‘Trial by fire’

“The lack of a sense of history is the damnation of the modern world.”
 Robert Penn Warren

There was some very fine writing in the Sept. 7th issue of the Rappahannock News, but the letter that struck me as being touched with wisdom was that of Rachel Bynum of Sperryville, who asked why those residents of Rappahannock who fought for the Union during the American Civil War are not honored with a memorial here. That is a question that could be easily answered by creating such a memorial, an effort to which I would be honored to contribute. There was enormous sacrifice by North and South, and deep cultural wounds which have been needlessly re-opened by the unhinged wave of cultural cleansing of Confederate memorials. I would argue that such a memorial to our Rappahannock Union soldiers would be a proper action to create a healing perspective about our American ancestors.

“The winners write the history books.”

George Orwell

In the Aug. 31st edition of the News, I wrote a column in response to a column by Frank Reynolds of Castleton. In his Sept. 7th Rapp News response, Mr. Reynolds did not attempt to rebut any of the historical arguments I made or any of the factual statements I presented. Instead, he said of himself, “This writer will not make any profit from the display of a Confederate Battle Flag on the roof of an orange car with doors welded shut.” If that was supposed to be “snark” it was really lame. If it was supposed to be a position of moral superiority . . . well, congratulations. Then he went on to say this: “This writer thinks we should see the four years of battle between the citizens of this country as a mistake in judgement . . . ” Uh, brilliant.

That catastrophic event did not take place in a sudden vacuum. It wasn’t just a “mistake,” it was the seemingly inevitable result of a very heated economic rivalry between two very different regions of the Union, both of which had worked for 70 years to try to prevent such a schism. Everything that preceded that calamity had led up to it, and everything we have done as a nation since has been affected by it. The rising tensions had been preceded by the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, the Missouri Compromise, Manifest Destiny, the Nullification Crisis, The Wilmot Proviso, the Compromise of 1850, Bleeding Kansas, John Brown’s murderous raid, the Morrill Tariff, the failure of the Crittenden Compromise and countless other divides. You might want to read about those things, Mr. Reynolds, and you might want to read books like “The Half Has Never Been Told, Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism,” by Edward Baptist, and “Complicity, How the North Promulgated, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery,” by the Hartford Courant. These are examples of recent scholarship that have revealed more than a few skeletons in our national closet.

“The Civil War defined us as what we are and it opened us to being what we became, good and bad things . . . It was the crossroads of our being, and it was a hell of a crossroads.”

Shelby Foote

I enjoyed the genuinely elegant prose of Walter Nicklin’s piece on the subject of monument removal and Pickett’s Charge. But what was all that about Trump and the KKK and Steve Bannon? And those widows and orphans who raised the money for those monuments to their deceased loved ones were certainly not doing that as “a racist reaction to Reconstruction.”

With the cynical Republican deal of 1876 which elected President Rutherford Hayes, Reconstruction was done in by its creators. But the South, black and white, was left largely in ruin and poverty until World War Two and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. One could arguably point out that the South is now winning in that regional economic rivalry.

Dr. King’s great vision was one of forgiveness and reconciliation and he would never have gone after the deep affections and the proud heritage of Confederate descendants. My friend Andy Young said that when the Civil Rights Movement was based in Atlanta, that there was never even a discussion about Confederate flags and monuments. “It was simply not an issue,” he said.

I don’t claim to be a historian, but I have passionately and seriously read American History since childhood. The War Between the States was far and away our greatest national tragedy and we are now seeing that it is a useful tool that can still create genuine anger and cultural division.

We cannot change one moment of our past. But hopefully we can learn from it. And if I have learned anything from my study of our great national “trial by fire” it is that absolutely nothing can now be gained by this major, orchestrated effort to demonize and vilify the Confederacy 150 years later.

