Monday, May 26, 2008

And Don't Forget These Guys...

Like many folks in the USA I have ancestors on both sides of the Civil War. My dad's great-grandfather was a member of the 1st Wisconsin Cavalry. A draftee, he entered the war late. Yet, if not for the actions of a brash young fellow, a brevet Brigadier General named George A. Custer, my great-great grandfather Daniel Whitinger would have been able to say that he helped capture Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Custer, typical of the glory hog, defied orders and led his men on ahead of the 1st Wisconsin Cavalry and made the capture. I have no sympathy for what happened to him 10 years later. I'm proud of Daniel Whitinger's service. I have his discharge papers, military records, and his application for a medical pension years after the war.

But I'm also proud of my Confederate side. The Hughlett's, a branch of my mom's family, were poor folks in Virginia. Yes, around the time of the Revolutionary War they were quite wealthy and owned slaves. But when the Civil War broke out they were about a poor as anyone could be. Samuel V. Hughlett had a net worth of $300, poor by even 1860 standards. Yet, Samuel V. Hughlett enlisted in the 40th Virginia Infantry. He rose to the rank of sergeant. He was wounded at the Battle of Gaines Mill, VA and died about two weeks later. Another Hughlett, Joseph, was a private in the 40th. He took part in the Battle of Gettysburg. The 40th, part of Brockenbrough's Brigade was on the left wing of what is known as "Pickett's Charge". Following the battle, the 4oth was detailed to perform a holding action in order to secure the Army of Northern Virginia's retreat to Virginia. He was captured there. Joseph was held prisoner a Fortress Monroe and died of chronic diarrhea a little over a year later.

My Confederate ancestors have a special place in my heart. Not that I sympathize with slavery. I agree with Gen. Robert E. Lee that slavery was a moral and political abomination. Nothing can justify it or rationalize it. To be sure, my ancestors, poor farmers from Northumberland County, Virginia, were not on the side of slave owners. But they were on the side of protecting their homes from an invading force. The story is often told of a Union soldier asking a Confederate soldier why they were fighting. "Because you are down here!" was the reply. I like to think that my Hughlett ancestors were in total agreement with that statement.

I've read a ton about the Civil War. especially about the life of the average Confederate soldier. What I've read seems to indicate that for them the war wasn't about grand a glorious principles. Rather, for them it was a war about protecting their homes and what little they had. Many of these guys were hardscrabble, subsistence farmers, especially those who joined after the first year of the war. That to me represents what is best about America. You come here trying to take what is mine and I'm going to bloody your nose--and that is just for starters.

Now, some may say that the Confederates fought against the United States, that they were foreigners, that they had left the United States. But that is not what Lincoln said. He always maintained that the southern states did not leave, that secession was not legal and that the southern states were merely states in a state of rebellion.

This Memorial Day, please take a few minutes to reflect on the Civil War and the men who fought and died in that war. We get so caught up in the war in Iraq and the war against terrorism. With our rapidly aging pool of World War II vets (including my dad) we rightly focus a lot of attention on them. Yet, in the War Between The States, our very un-civil war, we had two sides that showed the best of America. The North, fighting to defend our nation. A technologically superior army. The South, soldiers of meager means who fought with ferocity and tenacity to defend what little that they had from a hugely superior invading force. Thank God that we had men who would give "their last full measure of devotion" to fight that war.

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