Cumberland Times-News

Columns

November 17, 2012

Both of them are right, but both are wrong

The esteemed historian David McCullough said recently on CBS’ 60 Minutes that America is producing a nation of historical illiterates, and I agree.

One of the things kids often tell us at Little Round Top is, “They don’t teach us about that in school.”

With that in mind, here is a slightly edited part of a speech I gave to the Westernport Heritage Society, whose hospitality and friendship I greatly appreciated. We can do the rest of it later.

——————

Heritage is like chili. Everybody who’s interested has an idea of what it is, and their ideas differ. It’s lots of fun to watch two historians argue with each other.

Take the license plates that have a Confederate flag with the caption “Heritage, Not Hate.” Some folks see a Confederate flag, and all they see is hatred. I can’t say that I blame them — particularly those whose ancestors were slaves — but I also see the heritage side of it.

My friends and I go to Gettysburg as living historians in Union uniforms, to talk to tourists. Southerners generally believe the Civil War was fought over state’s rights. Northerners say it was fought to free the slaves.

Both of them are right, and both of them are wrong. According to my early-1950s Encyclopedia Americana that predates the idea of being “politically correct,” the Civil War was a war fought between two vastly different cultures that didn’t like each other — and it had been that way even before the American Revolution. In some ways, not much has changed.

If slavery was the only issue, explain my friend’s great-great-grandfather, a sergeant in a North Carolina regiment of the Confederate Army. He had to leave town because the sheriff found out he was helping slaves to escape.

There were about 3,000 free blacks in the South who between them owned about 20,000 slaves — more than half in North Carolina.

The Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Registry carries the name of at least one black man who saw combat as a Confederate soldier. Private Richard Poplar of the 13th Virginia Cavalry is remembered with honor in his home town of Petersburg, Virginia — a former Confederate state.

He was captured during Lee’s retreat from Gettysburg and was a Prisoner Of War for 19 months. Poplar was held in high esteem by not only the other Confederates, but also by Union soldiers because of his kindness to his fellow prisoners. He refused to take an oath of allegiance to the Union and remained a prisoner with his buddies until the war was almost over.

Also, what could have been the 13th Amendment was passed by Congress but never ratified by the states. It would have guaranteed the continuation of slavery in every state where it existed at the time — in early 1861, shortly before the Civil War started. It was a last-ditch effort to prevent the war. The 13th Amendment that did pass, after the war, abolished slavery.

This uniform represents my heritage, although relatives on my mother’s side of the family would disagree. We’re related to Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, late lieutenant general of the Army of Northern Virginia. A number of my relatives fought on opposite sides during the Civil War, including at least one Union infantryman and two Confederate cavalrymen who were at Gettysburg.

It took me more than a year to decide which uniform to wear, but it was a part of my heritage that decided the issue. My friends who portray Yankee infantrymen said they needed someone to tell the tourists about artillery, and I said I could do that.

In the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, I found a monument dedicated to Battery C of the 1st West Virginia Volunteer Artillery, which fought at Cemetery Hill and put fire down on Pickett’s Charge.

I’m a West Virginian, and proud of it. The West Virginia National Guard artillery battery in Keyser is part of the oldest continuously serving outfit in the U.S. Army, which fought with George Washington during the Revolution — 1st Battalion, 201st Field Artillery.

Battery C, it would be. I portray a first sergeant because of a relative on my mother’s side. Robert Heironimus was a Confederate first sergeant in the 12th Virginia Cavalry, which joined McNeill’s Rangers to raid the Yankee railroad in Oakland.

West Virginia split from Virginia during the Civil War. The same thing could have happened in Maryland, where loyalties were as divided as they were in Virginia. Before Maryland voted on secession, Gov. Thomas Hicks moved the legislature from Annapolis to Frederick, to make it difficult for pro-secessionist legislators to show up and vote.

Many of them were slave-owners from the southern and eastern parts of the state. Hicks need not have worried. President Lincoln locked those people up and wouldn’t release them, even though the Supreme Court told him to. If Maryland seceded, Washington would have been surrounded by Confederate states.

Some people, especially Virginians, still consider the creation of West Virginia an illegal act. In signing it, Lincoln ignored the Constitutional provision that no state shall be divided without the consent of its legislature.

Lincoln said, “I need those people.” He also needed the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad that passed through West Virginia on its way to Washington ... “Lincoln’s Lifeline.”

Robert E. Lee was considered a traitor in the North because he turned down command of the Union Army to fight for the Confederacy. He said he could not take up arms against his home state of Virginia, where his loyalty lay.

Major Gen. George Thomas also was a Virginian, but was loyal to the Union, and Ulysses S. Grant himself called him one of America’s greatest heroes. Virginians considered Pap Thomas a traitor, while his fellow Union officers didn’t trust him.

To understand historical events, we must not look at them through the eyes of modern people, but through the eyes of those who were there when those events happened. When you do that, you will find that things aren’t as simple as they may seem.

A letter I’ve found that was written by a former Confederate soldier in Hampshire County said he and his friends hated the Yankees for coming in and telling them how to live.

He also wrote about a white store owner who employed freed blacks and paid them far less than what white people were paid. He said it was a sin for the man to take advantage of those poor people that way.

The store owner, by the way, was related to a lifelong friend of mine.

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