Ben Jones


  1. A thoughtful, factual, and studied comment, Mr. Masi. But to your comment, “What is clear is, however, is that Lincoln went to war to preserve the Union, and the Confederate armies, both east and west, fought to preserve the secessionist states’ independence — and with it, their freedom to employ slavery among other factors”, I would
    question whether secession was necessary to preserve the institution of slavery. Lincoln made it clear in his
    First Inaugural Address that slavery was not only Constitutional, but should forever protected by a Constitutional
    Amendment. But he did not propose protection against discriminatory tariffs and against restrictions upon the South’s economic interests. And those diverging interests were a great catalyst for Secession. Lincoln did not like slavery, but he did not propose its abolition. Lincoln also had no plan for a post-emancipation America, other than
    the deportation and relocation of those of African descent. Though the emancipation of the Southern slaves was
    a result of the war, it was not a “casus belli”.

    As for Lee, he was the son of General “Light Horse Harry” Lee, George Washington’s cavalry chief, and an old friend and neighbor of GW. R.E. Lee was of the same bearing and nature as General Washington, and the slaves at the Lees’ home at Arlington were the descendants of Martha Custis Washington’s slaves. Lee married Mary Custis.

    An ancestor of mine, Gabriel Jacobs, was an African slave who was freed around 1690 in Northampton County VA. by John Custis ll, an ancestor of Mary Custis Lee. Gabriel Jacobs’ grandson Primus established a free black community in North Carolina around 1725. His great grandson Noah Jacobs was a great-grandfather of mine. Noah’s son Gabriel Jacobs was killed at Frayser’s Farm in 1862 during the Seven Days Campaign. He was a 21 year old Confederate Private.

    The current hysteria for “cultural cleansing” is sweeping aside anything that perturbs modern liberal sensitivities,
    and with that mania comes the sweeping aside of common sense and reason, in my opinion. And those two men
    named Gabriel Jacobs might explain why this issue is very personal with me.

  2. And to think, after 180 years, we still don’t know — or at least agree on — exactly why the war was fought. What is clear is, however, is that Lincoln went to war to preserve the Union, and the Confederate armies, both east and west, fought to preserve the secessionist states’ independence — and with it, their freedom to employ slavery among other factors. That said, the preponderance of evidence points to Lincoln luke-warm over the abolition of slavery, at best.

    More to the point: When the Union formed up its forces to begin the war, President Lincoln insisted that the war’s sole purpose was the preservation of the Union. In the early years of that war, in turn, Lincoln’s actions were motivated by military strategy and necessity. In August 1861 he accepted the First Confiscation Act passed by Congress, which declared that slaves escaping to union lines would be considered contraband. Before the passage of this act, however, Union leaders had turned away blacks seeking to enlist, and returned escapees seeking protection in the North. Legally defined as contraband, and therefore subject to capture, thousands of slaves fleeing the South could now be impressed into the service of the Union army. The Second Confiscation Act, passed shortly after the first, gave the president the authority to also recruit black men for the Union army. Although freedom was given to those who fought, it was considered a reward, not an intrinsic right.

    By 1863, the advertised rationale for the war had shifted. On January 1st of that year, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in the Confederate states only. The Proclamation applied neither to slave-holding border states that had remained loyal to the Union (Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri) nor to rebel states subdued by Union forces prior to its issuance; some deal, there !

    As an aside, Robert E. Lee — considered the best an brightest officer in the Army, hero of the Mexican War, and Superintendent of West Point while just a Lieutenant Colonel (and the subject of so much, of late) — was just not going to go against the South, period, and would have resigned and stay out of the war, if Virginia stayed with the Union. For awhile, Virginia’s status was in doubt. Lee conveyed this to Winfield Scott, Army Chief of Staff, and this was before before Mister Blair, on behalf of Lincoln, offered him command of the Union Army in April 1861.

    When Virginia went with the south, the decision to go with the South was a fait accompli for Lee. Unknown, and will always be, however, is why Lee would not fight the South; much of his extended family was pro-union. He was not pro-slavery, and believed the south was far too dependent on this evil, which he termed it.

    There’s also not enough to indicate that Lee was following Washington’s example of rebellion against a dictatorship. Lee also spent much time in the North as an officer (Fort Hamilton NY; West Point; clearing the Miss. R. as far north as Des Moines), and did not like Texas on his duty there after West Point, and just prior to the Civil War. We’ll never fully determine his motives, like so much else leading up to the war.

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