When we examine the current conflict in Sudan, and look back to other civil conflicts such as the war in the Balkans in the 1990’s, it is hard to imagine that the United States was once embroiled in an internal conflict all its own. With other countries around the world seemingly engaging in civil wars multiple times each century, it seems strange to consider the American Civil War in the same realm as these other conflicts. Perhaps it is the amount of time that has passed since the Union claimed victory over the Confederacy. Or perhaps the issue lies in the name we have given to the conflict: the(italics) Civil War. There is also the fact that we, as Bostonians, did not watch our way of life and culture go up in flames along with Atlanta during General Sherman’s infamous “March to the Sea.” Being on the victorious side of the war, a side that was framed with good morals and fueled by a noble cause, Northerners never really had the need or desire that Southerners did to preserve the vestiges of a now gone past. For the South, devastated by the battles that primarily took place there and stifling economic policy in the wake of their loss, the end of the war marked the end of an era and a way of life. For the North, having prevailed, once again, it merely marked the end of another chapter in the United States’ ascendancy to global political domination.
However, as we keep the nature of the Civil War in mind, and as Veterans Day approaches, an interesting question arises. We honor other Americans who have fought in various wars, but what about Confederate soldiers? Of course, there are no Civil War veterans who are still alive, but it is an interesting point to consider nonetheless. Are they not officially considered US veterans because of their allegiance to a rogue state during the war itself? They were, of course, the enemy.
The most significant event that changed the status of Confederate veterans occurred on Christmas Day, 1868, when Andrew Johnson, the president who succeeded Abraham Lincoln, pardoned all men who had fought for the Confederacy during the war. Much to the chagrin of some of his fellow Northern politicians, who did not support demonstrating such leniency to the traitors, Johnson stated:
“Now, therefore, be it known that I, Andrew Johnson President of the United States, by virtue of the power and authority in me vested by the Constitution and in the name of the sovereign people of the United States, do hereby proclaim and declare unconditionally and without reservation, to all and to every person who, directly or indirectly, participated in the late insurrection or rebellion a full pardon and amnesty for the offense of treason against the United States or of adhering to their enemies during the late civil war, with restoration of all rights, privileges, and immunities under the Constitution and the laws which have been made in pursuance thereof.”
While it is unclear if the US government, when mentioning Civil War veterans, intends to include those who fought on the side of the Confederate States of America, one thing is clear. In the South, the spirit of the Confederacy is very much alive. Confederate Memorial Day is observed in the following states, all of which are in the South: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. While each state has its own date designated to the remembrance of Confederate soldiers whose lives were lost during the war, several states have aligned the celebration with specific historical events. Kentucky and Louisiana celebrate Confederate Memorial Day on June 3rd, which is Jefferson Davis’ birthday. Jefferson Davis was the president and leader of the Confederacy. Appallingly, the state government of Arkansas has chosen to designate the third Monday in January Confederate Memorial Day, a move which combines it with Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a state holiday. Officially, they claim this date was chosen to align with Robert E. Lee’s birthday, but it remains a puzzling move nonetheless.
Of course, not every soldier who fought on the side of the Confederacy did so because of ideological conviction. Like any war, many soldiers were yielding to family pressure when they enlisted, and certainly many felt social pressure in general to enlist. While war is complicated, the loss of life is always troubling and a difficult thing to truly wrap one’s head around. The gray area that Confederate soldiers occupy in United States history is also difficult to understand, especially coming from the perspective of a born and raised Northerner. Regardless, in the South, these soldiers are honored every year as brave men who gave their lives for a cause that they truly believed in.