war between the North and the South.

Of course, Abraham Lincoln is seen as another great hero of the Union. Lincoln is looked upon as the man who saved the Union by his determination to do anything to thwart the secessionists. In a letter to Horace Greeley on August 22, 1862, Lincoln wrote:

If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.

Lincoln is followed in this pantheon of Union heroes by Ulysses S. Grant. The General-in-Chief is looked upon as the instrument of the destruction of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Through Grant, Lincoln’s policies were carried to fruition. William T. Sherman and Philip Sheridan held the same place in the Union pantheon as Stonewall Jackson held in the ‘Lost Cause’ pantheon.

The ‘Union Cause’ narrative celebrated the restoration of the Union. This was the paramount reason for the Civil War and it accomplished its objectives.

Among the freed slaves they is yet another narrative. For them the Civil War was referred to alternately as the Freedom War or the Slavery War. Their entire focus was, understandably so, about emancipation from bondage. All else pales by comparison.

Even today African-Americans celebrate Emancipation Day on April 16th and Juneteenth on June 19th. The former celebrates the day of the signing of the Compensated Emancipation Act while the latter is the day that commemorates the announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas in 1865. Along with the obvious celebrations of freedom, the courage and service of the black soldiers who fought for the Union cause is also celebrated.

Finally, there is the Reconciliation Cause that celebrated the valor and courage of soldiers on both sides. All other causes of the war are in the background. The surrender at Appomattox is the primary symbol of the Reconciliation Cause. How Ulysses Grant treated Robert E. Lee and Chamberlain’s order for his troops to salute the surrendering Confederates are highlights of the Reconciliation Cause.

Two former opponents who later became friends, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and John Brown Gordon personify this narrative. On many occasions after the war these two often presided over veteran’s reunions throughout the country.

Chamberlain explained his decision to order a salute to the defeated Confederates on his own:

The decision “was one for which I sought no authority nor asked forgiveness. Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond; was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured?”

The following morning, April 12th, the Confederates marched past the victorious Union troops, stacked their arms, folded their flags and disappeared into history.

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